Steven Tanaka has a secret. The vibrant live-house scenes of Tokyo’s Koenji and Shimokitazawa neighborhoods hold a special place in his heart, and since last year he has been spending vast sums to take some of that energy to Canada — just don’t tell his parents.
Prior to dabbling in do-it-yourself music promotion, Tanaka, 37, had been a student for most of his life — at least as long as it takes to become a practicing anesthesiologist — and he didn’t have the time or the spare cash to vacation in Tokyo.
Though born to Japanese parents in Vancouver, British Columbia, Tanaka says he never really listened to Japanese music growing up. He had his own stereotypes of what the bands were like — overly dramatic Visual-kei and mediocre J-pop. That changed when he came to Japan for the first time and went to some smaller shows.
“It actually came as a shock to me that Tokyo had a scene similar to the punk and hardcore (scenes) in Washington, D.C., or New York. I fell in love with it,” Tanaka says. “I always had so much fun going to shows in Tokyo, and I just thought, ‘Man, I wish people in Canada could experience this as well.’ “
That desire to take some of the best qualities of Tokyo’s independent music scene to Canada led Tanaka to come up with the Next Music From Tokyo (NMFT) idea. Since 2010, he has been organizing and promoting the six-day tour; paying out of his own pocket to fly his favorite bands across Canada. Logistically, it’s quite a feat. He says it’s also a painstaking process to choose bands who are both deserving and talented enough to appeal to a North American audience. Speaking to The Japan Times from his current home in Toronto, Tanaka was making the final preparations for NMFT Vol. 3, which hits Montreal on Oct. 13 and 14, Toronto on Oct. 15 and 16, and Vancouver on Oct. 18.
It was a couple of carnival-like nights experiencing the charisma and eclecticism of the scene first-hand that sparked Tanaka’s passion. In late 2009 at the University of Tokyo, the punk-veteran-curated Tokyo Boredom music festival inspired him to act.
“They were bringing together musicians from all over Japan,” Tanaka says. “There was an unbelievable energy and camaraderie, and it was one of the best shows I’d been to in my life. They somehow dissolved any kind of hierarchy or barrier between the musicians and the audience.”
Tanaka had thought about organizing a tour before, though not seriously. But after attending Tokyo Boredom, he began to think he could pull it off. So with some hard work, major sacrifice of his free time, and no small thought toward his finances, the NMFT tour was born.
For Tanaka, it’s a chance to be a true fan. He gets to “hang out, travel and have fun with the bands” he likes. More importantly, though, he says he enjoys seeing the bands’ reactions. “I love how ecstatic they get from the responses of the Canadian crowds.”
Musically as well as culturally, Tanaka believes the overseas press tend to propagate stereotypes of “bizarre Japan.” If people are fans of anime (which he admits was his gateway into Japanese music as a kid), they tend to be exposed to the image-obsessed theatrics of Visual-kei. Often, knowledge of Japan’s vibrant underground scene is hard to come by. Canadian people, according to Tanaka, are also more likely to think of traditional music such as enka or taiko drumming when it comes to Japan. The goal of the NMFT tours is to promote bands that have a more conventional indie sound, which could arguably mean ones that could appeal to a broader Western audience; NMFT avoids showcasing acts that rely solely on gimmicks or image.
Tanaka says NMFT provides more diversity to the Canadian music scene, especially with regards to mainstream rock.
“You could put some mannequins on stage and just play their music sometimes. You could really be watching anyone,” Tanaka says of some Canadian bands. “Even those with superb studio recordings could give more effort to their live shows. I sometimes wish they would bond more with the audience, and produce music that is more from the heart.
“I want to show (Canadian audiences) that there’s something about the bands in Tokyo that has more of a freshness, or willingness to think outside the box and do new things.”
Tanaka really wants to introduce this scene to people who have “fresh ears.” So-called Japanophiles may form part of the audience, but he really doesn’t want the event to cater only to them. Ideally, he sees people who have never been exposed to Japanese music getting the most out of NMFT.
“I am going to lose tens of thousands of dollars. Basically, I’m donating my money. I don’t want my family to freak out — they are fine with me doing this tour — but they assume that the bands are paying their own way. So, I’ve kept that from them.”
In fact, not thinking they’d take it so well, Tanaka completely hid the second event from his parents in October of last year. But the project is too important to worry about that, he says. He’s doing it for a good cause “whether they see it that way or not.”
Despite the pressures of planning an international tour — and the added stress of keeping parts of it a secret — Tanaka has the time of his life on the nights. Taking the lead in “riling up the crowd” means he has a couple of bruises from stage diving, but definitely no regrets.
“I don’t know if I’ve achieved much in terms of cultivating more recognition for Japanese indie or underground music, but I’m working on it,” he says. “Hopefully, slowly more fans will develop.”