Scratching the surface of music in Japan’s neglected northeast

One of the quirks of the music scene in Japan is that it seems to lean dramatically westward. Not in any cultural sense, you understand — if anything, Japanese music has been becoming more and more insular and isolated from overseas trends over the last twenty years or so — but in a geographical one. From the economic and cultural capital in Tokyo, the music scene tends to drift westward, with Nagoya the next major stop, then Kansai area nexus of Kyoto Osaka-Kobe, and then on a literal and figurative island of its own there’s the Kyushu scene, centred around the regional capital of Fukuoka. Eastwards and northwards, information is scarce.

One reason for this is that for touring bands, there’s just more to explore to the west so it makes economic sense to tour in that direction. Kansai or Kyushu can make a decent long weekend tour in a few cities, while Nagoya is a big city (2.2 million) on its own and an easy enough drive from both Tokyo and Kansai. All this gives the western tail of Japan a sense of greater vibrancy with more word-of-mouth information flowing back and forth among the little networks of bands that zip along Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen lines.

Northeast of Tokyo, there are of course towns with their own music scenes, but they tend to be smaller and more spaced out. Sapporo is the largest, but positioned in the middle if the northern island of Hokkaido it is also the most isolated. Aomori on the northern tip of the main island of Honshu gave Japan the legendary shoegaze-cum-electronic quartet Supercar, one of the bands who helped define the sound of Japanese rock music in the new millennium, and is also home to the Aomori Rock Festival, one of the more eclectic and interesting entries in the Japanese festival circuit.Supercar: Storywriter

But it’s in the earthquake and tsunami-battered eastern Tohoku coast in Sendai and Fukushima where the lazy Tokyoite has easiest access to the sounds of the icy north. Tying the art of this area in with the earthquake and the ongoing nuclear crisis is obviously a cheap thing to do, but for better or worse, those events do seem to have drawn (possibly guilty) eyes from the capital in that direction just a little bit more. The avant-garde musician and composer Yoshihide Otomo spoke eloquently on the role of culture in reclaiming the identity of Fukushima from the associations with the disaster (and through his soundtrack work on the insanely popular morning TV drama Amachan he may have succeeded in part of his aim), and so those of us living far away from Tohoku are in the paradoxical situation of having what we might call a duty to look east because of the 2011 disaster but a parallel duty to put the disaster to the back of our minds (how far back is a question open to debate) when considering its music.

In any case, triple-disaster aside, there is interesting music going on and there are a couple of bands I want to introduce here, one from Fukushima and one from Sendai. They’re both on the alternative or underground end of the spectrum because those are the kinds of bands that interest me, and they’re both well worth listening to.

The wonderfully named Rebel One Excalibur are a ferocious math rocky trio from Koriyama in Fukushima Prefecture whose self-titled debut mini album is due out soon. There doesn’t seem to be any audio from the record up yet, so this live clip will have to suffice to give you a taste of what they’re about Rebel One Excalibur: Zanpano

Rather than walking a line between discipline and chaos, Rebel One Excalibur seem to see no contradiction between the two concepts, revelling in both equally. They love dark, doomy chords and the vocals range from strangled to lung-shreddingly tortured, but there’s a playfulness to their arrangements that suggests controlled fury rather than mere angst.

Further up the coast in Sendai, we can find Umiuma. A similary technically-minded trio, Umiuma nonetheless take a poppier track, with some tracks recalling the jazzy pop excursions of 90s Shibuya-kei and melodies delivered via the candy-sweet tones of singer Masumi Horiya.

The most interesting moments are where the band subvert their pop sensibilities, setting them off against more discordant sounds, hyperactive rhythms and offbeat arrangements. They released a full-length album titled Kaiba earlier in the year that does a solid job of encapsulating most of the range of their sound (although sadly it doesn’t include any of the wonderfully odd cover versions they occasionally come up with live).

There is plenty plenty more music to be uncovered from the area, which I am only now starting to get to grips with. The intriguing Redd Temple come recommended highly by people in the know and regularly share stages with Rebel One Excalibur, and similarly, Umiuma are by no means a lone musical voice among Sendai’s one million residents. Really, all I am doing here is much belatedly scratching at the surface of a region of Japan that is too often neglected by the westward-gazing eyes of Tokyo, but which deserves much greater attention.

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3 responses to “Scratching the surface of music in Japan’s neglected northeast

  1. Chris

    I think even if you venture outside the world of music, I feel like Tohoku is definitely more neglected than the west in conversations on numerous topics about Japan. I read some interesting articles in a lecture class before about how the Tohoku dialect and Kansai dialect are used in things like manga, books, and TV shows, and it was pretty interesting at how they portray the place as so backward. Indeed, I don’t know too many people who can brag about having a northern accent but people who are proud to be from Kansai are all over the place.
    In retrospect I really dig all these little scenes with bands noone has heard of….and probably never will. When I was going to school in Okayama I was almost always at the live house down the street and got acquainted with some of the great music that the prefecture had to offer. It got me thinking that surely in every city and every little scene that exists within that an equal amount of talented musicians are playing their hearts out to an empty venue every other night.
    -Chris

    • Certainly economically, Tohoku has consistently got a bum deal from Tokyo, and now Fukushima is paying a very heavy price for taking on the role of supplying Tokyo with all the electricity it needs (or maybe “we need”would be better, since I’m just as guilty as anyone else here) for its fun and games.

      I keep hearing that there’s interesting stuff in Okayama and Hiroshima, but I haven’t had a chance to get out there and check it out. Next time I book a tour for someone, I’ll try to add some dates there instead of just skipping straight over it.

      Oh,and on dialects, I feel for them. Being from the southwest of England, I’m so used to the local accent there being used as shorthand for “stupid and rural” (“stupid and urban” usually goes to Birmingham accents). Typical lazy, regionalist London TV executive wankers!

  2. Pingback: The 2013 Post « Jim Haku

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