Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon


Last Friday’s Concert: Hayakawa Yoshio and Sakuma Masahide

Posted in J-Rock,Japanese literature,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the October 22nd, 2013

Thanks to all who turned out for last Friday’s concert at International House, University of Chicago, by Hayakawa Yoshio and Sakuma Masahide. It was the keynote performance for the 2013 Association for Japanese Literary Studies Annual Meeting. The theme of the conference was “Performance and Japanese Literature,” and the concert turned into a powerful instance of performance in all of its aspects: ephemeral, emotional, communal. Many in the audience ended up in tears, including those who spoke no Japanese and were responding solely to the music itself. The concert ended with three standing ovations and two encores.

In the weeks leading up to the event I wrote a series of blog entries here and on the conference website, introducing the performers and their music. I found it a struggle all along: song lyrics never submit willingly to translation, and I often found myself flailing as I tried to find apt words to convey what the pieces were doing. For example, I described Hayakawa’s composition “Tosan e no tegami” (Letter to my father) as an act of musical mourning. That never felt quite right, but I couldn’t find better words to name the performance the song carries out.

Watching it and the other pieces being played last Friday night, though, it hit me. The songs aren’t about mourning; they are about the struggle that art mounts against death. I didn’t feel it was my place to announce here or in introducing the band that Sakuma has been diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer and that this could turn out to be one his final live performances (Sakuma has himself been very frank about his illness on his own blog, where he writes movingly about the difficulties he has faced since the discovery of a brain tumor this past summer: often his hands won’t move the way he wants them to along the neck of his guitar). But Hayakawa mentioned the illness from the stage on Friday evening and turned the concert into a tribute to his longtime collaborator.

Suddenly, the songs took on a new hue. That magnificent coda in ”Karada to uta dake no kankei” (The direct relation between body and song), a cover of a song originally done by hi-posis but that Hayakawa has very much made his own, never felt so powerful. The pounding, repetitive music of the early verses, with their overtly sexual lyrics depicting music almost as a kind of animal rutting, suddenly shifts to a sweet, soaring melodic line, and Hayakawa sings with passion “Uta dake ga nokoru” (only the song remains: in other words, the only thing that will get out alive is the music itself). It’s always a cathartic moment, but under the circumstances on Friday it became unforgettable. Watching Hayakawa’s face as he sung and Sakuma’s hands as he played, the message was clear: we will all die soon enough, but as long as we are playing music, we’re still alive. And even after death wins out over us individually, the music will live on as a trace of our struggle.

It’s a theme Hayakawa returns to over and over in his compositions, especially in those from the years since his 1994 return to music. Art and eros are our only flimsy weapons in the fight to hold death at bay. Death will surely win in the end, but we will continue singing until then, and if we are lucky the song will persist after we are gone. It’s a simple message and not a particularly new one. Yet on Friday night, we could feel its truthfulness in our flesh, in the goosebumps and tears that the music summoned up.

The set list:

1) 「ひまわりの花」(Himawari no hana; Sunflowers): title song from Hayakawa’s 1995 solo album
2) 「赤色のワンピース」 (Akairo no wanpiisu; Red dress)
3) 「堕天使ロック」(Datenshi rokku; Fallen angel rock): one of two JACKS’ songs in the set
4) 「サルビアの花」 (Sarubia no hana: Salvia Flowers): Hayakawa’s best-known composition
5) 「H」 (H=Japanese slang for sexual desire)
6) 「躁と鬱の間で」(So to utsu no aida de; Between sadness and melancholy)
7) 「父さんへの手紙」 (Tosan e no tegami; Letter to my father)
8) 「身体と歌だけの関係」(Karada to uta dake no kankei; The direct relation between body and song)
9) 「青い月」(Aoi tsuki, Blue moon): a new song.
10) 「いつか」 (Itsuka; Sometime)
11) 「からっぽの世界」 (Karappo no sekai; Vacant world): JACKS’s debut single from 1968

First encore:
「この世で一番キレイなもの」(Kono yo de ichiban kirei na mono; The most beautiful thing in the world): title track from Hayakawa’s 1994 comeback solo album

