Category Archives: Strange Boutique

Strange Boutique (December 2013 Appendix): Five bands to watch in 2014

The other thing The Japan Times and I try to do every year is pick up five new or newish bands to watch over the forthcoming year, and this year there are five that I’m genuinely very excited about. Read my comments on the bands on The Japan Times’ web site here, and have a listen below:

1. DYGL — Really so hard to write about this band. They headlined my label’s anniversary party this autumn and they drove people crazy. I tend to go for edgy, arty, angular postpunk bands, but sometimes I just want something full of beauty and passion. I also like how the central riff of this song is the same as the theme from Twin Peaks.DYGL: Let’s Get Into Your Car

2. Sayuu — I’ve written about them on this site a couple of times this year. I first heard about them from Naoki from Tacobonds in January when he said there’s this very “Ian-type” new band that I should check out. He was right.Sayuu: Nakunaranai

3. Hearsays — I’ve never seen this band, but they’re one that my friends in Fukuoka couldn’t stop going on about this year. Similar genre to DYGL but very different atmosphere. I mention The Blind in the JT piece, and I think it might be my song of the year.

4. group A — Anything that sounds as much like Throbbing Gristle as this lot do is always going to be worth listening to, but it was after speaking to them and hearing about how they approach their music that it really started to come together for me.

5. Compact Club — I’m crazy about early 80s Japanese new wave and postpunk, and this group combine into one band almost everything I like from that period, plus their live shows are really fun. I’ve always liked Polysics fine but never really loved them because they were always too clean and polished, they look like craftsmen doing a job, but (and I know this is heresy for a lot of their fans) for all their spazzing about, there seems so little genuine energy to it. Compact Club aren’t as good musicians, but they’re plenty good enough, and they feel right to me in a way Polysics never have.Compact Club: Roommate

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Strange Boutique (December 2013) + Neojaponisme Reviews of 2013

It’s time for Strange Boutique’s review of the year again, which really just means me finding new ways of saying essentially the same thing (music industry resistant to change, idols all over the singles charts, Yasutaka Nakata the only person making anything really good, indie doing whatever the hell it wants and no one else paying the blindest bit of attention) but there are a couple of nuances at the moment that are worth paying attention to and could become significant in the near future.

First up, here’s the Japan Times column. As I point out, the yearly singles charts are a joke, with Johnny’s and XXX48 bands accounting for nearly all of it this time. Here’s a list of the acts that accounted for the top 30 bestselling singles of the year:

1. AKB48
2. AKB48
3. AKB48
4. AKB48
5. EXILE
6. Arashi
7. SKE48
8. SKE48
9. NMB48
10. Arashi
11. SKE48
12. NMB48
13. Nogizaka46
14. Nogizaka46
15. SMAP
16. Kis-Mt-Ft2
17. Southern Allstars
18. Kanjani8
19. Kis-Mt-Ft2
20. Kis-Mt-Ft2
21. Nogizaka46
22. Nogizaka46
23. HKT48
24. HKT48
25. EXILE TRIBE
26. Kanjani8
27. Kis-Mt-Ft2
28. Hey! Say! JUMP
29. SMAP
30. Linked Horizon

If that isn’t a depressing sight, I don’t know what is. Even if you’re a fan of this horrendous, evil music, the sheer lack of variety must surely be a bit alarming — something is obviously going badly wrong when the end of year charts are so rigidly homogeneous. So what does it say? Well, one explanation is that these bands produced the best music of 2013 and that this is the objective proof of that fact. The other is that only nerds buy singles. I’ll leave you to decide which of those it is.

What throws this into an interesting light is something else that comes up in another article that I contributed a little to, so go have a read of Neojaponisme’s review of the year now.

I contributed a bit about music to their annual review piece as I did last year, and through some chats I had with Marxy over it, this idea of “Peak AKB” came up. What he told me that I had suspected and which the way AKB48 etc. game the charts doesn’t show is that there are clear signs of their popularity slipping, as evidenced by sharply declining Google searches for the group. We discuss some reasons particular to the group’s own dynamics and behaviour this year (and we should remember there was no album from them this year, that it could merely be support diffusing out to their clone groups, etc.), but what’s really interesting about the Neojaponisme piece is how the AKB stuff I wrote (co-wrote honestly) dovetails with Marxy’s discussion earlier in the same piece about how it looks like the reactionary nerds are losing control of Japan’s Internet as ordinary people finally take control. Pop culture in the first decade of the new millennium was defined by subcultures like otaku and gyaru, just as the Net supplanted mainstream media as the primary driving force for delivering new trends, but if subculture groups are losing control of the online pop cultural discourse, that could mean genuine changes happening. Whether they’re good changes, I wouldn’t like to speculate, but change anyway. The word sounds strange on my tongue after all these years…

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Strange Boutique (November 2013)

My November column for The Japan Times is about the minor fan community scandal that bubbled up after A-chan from Perfume made some awkwardly worded remarks about gay fans. It was obviously not intended with any negative inflection, but looked at a certain way, it’s perhaps a little clumsy. I’m not going to go into what actually happened, you should read the original article here.

