Ten years into a major-label career, the ambitions of Japanese rock band Okamoto’s remain the same as they did when the group started out.
“We want to be on ‘The Simpsons,’ like the Ramones or the Red Hot Chili Peppers,” lead vocalist Sho Imura, who goes by Sho Okamoto, tells The Japan Times. “Big bands end up on there, so we want to do that. And play at Madison Square Garden or Hyde Park.”
While they are still waiting on New York and London’s most prestigious stages — not to mention the spotlight of Springfield — the band’s four members have accomplished a lot in a decade. They’ve released nine albums, toured across Japan and abroad, and last year played a solo show at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan arena, a venue myriad acts in Japan dream about headlining.
“Well, actually, we never really thought about playing in the Budokan,” Sho says. “We aren’t the types to be like, ‘Yeah, let’s do the Budokan!’ We’re kind of twisted.”
This tendency to not crave the usual signifiers of Japanese music industry success helps to explain Okamoto’s’ (usually stylized in all capital letters and, yes, the apostrophe is a part of the name) longevity. The band came together in 2006 and consists of Sho, guitarist Koki Hayashi (Koki Okamoto), drummer Reiji Miyake (Reiji Okamoto) and bassist Ikumi Hamada (Hama Okamoto) — all of whom adopt the stage surname of avant-garde artist Taro Okamoto, a move that’s a nod to punk icons the Ramones. They signed to Sony imprint Ariola Japan in 2010 as a team of 19 and 20 year olds. Back then, all of them, except for Reiji, went to university after their parents urged them to have a fallback if music didn’t work out. Sho and Hama dropped out after a year, with only Koki securing a degree.
After a decade on a major label, however, the Okamoto’s have all been in the game long enough to have earned a Ph.D. from the school of rock. To commemorate the anniversary, the band released “10’s Best,” a compilation featuring a fan-selected tracklist on one disc, with the second CD spotlighting songs favored by the members themselves. While offering a chance to look back, Sho admits it also served as somewhat of a cleanse. “We wanted to clear out everything so we could focus on year No. 11.”
The 10-year festivities were also supposed to include a handful of live dates, but the outbreak of coronavirus has put an end to those plans. Instead the band is drawing attention for much different reasons: Hama wound up in the news when he took a PCR test designed for COVID-19 in March after falling sick (he tested negative), while Reiji spent May lashing out at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s attempt to extend the retirement age for prosecutors.
When the present moment proves too much, though, “10’s Best” is a solid example of the journey the band has taken in the past 10 years and illustrates how their sound has changed. Okamoto’s started as a group in thrall to frenetic 1960s and ’70s rock, ranging from buzzy garage-born sounds to more anthemic cuts nodding to the Beatles, among other radio staples. In the years that have followed, though, the group has incorporated elements of electronic music and hip-hop into its sound, along with the occasional biting commentary, by way of critiquing the trend of consumers not buying or supporting music.
This expansion of sound, however, was more of a return to the band’s roots.
“We were all born in 1990 and ’91. I think (the Eminem film) ‘8 Mile’ came out when we were 13 or 14, and before then Japanese hip-hop was really big, in, like, ’97 and ’98,” Sho says about the music he and his bandmates were exposed to while growing up. The four all went to the same junior high and high school, and their decision to play rock made them the outliers.
“We were the only guys playing guitars and bass,” he adds. “Everyone was rapping, freestyling and buying turntables. Hip-hop was so natural to us — we were like native to it. That’s why we didn’t really do it the first time. We thought old 1960s and ’70s rock was more fresh.”
The group wasn’t surrounded by amateur MCs either — Sho says several members of Japanese hip-hop collective Kandytown, now signed to Warner Music Japan, attended the same school.
“After seven or eight years, we realized we should do something more natural, something we all had from our childhood,” Sho says. “That’s when we started mixing and crossing over the hip-hop sound.”
This gradual embrace of rap elements pops up across the compilation, and will cause you to do a double take on a remix of Okamoto’s 2019 song “Art” by OBKR and Yaffle, with guest verses from rappers Gottz (of Kandytown), Tohji and Shurkn Pap dropped right in the middle of the second disc.
“That was Reiji’s idea. He was the one who has a real connection with the club and hip-hop scene,” Sho says of this radical rework. This inclusion, though, falls in line with Okamoto’s gradual expansion of its sonic world.
“I’ve been listening to a lot of techno,” Sho says, mentioning a trip to Berlin last Christmas, which saw him visit the city’s Tresor nightclub. It’s a world he previously knew little about, but has been digging into lately.
The refusal of Okamoto’s to settle has placed the band in an odd spot in the greater Japanese music industry. They’re well-known enough that their political opinions and medical woes get lots of attention, they can play Budokan and tour abroad, but they haven’t scored that one massive hit that puts them into the upper echelons of the Japanese music world.
“It’s hard to explain, but there was a kind of format for a song to be a big hit in Japan (when Okamoto’s started in 2010). If you do something different from that format, you won’t make a hit,” Sho says. “You have a release with a major label, they’ll tell you to write something more catchy.”
“We hoped they would be big hits … but we couldn’t really sell out. We were too hardcore,” he says with a laugh. “We thought they were cool songs and loved them anyway. Maybe that’s why they didn’t end up as hits.”
That, however, feels like an anachronism to Sho in 2020. He says the Japanese music industry has changed immensely from its days of pop-hit formats.
“Maybe because of social media or the internet … I don’t think there is one reason,” he says. “There is no format for a hit song. You have to make your own format for the hit. It’s getting more interesting and fun to play music in Japan.”
The members of Okamoto’s are looking forward to experimenting in this landscape in the future, with their international ambitions also pushing them ahead. “10’s Best” has offered them a chance to reflect on what they’ve done so far, which Okamoto does when thinking back on a tour early in their careers that took them to every prefecture in Japan.
“That was a long tour … almost six months,” he says. “People told us we would get into a big fight since the tour was so long, or that we’d just break up. We were pretty afraid … but nothing was that hard. We just enjoyed it. I think we’re pretty tough.”
For more information, visit www.okamotos.net.