Music of the J-people

Homegrown, fresh and ever-changing . . .

by Steve McClure

Japanese pop music is crap. So say many of my friends, especially the non-Japanese ones. They reach that conclusion after noticing that the charts are full of chipmunk-voiced idols who are long on looks and short on talent — and whose shelf lives are only slightly longer than sushi.

But if you separate the rice from the chaff, you’ll find that some of the most interesting, challenging and just plain good music being made on the planet today comes from Japan. In the last decade or so, the quality of Japanese pop music (J-pop, as it’s usually termed) has increased enormously, while the stylistic range has expanded to cover just about every known (and unknown) musical genre.

There’s the shimmering pure pop of female duo Puffy, the mysteriously seductive vocals of singer/songwriter Ua, the brilliantly eclectic pop/rock fusion of Great 3, the dark underground sounds of DJ Krush, the passionate indie guitar-rock of Syrup16g, the infectious ethnic sounds of Okinawa’s Shoukichi Kina and Champloose . . . the list is endless.

Why has J-pop become so stylistically eclectic and musically excellent?

One reason is that Japanese kids have access to an incredibly wide variety of music. For example, Shibuya in Tokyo, the center of Japanese youth culture, boasts an amazing variety of CD stores selling every kind of music imaginable. It’s probably the best place on Earth to buy music. Beside the big foreign music retailers, there’s a profusion of specialist music stores selling everything from hardcore to Hawaiian, rap to rai, swing to soul — name the genre, and you’ll find a shop selling it.

With this kind of access to all sorts of music, it’s no wonder that today’s Japanese musicians are making music that draws on a wide variety of influences. But more than being influenced by different kinds of music, Japanese kids are mixing and blending those musical models into new, often startlingly original sounds, filtering them through a 21st-century sensibility that isn’t limited by rigid stylistic boundaries.

Now that pop music has become a truly global phenomenon, it’s just as natural for a Japanese boy or girl to use pop music as a confident, unselfconscious way of expressing their feelings as it is for kids in Seattle, London or Moscow. Kids in Japan don’t think of pop music as a Western import — it’s part and parcel of their daily lives.

It’s all a world apart from when Western pop music really began to have an impact on the Japanese music scene during the 1945-52 Allied Occupation, which brought about a huge increase in the amount of foreign music heard in Japan, especially through the U.S. armed forces’ Far East Network radio service.

The most important singer in the postwar era was Hibari Misora, who remained a major star until her untimely death at age 52 in 1989. Misora’s forte was enka, a type of melancholy ballad that usually deals with themes such as doomed love affairs and painful separations. Call it crying-into-your-sake music.

Then, inspired by the guitar-based instrumental music of the the U.S. rock band the Ventures — who have been touring Japan regularly since the early 1960s — many Japanese musicians took up the electric guitar in the mid-’60s so-called eleki era. That led to the “group sounds” boom of the 1960s, when Japanese musicians, inspired by groups such as The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, formed bands with names like The Tigers, The Spiders and The Jaguars, in which the electric guitar was again the main instrument, but where vocals were also emphasized.

It wasn’t until the ’70s that Japanese rock really began to find its own voice, with bands like Flower Traveling Band, Carmen Maki and Oz, the Sadistic Mika Band, Happy End and the Southern All Stars. Since their late-’70s debut, this latter band, led by Keisuke Kuwata, have gone on to become one of Japan’s all-time top-selling musical acts with their unrelenting flow of straight-ahead, American-influenced rock.

Meanwhile, the ’70s also saw the “new music” boom, in which singer-songwriters such as Miyuki Nakajima and Yumi Matsutoya gained popularity with their sophisticated, personal approach.

Then, in the late ’70s, came the “idol boom,” in which performers such as Seiko Matsuda, Momoe Yamaguchi, Hiromi Go and Hideki Saijo became hugely popular. You could say that the idol boom has never really unboomed — just look at Morning Musume. However, the same era also produced Yellow Magic Orchestra, a three-man group (Haruomi Hosono, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi) whose brilliant synthesizer-based style of pop has had an enormous influence on musicians all over the world.

