Recently, I’ve been researching into Japanese music, and what’s immediately struck me is the almost complete lack of in-depth books on the subject. When even fellow medium anime is reasonably well-served (especially in the last few years) with a number of accessible, yet scholarly, tomes on the field – it all starts to feel a little suspicious.
What, exactly, is at work here?
Back in 1999, there was a CD release of ‘The Rough Guide‘ to the music of Japan. Even now, this result is one of the first that is returned when searching for ‘Japanese Music’ on the UK Amazon store. That’s right, a CD compilation from nearly 20 years ago.
When you filter the results to books only, the results are little better. The top result is an Out of Print item from 1990, while other results are mostly confined to pricey academic tomes coming in at between £20 – £90 in price. Amongst these, a single title (again, scholarly) professing to cover the popular music scene in any significant detail.
I looked elsewhere – and quickly stumbled across an article on the Japan Times recommending a number of books. Perfect! I thought. This was exactly what I was after. I emerged with a list of four key items:
Quit Your Band! Musical Notes from the Japanese Underground
by Ian F. Martin
by Julian Cope
Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation (Sign, Storage, Transmission)
by David Novak
Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop (Asia Perspectives: History, Society and Culture)
by Michael Bourdaghs
While all of these certainly looked more attractive and populist in approach going by their cover designs and a number of reviews from respected publications like The Quietus, the Amazon customer reviews again highlighted a lack of ‘general’ popularity. To be expected, perhaps, for a niche subject like Japanese music. But perhaps also belying each of the books more specialist approaches to an already specialist subject?
Where, in essence, was the modern equivalent to this ‘Rough Guide’ to Japanese Music? The kind of volume that you could see a layman picking up from the shelves of a WH Smith? I should at this point also point out 2014’s Made in Japan: Studies in Popular Music (Routledge Global Popular Music Series) – but again, its high price makes it relatively inaccessible to those that cannot rent it out from a University library, for example.
Further searches unveiled a recent publication (April 2017) from none other than Harvard University Press – Tokyo Boogie-Woogie: Japan’s Pop Era and Its Discontents. With its attractive cover art, this appeared like another strong candidate for what I was looking for. But an Amazon Reviewer warned otherwise – neatly summing up the kind of ‘state-of-play’ I’d been posturing about:
“Like most of the writing on Japanese music that has appeared in English (Yano, Atkins, etc.) this book suffers from a serious lack of depth of knowledge of the big wide subject that is Japanese pop music. Yes, this book covers some of the songs that were the most popular, but there is really no consideration of the vast majority of pop music that is not well remembered today, so it can hardly be called a history. Assembly line song construction, by its very nature and regardless of its intended market, concentrates on what the professionals believe the public wants to hear and buy. For this reason, it is necessary to look at a broad swath of less popular music in order to make any conclusions about the society or music culture as a whole. Choosing only the exceptional hits is obviously different to studying the music culture. Of course, that would require a different type of study. This book is written from an academic standpoint, where printed texts are prioritized and where even the songs themselves are treated as texts and not musical experiences. So many major artists are completely ignored in favor of social critics, whose actual influence is dubious to say the least. If you’d like to know more about the music culture and its trends, this is not the best place to look. We’re still waiting for a basic history of Japanese pop music in English.”
Moving Forwards – The state of Japanese music in the UK in 2017
This post was partly motivated by a prevailing attitude I’ve had for some years now surrounding the general awareness and availability around Japanese music in the UK. A couple of years ago I toyed with the idea of starting a blog focusing precisely on this topic, but due to various time constraints, never really kept up with it.
In one sense – we’re in a better situation than ever before. The likes of JPU Records are doing absolutely stalwart work bringing over some fantastic, hip-as-you-like acts from Japan and giving them proper UK releases. Until this year, this was also paired up with the immensely enjoyable gigs at the Pipeline near Liverpool Street Station – which I hear has now sadly closed. These shows gave a real flavour of a ‘Japanese indie scene’, quite at odds with the visual flash and glam-allure of the acts brought over as the part of events like Hyper Japan.
