Music | STRANGE BOUTIQUE

Without a canon, Japanese pop won't blast off

by Ian Martin

Special To The Japan Times

Exploring the world of Japanese music can be a baffling experience for those who don’t speak the language.

Where do you start if you’re new to the scene? Entry points are fragmented at best, woefully uninformed much of the time and actively damaging at worst. Attempts to promote and release Japanese artists have been consistently forced through the distorting lens of anime fandom; mainstream media coverage is inevitably filtered through hackneyed “wacky Japan” editorial biases; and the blogosphere is overrepresented by the shrill clamor of idol enthusiasts, filled out with a handful of specialist sites devoted to particular scenes. Each of these outlets contains a piece of the true picture, but all together they tell us nothing.

But why does music alone seem to suffer from this institutional tilt toward obfuscation? Bring up the subject of Japanese literature and people will instantly start reaching for names such as Natsume Soseki, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Osamu Dazai, Murasaki Shikibu, Yukio Mishima and Haruki Murakami. Mention cinema and Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, Masaki Kobayashi, Yasujiro Ozu and Nagisa Oshima are well-known and regarded, while there is increasing consensus over a number of important recent and contemporary directors. Talk about anime or manga and the chances are that in those fields, also, a handful of names will reappear on many people’s lists.

What these art forms have that Japan’s music world lacks is a canon: a central corpus of work widely agreed upon as important. A canon would provide an entry point to anyone looking to start their exploration of an alien artistic world and a context in which to begin to understand new works they encounter.

One of the problems is that Japan itself hadn’t really started trying to work out what Japanese music actually was until comparatively recently. Critics’ and readers’ lists of the “Top 100 Albums of All Time” and suchlike are the staple of British and American music magazines, and while they can be annoying at times, they’ve helped reinforce a loose narrative of rock history with key bands in each generation and genre that can give casual fans an overview and context, which will help them understand the discussion of Anglo-American pop and rock.

However, the first time anyone really tried this here was in 2007 when Rolling Stone Japan published its list of the 100 best Japanese albums of all time. The now defunct Snoozer magazine followed up with its own rival list of 150 albums. The rest of the music press never really took up the baton, though, so it has been left to books and mooks (hybrid magazine-books) to carry on the work, where they can publish critical rankings free from record company pressure or retribution.

While Rolling Stone’s list errs more toward 1970s golden oldies such as Happy End and Eikichi Yazawa, and Snoozer gives more prominence to ’80s new wave and ’90s indie and Shibuya-kei, you can nevertheless see patterns emerge from the lists. RC Succession, Cornelius, Fishmans, The Blue Hearts, Friction, Yumi Arai, Jun Togawa and the Boredoms, among others, come out as safe bets from both rankings.

This kind of enterprise is perhaps even more necessary in English, where the unspoken collective consciousness born from this music permeating down through culture over the years simply doesn’t exist.

For one thing, English-language blogs and forums devoted to Japanese music often seem to shy away from too much criticism in their approach to coverage, instead devoting themselves to simply acting as cheerleaders for their favorite stars — perhaps for fear of upsetting the apple cart of consensus within a fairly introverted fan community. Many fans also naturally object to the imposition of a corpus of classic rock texts from on high, but when most of Japanese music’s corner of the English-language blogosphere is just the translation and regurgitation of major-label press releases, that position seems less defensible.

The whole point of having such a popular-music canon out there is that it’s a mutable thing, subject to constant disagreement, alteration and updating as newly discovered greats come to light and fresh classics are forged. Different interest groups will have their own core works and there will never be full agreement, but, over time, the same albums will start coming up again and again, and out of that, an outsider will gradually be able to grasp a loose, general outline of Japanese rock and pop.

To make a start, one place worth looking is Michael Bourdagh’s book “Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon” (named after the Happy End song), which does a valuable job of chronicling and contextualizing the development of popular music in Japan up to the emergence of J-pop in the 1990s. However, as its subtitle, “A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop” suggests, Bourdagh’s book is an academic text and doesn’t pretend to provide any real critical assessment of the music.

Compared to just 10 years ago, there is more information on Japanese music available in English via a handful of books. In addition to Bourdagh’s offering, there are more specialist tomes such as Julian Cope’s hilarious if notoriously unreliable history of ’70s underground rock “Japrocksampler” and David Novak’s dense, academic “Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation.”

There are promoters of varying sizes trying to bring Japanese music to English-speaking audiences, and journalists and bloggers chipping away at the lonely, herculean task of bringing the best the country has to offer into the light. However, until there is some sort of collectively established canon, Japanese music will always remain mired in obscurity, its promotion and media coverage channeled down the route of gimmickry, and to all but the most dedicated new acolytes simply not worth the bother. All of this, of course, needs to go hand in hand with the availability of the music itself, which often remains jealously guarded by its labels. Here again, having some sort of widely agreed-upon corpus of Japanese pop and rock classics might provide the impetus these labels need to start releasing the nation’s hidden greats into the world.