Second encore:
「君でなくちゃだめさ」(Kimi de nakucha dame sa; Nobody but you)

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The Music of Hayakawa Yoshio (5): “Music”

Posted in J-Rock,Music by bourdaghs on the October 15th, 2013

(In anticipation of the October 18, 2013 concert by Hayakawa Yoshio and Sakuma Masahide at the University of Chicago, over the next few weeks I will be posting a series of entries here introducing Hayakawa’s music. More information about the concert, which is free and open to the public, is available here.)

iu mono wa shirazu

With the song “Music” (Ongaku), Hayakawa returns to a theme he’s explored in a number of compositions: the basic purpose of music. Suspicious of attempts to analyze his art rationally, Hayakawa seeks the meaning of music at a more basic, erotic level of emotion and physical existence. Musically, the song enacts its lyrical sentiment, stripping the arrangement down to the very basics: pulsating piano chords that underscore Hayakawa’s passionate vocals.

The song first appeared on his 2000 solo album, Hear songs from where there is no song (Uta wa uta no nai tokoro kara kikoete kuru). Hayakawa also included a concert performance of the song on his 2002 live album, Those who speak don’t understand, those who understand don’t speak (Iu mono wa shirazu, shiru mono wa iwazu).

Here is the original 2000 recording of the song:

“Music”
(Words and music by Hayakawa Yoshio)
English translation by Michael Bourdaghs

You can sing without your voice
Sounds come where there is no sound:
In the big round moon, in your smiling face
Life itself plays music

It’s not only songs that sing
A heart that feels is music
A word that gives courage, a teardrop that clarifies
To sing with every moment: that’s the ultimate

Words only reflect the heart
Speak or scream them, a mirror only reflects
But the truly wondrous defies interpretation
Music aims at something beyond music

What was I born to do?
It’s not always easy, this becoming myself
The brilliant sparks across the sky, music reverberates through flesh
With no particular goal, I walk on toward the end

********
“Ongaku”

Koe o dasanakutomo uta wa utaeru
Oto no nai tokoro ni oto wa orite kuru
Pokkari ukanda marui tsuki, anata no egao
Sonzai sono mono ga ongaku o kanaderu

Uta o utau no ga uta da to wa kagiranai
Kandō suru kokoro ga ongaku nan da
Yūki o morau hitokoto, yogore o otosu namida
Nichijō de utau koto ga nani yori mo suteki

Kotoba wa jibun no kokoro o utsushidasu mono
Nani o katatte mo sakende mo kagami ni utsuru dake
Hontō ni suburashii mono wa kaisetsu o kyozetsu suru
Ongaku ga mezashite iru no wa ongaku de wa nai

Boku wa nani o suru tame ni umarete kita no darō
Nando mo ochikominagaramo boku wa boku ni natte yuku
Yozora ni hanatsu ōkina hana, karada ni hibiku ongaku
Nan no yashin mo naku owari ni mukatte aruku

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Sakuma Masahide: Renaissance Man of J-Rock

Posted in J-Pop,J-Rock,Music by bourdaghs on the October 12th, 2013

Sakuma Masahide (佐久間正英) will be appearing with Hayakawa Yoshio in a free public concert here at the University of Chicago at 7:30 p.m. on October 18, 2013 (details here). A few words about Sakuma’s amazing career are certainly in order. He is a key figure in the history of Japanese popular music in many different guises–most notably, perhaps, as producer for more than 140 different acts that range across the spectrum, including such notable musicians as the Blue Hearts, BOØWY, HY, Judy and Mary, Teresa Teng, Glay, Soul Flower Union, Watanabe Misato, and L’Arc〜en〜Ciel.

Like Hayakawa, Sakuma is an alumnus of Wako University. While still a student, he began playing in folk groups. It was around 1975 when he joined the progressive rock group Yonin Bayashi (四人囃子) as its new bassist that he first attracted national attention. The band broke up a few years later, but Sakuma would be involved in a series of reunions that began in 1989 and have continued in the years since.

