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Wrapping up a musical trip across Japan

by Ian Martin

Special To The Japan Times

When I first embarked on my attempt to visit every prefecture in Japan and learn about the local indie music scene in each one, the idea that I would be able to draw any meaningful generalizations from the adventure seemed ludicrous. The music scene of Tokyo alone is an incomprehensible mess, so how would I even begin to sort through an entire country’s worth of information and find any sort of clear story?

Nevertheless, as time went by and the hills, highways and housing developments flickered past, I would be lying if I said that places didn’t start to feel the same. While each city certainly has its quirks, patterns nevertheless emerged. A population of 300,000 to 700,000 will tend to support three or four dedicated live venues and a handful of oddball cafes, shops and arts spaces that occasionally put on music events, from the gorgeous Shofukuji Temple in Niigata to the newly built riverside space Nu in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture. In these smaller live environments, artists will usually be thrust together with little regard for genre or style; a population of a million or more is usually required before a scene can fragment enough to cater in a dedicated way to more niche tastes.

The sound of major label J-rock bands such as Back Number and the emo-rock-esque One OK Rock dominates the small towns of Japan, with the alternative fringes defined by the influence of Rockin’ On magazine. For someone who finds the greatest delight in the abrasive squalls of the arty underground, this homogeneity is depressing, but it’s an inevitable result of both too much and too little information. The internet has given everyone access to more info than they can usefully use, but an increasingly narrow mainstream now seems to dominate those channels. Regional oddities born from happy misunderstandings appear to be in decline.

Another common pattern when traveling Japan is that wherever you go, whoever you speak to, everyone thinks their local music scene is in a uniquely bad state right now. Partly, this may be the result of the diminishing role of record stores and the aging of rock audiences as young people’s tastes shift. It may also have something to do with the fraying at the edges of Japan’s creaky pay-to-play live music environment, again driven largely by young people’s flight from rock.

Rumors of the music scene’s demise are greatly exaggerated, though. Certainly in big cities like Sapporo and Sendai in the east, or Osaka and Fukuoka in the west, there is a breathtaking range of wild, wonderful and just plain weird music — with the ferocious post-hardcore of Fukushima’s Rebel One Excalibur at one extreme and the fragile, naive, offbeat pop of Fukuoka’s Sonotanotanpenz at the other.

In smaller towns, it is the efforts of local organizers, often battling against all odds, that are the most inspiring feature. In a small music scene, one person can have a huge influence, but maintaining the energy and enthusiasm — not just in themselves but also in the musicians and audience around them — is exhausting. These rural scene faces are the real heroes and the true stars of the Japanese music world, keeping music alive where Tower Records and “Big PR” can’t reach. There should be a national holiday dedicated to them and equestrian statues erected in their honor.

The big moves in the music industry at the moment are not being driven by local music scenes but by streaming services, which are finally starting to break through here after years of resistance from major labels. The inroads services such as Apple Music are making continues a trend away from physical and toward virtual media, which gives artists the opportunity to reach ever wider audiences, but also serves to divorce music still further from its physical roots.

Against this backdrop, the struggles of a math rock act in Iwate, a cassette label in Ishikawa, a university band circle in Tokushima or an indie record store in Tottori seem almost quaint, old-fashioned concerns. Each of these struggles represents the umbilical link that connects music to the real places and lives of the artists, as well as the incubation process by which new things are made.

The same patterns may be repeated throughout the country, but the particular local nature of these patterns and struggles is what makes them unique. In a world where uniqueness is a rare quality, that makes them precious.

Read more about Ian Martin’s travels at www.burnyourhometown.wordpress.com.