(First up, the opening is paraphrased from the American playwright August Wilson. I wasn’t sure whether I should cite him or not and in the end left it up to my editor. In any case, it’s his idea and I stole it. Just putting that out there.)

Now as a straight, middle class, white man, I’m have pretty much the most privileged life and background in all human history, so I’m not going to start telling people what kinds of things are legitimate and illegitimate sources of distress or offence. On one level, all that happened was that a fan asked her a silly question and she didn’t know how to answer it, but as she relates the story, her language (“neither” gender) segues rather awkwardly into the discussion about gay (presumably just as male as anyone else) fans and then her description of the fan’s partner as a “girlfriend” (did the fan use this term or was she editorialising?)

As I said, I don’t want to dismiss this as a non-event because gender politics are a tricky subject, but that said, the story here really shouldn’t be about A-chan. I spoke to the journalist who carried out the interview and asked him his assessment based on the context of the interview and from what I can gather, she was just being bubbly and ditzy. Perfume say they’re not idols like AKB48, but they’ve been brought up by the same kind of social machinery, inside the same pop industry bubble, and also in a wider sense part of Japan’s whole cultural bubble.

One thing that starts to hit you after a while when you live immersed in Japanese pop culture is the sheer narrowness of range it offers in terms of thought, ideas, and values. The significance of the “We Japanese” mindset is sometimes overplayed, but it’s definitely true that far more than European or American societies, the idea that as a Japanese person you can sit across from someone on a train and know that they are thinking the same way as you is a great comfort. Pop culture here is completely geared towards the reinforcement of this idea, and people who deviate from it are usually only permitted a pop cultural platform if they either perform obeisance to Japanese cultural traditions (“Wow, he is more Japanese than Japanese!”) or neuter themselves, rendering the outsider that threatens the consensus harmless by playing the clown.

This is often true of transgender people on Japanese television (although it’s not quite that simple and m’colleague Philip Brasor has written brilliantly about LGBT issues in Japanese TV here, here and probably many other places), and it’s certainly true of foreigners. A commenter on my Facebook page relayed a story of the naturalised Japanese but Nigerian-born TV tarento Bobby Ologun, whose son was appeared on a show with him and popped the awkward question, “Daddy, why are you so foolish on TV but not at home?”

Not only minorities, but a woman’s role on TV variety shows is far too often simply to nod along and smile to the older male comedians. Show hints of intelligence or independent thought and there is a ritual of ridicule they must go through to ensure they are cut down to size. Only loudmouthed female comedians, usually from the Osaka/Kansai area, are allowed to openly joust with male guests and co-hosts.

OK, now someone who watches more Japanese TV than me (almost anyone in the country really) will be able to pick holes in this assessment, but the overall picture is very much as I describe it. So pop music is really part of a wider pop cultural world devoted to maintaining a certain set of values and a certain sense of what Japan is and what the Japanese are.

Why this is is another matter. I suggest two theories in my column, the first of which could be summarised as the Antonio Gramsci view, where the channels through which culture is transmitted are used by a ruling class to establish “hegemony” and instill in the population a set of values that don’t necessarily benefit them. The other view is basically that of Theodor Adorno, namely that capitalism by its very nature drives the “culture industries” towards standardisation, in which all choice is an illusion. Likely there are elements of both conservatism and commercialism at play in bringing us to this point.

Whatever the reason, the Gramsci and Adorno positions both describe a system that serve the same ends: that of limiting discourse in the public arena.

But of course Japan isn’t homogeneous. Despite strict visa requirements, it’s racially less and less so, certainly in Tokyo, and among Japanese themselves there are many different kinds of people as well. By enforcing this limited and limiting media metanarrative of Japaneseness, it at once restricts people’s ability to empathise with and engage with people who don’t fit the standard, and at the same time gives those who don’t fit the mould a stark choice between conformity and alienation.

Gay people are a particularly pertinent example here, because more than almost anyone they have no control over what makes them different. Westerners are visibly different and are freed from the choice of fitting in or not (we never will, so just suck it up and learn to enjoy it — the situation of Zainichi Koreans is rather more complex), and it’s possible to a limited degree to drive unwanted ideologies like Communism out of the media to the extent that the ideas cannot easily be disseminated, the propaganda cannot be propagated. Gay people in Japan, however, do not choose their identity or arrive at it through social circumstances the way one might adopt a political position. Also, unlike foreigners they are just like “standard Japanese” on the surface so cannot escape the subtle added pressure that going unrecognised in the media creates to put on the face of conformity.