“Lady Violetta” by Yonin Bayashi, from their 1976 album, Golden Picnics:

From 1978-1981 Sakuma was a member of Plastics, a new wave band whose absurdist style and postmodern sound made them comrades to such Western contemporaries as the B-52s and Devo. Plastics enjoyed enormous critical success, both inside and outside of Japan. They toured regularly in North America and Europe, in addition to Japan, and appeared as musical guests on the SCTV program in North America. Trouser Press in its entry on the group describes them as ” A great, cool, original band that might just as well be from Mars.”

Plastics performing “Top Secret Man” live in Los Angeles, 1980

Sakuma’s career as a producer took off in earnest after the break up of Plastics. He also continued to be active as a performer and studio musician. In 1999, he became a member of NiNa, an international supergroup that brought together musicians from the B-52s (Kate Pierson), Judy and Mary (YUKI), the British new-wave band Japan (Mick Karn), Plastics (Sakuma and Shima Takemi), and acclaimed studio drummer Steven Wolf. The group released one album and several singles.

In 2001 Sakuma became a founding member of another international supergroup. The d.e.p. brought together Sakuma and Karn with Taiwanese vocalist Vivian Hsu 徐若瑄, Tsuchiya Masami (Ippu-Do), and Gota Yashiki (Simply Red). The name was an abbreviation of “doggie eels project.” As Sakuma would later explain,

“Dogs and eels are such a strange combination….The band is kind of like that. Putting Vivian (Hsu), Mick Karn, Gota (Yashiki) and all of us in a band together is such a strange combination.”

The band released one album and a couple of singles–and reformed briefly in 2010 to record new material in support of bandmate Karn after he announced that he was suffering from cancer.

Around 2004 Sakuma began collaborating with Hayakawa Yoshio, recording together and playing live–sometimes under the name Ces Chiens. In the decade since, they’ve continued to perform Hayakawa’s music, both from Hayakawa’s days as leader of the legendary 1960s underground folk-rock band the Jacks and from his subsequent solo career.

In 2008 Sakuma formed another band, unsuspected monogram. The unit includes members from a number of Japanese alternative rock bands and has so far released one album.

One other unique musical activity deserves mention. Beginning in 2010 Sakuma launched a remarkable series under the title “Goodnight to Followers.” For more than three years, every evening he would issue a new recording of an original composition to his followers on Twitter and Facebook. By the time he decided to slow down the pace of the project this past March, the series consisted of more than one thousand original pieces. The recordings from the series, mostly ambient acoustic numbers, are archived on Sakuma’s SoundCloud page. Here’s one typical piece from the project:

What a remarkable career! Sakuma truly is the Renaissance Man of J-Rock.

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The Music of Hayakawa Yoshio (4): “Letter to My Father”

Posted in J-Rock,Music by bourdaghs on the October 7th, 2013

(In anticipation of the October 18, 2013 concert by Hayakawa Yoshio and Sakuma Masahide at the University of Chicago, over the next few weeks I will be posting a series of entries here introducing Hayakawa’s music. More information about the concert, which is free and open to the public, is available here.)

HayakawYoshio

“Letter to My Father” 「父さんへの手紙」 appears on Hayakawa’s sixth solo album, Uta wa uta no nai tokoro kara kikoete kuru (Sony, 2000). Taking autobiographical materials as its source, the song explores a topic that Hayakawa also sometimes writes about in his published essays: his relations with his own family. Simultaneously elegiac and celebratory, the song explores the possibility that music can help us accomplish the work of mourning.

Video of Hayakawa performing “Letter to My Father” in a television appearance:

“Letter to My Father”
(Music and lyrics by Hayakawa Yoshio)
English translation by Michael Bourdaghs

Back in the days when my father was dating my mother
That line Dad spoke in front of the shaved-ice café:
‘I’ll wait here outside, so
You go in by yourself and have some.’

