It’s trite nonsense to describe any nation as “a land of contrasts” of course, but, to Western eyes, Japan seems to present an enduring paradox. On the one hand, you have the country’s emphasis on academics and achievement, the labyrinthine courtesies of a dense corporate culture and a collectivist society hinging on strict social norms, and, on the other, you have some of the most transgressive, complicated and just plain bat-shit insane popular culture ever produced, which presents an entirely different view of the island nation than their predominant buttoned-down, traditional image. The distinction between their economic, political and cultural views and their off-the-wall artistic bent becomes particularly severe when looking at Japan’s legendary, astonishingly prolific noise scene, which has long sought to abandon all sense of musical order, but also, quite naturally, developed hierarchies and conventions of its own.
Japanese noise music (or “Japanoise” if you prefer, though that has the same ethnocentric, clumsy feel as saying “Japanimation” instead of “anime”), like many of the country’s more eccentric, arty subcultures, has its theoretical roots in the immediate post-war era, when American forces initially sought to introduce more Western individualism, but with communism spreading through Asia and an escalating cold war to deal with, fell back on simply maintaining the status quo, retreating to the old ways, the Emperor’s ways, that had kept law and order for so long. What must have felt like a moment of welcome change for citizens looking forward to a more democratic life turned into a turned into a disappointing compromise, and the resulting conflict led many to look for that promised freedom in the most outré forms of music, from free jazz to prog and punk.
“This history of dissatisfaction with the governing system that, in Japan, radically dictates one’s sense of self, has left its imprint upon recent generations of Japanese who are exploring their own subcultural alternatives, from Noise-Music to techno-culture, bondage clubs to department store groupies…” wrote theorist Brandon LaBelle, “…In listening to Japanese noise-music, one hears not only the audible signs of a possible future, but also the sounds of an extreme response and reaction.” Taking its cues from the experimental atonality and unstructured nature of drone and musique concrete, the mind-bending repetition of psychedelia and the anti-social aggression of punk and no wave, noise, as it solidified into a genre unto itself towards the end of the 1970s, quickly became a force to be reckoned with in Japan, particularly in the gritty industrial center of Osaka, home to many key artists.
The first wave of acts making up what was to become locally known as noizu, derived from the English word for whatever that’s worth, were a diverse bunch, coming as they did from a variety of worlds, including improvisatory jazz, performance art, and in the case of the notoriously productive Merzbow, who has over 350 recordings to his name, mail art. “It is important to understand that for the first generation of Merzbow, Hijōkaidan, Incapacitants and other early Noisicians, back in the 1980s Noise did not signify a fixed genre, but rather an ‘artistic stance’” observed Costa Caspary and Wolfram Manzenreiter, “These musicians did not see themselves as producing a distinctive format but as explorers searching for new sounds and ways of expression.” That led different artists in different directions, from mutilated electronics to deconstructed guitar and metal-on-metal percussiveness.
Though collectively positioned resolutely against the mainstream, against music itself and the preconditioned order it represented, and centered around certain clubs and performance spaces, like Bears and the Eggplant, this first generation mostly did their own thing, individuality being of the utmost importance, creatively and socio-politically. They did however present a more or less united front in response to one thing at least, namely the second generation of Japanese noise. As artists like MSBR, Masonna and CCCC refined noise into more specific subgenres like pure noise and harsh noise, more focused on blaring volume and industrial electronic textures, the progenitors of the local scene showed little but scorn. In part they objected to the younger acts’ perceived lack of originality, often referring to them as mane (“imitations”) but it was also that persistent Japanese social hierarchy shining through.
“The biggest difference [between the Western and Japanese Noise networks] is the big separating ditch between those in their thirties, and those in their twenties,” noted Koji Tano, also known as MSBR, “This is a specific characteristic of the Japanese social structure…There is this unconscious attitude among older people which stops them from appreciating the merits of people of lower status [i.e. age], no matter what they do.” The old guard arguably had a point, what started as an expression of unadulterated musical chaos had developed its own set of tropes and preconceived notions, albeit relatively abstract or confrontational ones, but that didn’t make their disparaging remarks any less petty. In the pursuit of a completely free music, both generations made certain strides and certain mistakes, just like those that followed them inevitably would. Conventions, social or musical, are a hard thing to shake completely.