The next big thing (it, too, came as a “boom”) was the “band boom” of the late ’80s, spawned by the late-night TV program “Ikaten” (an abbreviation for “Cool-Band Heaven”), which featured amateur and semi-pro bands. But the boom ended almost as quickly as it began, as the mass media shifted its attention to the next “boom” — and that was for dance music, as the popular Tokyo bubble-era disco Juliana’s (in Shibaura, Minato Ward) set the musical mood.

Producer Tetsuya Komuro set the sonic template for music in the ’90s with danceable, karaoke-friendly pop by acts such as TRF and Namie Amuro. Throughout that decade, too, and into the new century, the Japanese public’s taste in music became more fragmented and sophisticated as the indies scene blossomed and foreign music stores such as Tower, Virgin and HMV shook up the market.

“The musical environment in Japan changed,” said Hidemasa “Tony” Otani, head of leading Shibuya-based label Living Dining & Kitchen Records. “More information about music became available, and people are now listening to many different kinds of music.”

Paralleling the indies boom was the so-called Shibuya-kei (Shibuya-style) movement, in which acts such as Cornelius and the now-disbanded Pizzicato Five introduced a new flavor of sophistication and ironic cool, sometimes degenerating into kitsch, to Japanese pop music.

The current indies boom offers a very real, very different alternative to the mainstream. An example of an indie band that has recently blazed its way into the charts is Okinawan “ska-core” outfit Mongol 800. “Message,” their second release, has so far sold 2.2 million copies, with little in the way of conventional promotion. Instead, word about the band spread nationwide on a grassroots level.

Indie releases now account for 5-6 percent of Japan’s total music sales, and many people in the Japanese music industry expect that to rise to 10 percent in the next couple of years.

So what’s behind the current indies boom? Well, the most obvious answer is that the music has become much better than the days when “indie music” meant dissonant, poorly recorded rubbish. These days, it’s inspired, confident and amazingly eclectic. Stylistically, it runs the gamut from the “melo-core (melodious hardcore)” of three-man band Hi Standard, to the bright, ’60s-style pop of bands such as Advantage Lucy and the dark, ambient musings of Kyoto group Mana — and just about every other conceivable genre.

Yoshikane Yamana, head buyer of indie product at Tower’s Shibuya outlet, is a true believer in the indie gospel. “The quality of Japanese indie music has improved, across so many genres — punk, hip hop, electronic — you name it,” he said.

Indie artists don’t have to worry as much about the kind of censorship that, for example, occurred when veteran rocker Kiyoshiro Imawano wanted to release a speeded-up rock version of the national anthem “Kimigayo” a couple of years ago. He had to do so on the independent Swim label after major label Polydor refused to put it out.

In 1993 pop/rock trio Shonen Knife was asked by its label, MCA Victor (now Universal Victor), to remove an alleged drug reference from a song on its album “Rock Animals.” The song, “Catnip Dream,” originally included the line, “Tane o maetara happa ga dettekita,” which translates as, “I sowed a seed in the ground, and leaves came out.”

Bass player Michie Nakatani, who wrote the song, said she was surprised when MCA Victor asked her to cut the happa (leaves) reference. “I didn’t mean it as a drug reference,” she said. “I meant it as something a cat takes and enjoys, like medicine. But Japanese people are too strict — they don’t understand jokes. There are bands that say a lot worse things than us.”

In the past decade, Japanese DJ/producers such as Ken Ishii, DJ Krush, DJ Honda, DJ Hasebe and Captain Funk have been among the country’s best-known musical ambassadors to the world. Ishii, probably the best-known Japanese techno artist, says the sounds he grew up with inspired his brand of techno.”In my generation, everything around us in our daily life is mechanized,” pointed out Ishii, who was born in Sapporo in 1970. “When we were kids, we played with computer games instead of playing outside. I grew up with computers, and that changed my mentality, so that it was natural to be with them.”