Such a funny dad
Drove me crazy, but I love him
The same blood flows in me

Hey, Dad, how you doing?
I’m still singing my songs
About that uncontrollable part inside of me
About those sad thoughts with nowhere to go

Still don’t understand a thing
Still seeking out beauty
Wish you could hear them, Dad

Hey, Dad, there’s this great place in Hakone Okuyumoto
Let’s go soak in the hot springs and watch the moon together

Me, I haven’t changed a bit, still a difficult person
Never feel the same as others do
Never go visit your grave, Dad
Just stare absentminded at the sky

But it’s not as if you were
Really there beneath the black soil;
Look within each heart

Hey, Dad, all those rituals and ceremonies, they’re just pointless, for show, right?
Hey, Dad, how do I become a good person?

Hey, Dad, I wish we’d shared more laughs, more heart-to-heart talks
Hey, Dad, let’s take Mom to watch the fireworks again someday

******

“Tōsan e no tegami”

Mukashi, tōsan ga kaasan to deito shita toki
Kōriya no mae de tōsan ga itta serifu
Watashi wa soto de matte imasu kara
Anata dake tabete kinasai

Sonna okashi na tōsan ga
Boku wa komaru kedo suki da yo
Onaji chi ga nagarete iru

Nee tōsan, ogenki desu ka
Are kara boku wa uta o utattemasu
Jibun no naka no te ni oenu bubun ya
Yukiba no nai kanashimi ya omoi o

Nani hitotsu wakatte nai kedo
Utsukushii mono o tsukamitakute
Tōsan ni mo kiite moraitakute

Nee tōsan, Hakone Okuyumoto ni ii onsen ga arunda
Nee tōsan, tsuki o minagara issho ni atatamarō yo

Aimokawarazu boku wa henkutsu na no de
Hito to onaji kimochi ni narenai
Tōsan no hakamairi ni mo ikazu
Bonyari to sora o nagametemasu

Kurai tsuchi no naka ni tōsan ga
Nemutte iru wake wa nai
Sorezore no kokoro no naka sa

Nee tōsan, arayuru gishiki wa wazatorashiku muda de kokkei na mono da yo ne
Nee tōsan, dōshitara boku wa sunao ni nareru no deshō ka

Nee tōsan, motto uchitokete shimijimi to katari warai aitakatta
Nee tōsan, mata kaasan to issho ni hanabi o miyō ne

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The Music of Hayakawa Yoshio (3): “The Most Beautiful Thing in this World”

Posted in J-Rock,Music by bourdaghs on the September 22nd, 2013

(In anticipation of the October 18, 2013 concert by Hayakawa Yoshio and Sakuma Masahide at the University of Chicago, over the next few weeks I will be posting a series of entries here introducing Hayakawa’s music. More information about the concert, which is free and open to the public, is available here.)

早川義夫 キレイ

“The Most Beautiful Thing in This World” (Kono yo de ichiban kirei na mono) is the title track from Hayakawa’s second solo album, released in 1994 on Sony Records. With music and lyrics by Hayakawa, this was the song by which he announced his return to active recording and performing after more than two decades of self-imposed exile from the music industry. During his years away from performing, Hayakawa managed a bookstore in the suburbs of Tokyo and published a number of books of essays.

You can hear the original 1994 recording of the song here:

The Most Beautiful Thing in This World
(Music and lyrics by Hayakawa Yoshio)
English translation by Michael Bourdaghs

Feel my weak heart in my fingertips
Trembling pathetically
Naked in front of you all
Curled up, wretched me.

Why do I sing these songs?
What do I want to say—and to whom?
Wish I’d been born a stronger man
But I can’t help it, this is who I am.

