Music

Yusuke Ogawa: The man in Japan giving jazz fans their rare record fix

by Katherine Whatley

Contributing Writer

‘There are just so many records in Japan,” says Yusuke Ogawa, owner of Universounds, a used record shop selling jazz, soul and funk in the Western suburbs of central Tokyo. Now, with the rise of internet sales as well as the increasingly interconnected music world, buyers worldwide are catching on to Japan’s stockpile of good quality, rare records. Ogawa is one key point in this international record buying culture.

Japan was once a jazz empire. Though there had been jazz music in Japan since the 1920s, it wasn’t until after World War II with the influx of American GIs that the country became obsessed. Even now it’s normal to hear jazz in the most unlikely of places. Just recently, I heard jazz in my local sento (public bathhouse).

Still, people don’t buy records like they used to, and they are not as crazy about jazz as they used to be. That means that there are an inestimable number of old records, not just jazz, in Japan, lying in wait. This has been known for a while, and young people in Japan interested in vinyl have long been the beneficiaries.

However, with the increasing popularity of records and the rise of music communities on the internet, everyone wants to sample Japan’s record stockpile. Within that world, Ogawa has become a very important dealer.

It’s an unlikely scenario. Universounds is located in the back of the second story of a nondescript building in a shopping street in Koenji. All that’s visible at street level is a discrete sign with the store’s logo. The shop is hard to find without knowing where it is already, and was impossible to locate in the days before Google Maps.

Inside the minimal one-room store is a small, constantly rotating selection of high-quality records. The primary focus of Universounds is what in Japan is called spiritual jazz, an offshoot of the free jazz genre. In the late 1960s, jazz giants like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman played increasingly avant-garde and improvisation-focused music. Then, in the 1970s, many free jazz musicians became influenced by Indian and African musical culture. They began to be interested in mysticism and were often more explicitly political.

Japan was also going through a free jazz boom in the ’60s and ’70s. Responding to both the domestic counter-culture movements and the rise of political consciousness and musical freedom among the jazz community in the U.S., Japanese jazz began to become more political and stylistically avant-garde. At this time, jazz critics, like Kiyoshi Koyama, and musicians began to visit and live in the U.S. — collaborating first hand with musicians who were pushing the boundaries of the genre.

The music created then is inspired, exciting and free. That’s why people today want to listen to it, some 40 years after it was made. While Japanese jazz was long given short shrift by both Japanese and Western audiences, Ogawa says that, “increasingly, Japanese jazz is being more highly valued both domestically and internationally.”

Ogawa deals in exactly these kinds of records. And it’s not just free jazz fans who come to his store, but also those interested in a range of funk, fusion, soul and other jazz — all genres that were in some way interconnected at that time. Ogawa makes these connections explicit with his expertise in jazz history and in the records themselves.

Universounds has also become known in the international hip hop world. The rare groove genre has been linked to the hip hop predilection for samples that no one else had, and playing rare, though not necessarily expensive, records has become an important part of many DJs’ style. Once, when I visited the store, a Korean DJ and an American DJ had been brought to the store by a Japanese companion. The international trio were pulling out records, listening to a few seconds to get a sense of the groove, then going onto the next record.

Ogawa, with his understanding of jazz, soul and funk is an important asset to these musicians because he can find and suggest records they otherwise wouldn’t find. “Hip hop artists listen to the music part by part. It’s not just ‘I like this tune,’ but ‘I want a part with a horn,’ or ‘I want a base line that grooves.’ I’ll take out a bunch of options for them and when they say, ‘This is the kind of thing I wanted!’ I’m thrilled.”

In a world of internet downloads, there’s something special about having a record that perhaps only a few other people in the world are actively listening to now. Even if the record is less rare, Ogawa says vinyl as a medium is meaningful: “Records are objects. It’s not just the music, it’s about owning the object. If it was just about listening, you could download the music, or listen to it on YouTube. (Having the record) is very important.”

“I’ve spent my life looking at records and visiting records stores,” says Ogawa, whose knowledge and dedication to jazz and to records is increasingly becoming valued throughout the world. Now, at least one foreign customer a day manages to find his store. He’s been featured in multiple English-language music websites and magazines from around the world. These music lovers want spiritual jazz, or Japanese jazz. But most importantly, they need Ogawa’s knowledge, guidance and taste to show them new types of music they never could have dreamed of.

After finding out I play koto and improvise, Ogawa asked me if I knew Hideakira Sakurai, the legendary free jazz koto player from the ’70s who passed away very young. When I nodded, he smiled and pulled out a record he hadn’t even finished processing for his store. “Sunrise From West Sea” is a live recording from 1971 featuring Sakurai, Masahiko Sato, Stomu Yamash’ta and Takehisa Kosugi. That’s when I understood what all the hype about Ogawa was about. It wasn’t just the selection of records or his suggestion. It was his ability to find a great record for an individual person. That requires decades of study.

Ogawa and I sat and listened to both sides of the record. The music was as anarchic, free and vibrant as you can get. It was magical.

Yusuke Ogawa will be featured in a BBC Radio 3 Sunday Feature documentary about Japanese jazz, presented by Katherine Whatley, airing on March 11 (at 3.45 a.m.) and available afterward online at www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006tnwp.