Strange Boutique (March 2013)

In my most recent Japan Times column I wrote about the sempai-kohai dynamic (i.e. the seniority-based hierarchy) in Japanese indie music. It’s a tricky area because it’s something that runs all through Japanese society to varying degrees, but it varies in strength and manifestation from one arena to another, and even from one part of the music scene to another.

It also leaves it open for smart alecs to butt in and make wise-sounding remarks to the effect that hierarchies are present in all societies, not just Japanese, and hey, don’t Western bands do just the same? Well in answer to that, they don’t, or at least not in this way. Bands in Europe or America suck up to people they think are famous or might be useful to them, but that’s not the same as the pure seniority-based hierarchy you see in Japan. Whether it’s a bad thing or not is harder to say.

The first thing to say is that it runs deepest and strongest in university band circles. Last year, some friends of mine from France and I organised a small party called Kill Your Sempai with some bands, DJs and silly, situationist art. One of the audience there couldn’t understand the event title: “‘Kill Your Sempai”? Why would I want to kill my sempai? I like my sempai!” Now no one’s stupid enough to think that we really did want people to go on a murder spree, so it’s clear that it was the general sentiment against the idea of the sempai that he couldn’t get his head around. And that is the question in a way: why be against this idea?

The guys from DYGL I spoke to agreed that people tend to respect older musicians regardless of talent, but they seemed to have a good relationship with their own sempais. Kyu-shoku are DYGL’s seniors and they’re a cool band, decent people, who don’t lord it over others and DYGL have never felt external pressure to the extent of having to become more like a hardcore band themselves (although certainly some other bands have). It’s weird though. At the band circle event that I was partly reporting from, Kyu-shoku played a terrific set to a packed crowd of adoring juniors, and yet I’ve seen Kyu-shoku numerous times — I even booked them to play my birthday party at the same studio venue last year — and they’re a perennial opening act in the “real” live scene, who bring a handful of friends but by no means pack out venues, so where were all these adoring fans on all those occasions? Are these people really fans, or are they just club members having fun in front of the band in a way that they’d have fun in front of any band?

Given how few of these music circle members seem to transfer out into the local live scene proper, I’m going to stick my neck out here and say most of the people supporting these college bands aren’t really into them or indeed music at all really. They maybe have a few albums and like the idea of alternative music, but they have no real intention of carrying their interest or support past the strictly-defined play area of the university arena — certainly not taking it past graduation.

The good thing about that is that it gives college bands a warm, supportive environment and the illusion of making progress at an early stage of their development where the cold, indifferent reality of the live scene proper would probably kill most of them at birth. The negative side is that too many bands seem to take the values of the band circle environment with them when they go out into the scene. They look for new sempai, latch onto certain bands, imitate them, suck up to them at after-parties, listen meekly to the advice of their elders even when these elders are bringing in similar or even smaller audiences than them. And some older bands aren’t as laid back as Kyu-shoku seem to be with their kohai and lord it over younger bands.

Some labels are a bit like this too. I mentioned in the article that sometimes labels seem to neglect young bands at the expense of older, more established acts. I didn’t name names there, but I think you can kind of see it with someone like Second Royal, or maybe Tokyo’s Niw! Records, where there does seem to be a distinct pecking order among the artists and both of which feel similar to university band circles in a way, with their eclectic lineups and socially rather than business-oriented networks. Now they’re both good labels, and anyway, any label with a large enough roster is going to have to prioritise sometimes when there’s only one or two guys running the thing, and in indie labels where resources are sometimes limited, that might be even more the case, but labels should be doing this intelligently by reading the right time to capitalise on popularity across a number of arenas (online and international as well as more traditional methods) and labels should be wary that they’re not allowing “the way things are done” to let chances slip away from artists under their care.

I spoke to Koichi Makigami from Hikashu to get a longer-term perspective and he seemed fairly dismissive of the whole idea in the sense that he recognised its existence but seemed to see it as an unnecessary annoyance and a distraction from the music. He noted that there were in the past always some people who expected to be spoken to in the correct, respectful way, but seemed to think that he’d never really lost out as a result of that scenario. Other people I chatted to from that same 70s and 80s generation said that you couldn’t really have a strict sempai-kohai thing going on because the scene was too small then to accommodate it. There just weren’t enough bands, so if you were good, you were in demand regardless of your age.

Of course this is quite a narrow focus on an area of arty, largely middle-class music. In more working class genres and other places where the influence of the yakuza is strong, for example visual-kei, hardcore punk and weird cults like Johnny & Associates, the sempai-kohai dynamic is also strong, but I think for different reasons. I also think that AKB48’s emphasis on fan voting to determine the group’s hierarchy (the girls are all signed to different talent agencies, so there’s less of an internal hierarchy in the traditional sense) does something interesting to the structure, but that’s another article. Back in the more rarefied world of alternative rock, I wonder if the way that rock music has become acceptable in mainstream society, the way it can now be a thoroughly respectable part of any student’s extracurricular activity, might also have codified some of the more traditional social dynamics into what had been by its very nature an act of rebellion.

As you can see, I’m kind of ambivalent about it. There are lots of good things about the university band circle environment, and I wouldn’t want to lose that if the sempai-kohai structure was torn down. But then again, I would hope that common decency would be able to step in in its place.

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