Hard-core vinyl fans are fueling a revival in obscure Japanese music from the 1980s

by

Special To The Japan Times

Fans of Japanese vinyl have good reason to be happy. HMV recently opened a store in the Kichijoji area dedicated to selling records — the third such establishment in Tokyo — and April 22 is Record Store Day. What started in 2012 as four artists putting out special releases has evolved into a day featuring rare items and numerous in-store performances.

Not reflected by any limited-edition 7″ or gigs, though, is a trend playing out on the other side of the world. Last month, Japanese artist Midori Takada’s 1983 album “Through the Looking Glass” was reissued by American label Palto Flats in conjunction with Switzerland’s WRWTFWW Records to much fanfare. But it was just the latest bubble-era rarity to be praised by critics: Last year, Amsterdam store Rush Hour launched a Japan-centric series of vinyl reissues, while the label Music From Memory reissued lush pop duo Dip In The Pool’s 1989 track “On Retinae.” Plenty of other albums relegated to record store bargain bins also found a second life, highlighted by Palto Flats’ 2015 rerelease of “Utakata no Hibi,” a sought-after LP by the group Mariah.

“I think it was the perfect storm, really,” says Palto Flats label runner Jacob Gorchov about the Mariah reissue. “It helped legitimize and actualize the high level of interest people around the world have in this music.”

For the immediate future — or until they run out of albums to re-press — this interest remains strong, with more reissues to come and buzzed-about American projects namechecking Japanese ambient artists from the ’80s. As Gorchov alluded to, a variety of factors came together at just the right time to give some well-deserved shine to seemingly forgotten artists, in the face of a vinyl boom on both sides of the Pacific.

“In 2013 a friend invited me to a Japanese music sales event in London,” recalls Chee Shimizu, owner of online used records store Organic Music and one of the most respected crate-diggers in Japan. “I realized the scene was getting a lot of attention.”

Shimizu, 45, knows that scene well. He has operated Organic Music since 2008 and in 2013 he wrote the book “Obscure Sound,” a guide to rare discs that he thinks helped spark interest in … well, obscure sounds. When we meet, he stresses that overseas interest in older domestic music has long been present, and that many of his musically inclined friends love getting hard-to-find records.

“Whenever I go to Europe, I meet up with my friends and I give them records as presents,” he says. “A few years ago, you could find that Mariah album at Disk Union for about ¥1,000. Back then, I didn’t even think that record was that significant.”

He helped artists such as Prins Thomas acquire copies of “Utakata,” who then put songs from it into mixes shared online, helping turn the record from virtual unknown to secret gem. Beyond Shimizu, the internet played a central role in spreading older Japanese sounds. Portland-based producer Spencer Doran’s 2010 mix “Fairlights, Mallets and Bamboo — Fourth-World Japan, Years 1980-1986” attracted attention, while Gorchov says YouTube’s “suggested” algorithm kept highlighting ’80s Japanese songs.

Data provided by online record marketplace Discogs shows 49,789 records from Japan have been purchased from the U.S. over the past five years. This increase in vinyl sales has presented new opportunities; walk into any of the HMV record-centric stores in Tokyo and you’ll be greeted by stacks of reissued Japanese jazz and city pop albums. Big releases in their heydays, these albums are enjoying a second life as a physical luxury next to wax editions of contemporary J-pop. It mirrors the state of renewed interest in records abroad, where a trip to clothes outlet Urban Outfitters reveals shelves stocked with Drake and Taylor Swift LPs.

“The chief director (of HMV) was interested in doing more than just regular Japanese jazz and rock. He wanted to do more obscure records,” Shimizu says. He came on board for a special imprint called Japanism, with the expressed intent of highlighting rarer albums. That partnership also led to a connection with Nippon Columbia, resulting in the compilation “More Better Days,” a two-disc collection of rare music from the now-defunct label Better Days.

“I wanted to reissue whole albums, but there wasn’t enough appeal for mass attention. But when I wanted to do a compilation, it had much more appeal,” Shimizu says. The first disc of the compilation leans heavily on the experimental side of ’80s Japanese music (Mariah, Ryuichi Sakamoto, among others), while the second disc gravitates toward funk.

“Sales-wise, and impact-wise, disc one had much more success,” Shimizu says. “That’s one of the problems with Japan’s market — the retail industry doesn’t have an established exporting system. HMV deals with the domestic market, so they just focus here. To export Japanese music, I had to do it myself via my company. The reality is, I get much more response from overseas.”

The best example of what Shimizu describes is, once again, “Utakata.” Nippon Columbia actually reissued the rare album in 2009 on CD, but it received little attention at home. Yet Palto Flats’ 2015 vinyl edition earned widespread attention in the West, including a high score from the critics at Pitchfork Media and surprisingly robust sales.

“I don’t think I expected that the album would burst onto the scene like that. We didn’t press enough copies to start! But we were able to get more into circulation fairly quickly,” Gorchov says.

Recently, interest in “Utakata,” “Through The Looking Glass” and more ’80s Japanese albums has been spurred by a revival of ambient and new age music in the West, according to Shimizu.

“The fans getting into this aren’t traditionally contemporary music fans, but rather dance music fans focusing on the next phase of music,” he says. “Midori’s album, for example, it fuses rock and experimental.” One of the most buzzed-about U.S. acts of the year, Portland’s Visible Cloaks (featuring the aforementioned Doran), cites ’80s Japanese music in nearly every interview they do, while this year’s “Reassemblage” features Dip In The Pool’s Miyako Koda on one song. Shimizu and Gorchov both say that even Japanese labels are picking up on this trend abroad, and are starting to look that way.

Regardless of what happens next, one group that has been especially touched by the renewed interest are the artists themselves.

“The artists are very supportive of this movement,” Shimizu says. “In a way, they never became big back when they first released this music. In their minds, people finally get them now.”

Check out Organic Music at www.organicmusic.jp. Chee Shimizu’s latest release, “Music From Memory Compiled by Chee Shimizu,” is out now. He’ll DJ an event headlined by Gigi Masin at Shibuya WWW on April 18. For more information, visit www-shibuya.jp.