The history of Japanese alternative music

Here’s a piece I did for MTV 81 on Japanese alternative music. Personally, I think this should have been about five different, shorter articles, but my brief was basically to cover the entire history of alternative music in Japan in the space of one piece, so the end result is both too long and too short really. Still, I’m glad I was able to do it, and while it’s a bit dense, I think I covered a lot of important stuff and it’s a good summary of what’s what in Japanese alternative music.

Also, anyone who’s familiar with my style of writing will know that the closing “Now you know your J-rock, so ROCK ON” sign-off is not the sort of thing I say. It’s an MTV-ish editorial insert that was stuck in there because my original draft fizzled out in a pretty lame way. Obviously I’d have rather worked around it in another way, but to be honest, given the stuff I got away with in the article (Hadaka no Rallizes’ terrorist hijackings, Jun Togawa’s wartime imagery), I can’t really complain.

The bit about the 70s rock generation is stuff anyone who’s read Julian Cope’s lovely Japrocksampler will be familiar with, and it’s not really my area. I had to be a bit careful there, because Cope is notoriously freewheeling with the truth when an interesting lie will do the job, so I focused on the music and the more widely-reported factoids. Hadaka no Rallizes/Les Rallizes Denudes came up in my last Japan Times piece as well, because Kentaro Nakao (ex. Number Girl) suggested that they prefigured shoegaze in a way, and it’s interesting the way that, partly perhaps due to Cope’s book and the renewed Western attention it focused on them, they have been gradually gaining status as an influence in the underground scene once more.

Punk and especially new wave are my main areas of interest in Japanese music, and I think I gave them a fair shout in the article without me needing to add much here. One bit I thought was interesting was the way new wave infiltrated the mainstream. Miharu Koshi was a full-on 70s “new music” type in the vein of Yumi Arai/Matsutoya, but the shift to technopop she made in the 80s clearly owes just as much to the Plastics as it does to more established and respectable pop statesmen like YMO.

It’s also worth briefly re-emphasising here the importance of Halmens, not only in being ace, but also for kickstarting the careers of Jun Togawa and Maki Nomiya, the latter of which leads on neatly to Shibuya-kei.

Now Shibuya-kei is an area I feel particularly uncomfortable writing about. It’s so vaguely defined musically and seems to have much more to do with these little networks of friends and various assorted hipsters who just used to hang out at galleries, fashion events, record stores and exclusive bars together in the early 90s. Someone like me attempting to write authoritatively about it is inviting ridicule upon myself, so all I could really give was an outsider’s view based on what it looks like with the distorting eye of history.

There are two key things about Shibuya-kei, I think. Firstly, there’s the way big record stores give a lot of leeway to individual store buyers. This was important in creating the buzz around Shibuya at that time, and it continues to this day. When I was in Nagoya the other week, I heard that the buyer from Tower Records in Sakae had put up a massive display for the new album by hardcore mentalists Gauze, right next to a similar sized display for Ayumi Hamasaki. When my own Dancing After 1AM compilation came out last year, Tsutaya in Kumamoto had a large, prominent display for the album, despite it being a limited run of only 500 copies with virtually no promotion.

The second thing about Shibuya-kei is that at the time, it encompassed all sorts of music, from minimalist, lo-fi garage-punk to heavy, psychedelic spacerock. This eclecticism, as well as the whole incestuous galleries-and-hipsters network is what still exists behind a lot of the Tokyo indie (rather than alternative rock, which I think is a slightly different thing) scene.

I’ve written before about the importance of the early 2000s triumvirate of Supercar/Quruli/Number Girl and the shadow they cast over alt-rock of the past decade. Just looking at old Number Girl clips  and comparing them to the kind of thing that passes for alternative music in the charts nowadays really drives home what an achievement it was that something as intense and raw as that could be so successful. It’s really a feature of the time — lots of money in the music industry, and with Shibuya-kei having largely dissolved, labels throwing the cash at all kinds of things in search of the next hit — and everything since then has been sanding off the edges without really moving that far forward.

