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As the clock ticks down toward show time at Japan's Yokohama stadium, the teenagers staking out a closely guarded back entrance grow edgy with excitement. Aware that their fleeting brush with a legend is at hand, they murmur, "Sugu, sugu!" "Soon, soon!" The sight of two vans—one blue, one gold—swinging round a corner brings instant recognition, and the crowd erupts with a joyous roar. As the rockmobiles come slickly to a halt, a lithe young man steps out, and for a second the stadium lights reflect brilliantly off the extravagant silver buckles of his jacket. Then he disappears behind a door labeled, in light-blue letters, Mr. Michael Jackson.

Backstage at this ninth Japanese concert of what is to be a yearlong world tour, Michael Jackson radiates energy: His arrival sends a jolt of pre-show electricity through the cast and crew members who had been lazily hanging out around his simply furnished dressing room. Jackson rolls his head to limber up; gazing in a full-length mirror, he flicks a speck of loose makeup off his cheek. His toned, 5'10" frame seems imposing, quite at odds with the waif like image he presents to photographers. "I'm getting a little worried about my voice getting thin," says Jackson in a voice stronger and more assured than the shy squeak of his rare public pronouncements. "But so far things are going good."

Out front, the stadium is a powder keg awaiting the match. Christened Typhoon Michael by the Japanese press, Jackson has taken the nation by storm. The 38,000 seats for tonight's concert sold out (at $40 per) weeks ago, and some fans desperate to hail the man they call My-ke-ru have paid scalpers $700 to get in. But here in his dressing room the rock phenomenon lingers over a cup of tea, calmly ignoring the gathering clamor from the arena and the rising nerves of his 15 backup musicians and dancers. A crew member recites a brief prayer, then Jackson huddles with his cast like a football quarterback. They clap their hands and stomp their feet. "Whatever we play," yells Jackson, his smooth, sculpted features relaxing into an engaging grin, "it's got to be funky!" A moment later, to a burst of bright lights and thunderous applause, they jog onstage.

So goes the stage life of the world's most popular rock star: glitter, fame, excitement and wealth. Real life is, of course, another matter. The August release of Bad, his first album in five years, brought with it a flood of wild rumors. Jackson has been accused—and, despite his denials, accused again—of using chemicals to make his skin lighter, of transforming his entire body with plastic surgery, of taking female hormones to keep his voice high and of refusing to bathe in anything but Evian water. Having said no more than a few words to the press since 1983, Jackson left it to his stogie-chomping manager, Frank Dileo, to explain away his plastic surgeries (just the nose and chin were done, he said) and his attempt to purchase the bones of the Elephant Man ("Well, everyone has a skeleton in their closet," Dileo told PEOPLE). Probably the tall tales only enhanced sales of Bad, which has already zoomed to the top of the charts in at least eight countries. But the rumors' effect on Jackson, 29, has been anything but salutary. "It's really horrible to have these lies printed about me," he says. "It hurts."

Driven to the brink during his Japanese tour, he did something last week that reveals a sorely troubled man very different from his magical persona: He sat down at the desk in his room at the Capitol Tokyu Hotel in Tokyo and, on the back of a piece of hotel stationery, wrote what he said would be his only discussion of his private life. "Like the old Indian proverb says," wrote Jackson, "do not judge a man until you've walked 2 moons in his moccosins." The singer's two-page missive reveals him to be a complex mix of boy and man whose personality matches the themes of Bad, an album so full of bright, catchy dance tunes that it's easy to overlook the lyrics that express dark fantasies and hyper-romantic dreams. Jackson offers forgiveness to the rumormongers who have upset him: "Animals strike, not from malice, but because they want to live, it is the same with those who criticize, they desire our blood, not our pain." At the same time, he expresses himself with the desperate tone of a child who has been unfairly punished: "I cry very very often because it hurts.... Have mercy, for I've been bleeding a long time now." His casual spelling and punctuation speak of backstage tutors and self-teaching, but his expression of pain is clear.

If what he wrote is what he truly feels, Jackson's powers of concealment may be his most dazzling talent. From all appearances, he has complete control of what he has described as the only solo tour of his career. While the 150 crew members of the Jacksons' 1984 Victory tour felt chaos around every corner, Michael alone directs the 90 members of his solo show. He approves every photo and backstage pass, and he personally signed off on every detail of a 100-minute, 16-song show that costs about $500,000 a week to produce and includes lasers, explosions and a breathtaking magic trick that levitates him across the stage. (After Japan, Jackson plays Australia and New Zealand before returning to the U.S. in December.) His own performance—as a singer and dancer whose moves seem to defy the laws of both physics and aerobics—has been worked and reworked to perfection, and with a repertoire that includes only two songs from Bad and lots of old favorites from Thriller, he has thoroughly wowed his every audience in Japan. Sheryl Crow, who duets with Jackson on the ballad "I Just Can't Stop Loving You", says, "I have a hard time keeping my eyes off him. When he's onstage, he just keeps drawing you in."

