Japan has a drug problem. Everywhere you look — from the creepy, teen-host-club pop of Sexy Zone to the soft-rock balladry of Ikimono Gakari — children are being exposed to music that has been made with no obvious influence from drugs whatsoever.
The music industry clearly likes it this way. The recent arrest of Aska from Chage and Aska, who pop fans might remember from history class at school, was followed as these things always are by the swift removal of all his records from CD shops, and by the immediate leap of the duo’s hit “Say Yeah” to the top of the iTunes chart.
Aska, whose real name is Shigeaki Miyazaki, was allegedly found in possession of MDMA. However, the majority of drug arrests in Japan are still for methamphetamines. Japan has a long history with meth; the drug was invented by Japanese chemist Nagayoshi Nagai in 1893. It was used during the war by servicemen, factory workers who needed to remain alert through long shifts and by citizens to stave off hunger. It stuck around during postwar reconstruction under the brand name Philopon.
Amphetamines were implicated in the 2009 arrest of former pop star Noriko Sakai, but apart from the question of what links drugs and 1980s pop singers from Fukuoka, what do these incidents really tell us?
One argument in favor of looser attitudes toward narcotics was memorably articulated by U.S. comedian Bill Hicks when he said, “If you don’t believe drugs have done good things for us, do me a favor: Go home tonight, take all your albums, all your tapes and all your CDs — and burn them.”
But the music of Aska or Sakai doesn’t reveal a burning creative talent unleashed by the mind-expanding qualities of drugs. The 1999 arrest of songwriter Noriyuki Makihara (amphetamines again) is more interesting, though, because while his music is just as dreary as anything else on the charts (he wrote SMAP’s insipid megahit “Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana” ["The Only Flower in the World"]), the arrest cast new light on the fairy-tale lyrics to his song “Hungry Spider.”
Fairy-tale imagery holds an honorable place in the annals of psychedelic-rock history, of course, particularly in the 1960s subgenre known as “toytown psychedelia” of which bands such as Kaleidoscope and The Idle Race were prominent purveyors.
But Makihara’s “Hungry Spider” is no Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play,” and were it not for Makihara’s subsequent arrest, the track wouldn’t have stood out in any way from numerous other late ’90s Japanese middle-of-the-road pop hits.
The 2009 arrest of Shigeru Suzuki of Happy End for possession of marijuana is perhaps the only high-profile drugs case in Japan where you might stroke your chin and say, “Oh yeah, that makes sense. . .” Happy End’s folk-inflected rock and Suzuki’s languid guitar at least sounds right in the context of a marijuana bust. Then again, Happy End’s last album was released more than 40 years ago.
The musical influence of drugs often comes down to the circumstances of the music’s creation or consumption. The Beatles’ dosed up on Preludin in order to get through their daunting Hamburg gig schedules. LSD might be a great drug for a weekend outdoor festival or for recording an album over the course of several months, but 12-hour acid trips tend to eat up your time (and recording budget). Ecstasy is associated with communal club experiences and has had a big influence on dance music. Marijuana’s disinhibiting effect on creativity can result in a freer flow of ideas for musicians or a heightened consciousness of different sounds for listeners.
On the other hand, most pop music in Japan is made for TV commercials so the industrial process by which music for mainstream consumption is made is simply not set up to handle the kind of music that could act as a vehicle for any drug-related influence. A “hit” typically begins with an ad agency choosing a singer as the vehicle for its new product. Next, potential songwriters receive an email with a list of YouTube links, which basically amounts to saying, “copy this.” They send in their songs and, if it gets chosen, a producer adds the singer’s voice and polishes the edges off. There’s little room to follow your muse — chemical or otherwise.
The result is that while Japan’s strict drug laws and hyperventilating official reaction to scandals such as Aska’s can seem over-the-top, any of the positive effects that drugs might have exerted on music were effectively crushed by far more mundane forces a long time ago.