And speaking of Hyper Japan – they too represent a continuing bastion for the exposure of Japanese music in the UK. Though I feel they perhaps peaked a couple of years ago, when benefitting from the proximity of France’s Japan Expo, they brought over A-list talent like Eir Aoi (singer of tracks from Sword Art Online, Kill La Kill etc.) – fitting neatly into the purpose built venue space available at the O2 Arena. Since Hyper Japan has moved to Tobacco Dock, while the line-up of musical acts has remained impressively varied, I feel it has yet to match the O2 year in terms of fame/calibre.
Availability of Japanese music on pay-to-own services like iTunes has definitely improved over the past few years – though parity on streaming services like Spotify remains frustratingly poor. With the majority of UK music listening shifting to services like Spotify – I believe this lack of availability here remains a major hurdle that needs to be overcome. Play-counts of Japanese music on YouTube (including comments from Western fans) indicates there is a massive appetite here – and while the announcement earlier this year of streaming service AniUta goes some way toward alleviating these issues, I still believe full availability of these tracks on Spotify is the ‘holy grail’ that must, inevitably, at some point be worked toward.
Beyond availability – shifting times
Of course, availability is only half the issue. Last year we saw Babymetal score one of the first significant Japanese language entries on the UK album charts in years. Just seeing the news coverage on the Official Charts website around this was a kind of victory in its own right.
But with this, I started to ponder the further state of popular music media awareness around Japanese music in the UK. A couple of years ago, When Hatsune Miku fever was at its peak and she made her much touted appearance on Letterman, I entertained (admittedly rather hopeful) dreams that this might be a kind of ‘gateway’ to mass coverage of Japanese music. A kind of ‘Gangnam Style-effect’ for Japanese Music that might, even if only for a month or two, ensure at least a few hefty features in key publications giving exposure to genuinely popular, current Japanese acts.
But ‘peak’ Miku fever passed – leaving the Laurel Halo Barbican event earlier this year featuring Miku a kind of strange outlier; pushing her in an avant-garde art-house sense, very much after the fact. A cool event, without a doubt, but one that felt like it approached the Miku phenomenon in a highly post-modern sense, and not as the potentially populist force she can represent. Sat behind me in the audience was a young girl – maybe not even in her teens – who had turned up with her Mum; it was evident she had turned up very much for a ‘pop’ show, and the event was resolutely *not* that.
The shifting zeitgeist around phenomena like Miku got me thinking about what Western fandom for Japanese music represented in the here and now. Perhaps – I thought – the appetite for anime-style acts and their periphera (including Miku) was moving on. Maybe, the ‘core appetite’ resided elsewhere.
Recent trends indicated something quite separate – and one that, really, I should have expected. Japanese acts, singing in English.
Enter One OK Rock – leading a charge that also includes fellow pop-rockers Man With A Mission. These acts are fantastic – creating catchy, energetic tunes at a frenetic pace which has already seen them both reside in the Kerrang playlist in the UK. This, in itself, is a feat in its own right – following on from the ‘harder’ brand of Japanese metal acts singing in English like Crossfaith and Coldrain. Via the medium of rock channels like Kerrang – which have always offered a kind of openness beyond the tightly regulated commercialism of the likes of Radio 1 etc, Japanese Rock has carved out its own route into the sub-mainstream.
And alongside this – something else; ironically, on the very platform scorned by so many Japanese acts – Spotify. Centered around acts like Wednesday Campanella (who I first heard a good few years ago via the excellent podcast It Came From Japan) as well as similarly ‘trendy’ dance-pop hybrid acts like Kero Kero Bonito and Yasutaka Nakata, a new niche of what I like to call ‘hipster’ pop – Japanese acts that specifically cater to and slip effortlessly into the wider trend of Spotify indie-dance playlists.
Whether it be via Kerrang’s new cadre of Japanese acts singing in English, or a slick medley of impossibly hip dance acts packing out Spotify playlists, Japanese music in the UK is arguably in more robust health than it has ever been. But mainstream (or even ‘sub’ mainstream) coverage remains frustratingly elusive.
Which brings me back to the original question – Why are there hardly any books on Japanese Music in English?
Maybe the problem here lies not so much with availability – but more with a kind of ‘breaking the ice’ mindset. Look at other (albeit arguably far more mainstream) culture icebreaker phenomenons like the current Danish Hygge or Japanese minimalist publishing trends. An initial book that generates word of mouth – followed by a deluge of imitators and band-wagoning.
Maybe Japanese music needs this moment. Maybe not even as a book. But somewhere. Something. To light the spark…