The first thing you’re greeted with when walking into the gates of Rock In Japan Festival is a large sign with a list of rules titled, “7 Things Rock In Japan Wants to Tell You.”
Some of the list was fairly standard Japanese festival affair, and some was actually welcome: The festival asks audiences to not stake out viewing spots for acts, and the strict “no video” and “no photo” policy kept the number of smartphones up in the air while bands were playing to a minimum. Other rules, such as the “no tree climbing” and “no chemical lights or penlights” signs peppered throughout the site, were more questionable, along with a strictly enforced no diving or “dangerous acts” policy (I was told crowdsurfers get their wristbands cut and are removed from the festival).
The result is a very clean and organized festival, but perhaps at the cost of feeling at times like a bland, neutered experience. To cap it off, all music ends at around 9 p.m.; you have to pack up your tent and leave, even if you’re coming back the next day.
Some bands seemed genuinely upset about the festival’s anti-moshing rule. Punk band Kaisoku Tokyo, who played a blistering 20-song set on Saturday morning, told the audience, “Let’s have fun more freely. Saying ‘no’ is a fundamental of rock — not Rock In Japan.”
Another musician who expressed frustration was Kenji “Kj” Furuya, vocalist of rock band Dragon Ash, whose loud guitars and funk grooves courtesy of Rize bassist Ken-Ken proved to be a highlight, energizing the audience at the festival’s largest stage, the Grass Stage.
“Make a circle pit,” the charismatic singer told the audience. “This isn’t a dangerous act — it’s culture.” The remark seemed to rub off on the audience and other bands for the rest of the evening, with circle pits also happening during Maximum The Hormone’s and Crossfaith’s sets. Punk band Totalfat’s closing set on Sunday, which featured two Japanese taiko drummers, also ended with a massive circle pit.
Curated by music magazine Rockin’On, the popular festival held at Hitachi Seaside Park in Hitachinaka, Ibaraki Prefecture, has sold out every year since 2004, and this year was no exception. The festival, which celebrated its 15th anniversary this year, is focused on delivering the top pop acts of the country together, with artists such as Sekai no Owari, Shonan no Kaze, One OK Rock and Kaela Kimura being the more high-profile names this time around.
The smaller stages provided more intimate sets from a wide range of genres, which were for the most part hit or miss. Hip-hop/electronica duo group_inou played a fantastic, intense set midday on the Park Stage, as beatmaker Imai frantically controlled knobs and turntables while MC CP rapped and flailed across the stage. The performance was a stark contrast to the all-girl Harajuku band Silent Siren, whose squeaky voices and bubble-gum melodies made you wonder whose bright idea it was to put these two groups one after another on the same stage.
Female pop duo Puffy brought in a huge crowd to the Sound of Forest stage on Saturday and entertained with 1990s smash hits such as “Asia no Junshin.” Another ’90s act, The Brilliant Green, performed a stripped-down unplugged set Sunday afternoon. Singer Tomoko Kawase’s couldn’t-care-less attitude — she complained about the sun and forgot the lyrics to hit song “Hello Another Way” (“Please look them up online!” she joked) — contrasted with the singer’s transparent, angelic voice. The crowd didn’t seem to mind, though; her nonchalant vibe was refreshing after seeing artists throughout the day try to pump up their crowds with similar de-facto aggressive concert banter.
The absolute highlight of the two days, however, was pop singer Chara. It’s hard to believe the singer, who turned 46 this year, debuted almost 23 years ago.
“Is it OK if i absorb all these ultraviolet rays? I’m the oldest one here. Is mama alright?” she joked. Backed by Osaka hip-hoppers In-sist Band, she performed a breathtaking rendition of her 1997 hit, “Yasashii Kimochi” against the clear afternoon sky of Hitachinaka.
To say that Rock In Japan is a representation of the current Japanese music scene would be overselling it, as I was reminded by the Rockin’On booth I passed on my way out, which was selling current and back issues of the magazine. In a way, this is what the music scene, and the festival experience, should be, according to Rockin’On. On the other hand, experienced festival goers may be frustrated at the rigidity and homogenous nature of the whole thing. It’s a nice way to test the festival waters, but causing waves isn’t so bad now and then.
Rock In Japan Fes. 2014 continues next weekend in Hitachinaka, Ibaraki Pref., on Aug. 9 and 10. For more information, visit rijfes.jp.