The most beautiful thing in this world
The thing you need the most
The vast cosmos that embraces us all
A single teardrop, life seeking life

The most beautiful thing is not somewhere out there
It waits inside of you
Be a good person, be simple and true
The heart that knows beauty is beauty

*****

Yowai kokoro ga yubisaki ni tsutawatte
Itaitashii hodo furuete iru
Minna no mae de hadaka ni natte
Chijikomatte iru mijime na boku

Naze ni boku wa uta o utau no darō
Dare ni nani o tsutaetai no darō
Motto tsuyoku umaretakatta
Shikata ga nai ne kore ga boku da mono

Kono yo de ichiban kirei na mono wa
Anata ni totte hitsuyō na mono
Bokura o tsutsumu sōdai na uchū
Hitoshizuku no namida motomeau inochi

Kirei na mono wa doko ka ni aru no dewa nakute
Anata no naka ni nemutteru mono nan da
Ii hito wa ii ne sunao de ii ne
Kirei to omou kokoro ga kirei na no sa

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The Music of Hayakawa Yoshio (2): “Salvia Flowers”

Posted in J-Rock,Music by bourdaghs on the September 17th, 2013

(In anticipation of the October 18, 2013 concert by Hayakawa Yoshio and Sakuma Masahide at the University of Chicago, over the next few weeks I will be posting a series of entries here introducing Hayakawa’s music. More information about the concert, which is free and open to the public, is available here.)

hayakawa yoshio kakko ii koto

The Jacks broke up after releasing two studio albums, and in 1969 Hayakawa recorded his first solo album. Things That Are Cool Are Somehow So Uncool (Kakko ii koto wa nante kakko warui darō). Released on the underground URC label, the LP received widespread acclaim, with critics in particular singling out the track “Salvia Flowers” (サルビアの花), with music by Hayakawa and lyrics by Aizawa Yasuko, for praise. Whereas The Jacks’ music had been primarily guitar-based, for his solo debut Hayakawa switched to piano as his main instrument.

With its achingly beautiful melody and elegiac lyrics, “Salvia Flowers” became Hayakawa’s most widely covered composition. It has subsequently been performed by numerous performers from across the popular music spectrum, ranging from Kuwata Keisuke (Southern All Stars) to Inoue Yōsui, Yuki Saori, Agata Morio, and Yamamoto Linda. It also remains a fixture of Hayakawa’s concert repertoire.

The original 1969 recording of “Salvia Flowers”:

Hayakawa performing the song with violinist Honzi on Japanese television circa 2005:

“Salvia Flowers” (Sarubia no hana)
(Music by Hayakawa Yoshio, lyrics by Aizawa Yasuko)
English translation by Michael Bourdaghs

Always, always wanted to do it: take salvia flowers
and drop them into your room
To cover your bed in red salvia flowers
And hold you till we die

And yet, and yet: you’ve gone to another
Even though my love is deeper

Weeping, I chased you through a storm of cherry blossoms
The church bell rang untrue

The doors opened and you appeared, the false flower-bride
Threw a glance at my stunned face
Weeping, I chased you through a storm of cherry blossoms
Falling and stumbling, falling and stumbling, I ran on and on

******

Itsumo itsumo omotteta sarubia no hana o
Anata no heya no naka ni nageiretakute
Soshite kimi no beddo ni sarubia no akai hana shikitsumete
Boku wa kimi o shinu made dakishimete iyō to

Nanoni nanoni dōshite hoka no hito no tokoro ni
Boku no ai no hō ga suteki nanoni

Nakinagara kimi no ato o oikakete hanafubuki mau michi o
Kyōkai no kane no ne wa nante usoppachi nanosa

Tobira ga aite dete kita kimi wa itsuwari no hanayome
Hoho o kowabarase boku o chiratto mita
Nakinagara kimi no ato o oikakete hanafubuki mau michi o
Korogenagara korogenagara hashiritsuzuketa no sa

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The Music of Hayakawa Yoshio (1): “Love Generation”

Posted in J-Rock,Japanese literature,Music by bourdaghs on the September 11th, 2013

(In anticipation of the October 18, 2013 concert by Hayakawa Yoshio and Sakuma Masahide at the University of Chicago, over the next few weeks I will be posting a series of entries here introducing Hayakawa’s music. More information about the concert, which is free and open to the public, is available here.)

