Japan’s indie acts need to break domestic scene’s ‘glass ceiling’


There’s a feeling in the air these days, not least on these pages, that Japan is becoming more culturally insular. Japanese video games are losing out to South Korea and the West in the race to explore the online frontier; animation, once the standard-bearer of “cool Japan,” has retreated into a self-congratulatory onanistic frenzy of recycled cliches and geeky in-jokes; and foreign artists are making up an ever-declining percentage of Japanese music sales.

Despite this, however, there remains a strong desire among Japanese musicians for recognition abroad. One band attempting to give it a go is Tokyo-based rock/postpunk band Praha Depart, who plan, in true do-it-yourself style, to fly out to New York on their own initiative (and at at their own expense) and stamp their mark on the Big Apple.

Guitarist Tsukasa Kameya explains, “The U.S. alternative scene seems still to be very active. Whether it’s good or not, I think that depends a lot on your opinion. But for musicians of our generation, bands such as Blonde Redhead, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Kills were a big influence when we were starting up.”

So, aside from either relocating wholesale to Europe or America or trading in their credibility for a maid uniform and a series of excruciating anime convention gigs, how does a young Japanese band get themselves across the Pacific?

The first thing to consider must surely be the hard work and huge commitment it requires. One of the main things that stops Japanese bands from making a concerted effort abroad is the amount of time it takes. The band Melt Banana are popular in large part because they give over several months a year to touring. For a typical Tokyo indie band whose members’ “day jobs” provide perhaps only 10 to 12 days off, that’s impossible.

When Praha Depart vocalist Mai Yano visited America before, she was surprised to see that bands would spend three months each year touring. “In Japan most jobs just won’t let you do that. So if we’re going to be serious, we’ll have to make massive changes to our lifestyle.”

A notable overseas success story is Buffalo Daughter, whose turntablist MoOoG Yamamoto believes bands looking to tour abroad shouldn’t rush. “Take it step by step,” he advises. “Establish yourself in Japan first, and then take yourself forward one step at a time. Keep doing that and work hard, and eventually you might see some reward.”

Of course in Buffalo Daughter’s case, they also benefited from the patronage of The Beastie Boys, who signed them to their Grand Royal label. Similarly, Shonen Knife’s early success in the United States had a lot to do with Nirvana’s endorsement, while the Boredoms and Afrirampo owe a similar debt to Sonic Youth. Clearly it’s also important that a band be as well connected as possible.

The problem is that the music industry isn’t what it was in the 1990s. The “Shibuya-kei” independent-music boom that reigned supreme at the time Buffalo Daughter started out has long burned out, and bands eager for success say they hit a glass ceiling that blocks progress beyond the usual pay-to-play dive circuit, guarded by the likes of Space Shower TV and Rockin’ On Japan magazine. It’s not a romantic vision of America that drives bands to look abroad so much as frustration and disappointment with the way the domestic music scene is run.

“When I visited New York, I know this is going to sound really bad, but the bands I saw really weren’t that good,” says Yano. “I felt the distance between the best and worst music in America was much wider than here.

“In Japan, even the worst bands are good at playing and performing,” she continues. “I’m very proud of Japanese musicians, but I’m not proud of the music scene here. We’ve seen so many bands fall apart in our time because you get stuck in a rut so quickly. Music is being killed by boredom. We need to break out of that cycle and force ourselves to move on.”

Kim from jazz/hip-hop duo Uhnellys, who have played in Britain, France, Singapore, Canada and Australia, cites the prime benefit of his band’s touring abroad as being that, “It gave us confidence, guts.”

In the end, Uhnellys’ experience offers some hope to bands like Praha Depart as they prepare to embark on their first gigs on foreign soil, and Kim is positive about the prospects for those willing to put in the time and effort. “You should go to the country you want and just play gigs,” he states. “Once you start doing that, your world and your network will really quickly start to spread. It really isn’t that difficult.”