Music

Japan's indie acts make an impact in New York without the help of 'Cool Japan'

by Ronald Taylor

Special To The Japan Times

Music industry extravaganza South by Southwest (SXSW) is over and, as always, some of the Japanese acts were able to make it to New York while they were in the country.

First up was Mitsume, performing at Pianos, a small venue on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The band’s dreamy set delighted fans, many of whom were young Japanese expatriates.

“They played very well, they were very tight,” says musician Paul Damon Thomas, who was at the show. “The bass player and the drummer were very together. I liked the countering melodies with the guitars. Very well orchestrated.”

It’s this kind of detailed feedback that bands like Mitsume say they can benefit from when they play overseas.

“American audiences react more emotionally than Japanese ones,” says Mitsume vocalist Moto Kawabe, “so playing in the U.S. gives us a better idea of what does and doesn’t work.”

Kawabe credits the Internet for facilitating the connections needed for Japanese acts to get gigs overseas. Upon hearing the words “Cool Japan,” however, he and the band seem to have never heard of it.

Cool Japan is the government-backed initiative to promote Japanese culture overseas. It has been met with its share of critics, author Haruki Murakami being one, and tends to favor anime and traditional culture over music and film.

Mitsume’s manager has heard of it, and pulled a sour face at its mention.

Over at Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory venue, beatboxer Reatmo performed alongside indie act Tempalay as part of Japan Nite. Those in the music scene know that Japan Nite organizer Audrey Kimura has done more for promoting Japanese indie music overseas than perhaps any one person in Japan. Many in the crowd here came via word of mouth, Jeffries Herrera brought his friend Shawn Solo, a fan of Japanese pop culture and punk, but neither of them had heard of Cool Japan.

Kimura was happy with the fact more Japanese acts are coming to SXSW, even if they aren’t doing it as a part of her long-running Japan Nite event. She says getting acts such as Suiyobi no Campanella and [Alexandros] to attend ends up spreading the festivals’ name in the Japanese media.

Furthermore, she says “there is no difference between Japanese ‘underground’ or ‘indie’ and ‘mainstream’ acts for SXSW. People just come to see some good, unexpected artists — not those who are famous in Japan.”

This idea of famous vs. good comes up a lot with Cool Japan. Japan Nite, which seems like it would be the ideal candidate for some support, is still off the government’s radar as far as Kimura knows. Osaka electronic musician Seiho, who’s in the middle of an American tour, would be happy if the government financially supported Japanese artists but stopped short of dictating what is considered “cool.”

“The government and companies think that because AKB48 and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu are huge in Japan, they’ll have big potential overseas, but they’re wrong,” he says. “They should shut up in regards to culture, but give money to artists to spread Japanese culture overseas naturally.”

It’s a strong statement but you just have to see Seiho, whose real name is Seiho Hayakawa, in action to understand that he knows what he’s talking about. He performed at Black Bear Bar in Brooklyn and was very in touch with the music he was playing, thrashing his long hair back and forth, and singing along to his tracks and dancing. The crowd, a diverse mix of young New Yorkers, got into it even more than he did.

He took two breaks during his set to do performance art pieces — true camera-phone fodder — and during the track “Pry,” he brought out New Jersey-based singer/rapper Ehiorobo, whose vocals feature on the track.

After the show, Seiho walked around the venue talking to audience members and posing for selfies with them. It’s this kind of accessibility, rather than the star power of Arashi or Namie Amuro, that may end up building more bridges between Japan and the rest of the world.

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