Sometime in the spring of 2014, a friend of mine who works for a small publishing company asked if I would write a book about the Japanese music scene for him.
“Sure,” I told him, “I’ll have it ready in six months.”
It’s now 2½ years later and I find myself left with two things: a newly published book and a huge amount of respect for those authors who have covered this topic before me.
The task of illuminating the popular music culture of an entire nation in the course of a single volume is an impossible one — especially when the nation in question boasts the second-largest music selling market in the world. Inevitably, different writers have chosen to set their own works within the particular parameters of a time period and genre. There are four books in particular that I want to acknowledge, all of them written in English and illuminating various aspects of the music scene here in Japan.
For anyone seeking a broad overview of Japanese pop music that places it in its historical and social context, Michael Bourdaghs’ “Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-pop” (Columbia University Press, 2012) is essential reading. With Bourdaghs’ background as an academic, the book grounds its analysis of Japanese pop through to the end of the 1980s in critical theory, looking in particular at pop music in Japan as a response to American postwar hegemony.
If the emergence of “J-pop” in the 1990s can be seen as the moment when Japan finally shed its conception of pop music as imported foreign culture and fully embraced it as something native, Bourdaghs’ book describes the tumultuous love affair with America and the West that brought it to that point.
“Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation” (Duke University Press Books, 2013) by David Novak also features an academic tilt, this time focusing specifically on the noise scene, characterized by the extreme sonic violence of acts like Incapacitants and Merzbow. Like Bourdaghs’ book, it uses the relationship between Japan and the West (and America in particular) as a key part of its narrative framework — in Novak’s case the motif of feedback, both as a sonic identifier of noise and a metaphor for the cultural circulation of information between Japan and the West.
Of particular interest is the way overseas curiosity in the more extreme iterations of Japanese avant-garde and postpunk music in the 1980s helped create the idea of “noise” as a discrete genre in itself. For someone writing about Japanese music in the English language, this notion is a source of both temptation and concern — how much influence, if any, should your writing be allowed to “feed back” into its subject?
Overlapping with Novak’s book somewhat, but broadening its emphasis to cover the punk and underground rock scene in Japan generally and the Kansai area in particular, Kato David Hopkins’ “Dokkiri! Japanese Indies Music 1976-1989: A History and Guide” (Public Bath Press, 2016) moves away from Novak’s ethnographical approach and instead tackles its subject from the view of a scene insider.
While traveling in Kansai earlier this year, the owner of underground specialist record store Forever Records in Osaka insisted that Hopkins’ book was an essential core text for any accurate understanding of Japanese underground music, comparing it favorably to British musician and writer Julian Cope’s “Japrocksampler: How the Post-War Japanese Blew their Minds on Rock ‘n’ Roll” (Bloomsbury U.K., 2007)
Notoriously riddled with inaccuracies and outright untruths, Cope’s book is still one of the best books on Japanese music. In his autobiography, Cope happily admits to a habit of making up entire bands and creating ridiculous back stories for certain figures out of thin air. Meanwhile, his novel “One Three One: A Time-Shifting Gnostic Hooligan Road Novel” laces its fictional narrative with disorientating doses of reality. Cope simply refuses to accept the borders between truth and fiction the way squares like us do.
Once you accept that a large portion of what you’re reading is made up, “Japrocksampler” provides a vivid and entertaining background and history of 1970s Japanese rock, reaching giddily for a higher sort of psychic truth in its depiction of the raw fuzz, feedback and frenzy of artists such as Les Rallizes Denudes and Speed, Glue & Shinki.
These books take a variety of approaches to Japanese music, but what they all share is that they provide a glimpse into the music culture that takes you beneath the delicately manicured surface. Two-and-a-half years after embarking on a similar task, I have nothing but admiration for them.
Ian Martin’s book “Quit Your Band! — Musical Notes from the Japanese Underground” is out via Awai Books. For more information, visit www.awaimedia.com.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5