Another key trend here in the last few years has seen divas such as Misia, Hikaru Utada, Sugar Soul and Yuki Koyanagi change the J-pop sonic template with their technically accomplished soul/R&B-influenced music. Beside proving that cuteness and ability can go together, these soul-kei onna (soul-style women) have been shaking up the Japanese business by penning their own material — in the process, strengthening the concept of album-oriented artists.

In the last year or so, male acts such as Ken Hirai, The Gospellers and Chemistry have shown that it’s not just the girls who’ve made R&B an integral part of J-pop’s rich repertoire. I mean, these guys can actually sing, unlike some of the vocally-challenged idol tarento (talents).

Despite all this, idol culture shows no sign of dying out — just look at the extraordinary success of groups such as the ubiquitous five-man SMAP (which, bizarrely, stands for Sports Music Assemble People), the all-girl ensemble Morning Musume and Barbie doll-like Ayumi Hamasaki.

Idols will be a fixture on the J-pop scene as long as the highly centralized Japanese mass media continue to require cute, malleable tarento to appear in TV shows, commercials, magazine and newspaper ads. The all-too-apparent lack of musical talent of a group like Morning Musume is irrelevant — what’s important is that they’re cute and non-threatening. Mediocrity, far from being a drawback, is a plus — people like the idea that anybody can be a star.

But if it’s real talent you’re after, make an effort to go to some of the showcase concerts being held Oct. 3, 4 and 5 as part of the annual “In the City” music-industry conference organised by the Federation of Music Producers Japan. A total of 76 new, unsigned acts will be playing over the three days at various venues in the Shibuya area. Reflecting just how wildly eclectic J-pop has become, musical styles represented at “In the City” include what are dubbed the “sophisticated club sounds” of female vocalist Synvi, the AOR (adult-oriented rock) of the band Silly, the “husky vocal” style of male-female duo Minao and the retro fun of group sounds revivalists the Captains.

Who knows, but at these gigs at the end of this week, you just might find you’re . . . pleasantly surprised. You may then even be prepared to admit the awful truth: not all Japanese pop music is crap. In fact some of it is very, very good indeed. All you need are ears — and an open mind.

For more information on “In the City,” check out the FMP Web site at www.inthecity.jp or call (03) 5467-6851.

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10 of the best to tune you in

“Tokusenshu” — Hibari Misora (1999): Greatest-hits collection by the late, great queen of enka. Essential listening for J-pop aficionados.

“GS I Love You” — Various artists(1996): Intro to the “group sounds” of the mid-’60s, with some brilliant, over-the-top “Western-style” rock.

“Blood Line” — Shoukichi Kina and Champloose (1980): The template for Japanese neo-roots music, with great songwriter Kina’s classic ballad, “Hana.”

“11″ — Ua (1996): Outstanding debut from fascinating, enigmatic singer-songwriter Ua, with a series of beautiful songs with various producers.

“Shopping” — Tamio Okuda and Yousui Inoue (1997): With folk-rock veteran Inoue, Puffy-producer Okuda delivers intelligent pop for intelligent people.

“First Love” — Hikaru Utada (1999): The 16-year-old’s smooth, catchy debut that’s Japan’s top-notching album, with some 9 million sold.

“The Greatest Hits” — Love Psychedelico (2001): Great debut from a male-female duo whose gutsily produced songs are full of catchy hooks and riffs.

“May and December” — Great 3 (2001): Pop/rock band Great 3′s fifth album is a stunningly beautiful collection with a unity few albums manage.

“Zen” — DJ Krush (2001): A chill-out classic whose tonal colors paint a powerful, sometimes disturbing picture of the fin-de-millennium world.

“Copy” — Syrup 16g (2001): A gem from Tokyo’s thriving Shimokitazwa indie-rock scene. Fantastic, soaring melodies and gutsy guitar.