VacantWorld

“Love Generation” (「ラブ・ゼネレーション」) with lyrics and music by Hayakawa, was a stand-out track on Vacant World [Jakkusu no sekai, 1968], the celebrated debut album by The Jacks, Hayakawa’s 1960s folk-rock group. With Hayakawa’s searing vocals, Mizuhashi Haruo’s psychedelic guitar, Tanino Hitoshi’s fluid bass, and Kida Takasuke’s jazz-influenced drumming, the original recording is an excellent example of the dark, moody style of The Jacks that captivated audiences on the underground music scene of late 1960s Japan.

Okabayashi Nobuyasu, the “God of Japanese Folk Music,” recorded a cover version of “Love Generation” on his classic 1970 album, Leap Before You Look (Miru mae ni tobe). Hayakawa himself has also revisited this composition repeatedly during his solo career. In addition, the song provided the title for Hayakawa’s first book, a lively collection of essays first published in 1972 and still in print today.

The original Jacks’ recording of “Love Generation”:

Hayakawa’s cover of the song from his 1995 solo album Sunflower [Himawari no hana]:

“Love Generation”
(Lyrics and music by Hayakawa Yoshio)
English translation by Michael Bourdaghs

When we want to start something
We don’t want to fake being alive
So sometimes we fake being dead
That’s right: we fake being dead.

If you want to, you can fly through the sky
The swelling of joy when you feel that way
We cry as we exchange cups of a saké you can’t drink
That’s right: we exchange cups of a sake you can’t drink

It’s those things everyone says are true because they want to believe
It’s all those lofty things: those are the things you should question

Adults are supposed to be better than this
You’ll find the real adults among the children

It’s because I want to be alone
That I talk with so many people, like a fool
But deep in our words, the love—
But deep in our words, the love—
Overflows

***********

Bokura wa nani ka o shihajimeyō to
Ikiteru furi o shitakunai tame ni
Toki ni wa shinda furi o shite miseru
Toki ni wa shinda furi o shite miseru no da.

Shiyō to omoeba sora datte toberu
Sō omoeru toki ureshisa no amari
Nakinagara nomenai sake o kawasu
Nakinagara nomenai sake o kawasu no da.

Shinjitai tame ni tadashii to omowarete iru mono koso
Subete arayuru ōkina mono o utagau no da

Otonnatte iu no wa motto suteki nan da
Kodomo no naka ni otona wa ikiten da

Jitsu wa hitori ni naritai yue ni
Baka mitai ni takusan no hito to hanasu no da
Bokura no kotoba no oku ni wa ai ga
Bokura no kotoba no oku ni wa ai ga
Ippai aru.

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Bang! Bang! Bang!: The Evolution of a J-Rock Classic

Posted in J-Pop,J-Rock,Japanese film,Music by bourdaghs on the November 30th, 2012

(Recycling something originally posted here in 2009)

In 1967, Group Sounds superstars The Spiders recorded a song composed by their rhythm guitarist, Kamayatsu Hiroshi. Not much was expected of “Ban Ban Ban,” a crude three-chord rocker with throwaway lyrics and a riff supposedly lifted from a song by The Mindbenders. The tune was originally used as the B-side for a single and later included on the band’s fourth album. Here’s the original Spiders’ version, taken from one of their movies:

There was something about “Ban Ban Ban,” though, that made it stick in people’s minds: the rhythm, the catchy chorus, the sheer joy of it all. It’s become a J-rock classic now, one that every J-Rock band has to know, something akin to the status of “Wild Thing” or “Smoke on the Water” in the West.

Here are 1990s rockers Flying Kids performing the song on a drive through Tokyo. They get bonus points for digging up replicas of The Spiders’ old red doorman costumes:

http://nicoviewer.net/sm9906496

And here are today’s fave-rave indie rockers Go!Go!7188 performing the song live.

Probably the most memorable cover of the song comes from “Monsieur” Kamayatsu himself. In early 1990, he was recording a new album in London. Word came down that all hell was breaking lose in Berlin, and so Kamayatsu headed over to Germany to see what was happening. The Wall had been breached, but not torn down yet, and there were still military patrols on both sides. Kamayatsu writes in his autobiography that he figured out that patrols walked by at two-minute intervals. Timing it carefully, he waited for one patrol to pass, then scrambled up to the top of the wall with acoustic guitar in hand. He dashed off an impromptu rendition of “Ban Ban Ban” for the assembled crowd, and luckily the moment was captured on video.

