Identity comes in and out of focus on yahyel debut, ‘Flesh and Blood’

by Lachlan Johnston

Special To The Japan Times

Last year, according to sources on the internet, an alien race known as the Yahyel was meant to descend on our planet. They apparently look similar to humans and enjoy a pretty constructive relationship with technology.

The Yahyel didn’t come. But we did get yahyel (written in lowercase), a five-piece electronic music project out of Tokyo whose debut album, “Flesh and Blood,” was released last week via Beatink.

While obviously not alien, many listeners weren’t easily able to discern where the group came from, according to lead singer Shun Ikegai. After one of yahyel’s first performances, he says people voiced surprise that they were Japanese.

“All over Twitter it’s like, ‘Wow, I never would have imagined these guys are Japanese,’ ” Ikegai says. “But that’s who we are. … Why is it that you couldn’t have imagined this music coming from someone who’s Japanese?”

In fact, identity figures prominently in what yahyel is doing. The five members — Ikegai, Miru Shinoda (sampler), Wataru Sugimoto (synthesizer), Kazuya Ooi (drums) and Kento Yamada (VJ) — have all spent time abroad and their experiences have caused them to examine their “Japaneseness” and, more importantly, examine how the world sees their Japaneseness.

“In this world at the moment, it’s impossible to deny that pre-existing stereotype. How we look already has too much meaning,” Ikegai says. “We don’t want people to think that our music couldn’t be good because we’re Japanese.”

As a result, “Flesh and Blood” sounds as if it takes more from Western acts — such as James Blake and Jamie XX. This is likely how yahyel found a home with Beatink, which puts out electronic acts such as Brian Eno, Underworld and Seiho.

However, Sugimoto cites a different source of inspiration for the band’s music that is more in line with the members’ fascination with identity.

“I was deeply interested in previous Japanese artists who had made a name for themselves outside of Japan, like YMO,” he says. “They really had to play up their Japanese origins. I didn’t want to do that or any kinds of gimmicks, so I listened more closely to what people overseas were into and tried to relate.”

Ikegai adds that what people overseas saw as Japanese in the heyday of YMO is different to what they see as Japanese nowadays.

“The image of what Japanese are and what we actually are is just so far removed,” he says. “People expect Japanese to be crazy and kawaii (cute). That exists, but it’s an older cultural movement.”

Ikegai says previous Japanese acts were able to use their foreignness to their advantage with overseas fans. But it became so appealing that decades later it’s hard to be anything but foreign to get any attention.

And the stereotypes have been embraced by the Japanese themselves. Ikegai talks about how the “great” generation of his grandparents had to rebuild Japan from the war, and in the process they set norms for Japanese identity: nice, polite and passive. All of this went into making Japan a better place.

His parent’s generation benefited from these norms so they didn’t have much interest in challenging them. But Ikegai’s age group, Japan’s 20-somethings, aren’t seeing the same benefits and are therefore more prone to questioning society. One thing the group seems keen on challenging is the Japanese attitude toward non-Japanese people (particularly white people) and the inferiority complex that comes with it. It’s a topic yahyel addresses on the track “Black Satin.”

” ‘Black Satin’ is about the dynamics between foreign guys and Japanese girls,” Ikegai says, adding that in Tokyo he has often encountered super-confident, white Western men who believe that Japanese girls will automatically fall all over them. And he acknowledges there’s a prevailing attitude, among older Japanese in particular, that having a white boyfriend is a bit of a status symbol.

“It doesn’t happen the other way,” he says, referring to the inferiority complex that dictates Japanese men have no chance with Western women. “But Japanese people don’t really talk about it, we just accept it. If you think about it, though, it’s weird and sad. So ‘Black Satin’ is about that, the black satin is a metaphor for black hair. There’s a line that goes, ‘She wears a black satin dress and she’s ashamed of it, go ahead and pretend not to see.’

“Throughout the whole album we refer to the fact that (Japanese) people are indifferent and never question these kinds of race dynamics, and this is a consequence of the beliefs of the older generations. … So there’s a kind of anger that comes from our generation that these dynamics don’t allow us to be ourselves.”

While yahyel seeks to challenge ideas on identity, the band also tries to strip itself of it entirely by singing in English and not appearing in videos (which may have been the reason for that Twitter user’s initial confusion).

“During our live performances it can be hard to detach ourselves completely, but we try,” Ikegai says referring to the fact the audience can see them. “In a music video, however, it’s a totally different scenario.”

He says the aim is for yahyel to be judged solely on its music, before identity politics can come into play. He admits that while this is a hard thing to realize in music and film, in which the product is often a person, it isn’t impossible. Ikegai points to how Japanese architects are celebrated for their work worldwide.

“What the architect presents is just their art, and they can be as completely detached as they want,” he says. “Their art has no (association with) race, it is simply something that people can view and enjoy in its purest form.”

“Flesh and Blood” is in stores now. Yahyel plays Shibuya WWW in Tokyo on Dec. 16 (7:30 p.m. start; ¥3,500 in advance; 03-5768-1277). For more information, visit www.yahyelmusic.com.