It’s 6 a.m. and the tiny studio is crammed full of people and reeks of sweat. An ear-splitting punk trio do their best to blast the ceiling off and a woman wrapped in nothing but a bit of Duct tape careers around the room, shrieking into a microphone. The crowd howls for more, begging the band to inflict even more damage on their eardrums. The band obliges.
On the one hand, the scene is pure and unrestrained youthful rejection of the traditional social structures that define much of Japanese public life, but beneath the surface there’s a hierarchy that even the most conservative fossil in Nagatacho can understand.
This gig is a valedictory performance for a band called Saba, graduating senior members of Meiji Gakuin University’s Genon band circle, and the event is infused with a social dynamic based on sempai (seniors) and kohai (juniors). The people squeezed into that tiny room aren’t just fans, they’re also diligent, dedicated kohai, paying respect to departing sempai.
For an outsider, there’s something a bit uncomfortable about it. Musician and writer/blogger Ryotaro Aoki was schooled in the United States and returned to Japan to attend Waseda University, where he started playing music.
“Of course I’m Japanese, so I understood social structures like this,” explains Aoki, “but it felt really strange to see it so strong in alternative-music circles. You’d think music would be the place least likely to be hung up on something like seniority.”
Genon circle member Nobuki Akiyama, vocalist from the bands DYGL (“Day-glo”) and Ykiki Beat, takes it even further.
“It’s very direct to say it like this,” says Akiyama, “but I think it’s right to say that people would respect a band who sucks, just because they were older.”
That said, Meiji Gakuin has produced a lot of outstanding bands, from the harsh art-noise of Gagakirise to Akiyama’s own melodic guitar pop and soul-influenced bands, taking in the 1960s-influenced garage punk of Puffyshoes and the angular postpunk of Kyu-shoku. Across Tokyo, universities and band circles are a breeding ground for new musical talent, and in fact the sempai-kohai dynamic can also help avoid the sort of backbiting that can accompany music-scene politics by enforcing a more mutually supportive atmosphere. Sempai are usually obliged to look out for and guide their kohai, while kohai repay them with loyalty.
However, one danger that comes from this unquestioning respect for elders is that it could lead to the stifling of new or contrary ideas in young bands, who end up mimicking their seniors.
“It’s quite a hard-core band circle,” explains Akiyama’s band mate, drummer Kohei Kamoto. “Seeing bands like Coros, we were really impressed and thought, ‘Yeah, we wanna make music like them!’ But in the end it didn’t work out like that. From one grade to another, there are differences in taste.”
Once a band leaves the confines of its circle, however, it is met with a different world. The sempai-kohai dynamic remains an influence though. While bands usually profess not to be bothered about where they play on a bill, organizers will nevertheless take into consideration the relative seniority of bands when deciding who plays first. This slow-burning “do-your-time-and-climb-the-ladder” attitude often leaves indie record labels ill-equipped to capitalize on sudden rushes of popularity for young bands as they concentrate promotional activities on their older artists.
Positioning at the tables in after-concert drinking sessions often reflects levels of seniority among participants, too, an element of the culture that has been around since the ’70s and ’80s.
“You would see it in local scenes especially,” says Koichi Makigami of new wave and experimental pioneers Hikashu. “In Kyushu, Sheena & the Rokkets were very much the local scene’s sempai. In the ’70s Yuya Uchida (of Flower Travellin’ Band) was the ‘big boss': I met him when I was 18 and he was really scary. He treated us well, and said ‘Hikashu is a really good band, like The Mothers of Invention,’ so he obviously understood our music, but he definitely had that attitude.”
There is a difference between respect for an artist’s musical achievements and their seniority, and Makigami, now in his 50s, would much prefer to be respected for the former. While good music undoubtedly still finds a way out, it’s hard not to view the sempai-kohai dynamic as outdated at best and insulting to the more tangible talents and achievements of artists at worst.