I’ve been quizzed many times about why there are so many gay British men and so few gay Japanese, and looking at the British and Japanese pop industries, there are certainly far more openly gay stars in the UK. Is Japan a uniquely heterosexual nation? Of course not. It’s just that there is a tacit agreement in the media that it’s not part of the discourse (in Britain, Freddy Mercury’s death pretty much put an end to that). Japan’s gay pop stars remain in the closet, Japan’s gay teenagers repress their sexual identity, Japan’s gay salarymen get married, have kids and sneak off to gay bars on the sly or just simply keep it to themselves, and straight Japanese lack the familiarity or the vocabulary to talk about homosexuality comfortably.

This isn’t discrimination in the direct sense of the word, and the people who do it aren’t nasty homophobes. Japanese sociologist Yuki Senda relates a good example of how it works in practice:

“I was recently speaking with an American friend who happened to mention a mutual friend had just got married. ‘But isn’t he gay?’ I asked, a bit surprised by the news. My friend, in turn, was surprised by my own reaction, and said: ‘Yes, of course—and that’s why he married a guy.'”

“This incident made me realize that even though I specialize in the sociology of the family, my own outlook still seems to be bound by traditional Japanese notions about the family. Needless to say, I know from my research that same-sex marriage or civil unions exist. But the notion of gay marriage is still such an alien concept in Japan that the possibility did not immediately occur to me when speaking to my friend.”

Of course once discussion about offence and language gets round to the idea of political correctness, people like to whine. Political correctness is the black beast that stalks contemporary debate on media culture, but in its bare essence, as the great Stewart Lee pointed out, political correctness is really just, “…an often clumsy negotiation towards a kind of formally inclusive language.”

I mention that political correctness can be restrictive and Orwellian in its extreme applications (the term itself was coined by 80s lefties as an ironic reference to Stalinist newspeak, along the lines of, “Your new girlfriend seems nice, but is she ideologically sound?”) but real and much more extensive restrictions are being put on both language and thought by a media culture that doesn’t give people the tools they need to engage with ideas, values, and even people outside the mainstream.

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Strange Boutique (November 2013)

My latest Japan Times column talks about the Tokyo Boredom event, which did a two-day extravaganza in Taipei alongside a bunch of Taiwanese bands this September, and which is gearing up for its next Tokyo installment on Saturday night in Shimo-Kitazawa.

It was all done from a very Japanese perspective, and I think it would have been interesting to get input from bands on the Taiwan side of things to see what influence or inspiration they feel they’ve got from Japan. Still, it’s good to hear of Japanese music actually having a tangible effect on musicians in other countries. It’s pretty obvious from listening that Hang in the Air had some influence from bands like Six O’Minus and Arakajime Kimerareta Koibitotachi E, for example. Mochizuki from Groundcover.’s comment that the scene there seems to have grown up a lot was interesting, although obviously when you’re talking about underground scenes in huge cities, it’s not always easy to put influences like that into perspective — Tokyo Boredom (and probably its counterpart in Taiwan) represents a very small fraction of what the music scene here is about. That said, comparable scenes influencing each other should be the norm in Asia, and this sort of international cooperation and willingness to exchange influences feels to me like a very positive thing.Groundcover.: io

Like any event run by a bunch of friends and scene insiders, Tokyo Boredom can seem a bit cliquey to outsiders (I’ve been involved in the scene for about ten years and have dealt with nearly all the Boredom bands in various capacities, but a lot of these guys go way further back with each other), but despite this, or perhaps because of this, there’s always a great sense of community within the show.

Also, some people have criticised the event for being to narrow and delivering too limited a range of music. I get the impression that the organisers recognise this and make an effort to broaden their horizons, but perhaps as a side-effect of the way the scene’s structured I think their capacity to offer a wider range of music is limited. I regularly try to book bands from different facets of the Tokyo underground scene together and it never really works: people simply won’t go to gigs unless everyone sounds the same. Add to that the fact that all the Boredom bands play in more or less the same circles, and their contact with different stuff (and more importantly their audience’s contact with different stuff) is limited. The truth is that they do a pretty good job of mixing things up within the restrictions of how the Tokyo (things are different in other cities) underground scene is structured.Subterraneans (including intro by Kaita Tanaka from Worst Taste)

Going back to my point about international cooperation, I’d just like to add as an addendum that these sorts of ground-level networks are exactly the sort of thing the government should be assisting. Touring overseas is a pretty much guaranteed money losing enterprise for underground bands. Big labels and name acts can afford it already, but ground level is where the real creative connections are made, and it’s a place where a small amount of money to assist bands with travel expenses could reap enormous cultural benefits in the long run.Milk

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Strange Boutique (September 2013)

The September edition of my column was delayed by a week because of an avalanche of articles at the Japan Times eating up all the space that week, so it came out the first week of October instead.

