A chart-topper for J-Pop fans


Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop by Michael K. Bourdaghs. Columbia University Press, New York, 2012, 304 pp., $27.50 (paperback)

Michael K. Bourdaghs, the author of “Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: a Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop,” admits in the introduction he has “no formal training in musicology or ethnomusicology,” but don’t dismiss this work of true scholarship.

Bourdaghs, an associate professor of modern Japanese literature at the University of Chicago, instead synthesizes his training in literary criticism and area studies, thus redefining the creative boundaries of academia. With this lively and fascinating narrative of post-World War II Japan’s musical struggle to maintain its national identity against the inevitable encroachment of Western influences, Bourdaghs mounts an engaging and supported frame of modern Japanese cultural history.

Bourdaghs traces the careers of six major groups of artists — starting from the war and continuing until 1991, when Japanese popular music or J-pop moved “in multiple directions, undergoing a range of transformations,” making it “harder to collapse into a coherent historical narrative.” Bourdaghs’ historical narrative of Japan starts with Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, 1945 — and with famed film director Akira Kurosawa.

According to Bourdaghs, “music would provide Kurosawa with one of his most powerful tools.” Artistically, Kurosawa expressed newfound creative liberty after years of combat with Japanese military censors. His films and accompanying scores would contrast two other musical artists who straddled war and peace: Ryoichi Hattori and Shizuko Kasagi, both heavily influenced by Western music. In this first chapter, Bourdaghs thus connects music with various aspects of culture, society and struggle, reflecting postwar Japan’s divided feelings on the occupation.

This cultural framework to Bourdaghs’ narrative strengthens as he moves on to discuss Hibari Misora, the Japanese legendary Queen of Enka. Misora, who started her career by copying Kasagi and Western boogie-woogie hits, forged her own identity later as an upholder of traditional Japan. Bourdaghs explains, “No other single person so fully embodies the entirety of postwar Japanese song … the pleasures that the Cold War opened up for Japanese music lovers, as well as those that it closed off.”

Japanese rockabilly, the ’60s surge of “Group Sounds” by bands like the “Tigers” or the “Tempters” rolling into ’70s Japanese Rock with “Happy End” and Yumi Arai: Bourdaghs further uses music as a lens to capture Japanese society during the Cold War. The Japan Red Army militants in the Asama Incident, the Tokyo Olympics, the increasing pervasion of “American cultural hegemony,” Bourdaghs cleverly allows the music he analyzes to soundtrack historical events.

The last chapter, “Coda” briefly explains the “dramatic shifts” in the geopolitical environment of 21st-century Japan and the “political mapping” of popular music world-wide. Bourdaghs provides connections to modern J-Pop (and by extension, K-Pop and C-Pop) and updates the reader on the musicians and musical styles in current Japan, particularly articulating the rise of Okinawan music as a subculture of Japanese music. By the time the books ends, with an introduction to contemporary singer and songwriter Ringo Shiina, the major growth and struggles of modern Japan have been perfectly harmonized with her music.

Stylistically, Bourdaghs’ work beats consistently up-tempo, direct, clear prose revealing his nearly 35 year engagement with Japan. Bourdaghs’ analysis reads quickly yet fully covers an important historical span of modern Japan. With the Japanese translation to be in published in June by Byakuya Shobo Publishers, Bourdaghs’ work will soon be heard by Japanese audiences as well. For music, history, or cultural fans of contemporary Japan, this book is a chart-topper.