Deep in Tokyo’s indie music hub of Shimokitazawa, the twin venues of Three and Basement Bar often play host to some of the most diverse and offbeat expressions of Japan’s underground music culture.

Drifting between performances at both locations as part of the Mama’s Tattoo event this past summer, I saw everything from the avant-garde gothic-industrial vocal gymnastics of Dith to the more conventionally idol pop trio Avandoned, via the canine cabaret of Jon the Dog. As a one-night trip into music subcultures, Mama’s Tattoo was a success. But the event also serves as a fascinating showcase of the impact that women are having on the indie music scene.

An irregular mini-festival run by a small collective of female musicians and journalists, Mama’s Tattoo emphasizes not only women artists, but also what organizing member Ingel (from indie rock band Falsettos) calls “a handmade feeling,” and what her event colleague Mayumi Shimada (of Trash Up! magazine) calls “a thorough DIY spirit.”

Nevertheless, as the old institutional barriers for women in music have gradually begun to be broken, events such as Mama’s Tattoo stand out as representative of a broad, inclusive approach to supporting female creativity.

Stressing that she has never felt any barriers to her own musical activities, fellow Mama’s Tattoo organizer (and Falsettos vocalist) Miuko Nakao adds, “We should present more diversity to young people, both boys and girls.”

This is key to Mama’s Tattoo’s appeal. It treats its status as a female-led event not as a simple promotional tool, but as a springboard from which audience and performers alike can experience a music festival from an entirely different viewpoint.

Despite the tremendous depth and extent of female talent the event is able to draw on, final Mama’s Tattoo committee member Mariko Nii (of indie rock trio Homme) says that the hand of men in the music scene is still present, but invisible. She mentions idol music in particular as a genre in which there is an unconscious alignment of the audience’s feelings with the heterosexual male gaze.

“Idols, regardless of their gender, are a form of entertainment in which people can enjoy worshipping an icon. This form of entertainment is more sensitive to the audience’s desires,” she explains. “But they’re the types of emotions and desires that men are said to have for women. And they obscure the influence of the individuals behind the music.”

Rightly or wrongly, the guiding emotions of men and women are seen as being very different. Nii believes this is why it’s suddenly noticeable when women take control of an event’s organization in its entirety.

Despite this empowering effort, all four Mama’s Tattoo organizers hesitate to use the word “feminist” in reference to the event.

“It is especially difficult to answer whether what we are doing is ‘feminist’ in this country,” Nii says. “Here people think the word has the same meaning as ‘ladies first’ or that the word is only used by hysterical women.”

For Nakao, the value of Mama’s Tattoo comes more in simply providing an environment for women to find their own means of expression without compromising their femininity.

“Without expressing their feelings, women sacrifice their emotions every day,” she says. “Because they think such enormous emotions will not be accepted and are not welcome in this world.”

Nakao rejects the idea that women need to let go of this sensitivity, and believes Mama’s Tattoo is “a place for the acceptance and expression of all unheard emotions.”

This aspect of the event connects to its association with the U.S.-based Girls Rock Camp program, with whose support (and that of the Japan-based Girls Rock Tokyo organization) it held a series of musical workshops for young women.

It isn’t just the acts that are impressive at Mama’s Tattoo, it’s the community: You can see workshop alumni and event organizers striving to provide younger artists with encouragement, support and protection — everything needed to turn those Shimokitazawa venues into what Shimada describes as “a place of encounter and discovery, filled with love.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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