Since the announcement that the 2020 Olympics would take place in Tokyo, there’s been lots of speculation among Japan culture-watchers about what the opening ceremony might be. Not because of any particular interest in Olympic opening ceremonies in and of themselves so much as what it will say about how Japan wants other countries to perceive it culturally.

I think it’s an interesting line they have to walk between being honest about what Japanese culture is and providing something that people overseas will be able to enjoy. Beijing was criticised for airbrushing out troublesome elements in favour of the precisely drilled mass celebration of China’s awesomeness and power, while London took flak from some for being too in-jokey and insular, although given the size of the audience they had to reach, it seems pretty clear that Zhang Yimou and Danny Boyle’s ceremonies were pretty well received in both concept and execution.

So those two extremes provide contrasting examples of approaches that Tokyo could take, but at the same time, it needs to be able to say that its ceremony was theirs alone as well. Part of the problem with pop music is that Japan just doesn’t really have any that means much outside its own shores, and the stuff that’s really popular at home right now is either going to come across as pretty pedestrian and imitative of Western “originals” (often mistakenly on the part of overseas listeners not trained to listen for the same things Japanese audiences hear) or make them look like a nation of paedophiles (seriously, idol stuff really ain’t going to look good).

Traditional music is safer, so festival and taiko music could do the job, but I do think Tokyo is going to want to emphasise its modernity. They might go the arty route and get someone like Cornelius, who I raved about in last month’s column, or Yasutaka Nakata to do the sound design — just imagine how good a composer an older, more mature Nakata could have become by the time he’s forty years old…Ryuichi Sakamoto: Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence

As I mentioned in the article, Ryuichi Sakamoto is a compromise that the establishment might be able to accept but who’s talented and familiar enough with technology that his work wouldn’t just be a museum piece. I wonder whether, given that possibly his two most famous works both as an actor and film composer were films that dealt with Japan’s let’s just say “controversial” wartime past (much as I love Wings of Honneamise, I fear it may be overlooked in his canon), there might be some wankers, either in Japan or in China or somewhere else, who try to turn his involvement into a lightning rod for political rage. Also, his position regarding the nuclear situation at Fukushima might have rendered him unacceptable to some of the fossils who run the government. He seems like a solid choice to me, but I’m never surprised by the lengths to which some people will go to get offended by something.

Personally, it’s the more fanciful suggestions that amuse me most, and you can be sure that there are people at places like Sony already working on developing some batshit insane new audiovisual technology for it.

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Strange Boutique (August 2013)

My August (and I like to believe also august) column went up on The Japan Times’ web site last week, on the subject of Shibuya-kei. The event that kicked it off was when we noticed that September 1st, as well as being the 90th anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and my wife’s [CENSORED] birthday, marked twenty years since the release of Keigo “Cornelius” Oyamada’ first solo single.

Obviously he’d been around for years before that with Flipper’s Guitar, who were almost certainly of greater importance in terms of bringing indie music into the mainstream in Japan, sort of like a weedy-voiced, twee Nirvana, and The Sun Is My Enemy isn’t his best song by a long shot, but in its style, its release though Oyamada’s Trattoria label, and the significance of the name Cornelius in Shibuya-kei’s popularity and influence overseas, it’s a useful benchmark.Cornelius: The Sun Is My Enemy [Sorry for the annoying twat talking over the intro]

There was some discussion on Twitter afterwards about what song would be a better choice if there were to be a single track chosen to define Shibuya-kei, and I think there is a general agreement that it would probably have to be something connected with Oyamada. One suggestion was Flipper’s Guitar’s track Dolphin Song, which is almost certainly the band’s tour de force, bringing their neo-acoustic melodic sense together with experimentation with sound production and sampling that pushes the boundaries of what indie and pop music in Japan were doing at that time way back.Flipper’s Guitar: Dolphin Song

Another possibility would be Kahimi Karie’s Good Morning World, released by Oyamada through Trattoria, which takes the sort of faux-sixties aesthete-pop that Pizzicato Five had been doing for a while, and adds an arrangement and lyrics — courtesy of British songwriter and (tender) pervert Momus — that are some of the oddest and most subversive things ever to sneak into the upper echelons of the Oricon charts.Kahimi Karie: Good Morning World

I also used the article to have another go at “Cool Japan”, which is one of my recurring bugbears about Japanese pop culture. A lot of interesting discussion came out of that as well. At the end of the article where I contrast the enduring overseas respect afforded to Cornelius with the declining fortunes of anime and video games abroad, it’s obviously not meant to be a direct comparison of a single artist to an entire industry. My point is that creating an environment where original artists can emerge is going to be more helpful to Japan’s image overseas than just treating culture like venture capital and chucking money at marketing stuff that’s been born out of particular economic conditions.