Groups like Negoto are I think pretty decent bands, and it’s unfair to criticise them for not being Number Girl, but they’re obviously children of that generation, and the result is also clearly rather sanitised and poppified. In this sense, they too are a feature of their time — not much money in the music industry, and a greater fear on the part of even the major labels’ alternative imprints like Ki/oon of anything that might be inaccessible.

I wonder too if there’s also a difference in the record-buying public. The early 2000s kids were the ones who had grown up in the bubble and then come of age in the “lost decade” (or rather the first lost decade). They were facing insecurity and the collapse of what must have seemed a prosperous, secure future, and there was a genuine angst and anxiety. The generation coming through now have never known anything but this low-level, largely comfortable sense of decline, and the anguished yowls of insecurity have been replaced by whimsical reflection on their state.


Filed under Classic Pop, Features

5 responses to “The history of Japanese alternative music

  1. axel

    Good stuff! But pleeease mention G.I.S.M. some time.

  2. perfumeophile

    still working my way through both this blog post and the mtv article…all first day of school for me…really interesting
    [i’m also planning of trying all the artists on your “dancing after 1am” cd comp]

    as for the two newer bands you mention here, number girl doesn’t do anything for me [probably because i’ve never gotten the appeal of pavement]….negato, on the other hand, i found compelling if for no other reason that i can’t easily point to western artists they remind me of…an altered images, echobelly, or the primitives that doesn’t understand chord progressions, perhaps?

    anyway, the structures in some of their songs are so odd [although their newest, “tashikana uta,” is almost normal] it strikes me that it’s either the result of musical genius or musical illiteracy.[i know which way i’m leaning, but i’d best keep that to myself]…regardless, i’m glad i heard them..

    by the way, the “nameless” video you embedded here doesn’t work in the u.s….i did find all their pv’s up at daily motion


    • I think there are quite a lot of bands who use those unusual chord progressions in Japan, and I’ve always put it down to jazz having a bigger influence on Japanese rock, which makes them sound initially strange to Western ears that have been trained on music with an R&B root (which Japan mostly doesn’t have). I’m not much of a musician though, so I’m not really qualified to deconstruct the music in more detail.

      Good luck finding most of the Dancing After 1AM bands! Some of them are completely Web-illiterate and have barely anything useful available to listen. I’m going to do a post sooner or later bringing together clips of all the stuff from the CD that’s available in one place or another. No point doing anything like that until I can get it available on iTunes though, and I’ve been having difficulty with that.

  3. perfumeophile

    you’re right about the lack of blues/rock chords in a lot of this music…there appears to be more of it in k-pop, which probably helps explain its broader than j-pop appeal to some american listeners

    I found the “dancing after 1am” track listing at amazon japan, believe it or not. [have you considered mp3 sales through them?]

    i just checked youtube for tacobonds, anisakis and extruders and got multiple hits [including what appears to be a 32 minute concert of the latter (this computer has no soundcard so i can’t check until later)]

    if you’re in it for the fun [or simply to expose the music to a broader fanbase] rather than the money, posting the audio linked as a compilation at soundcloud should work.

    thanks for the reply


    • I think the track lists on Amazon and Tower Records skip the Mir track (or at least they used to), but yeah, my distributor makes it available through all the major outlets in Japan. I don’t deal directly with them, and my distributor doesn’t do digital, so I’m trying to get a deal with someone else who can do it internationally. I’m weighing up two options now.

      A lot of it’s up in one form or another, although not always in very good versions. The Tacobonds and Mornings songs are available in pretty good live versions on YouTube, She Talks Silence have a video for an alternate take of their song, Futtachi have the full track on their Soundcloud, and Hysteric Picnic have either their track or a different mix of it on their Soundcloud too. There are some ropey live versions of the macmanaman and Pop-Office tracks on YouTube, there are a few different versions of Mir’s song, Puffyshoes’ track is pretty rough anyway so the live versions on YouTube sounds OK. I shot some footage for a really raw and scuzzy looking promo video for Hyacca’s song when I was in Fukuoka last time, so when that’s done, I’ll definitely put it up.

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