Finding music in Japan can be a nightmare, and the live-music scene in particular is notoriously difficult to penetrate. Tucked away in the basements and upper floors of anonymous buildings, often in seedy parts of town, where the neighbors will be less likely to raise complaints against noise and loitering, with websites that update schedules only a few days before the actual events and that rarely link to any of the artists performing, live venues are like a hidden world open only to those who know the secret handshake.
Leaving this weekend’s Punkspring to the kids, Japan’s actual punk scene is a hidden world within a hidden world. Events often hop from venue to venue depending on where organizers can get the best deals, or they take place in cramped, sweaty rehearsal studios. However, punks can also be extremely loyal once they find a place they feel at home, and most towns in Japan have one or two venues — the walls plastered with black and white photocopied posters, the smell of beer, sweat and years of dust soaked into the walls and floor — that can be relied on to have regular punk shows.
In Tokyo, there are plenty of excellent punk venues, such as Moon Step in Nakano, but Shinjuku is the undisputed core of the scene. It was at Shinjuku Loft in the late 1970s that punk kicked off in Japan in earnest, and while Loft has now changed its location and diversified its sound, venues such as Antiknock, Urga, EarthDom in neighboring Shin-Okubo and Wall in nearby Hatsudai are regularly throbbing to the lowlife sounds of the current generation of Tokyo rockers.
The 2000s were difficult years in some ways for the Tokyo punk scene, with the city losing two of its finest venues, Nishi-Ogikubo Watts and Koenji 20000V, the latter after a fire gutted the upper floors of the building it was in. Punks are nothing if not resilient, though, and the owner of Watts re-emerged with Zone B in Waseda, and 20000V resurrected itself in a new location under the name Ni-man Den-atsu.
Moving outside Tokyo, the general rule seems the be that a population of about 1 million is needed to support a single dedicated punk venue. In Nagoya, Huck Finn, Sonset Strip and Upset are popular with the punk crowd; while in Osaka King Cobra and Sengoku Daitoryo are the places to be. Osaka also boasts the legendary Namba Bears, which caters to a more avant-garde scene. In nearby Kyoto, there are often punk shows at Socrates, and just to the west in Kobe there is Helluva Lounge. Meanwhile, to the northeast, Sapporo Counter Action and Sendai Birdland play host to their local noisemakers.
At the opposite end of the country, Fukuoka has an important historical role as the home to the proto-punk “mentai rock” scene centred around bands such as Sonhouse and Sheena & The Rokkets. Public Space Yojigen is home to the modern day descendants of those garage-punk rock’ n’ roll pioneers, while nearby in the same Oyafuko-dori area of the city’s Tenjin shopping district lies Kieth Flack, beloved of the spiky-hair-and-safety-pins crowd. Traveling deeper into Kyushu, in Kagoshima it sometimes seems like every musician in town is in a punk or hardcore band, with the dark, forbidding back room of local bar Word Up the place to be.
For the dedicated gig-hunter looking for a good show, the best way to find new bands is still simply to follow the artists you like and check out who they play with, but for those looking to absorb the culture as well as the music, there’s no substitute for punk in its natural environment.