Anime in particular is an embarrassment at the moment, and despite the popularity of cosplay among certain groups of people, there is no one who actually thinks it’s cool. Its cultural cachet is confined to a niche group and is considered a joke by outsiders. Video games are in a better position, but the Japanese games industry isn’t what it once was. Sony seem to be getting some positive advance coverage of the PS4 but they’ve done that partly through Microsoft’s propensity to shoot themselves in the foot at every opportunity and partly by going back to the old ways of scrubbing the machine’s Japaneseness from it, creating something blankly international like the Walkman.

My belief is that the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry isn’t the best institution to be dealing with cultural matters, and that rather than wasting it on evil bastards like advertising giants Dentsu, the money would be more usefully spent in a similar way to how it’s been used in British theatre, i.e. in providing infrastructure that allows artists to experiment and develop ideas free of commercial constraints. Out of that, you’ll surely get a lot of wank, but you’ll also get uncommercial but notable art that would have been strangled at birth under the current system, and you’ll also get works that do have commercial potential that can then be developed into something bigger under the existing commercial infrastructure.

Encouraging international collaboration and cooperation too will be beneficial. A system of grants to help artists with the expensive business of touring overseas should be a basic given (almost every European country has this), as well as helping to build up connections with similar overseas organisations. Relaxing visa requirements for overseas artists wanting to visit Japan would also be very helpful (the opposite of what Canada is doing here, basically). As it stands, Cornelius and Shibuya-kei was a fantastic one-off, but so much more could be done to build an environment where more one-off talents could emerge.Cornelius: Gum (Ultimate Sensuous Synchronized Show)

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Strange Boutique (June 2013)

Also, I just noticed that I skipped a link to my June column. It was a look at some of the alternatives the the big summer festivals, and since we’re still only really halfway through the festival season, it might be worth linking back here. Actually, I don’t think the “best” summer festivals are the ones off the beaten track (that was just editorial-side headline hyperbole) because Fuji Rock is basically the best and only Japanese summer festival anyone needs to go to, but the Aomori Rock Festival in September does look fun.

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Strange Boutique (July 2013)

Eiichi Ohtaki: Kimi Wa Ten-Nen-Shoku

A bit late posting this due to one thing and another, but here’s my most recent column for The Japan Times. The theme was Japanese summer albums, and it was primarily an excuse to rave about Eiichi Ohtaki’s 1981 masterpiece A Long Vacation, which remains probably my favourite Japanese mainstream pop album. Ohtaki was a member of Happy End in the 60s and 70s, and his old bandmates helped out in various fashions on this album, but there’s a purity of craftsmanship and vision on this record that even his old band’s most celebrated work doesn’t quite have. In a way, comparing A Long Vacation to something like Kazemachi Roman is a bit like comparing stuff by The Beatles to Brian Wilson’s work with The Beach Boys, in that the former is at heart a band’s album while the latter is fundamentally a producer’s album. Either way, there are obvious similarities and I’m not really interested in ranking stuff this good.Eiichi Ohtaki: Koi Suru Karen

By all means investigate the other stuff I mention in the article, but really A Long Vacation is all I want to talk about here. I love the way Koi Suru Karen just leaps into the chorus with so much power and gusto but does so by dropping in a bunch of new layers of sound, not by rocking out in the typical band style. I love the way the squelchy synth bass in Pap-Pi-Doo-Bi-Doo-Ba Monogatari sounds completely at odds with the light, fluffy, 60s-style melody and yet totally at one with the piece, and I love how FUNx4 just even exists, as one of the most ludicrously, unashamedly pop! pop! pop! tunes ever written. I even love the fake clapping at the end.Eiichi Ohtaki: FUNx4

In the end, it’s just one of the most marvellous summer albums ever and one of my favourite pop albums ever, regardless of where it was made. It was one of the first Japanese pop albums I ever heard, when as a first year university student, my Japanese dorm-mate lent me his copy, so perhaps I’m sentimentally biased — I still harbour warm feelings for Mr. Children’s 1997 megahit album Bolero and Globe’s Faces Places, although neither commands such power over my affections. Fundamentally though, it’s a magnificent collection of songs by a songwriter and producer at the peak of his powers, and that just rules so I make no apologies for this cascade of thoroughly un-journalistic, fanboyish pop-love.Eiichi Ohtaki: Saraba Siberia Tetsudou

