Music

Telling the musical story of Japan's ambient era

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

At the time, the Japanese music scene of the 1970s felt pretty flat to Daisuke Hinata. “But (then) Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) and Plastics came out, and we thought the market would open up for more new sounds,” the Los Angeles-based musician tells The Japan Times. Along with three Japanese classmates from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Hinata formed the band Interior, an outfit dabbling in a sonic space between ambient sound and early New Age.

They went back to Japan and tracked down Haruomi Hosono of YMO to give him their demo, which he liked. He then produced and released their music via his label.

“After the success of YMO, we were a bit confident of Japanese original ideas in the international music world but I thought it was too early for everyone to understand,” says Hinata, who has enjoyed a strong career working with the likes of Tetsuya Komuro and Michael Jackson.

He was pretty much right. Interior existed in a community tagged as “kankyō ongaku,” (environmental music). While a few names in that realm — Hosono, Joe Hisaishi — stand among the most well-known Japanese artists globally, the majority spent their careers in obscurity both here and abroad.

“Sales-wise no, but I think we had good artistic attention,” Hinata says when asked if Interior got the proper amount of attention at the time.

Interior — consisting of Hinata, Eiki Nonaka, Mitsuru Sawamura and Tsukasa Betto — appears on “Kankyo Ongaku,” a new compilation out via American label Light In The Attic. This two-disc set, organized by a mix of American and Japanese fans, collects tracks from a wide variety of artists tied to this movement, from heavy hitters such as YMO to cult favorites like Yasuaki Shimizu. The music comes with a hardcover book featuring essays and artist biographies for everyone taking part.

“One of the big intentions of this compilation is to demystify this music and present some of the sociological context that it existed in, specifically the culturally rich universe of the bubble economy,” says Spencer Doran, a Portland-based musician, Japanese music expert and compiler of “Kankyo Ongaku.”

“I think understanding the context behind ‘obscure’ music helps to de-fetishize it and present a more nuanced understanding that can be more firmly placed into the global cannon, giving the musicians the respect that they have long deserved.”

Keyboard wizard: Featured on the
Keyboard wizard: Featured on the ‘Kankyo Ongaku’ compilation is the late Jun Fukamachi with ‘Breathing New Life.’ | COURTESY OF THE JUN FUKAMACHI PROJECT

The book accompanying “Kankyo Ongaku” goes into detail on how this particularly rich stretch of Japanese music came to be, drawing connections to the Edo Period (1603-1868) while also highlighting a 1970s “quiet boom” popularized by the works of French composer Erik Satie. From there, it breaks down sonic innovations and how the people creating this music crossed paths — while also reminding us that big manufacturing companies such as Seiko (watches) and Sanyo (electronics) served as patrons for it. Efforts to detail this relationship have surfaced before but this is the best connecting-of-the-dots to date, complete with the chance to hear the actual music.

In recent years, listeners around the world have turned kankyō ongaku acts into some of the most buzzed-about Japanese artists this decade. Albums that once lived in Disk Union bargain bins are now squarely in Discogs’ treasure chests. Labels from North America and Europe have reissued rare records by Mariah and Hiroshi Yoshimura to solid sales and glowing reviews. Left-field creators such as Midori Takada now grace festival lineups, and the era took a mainstream turn when American rock band Vampire Weekend sampled a Hosono ambient piece originally commissioned for Muji in the mid ’80s on new song “2021.”

Numerous theories have been put out as to why this interest in ’80s Japanese ambient music has gained traction overseas. Maybe it’s a thirst for the unknown in a music climate where everything feels available via streaming, or maybe YouTube algorithms have nudged the niche into the spotlight. Record collector Chee Shimizu earlier told The Japan Times this has been brewing since the turn of the century.

Meanwhile, Doran says that the main reason why this music is resonating abroad is “that people are finally hearing it outside of Japan. The Japanese music scene of the ’80s was so internal — there was very little effort made to export it so the fact of the matter is it just never got heard outside of the country. I think if the music included on this album had exposure to the global market at the time it was being made it would already have a firm place in the canon of ambient and minimalist music.”

Doran developed an interest in this strain of Japanese music after encountering artists such as Hiroshi Yoshimura and Satoshi Ashikawa, who were unknown in the U.S.

“I’ve always been interested in culture that feels unsorted or uncanonized and I enjoy the process of sifting through things outside of the known canons to find aspects of musical history that are hidden or unappreciated,” he says.

Consequently, Doran played a pivotal role in getting this music adoration in the West. His “Fairlights, Mallets and Bamboo: Fourth-World Japan, Years 1980-1986” mix in 2010 gained attention, as did subsequent mixes and his work in the project Visible Cloaks, which also draws from the time. One later mix served as an initial outline for “Kankyo Ongaku.”

“It focused more deeply on music that was an outgrowth of the corporate sphere in the bubble economy and had a much more atmospheric tone to it, exploring the way that corporate patronage helped to shape a style of vaporous ambient music that became widespread during the ’80s,” says Doran. That creation caught Light In The Attic’s attention and got this year’s compilation in motion.

Licensing the songs took lots of time, with Doran crediting the “amazing job” reissue producer Yosuke Kitazawa did getting it all. Hinata recalls getting a call from Kitazawa: “I didn’t expect that something we did had been acknowledged like that, which made me so happy and proud.”

Not all of Doran’s ideal cuts made it on — despite having a personal connection with Midori Takada and performing with her in Visible Cloaks, they couldn’t land any of her songs on “Kankyo Ongaku” — but the ones that did highlighted the “hypercapitalist world” of the era.

“There are certainly sonic trends that can be heard throughout the record — the most prevalent being the use of an air-like sonic quality to much of the synth work, which I attribute largely to the influence of Hideki Matsutake,” Doran says, referring to the artist known as YMO’s “fourth member.”

“Kankyo Ongaku” offers a well-rounded snapshot of Japanese ambient music and places it in the right context but it’s still highlighting artists who didn’t get much attention back in the day.

“Our music was called ‘kankyō ongaku’ back then so I am glad that someone still has interest in that category, especially the younger generation. We created that kind of ambient music, then Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi encouraged us to keep doing what we were doing, and we really did not expect to get that support,” Hinata says. He adds that he thinks it captures a moment now long gone for him in his career.

“Be original!” he says when asked what message Interior provided that no other project could offer, “making music without thinking about the market, in fact, if there is no market, then we create the market.” Now, people all over are finding that space.

For more information on “Kankyo Ongaku” and to purchase the compilation, visit lightintheattic.net/releases/4088.

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