God bless the Internet. Thanks to the world wide web, coolness has been democratized. The terms “rare” and “out of print” are quickly becoming less and less applicable as increasingly, everything is a Google search away. This deprives us pop culture junkies of the thrill of the hunt, but that’s a small price to pay for being able to enjoy the proudly obscurist recommendations of folks like Jim O’Rourke (a big Jun Togawa fan) and David Byrne without all the leg work of scouring the crates of a dusty record bin in a Tokyo basement. You’ve got sites like Network Awesome curating this awesome stuff for you! And shame on me for qualifying this music on the tired scale of cool-white-dude-ness. Somehow (I blame the language barrier) this awesome stuff hasn’t really crossed over and become a part of our obsession with Japanese pop culture 1. This awesome stuff is called J-pop, and it stands on its own two bizarre feet.
J-pop, as you may have gathered, is a catchall term for popular music produced in Japan. That last distinction is important -- there’s an overwhelming myth that a great deal of Japanese popular music is just American and British popular music. So much so, in fact, that the phrase “Big in Japan” has become a bit of a cliche over here. While a number of western bands from The Scorpions to Spinal Tap have sustained enormously successful careers solely based on the revenue of touring and record sales in the country, it seems like the Japanese obsession with our culture is going away (or was a complete fabrication in the first place)2, not to mention that Japan is second only to the United States in the sale of their own recorded music3. We can’t discount the influence of the West on J-pop, but it’s important not to over-emphasize this relationship. J-pop is uniquely Japanese.
Over the last fifty years, the sound of J-pop has followed a course very similar to American pop music, though the word for it was not coined until the late eighties or early nineties. It is commonly thought of as an outgrowth of an earlier pop style called Kayōkyoku which, as far as I can gather, is not unlike French chanson: heavily orchestrated and heavily lyrical. Not unlike “pop” itself, J-pop is more of a marketing-oriented catch-all phrase than defined by a rigid set of aesthetic rules, though it is supposedly distinguished by an overwhelming trend of weird Anglican pronunciation of the Japanese language (very rock and roll, that). Naturally, discerning nerds can and will split genre-hairs all day, but they are forever missing the point.
Here we have music videos and/or performances from Hikashu, Guernica, Plastics, P-Model, and Jun Togawa. These groups were all more or less part of the same late seventies/early eighties scene, whatever you want to call that scene - techno pop, new wave, or sushi-bop (I’m not sure about that last one). They’re all over each other’s records and are responsible for perfecting a sound that will forever be in the DNA of all pop, J- or not. The first thing you’ll probably notice is how freaking weird they are! But it’s not an intimidating weirdness. There are no invasive tentacles, no gruesome cyberpunk hybrids of man and machine -- it’s a delightful, goofy, Devo-esque sort of weird, for the most part. And the music, with its big guitars and synthesizer lines, sounds downright familiar. Even if you can’t literally understand the lyrics of the Hikashu video that kicks off this collection, you can tell from the stuffy suits, office setting, and general demeanor of the band that they’re griping about the universal woes of dem corporate blues.
Perhaps the most influential of the artists here, Plastics were formed in 1976 by a bunch of Tokyo fashionistas and artists. They got their big break when lead singer Toshio Nakanishi slipped the Talking Heads’ David Byrne a copy of their demos and an impressed Byrne set them up with the B-52s’ manager. The band dissolved after recording and touring behind several internationally successful albums (including an appearance on SCTV, of all places), but are still fondly remembered and considered massively successful with the alternative set. They’re even credited on allmusic (the bible of pop, as far as I’m concerned) with aiding the transformation of Kayōkyoku into J-pop4.
The five artists showcased here are perfect testaments to the symbiotic relationship that Eastern and Western pop culture have enjoyed for at least twenty years. They ran everything from merseybeat to techno through a singularly Japanese filter and produced inimitable, bilingual pop music that fulfills a craving you didn’t even know you had! In turn, they influenced a whole new generation of bands on both sides of the Pacific. It’s a beautiful thing.
The next time you hear someone claim something is “Big in Japan,” don’t take that at face value. The willfully ignorant implication there is that Japan is chomping at their inferior bit to greedily gobble up the product of the clearly superior Western culture. Sure, without Devo we’d never have The Plastics, but without The Plastics we’d never have The Boredoms, and without The Boredoms we’d never have Nirvana (quiet, you) and today’s alternative music would be the most boring shit you’ve ever heard. I think it’s about time that we start making Japanese bands “Big in America.”
1 Yes, we do have an obsession with Japanese pop culture (and rightfully so!). Roll call: Hello Kitty, anime, Nintendo, karaoke. These are just a few examples.
2 Guy De Launey (1995). "Not-so-big in Japan: Western pop music in the Japanese market." Popular Music, 14 , pp 203-225 doi:10.1017/S0261143000007443