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Strange Boutique (May 2013)

My current Japan Times column discusses language in music. Language isn’t really a concern for English speaking musicians since the language of rock and pop and their own native language are the same thing, but the question of whether to sing in English or try parse rock into their native tongue is something non-English speaking musicians have to consider.She Talks Silence: Holy Hands, Holy Voices

I mention the Soviet Union as an example largely because at the time I was thinking about the column, I’d been reading Artemy Troitsky’s 1988 book Back in the USSR about the history of Soviet rock, and his remarks on the importance of Russian (and Baltic etc.) musicians learning how to make rock work in their own language(s) seemed to chime with my own research about the development of pop and rock in Japan. I’ve also worked, through Call And Response Records, with Slovenian musician N’toko, who writes music in both English and Slovenian with equal skill, and yet writes very different kinds of lyrics depending on the language he’s working in, stating that certain ideas or emotions don’t work as well in one language compared to another. This left me with all sorts of ideas to pursue, some of which coalesced into the article that was finally published, but please read the original article first, because it cuts to the core of my (admittedly pretty straightforward and mundane) thinking about the issue, where a lot of these points are really side discussions.YMO: Solid State Survivor

There were a lot of loose ends though, and there was some interesting discussion about it on my various social media ranting spots. On Twitter, one commenter drew comparisons with the debate that existed in the media in the 1970s over the relative virtues of Yuya Uchida (Flower Travellin’ Band), who sang in English, and Haruomi Hosono (Happy End), who sang in Japanese, over which was the right approach. As in my article, I think this idea that one approach is intrinsically the “right” one is silly. Uchida was aiming for overseas audiences and touring quite successfully off that, and the moment Hosono started aiming overseas (with YMO), suddenly his band’s songs were in English too.Plastics: Top Secret Man

In the new wave era, the Plastics tended to sing in English (although ironically, their most popular song overseas was probably the mostly Japanese-language Copy) whereas contemporaries like P-Model tended to sing in Japanese. P-Model’s debut album contained one English language song, Sophisticated, which at least in part was actually satirising the notion that singing in English was somehow a classier approach for musicians, and might be seen as a sly dig at the Plastics (although surely not an ill-intentioned one given that the Plastics’ Masahide Sakuma was producing the album).P-Model: Sophisticated

A friend on Facebook pointed out that nowadays, “…singing in English has absolutely nothing to do for the benefit of foreign listeners,” and this reminded me of an example from the singer Bonnie Pink, who I remember saying in an interview that her song Love is Bubble was named that way despite the grammar being all wrong, simply because it would be less confusing to the Japanese listeners that the song was primarily aimed at. This is the same as the approach of T-shirt and candy manufacturers, who appropriate English words for their half-understood impact, using them more as punctuation than as vehicles for specific meaning.

The same friend goes on to point out that among many Japanese musicians Bands from outside Japan aren’t viewed as potential peers or rivals, merely as fetish objects to be studied, deconstructed, and reconstituted or imitated in a ‘Japanese’ way.” This is interesting because it then becomes intertwined with the point that attracts many overseas fans to Japanese in the first place, and raises the issue of whether this kind of appeal is the result of simply appreciating cultural differences or whether there is something unhealthy and exoticising about it. To frame it one way, should Japanese musicians enter into the homogenising global music artistic space or should they focus on their own native environment and cultural peers? To frame it another way, should Japanese artists view overseas acts as peers or rivals, or should they remain inscrutable and aloof like good little orientals? It’s a tangled issue, but overseas fans of Japanese music should ask themselves these kinds of questions.Shonen Knife: I Am A Cat

This also links in with the brief point I mentioned in the article about how non-Japanese listeners tend to either find Japanese musicians singing in imperfect English cute or annoying. There’s a third category I suppose, which is that many of those who’ve been immersed in Japanese music for long enough tend to block it out because they’re so used to it. What I do find interesting is those musicians who sing in imperfect or limited English but make something artistic out of that. Shonen Knife play up their broken English because innocence and amateurishness are a cultivated part of their appeal, and they get away with it, somehow. Miila and The Geeks’ English is rarely incorrect, but they use their limited vocabulary as a set of restrictions that hones and focuses their lyrics into a sort of snotty punk minimalism. The English in Perfume songs is often pronounced in an exaggeratedly katakana fashion (“di-su-ko di-si-ko!”) which feeds into their electropop cyborg image (and no doubt conveniently makes their music easier to sing at karaoke).Miila and The Geeks: Want

