I have been traveling around the country since September meeting people involved in different independent music scenes in such places as Hokkaido, and Iwate and Saitama prefectures. After taking a break over winter, I resumed my travels this month and headed to the contrasting environments of icy Ishikawa Prefecture and sunny Okinawa.
The person I was most keen to meet in Ishikawa’s capital of Kanazawa was a local event organizer and musician who goes by the name Asuna. For the past six years, he has devoted himself to creating a series of mini-CD compilations, each featuring 21 tracks that are a minute in length and recorded using vintage Casiotone synthesizers.
Currently on volume six, the Casiotone compilations include artists from Ishikawa and its neighboring prefectures, as well as some from elsewhere in Japan and overseas. The project has an eye-wateringly specific focus, and Asuna insists on only working with musicians he has met in person and played alongside.
One effect of this is to place more emphasis on the location in which the music is made — when a musician has had to cross an ocean for an encounter, the meaning of each party’s point of origin takes on greater significance.
Another related effect is to place Asuna’s role as curator of the series far more at the center. These are not simply songs of a certain length made with a certain type of instrument: They emerged from real encounters that one man had with all the participants in specific places. From one track to another that might not feel particularly significant, but it gradually makes the series more intimate and unified.
The sense of place in music is something Asuna believes is being lost.
“Local musicians used to have more of their own style,” he says. “It was difficult to find information on Tokyo underground music and through the misunderstandings that caused something original would emerge. Since the Internet, it’s easy to find things on YouTube and, as a result, local music just sounds the same as what they’re doing in Tokyo.”
While there’s some truth in this, it’s only part of the picture. Asuna works out of a communal arts center in a disused bank, incorporating a large live hall, smaller acoustic performance space, dance studio, and art and design workspaces. Spaces like this are not as readily available to independent musicians in Tokyo, and they encourage a way of thinking about music and art that is very different to the capital’s typical pay-to-play model, where bands need to guarantee a certain number of paying customers to perform at a venue.
Environment is more than just infrastructure, though, and while Okinawa hosts the same broad range of genres as any similarly sized Japanese city, music visibly occupies a different place in the city’s urban consciousness.
Okinawa’s climate makes going out a far more inviting prospect, which surely has an impact on Naha’s nightlife, including its music scene. The island’s own traditional minyō (folk music) is a prominent part of both its tourist branding and regional identity, while the influence of the U.S. military on the local economy seems to linger in the profusion of jazz bars. Live music in Tokyo hides itself away for fear of upsetting the neighbors, but signs all over Naha proudly advertise it. Many places advertising themselves as “live houses” turn out on closer inspection to be restaurants with live bands — a move that would be commercial suicide for any self-respecting Tokyo eatery.
Nonetheless, a sort of national indie homogeneity is also at work in Naha, with local live hot spot Output every bit the gloriously dingy basement any Tokyo musician would recognize — its walls plastered with posters advertising visiting artists from the capital. The climate may attract many musicians to settle in Naha, and the music-friendly tourism branding certainly benefits musicians who can play restaurants and hotels. However, even successful acts like local heroes Maltese Rock say regular rock bands find it difficult to break even financially.
In some ways, perhaps, the main difference a sunnier climate brings is that the dive bars now have bigger cockroaches.
Read more about Ian Martin’s travels around Japan on his website at www.burnyourhometown.wordpress.com.