By Jonathan Clements.
In his new book Popular Music in Japan: Transformation Inspired by the West, Toru Mitsui repeatedly returns to the idea that multiple evolutions in Japanese tunes and songs have spurred directly from foreign influences. The examples he cites are from an impressively broad range of categories, spanning everything from leitmotifs, to subject matters, to instrumentation to timings – apparently, Japan had no such thing as a song in triple time before the 1850s. His timescale, reaching from the mid-19th century to the first decade of the 21st incorporates multiple changes in the nature of music – from the performances of bards, to clap-along “dormitory songs” sung by students, to the sheet music that allowed for amateur performances at home, and the huge sea-change brought about by the rise of mass media. These include not only the national hits fostered by radio airplay, but later songs with TV tie-ins, including those that began as advertising jingles.
After more than two centuries locked away from the world, the Japanese were suddenly exposed to foreign music with the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry and his infamous Black Ships in 1853, where, just to show the Japanese what real culture was, the American marines paraded up and down knocking out “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “The Star-Spangled Banner”, before treating the baffled Japanese to a black-and-white minstrel show. This, presumably, we have to thank for Japan’s enduring obsession with the works of Stephen Foster, whose “Camptown Races” and sundry other plantation songs are far better known in Japan than they are elsewhere.
The admiration was not mutual. “Music,” wrote Basil Hall Chamberlain in 1891, “if that beautiful word must be allowed to fall so low as to denote the strummings and squealings of Orientals, is supposed to have existed in Japan since mythological times.” Thankfully, the foreign visitors were there to save the Japanese from their own musical tradition, and there are stories here of Japanese ladies blanching (in fear or excitement, it is not clear) at the sound of Beethoven, and the Japanese military insisting on the immediate and efficient adoption of Western military bands as part of the nation’s modernisation.
Right from the start, the Japanese authorities weaponised music. The first bona fide hit of modern Japan was “Miya-san, Miya-san”, best known today for the appearance of a recognisable fragment of it in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado (1888), but originally a marching song and statement of intent by the rebels who overthrew the Shogun. Its lyrics, rarely seen by non-Japan specialists in full translation, amount to rap-style declaration of just cause (they are bearing the Emperor’s banner) and the various places the singers have killed someone (you better run if you’re from Toba; eff you, Fushimi, etc.), as well as taunts directed at the men of the Shogun’s city Edo, who were already running for the hills.
As in so many other sectors of Japanese culture, the Kanto Earthquake of 1923 marks a watershed. In the case of the record business, it was because the government introduced a 100% tax on imported “luxury items”, leading record companies to prioritise local pressing plants. In an early iteration of data being the commodity, a single master recording would enter the country from abroad, and then be pressed into gramophone records, the manufacture of which in Japan made them local products for local people. In Japan’s roaring twenties, modern gals and boys would congregate in “milk hall” coffee shops to listen to imported jazz, ragtime and big bands, while shipboard bands from the USA, on furlough in Japanese ports, would earn extra money by playing the local hotels. Meanwhile, the all-girl Takarazuka Revue was gaining a reputation for lavish operettas – its first gramophone spin-off hit was the French-influenced “Mon Paris” (1927).
The year 1927, for Mitsui, is the year that the Japanese record business becomes a thing, not because of the mere existence of record companies, which had been around for over a decade, but because of a sudden push initiated by Nippon Victor, to stop buying in foreign songs and actively cultivate local singing and song-writing talent.
Military songs form a huge component of Japanese musical history – Gyoji Osada’s magisterial but untranslated Songs Left by the War (2015) runs to 800 pages and is a fascinating account not only of the military songs from 1868 to 1945, but also of their use by the government to unite the population in song-writing competitions, compulsory school sing-alongs and, after 1925, radio broadcasts. But such songs, while ubiquitous, were not necessarily “popular”, and between the years 1941 and 1945, foreign music was actually illegal in Japan. Entertainingly, the people of Japan kept listening to it anyway, prompting the Intelligence Division in 1943 to start grumpily listing banned songs that were “a disclosure of nationalities characterized by frivolity, materialism, and high regard to sensuality.” Among such filth, threats to the national spirit to be purged like toxic waste, were “Home on the Range” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” This leads Mitsui to investigate other trends before and after the Pacific War, from the big-band dance crazes of Japan’s flapper era, jazz, and a bizarre 1950s flourishing of Country & Western, encouraged in part by the flood of American cowboy TV serials that clogged the early airwaves before Japan could mobilise domestic talent to make samurai dramas.
Mitsui’s book is a treasure trove of forgotten or overlooked bands and singers who were musical sensations in their day, sending the inquisitive reader scurrying to YouTube in search of the likes of the Dark Ducks, the Bonny Jacks and the Duke Aces, right up to the “new music” of the 1990s, and in the 21st century, the inexorable rise of J-pop. He also deals with the notion of being “Big in Japan”, investigating those artists like Richard Clayderman, bought in as a blue-chip cash-cow, or the British band called Japan, that Mitsui rather unkindly calls “an utterly obscure group,” brought in as a replacement for the Bay City Rollers (no, really – he’s not making this up), and feted by female fans because of their resemblance to characters from the shojo manga Rose of Versailles.
Despite such wonderful details and hard-nosed facts about what business mags call “Japanese sound-carrier sales”, Mitsui’s book seemed, to me at least, to finish a chapter too early. I can’t work out whether that is because Mitsui genuinely believes that nothing interesting has happened since 2005, or if this book’s 2020 publication date belies research that was actually done and dusted some years ago – several chapters are openly cannibalised from other work published up to twenty years earlier. Certainly, I would be very interested to hear if his claim that foreigners only constitute 10% of the market for J-pop was still accurate – that would tally persuasively with similar statistics in the worlds of anime and manga, but since his most recent touchstones appear to be Pizzicato Five, X Japan and B’z, one wonders about what he might have to say about consumption patterns and musical influences in the age of Baby Metal, Love Live!, virtual idols and digital downloads. Regardless, Popular Music in Japan remains an exhilarating map of the development of an entire nation’s songs, singers and fans, providing ample signposts of further ideas for your listening pleasure.