From the moment Jackson stepped off the plane to face a Nikon tiring squad of 600 photographers and 1,000 fans, the Japanese have given him a welcome reminiscent of the Beatles' first trip to the U.S. Jackson posters line city walls; his face decorates shopping bags. In the heart of ultra-high-rent Tokyo, Nippon Television set up a store that stocks only the fast-selling paraphernalia endorsed by Jackson-san. Two amusement parks shut down to provide free access when the reclusive singer and his entourage requested private playtime.

Fans Emiko Haga and Miki Ikeda, both 20, are traveling with a pack of several other girls who have saved their yen so they can follow Jackson around Japan for his entire tour. "We are trying to see him every minute of every day, except when we sleep," exclaims Haga. After meeting Jackson on Japan's Bullet train, Ikeda started to cry. "I said, 'I love you,' " says Emiko. "He said, 'Thank you.' It was unbelievable."

Equally unbelievable is the commercial consequence of all this adulation. The money is flowing into Jackson's bank accounts in cataracts. About 450,000 people will attend his 14 sold-out stadium concerts, and Bad is confidently expected to sell 500,000 copies in a country where only phenomenally successful records sell 200,000. All told, Michael will gross at least $20 million in Japan alone. Not Bad.

The temptations of the road that have led so many rock performers into deep trouble seem not to be a problem for Jackson. Never romantically linked to anyone during the years that he confined himself to the Los Angeles mansion he shares with his parents, Jackson has not been spotted with a date on tour either. He has visited with friends Gregory Peck and designer Issey Miyake, but mostly he socializes with two favorite companions: his manager, Frank Dileo, and his chimp, Bubbles, from both of whom he seems to derive a good deal of fun and comfort. It would be difficult to imagine a figure of less physical resemblance to Jackson than Dileo, 39. Portly, short and balding, the colorfully loquacious Dileo has become Jackson's most trusted confidant. Determined to erase unflattering descriptions of Dileo by the press, Jackson calls him "my shield of armor, my other half. We dream together and achieve together." As for Bubbles, a 3½-year-old chimpanzee released from a cancer lab in 1985, he eats at the table with Jackson, mimics his master's moonwalk, plays hide-and-seek, plays dead, blows bubbles and joins in pillow fights. The Japanese find it all fascinating. When Bubbles arrived in Japan on a separate flight from Jackson's, he got a Very Important Chimp reception from 300 photographers. The Mayor of Osaka later entertained Michael and Bubbles at a formal tea ceremony. "Bubbles is so popular here," says one Tokyo merchandiser, "that if he announced he was doing a concert tour, he'd sell out."

On off days Jackson has ventured out to shop for clocks, Japanese art books and a colorful Oriental screen. He also plundered two of Japan's biggest toy stores: Dileo won't disclose what the singer purchased, but jokes, "His hotel room is a mess. I told him it's starting to look like his room at home."

If Jackson does at times resemble a child, it may be because he identifies so closely with children. Quietly he has given rafts of free concert tickets to handicapped youngsters, visited Japanese schools and sent condolences and $20,000 to the family of 5-year-old Yoshiaki Ogiwara, an Osaka boy who was kidnapped and murdered recently. At one concert he dedicated his tour to the boy, a gesture that brought tears to the eyes of adoring fans. "People just don't have a realistic picture of who Michael is," says makeup artist Karen Faye. "He's innocent and inspiring without being preachy—and a lot of fun to be around."

To his public, however, Jackson remains an enigmatic figure, and his handwritten message from Japan will do little to change that. Given his near total blackout on personal press, one can only assume he wants it that way: Anonymity serves his stagecraft. Last week in Tokyo's gaudy, neon-lit Ginza district, throngs of young people crowded the sidewalks, drawn by the rumor that Jackson was to appear for a PEOPLE photo shoot. When he arrived the screams rose to a frightening pitch, and the hysterical young fans hurled themselves at his barricade of bodyguards. Yet, while the photo op dissolved in chaos, Jackson remained implacably calm. He smiled broadly, threw up his arms in a dramatic gesture, then vanished into the night.

The effect was stunning, Olympian: A god had come and gone. Offstage and out of costume, the Michael Jackson who was "sent forth for the world, for the children" could hardly help feeling chagrined that his stage persona is only an act. Gods, after all, do not feel pain.

  • Contributors:
  • Todd Gold.