Music

Music historian Kato David Hopkins and a life spent discovering the obscure in Kansai

by J. J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

What do you get when two Pennsylvanians meet in a Kyoto bar? A lot of music. An awful lot, in fact.

Of the two Pennsylvanians in question, one is Kato David Hopkins, 65, a long-term Japanese resident of Japan who has taken Japanese citizenship. Kato, his wife’s family name, is an addition to his own name from when his citizenship was finalized.

Hopkins, a prolific record collector, has been covering the underground music scene in Kansai for nearly 40 years.

In the 1990s, Hopkins ran Public Bath Records with a friend. He has also acted as a local hand for visiting bands such as Fugazi, Mudhoney and Sonic Youth on their Japan tours. More recently he switched from publishing music to publishing books about music under his own imprint, Public Bath Press.

Once a month, Hopkins hauls a case of 45 rpm records — a tiny fraction of his vast collection — from his home in Nara to Kyoto, where he hosts Happy Hour, a music and discussion event at Pop! Pizza, an eatery and gig venue run by Daniel McNellie, the other Pennsylvanian in this story.

It’s a serendipitous pairing. McNellie, a musician, also runs Secret Mission Records, which issues mostly punk and power pop releases, and his record collection occupies half of one wall of the venue’s bar. Although Pop! Pizza has been open less than a year, it has played host to veteran punks such as The Outcasts and Duncan Reid, as well as local acts such as Nice To Meet You, 50/50’s and Weekend Fan!

In short, it is the kind of place where, had it been open in 1979 when he first arrived in Japan, Hopkins would have gravitated to and made himself at home.

Hopkins and McNellie only discovered they both hail from the city of Pittsburg after Hopkins played his first set earlier this year.

“We really hit it off, talking about our favorite local bars, pizza, beers and records shops,” says McNellie.

Hopkins came to Japan to avoid writing his doctoral thesis. His thesis adviser had jumped ship to another university, and a few Japanese friends from university suggested Hopkins also jump ship — to Japan. So he took off, wound up in Kansai in 1979 at the age of 25, found a job teaching English and got busy collecting records and going to gigs.

“I’ve always collected records,” Kato says, adding that his interest lay in “the stuff my friends didn’t have.”

Hopkins has never lost his curiosity about music on the fringes, but he’s also “small c” catholic in his tastes and inquisitiveness. At his monthly Happy Hour gig — actually more like three hours — the music spans decades, genres and oceans.

At one recent event, Hopkins covered enka singers Mina Aoe and Aki Yashiro, early American rockers The Sonics and Tommy James and the Shondells, a wide range of female legends from Dusty Springfield to Evie Sands, and outliers like P. J. Proby and Nickie Lee, before landing on Japanese pop star Mieko Hirota.

All the records are selected from Hopkins’ expansive collection, which is stored near his house.

At Pop! Pizza, while Hopkins lets the music play uninterrupted, it’s also the antithesis of Japan’s bleedingly hip “listening bars.” Sure, there’s listening going on, but there’s also plenty of drinking and talking — a church this is not!

Like anyone who’s serious about a hobby, Hopkins had to work on a few different factors in order to progress. When he journeyed to Kansai in the summer of 1986 for his second stint in Japan, this time for the long haul, he set about finding out where indie bands and outliers were playing. But, as he says, it took a long time to find them.

“I didn’t read Japanese, so I worked on that,” he says, with a laugh.

Now, nearly 30 years on, most of the haunts that Hopkins frequented, mainly in the south of Osaka, have disappeared. One exception is Bears, which opened in 1986 and is still operating, more or less unchanged.

Hopkins admits he was something of a curiosity back then, often the only foreign guest at gigs, but he was also curious and he could speak Japanese, so he parlayed his way into the scene.

“The best place was Eggplant in Nishinari (Ward),” Hopkins says. “It was pretty much the only place that had hardcore punk in Osaka. The clubs were hesitant to have the punks come in and tear their place up.”

Essentially, Eggplant was a mishmash of rehearsal studios thrown together.

“In the larger studio they held live shows,” says Hopkins, “and because they had rehearsal studios they were open all night. … You could go there anytime and there would be people playing.

“I got to be friends with a lot of people from there and it changed my whole life — it determined the direction of the rest of my life.”

With the range of music played at Eggplant, everything from psychedelic to hard rock, Hopkins got a schooling in the underground music scene.

Beginning in the late ’80s he made an effort to push Japanese bands such as Shonen Knife and Sekiri in the United States.

Hopkins accompanied Sekiri, an all-female punk band from Kyoto, on a tour of the U.S.

“They were real punk,” he says. “I mean they couldn’t play their instruments.”

At the bar in Pop! Pizza, Hopkins delivers a primer on Sekiri, detailing its demise — the songwriter left the band after becoming pregnant — and its first release, made from a tape recording of a rehearsal.

Hopkins delivers all this not to show that he knows all about an obscure Japanese punk band, but rather to get to the punchline, the name of a song from that release which is both amusing and outside the parameters of what’s fit to print here.

Jump forward to 2014 and it’s no wonder that Hopkins decided to set about chronicling Japan’s indie scene in a book. He settled on a period from the late ’70s up to the end of Japan’s bubble economy. Initially, he conceived the book — called “Dokkiri!” after a rock compilation album of the same name — as a down-the-rabbit-hole look at the underground scene in Kansai.

However, friends encouraged him to take a more expansive view and also survey what was happening in Tokyo.

“Tokyo people have complained that (the book) is too Kansai-centric,” says Hopkins. “But, you know, that’s just what Tokyo people do.”

Whatever its limitations, “Dokkiri!”, which was published by Public Bath Press, is both a wry and warts-and-all look at the egos, antics and influences of Japan’s punks and rockers. It’s a book that arguably deserves a much wider audience.

As for what’s next, Hopkins is working on a book about the beginnings of Japan’s underground noise scene, with a focus on Kyoto. Most of the interviews are done, and he now has to get down to actually writing it and not falling any further behind schedule. Since the release of “Dokkiri!,” Public Bath Press has also published a handful of Japanese to English translations on subjects such as enka, Japanese folk music and the musings of ex-Boredoms member Seiichi Yamamoto.

Hopkins says he still listens to almost anything, although he has his limits.

“Music pollution definitely drives me crazy,” he says. “I can hardly stand to go to a shopping mall because there is so much music everywhere, and all of it is boring. The older I get the more I listen to oddball jazz, avant-garde stuff.”

And with that, Hopkins gathers up his 10-kilogram case of records and fades into the night to catch his train back to Nara.

Kato David Hopkins’ Happy Hour is held at Pop! Pizza in Kyoto on the fourth Thursday of every month.

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.
Coronavirus banner