Another area I didn’t get the chance to go into is that of Japanese-speaking foreign musicians in Japan. Pretty much all of them that I know sing in English, and while Japanese listeners would no doubt clap their hands with glee and squeal “Sugoooooi!” if they did sing in Japanese, I might be being tremendously unfair to people here, but it’s hard to see it being accepted as anything other than a performing monkey trick or some such gimmick. For English speaking listeners, there’s a different issue. While for a Japanese person, singing in English nowadays might sometimes provoke sneers to the effect that they were putting on airs, an English speaker singing in a foreign language for purely artistic reasons would seem far more alien and provoke much more widespread ridicule and accusations of pretension. For non-English speakers singing in a different non-English language, it’s perhaps different again. Italian singer Angelo Galizia of German new wave band The Wirtschaftswunder is an interesting case, singing in heavily Italian accented German. Quite what it meant to Germans I don’t know, although from a certain angle at least, it’s a great punk statement: “Fuck you and fuck your language! I’ll sing in it for you, but I’ll mutilate it any way I see fit!”The Wirtschaftswunder: Der Große Mafiosi

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Strange Boutique (April 2013)

My Japan Times column last month talked about the collapse of the Tokyo Rocks festival that was due to take place this coming weekend. Rather than examine the specific reasons for its failure, which seem to have been internal management issues, I focused instead on the reactions of fans, because I think they revealed something different about the festival and what it might have done wrong. I gather from some comments people made to me afterwards that the point I was making in the article wasn’t very clear, so I’m just going to re-state here, I wasn’t really interested in the internal gossip of the event organisers, I’m more interested in what they actually did, how they presented and promoted the event, and what impression that approach gave. Because really, when the cancellation announcement came, no one was in the least bit surprised. In fact, for some people I spoke to, the cancellation announcement was the first they’d even heard of the event.

In addition to what I said in the article, there are some spurious and unsubstantiated comments I’d like to make here. Firstly, the rumours going around that despite being booked to take place in a 60,000 capacity stadium, Tokyo Rocks only sold a few hundred tickets, and secondly that the event producer Takashi Yano had come into a lot of money and was just playing at being a rock promoter so that he could hang out with bands and feel like a rock star. Like I said, no idea of the truth in these things or where the information would have come from if they were true, but they play into a narrative among fans of the event as being small-time, underpromoted in the Japanese media (as opposed to the UK/US media, where it received a lot of coverage) and the fanboyish way Yano came across in his Facebook comments. Ragardless of any truth that these rumours might have, they’re exactly the kind of rumours that were always going to come out of an event that was promoted and presented the way Tokyo Rocks was.

So while in my Japan Times piece, I tried to explain as well as I could in the space I had what fan reactions revealed about how fans think and how the music scene is structured, here I want to go into a bit more detail and use personal examples relating to a couple of my own musical activities that would be inappropriate to discuss in my column (I sometimes talk about bands I’ve worked with in the Japan Times, but I don’t think it’s right for me to talk about my own projects directly). I don’t want to slag off Yano because that would be kicking a man when he’s down. It would also be hypocritical of me, because the problems he and the Tokyo Rocks team had are like a massive-scale, catastrophic condensation of all the problems I’ve experienced as an indie event organiser in Japan over the past eight or nine years. In fact, a lot of the things he did would have been precisely the right thing to do in an indie environment, and it was only the transference of those ideas onto a bigger scale that made them wrong.

Firstly, the Japanese music press and music media in general is shit. No one reads it, they won’t write about you unless you pay them for the column inches, which means no readers trust anything they say anyway. The kind of promotion major producers do is coordinated across all sorts of media and simply bludgeons fans into submission. It requires a lot of money, but also experienced staff who have personal relationships with all the relevant press, TV and record store staff.

When I released the Dancing After 1AM compilation album on my own Call And Response label last year, rather like Tokyo Rocks, it got much better coverage in the English language media. This was I think partly because I knew more people in English language media, partly because it tends to be more open to submissions from people they don’t know, and partly because Japanese indie music doesn’t have the network of well-read and respected blogs running beneath the level of the professional music press that are always on the lookout for new things. No Japanese media even replied to my mails introducing the album, and the only place I got any serious column inches was Kyushu local free music magazine Time Market — tellingly the one media outlet where I was reasonably well known as already. Tokyo Rocks was a relatively small event trying to jump up to the big leagues and they weren’t able to bring the media with them on the scale they needed.

