“Let’s not put politics into music.”
This seemingly innocent phrase rose to prominence in June as a lightning rod for social media protest against the appearance of student political leader Aki Okuda at the Fuji Rock music festival. It also taps into a popular sentiment among Japanese people about how the spheres of entertainment and politics should — or shouldn’t — interact.
Despite the line’s popularity, however, music and politics in Japan have rarely been closer. From the government’s use of AKB48 member Haruka Shimazaki in a military recruitment advertising campaign to its funding of pop culture as a form of “soft power” through initiatives like Cool Japan, music has been used by the establishment to advance various goals. Meanwhile, movements from the anti-nuclear protests to Okuda’s SEALDs student group have used music to grab attention and rally support for their causes.
The role of music in the post-Fukushima anti-nuclear movement is illuminated in fascinating detail by U.S.-based academic Noriko Manabe in her book “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Protest Music After Fukushima.”
Arriving in academia via a background as a financial analyst, Manabe tends to look instinctively for the economic and structural factors that influence music — in particular how the commercial power of advertising and TV is used to silence artists. Meeting at a cafe in Shibuya, she remarks on how in the aftermath of composer Ryuichi Sakamoto’s role in the anti-nuclear movement, “His appearances on prime-time TV were cut back substantially, according to Oricon.”
Meanwhile, a group like Asian Kung-Fu Generation, whose vocalist Masafumi “Gotch” Goto is outspoken on a number of issues must draw a careful line between its musical and political activities.
“He toes the line in his music but says anything he wants on his blog because he has that star power and he can get away with doing that,” Manabe explains. “In fact, he’s had to disentangle his personal blog from the Asian Kung-Fu Generation blog … So there’s a division of what you can and cannot do as a band.”
Out on the street itself, however, music has a very different role, and Manabe believes it all comes down to how demonstrators and authorities vie for control of space.
“Japan is purposely designed, in my opinion, to prevent a lot of social action,” she says. “You have parks that surround the Diet but they’re heavily policed; they’re not open spaces like you have in the Washington Mall, they don’t make for good visuals, and you can’t even collect that many people in them.”
Instead, music becomes a key way in which demonstrators are, in Manabe’s words, “reoccupying the space through sound.” In this instance, the content of the music is less important than how it makes its presence felt, with road intersections performing a key role in funneling sound to places beyond the reach of the protest’s visual impact.
This, for Manabe, is the first stage of a protest movement whose main goal is to attract attention to the cause. This was the role played by the “sound demonstrations” organized initially in Tokyo’s bohemian Koenji neighborhood by the activist group Shiroto no Ran in the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima disaster.
The second stage lies in consolidating and focusing the message, often employing the call-and-response pattern commonly found in hip-hop. This style was one of the most visible expressions of the SEALDs protests against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s security bill and proposed changes to Japan’s pacifist Constitution.
The adaptation of musical rhythms as a vehicle for protest polemics is also a feature of reggae musician turned parliamentary candidate Yohei Miyake’s unique campaigning style, helping him to gather huge crowds at events that blur the boundary between concert and political rally.
“My attitude to my music remains basically unchanged,” Miyake explains via email, “but I noticed over time that my lyrics were becoming more specifically political. This left me with a dilemma over whether it was possible to fit these more specific words into music. But in the end, this dilemma helped open up a new path for me — a style where I talk as if I was singing and sing as if I was talking.”
For Miyake, the musicality of his language is something that’s inherent in the language of politics.
“Rhythm and humor, intonation and wit — these have always been necessary for people involved in the Diet and politics,” Miyake says. “For me, it seems that they are the fundamental ‘power of words’ and ‘power of poetry’ that moves politics.”
Nevertheless, the idea that music and politics should be kept separate is one that remains strong in Japan.
“At first I felt some resistance from people saying, ‘You’ve gone too far from us now. You’ve gone over to that side,’ ” Miyake recalls. “Actually, I asked in return where the place was that they were currently standing. I then suggested, ‘If you can’t find anything for you there, you’re welcome to come join me.’ ”
Manabe believes that the question of why interactions between politics and music meet with such resistance in Japan is a big one, especially when literature (and to some extent film) seem to allow for more direct engagement with social issues.
One hypothesis she suggests is that the media have much clearer rules and regulations circumscribing political content in music. Another is that antiestablishment music, for example 1960s folk singers like Goro Nakagawa, or the “street enka” scene of the 1920s, have been so successfully repressed in the past that modern audiences have no clear precedent through which to deal with political music. Her final hypothesis is that it lies in the nature of music itself.
“Cinema and books give you the luxury of time,” explains Manabe. “You can make albums, if you actually listen to albums, but much of Japanese popular music has continued to revolve around singles. So you don’t really have the luxury of time to make an argument in the same way you might in cinema or a book.”
What the future holds for political music remains unclear. The anti-nuclear movement is already a shadow of its 2012-13 peak, and speaking in advance of Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition’s recent election victory, Manabe suggests that the result would likely depress a lot of the musicians who had been involved in protests associated with SEALDs.
“Already you’re starting to see musicians not put out the same level of political output that they did,” she adds.
Miyake is more upbeat about prospects for the future. Many of his key motivating issues, such as climate change, global conflict, Japan’s client-state relationship with the United States, and growing wealth inequality, are ongoing problems that will continue to excite strong feelings.
He also believes that there is a growing acceptance of music’s role in politics. Of the protests against Okuda’s appearance at Fuji Rock, Miyake says that, “It wouldn’t be ‘rock’ if such a socially conscious rock festival refused to give young political activists a platform.”
Intriguingly, Miyake continues by musing that, “If the way Okuda had expressed himself was more ‘musical,’ this uproar might have been much more muted.”
Maybe, then, the problem isn’t one of too much politics in music, but of not enough music in politics.
Noriko Manabe’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Protest Music After Fukushima” is on sale now. For details, visit bit.ly/2aMZa5R. For more information on Yohei Miyake, visit www.miyake-yohei.com.