There’s also the fans. In an indie event, social media is the most useful kind of promotion you can do. Twitter is the main one, but Facebook is growing among Japanese users. In this sense, Tokyo Rocks weren’t so far off base. Nurturing a group of fans via social media works for events up toa few hundred in size. Even so, a homepage is still the primary port of call for music fans, where updates can be clearly presented and linked to. The Tokyo Rocks homepage was sparse, with ugly, navigation-unfriendly Facebook carrying all sorts of important stuff. More importantly though, music fans, even indie and underground fans, get gooey at the knees at slick, professional stuff. My own label and events are as cheap, amateurish and chaotic as anything and then some, but this is why other people waste so much money printing expensive, colour flyers for their tiny gigs in shitty 100-capacity venues — they may not have much direct impact, but they do a lot for the “brand”, telling the audience the organiser is serious and that they care. Now magnify that to stadium-level, and imagine the kind of expectations for professionalism fans have? They want to be bludgeoned into submission, and will feel insulted if you don’t do it.

And then there’s booking. People in the Tokyo music scene always complain about the booking at indie shows focusing on such a narrow range of artists for each event. Musicians say they enjoy playing shows with different kinds of people, fans tend to agree that a range of music is more interesting. Don’t believe them. Everyone says they want variety, but they won’t back it up with their time or ticket money. Tokyo gigs are ¥2000 a throw, and most fans won’t go to a gig unless they already know and like at least three of the bands, which means organisers who want to book interesting shows have to make sacrifices as they navigate the delicate balancing act between booking good shows and getting enough audience to pay for the venue they’ve booked. For example, you don’t book mod/garage bands for postpunk/alternative gigs, no matter how logical it might seem for two individual bands to play together. Mod/garage fans are the most narrow-minded little clique in the Japanese music world and will not go to an event unless every single band sounds exactly the same. Part of the reason Ozzfest the same weekend seems to have worked was because it was a metal-only event with solid, internationally famous bands running quite deep into the lineup. Fuji Rock books a lot of Japanese bands, but again, the core of the headliners as well as most of the bands on the main stages tend to be foreign.

With international bands, they’re usually a wasted booking at an underground event unless they’re already well known. What happens usually is that bands will play with them out of genuine interest and maybe the hope of some help if they themselves try to play abroad, and venues will put them on for the prestige, hoping to recover any money they lose on the night in the long term as their status in the local scene rises, allowing them to attract better local bands in the future. Tokyo venues will almost never pay touring bands, and some will even charge them the same standard pay-to-play “noruma” as a Japanese act (Koenji Roots, to name and shame but one).

With well known overseas bands, the situation’s different. They can get an audience, but it’s a different one to the local bands. International and Japanese music are marketed separately and occupy different sections of record shops regardless of the music’s similarity, and the fans are different crowds of people. Japanese underground/alternative fans may well like overseas bands, but fans of overseas bands don’t necessarily like similar-sounding Japanese bands — in fact, they’re often inclined to look down their noses at them as embarrassing imitations. Not only that, but overseas bands are expensive to bring over. A ticket to see a local band costs ¥2000, but a foreign band will cost ¥6000 or more. A Japanese band supporting a touring foreign band will not bring significant numbers of their own supporters to a show when those fans can see them three times elsewhere for the same cost.

The biggest financial loss I’ve ever experienced off a single event was when I put together a last-minute booking for Bristol powerpop/new wave trio The Stingrays in Tokyo a couple of years ago. When I booked Dutch/German band Anatopia in Tokyo last year, I had to get six local bands to support them in order to bring in the crowd I needed to pay them even the small guarantee I’d offered. When I DJed with Bo Ningen in Tokyo and Kagoshima earlier this year, the organisers needed similarly bloated local band and/or DJ lineups to support the cost of the tour. In all these cases, we had to keep the ticket prices down as low as we could, so that fans from the local indie scene would be able to support the show. When the excellent You Got A Radio supported Gang Of Four earlier this year, I took one look at the ¥7000 ticket price and laughed my arse off. Many others did the same.

So what Tokyo Rocks did with getting a couple of big foreign headliners like Blur and My Bloody Valentine and then populating most of the rest of the lineup with Rockin’ On-ready local bands was doomed to fail to satisfy on two counts. Too expensive for the people who might have liked Andymori etc. it also offended the Blur and MBV fans by booking them with a load of local bands they were either disdainful of, uninterested in or had never heard of.

So while I think Takashi Yano and co. made mistakes, and I find his “stay young” sign-offs as cringeworthy and annoying as anyone, I have to feel sympathy with him because some of his mistakes were actually just cases of doing the right thing to the wrong people, while some were really just actions that reveal prejudices and habits of Japanese music fans and the music scene here that I also find infuriating. In the end, I think he might have just got too full of the success of his earlier, smaller one-day festivals and overreached. This is a temptation that every organiser is sometimes subjected to, myself included. With each success, like a gambler you think “I’m on a winning streak, lets raise the stakes!” and you have to step back, look at the reality of the music scene, assess the danger, and hedge your risks.

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