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Pop Envy

Posted in Current Events,J-Pop,J-Rock,Music by bourdaghs on the November 27th, 2012

I think I’m the last human being on earth who actually cares about this. NHK yesterday announced the line-up for this year’s “Kohaku Uta Gassen,” its annual New Years Eve pop music spectacle. At first glance, the only thing that caught my eye was the fact that recently reunited J-Rock veterans Princess Princess were going to be making their debut appearance on the show. Beyond that, it was just a ho-hum list of the usual suspects. You can check out the whole roster here (Japanese-language).

But then press reports (e.g., here and here) started pointing out a conspicuous absence. In recent years, the bill has always included top K-Pop idols, but this year nary a single performer from across the Sea of Japan (or, depending on one’s geopolitical allegiances, the East Sea). NHK cites “public opinion” as the reason for this, referring obliquely to the flare-up earlier this year over the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima islands (see this report from the NY Times on the increasingly bitter row).

This carries on a news thread from earlier this year: the odd fact that Japan was the one place on earth where PSY’s Internet sensation “Gangnam Style,” now the single most watched video in YouTube history, failed to become a hit. According to news reports, South Korea was “irked” about this indifference. Ian Martin, writing in the Japan Times last month, speculates that this may be entirely to Japan’s credit:

But it’s Psy who is the first Korean artist that the West gathers to its collective heart, while Japan stands by nonplussed, and I have to wonder if a lot of the reason for “Gangnam Style” ‘s Western popularity still boils down to, “Hey, look at the funny little Asian man dancing!” (This was essentially the gist of a sketch on comedy show Saturday Night Live that parodied “Gangnam Style” on Sept. 15. Psy also made an appearance in that sketch.)

It’s an awkward area to go into; no one likes to think of themselves as prejudiced. However, even if you’re not, mass media still wields influence on what society collectively considers cool. So think for a moment: How many genuinely “cool” Asian celebrities are there in the West? I don’t mean subcultural or art-house cool, so scrub Cornelius and Tony Leung off your list. I’m talking about Asian stars in the Western mainstream whose image is something people aspire toward and seek to imitate.

What’s struck me most about the “Gangnam Style” phenomenon is its close resemblance to 1963 and Sakamoto Kyu’s accidental worldwide hit, “Sukiyaki.” As I argue in my book, Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon, that incident has to be understood within its specific historical context, including the massive 1960 protests in Tokyo against renewal of AMPO–the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty–and the Cold War strain of Orientalism that transformed Japan into an object of fetishistic desire. Not to mention the escalating Vietnam War, for which Japan and Okinawa would serve as major staging areas.

The current tensions recall to mind something that Karatani Kojin wrote about a couple of decades ago. We have to always keep in mind that historians someday will write that we were living in the pre-war era.

This and That

Posted in Books,J-Pop,J-Rock,Japanese literature,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the November 10th, 2012

Apologies for the lack of updates these last two months. Not only have I returned to teaching from my sabbatical, I’ve also become department chair. Life is busy, in other words–but it keeps me off the streets.

This has come up rather suddenly, but I’ll be giving a talk at UCLA next week (Friday, November 16) on “Tokyo Boogie Woogie in California: The 1950 Sacramento Recordings in Japanese and Japanese-American Cultural History” (details available here). In the presentation, I’ll introduce the collection of 1950 concert recordings of Japanese musicians (Misora Hibari, Kawada Haruhisa, Yamaguchi Yoshiko, Watanabe Hamako, Kasagi Shizuko, among others) that I helped authenticate and that were in the news in Japan this past summer (see, for example, here and here). The man who discovered the recordings has now donated the entire collection to the UCLA library. While in Los Angeles, I’ll also be filming an interview for a television special about the recordings that will air later this year. I’ll post details about broadcast times when they become available.

I was also recently a guest on the NPR radio program “To the Best of our Knowledge,” talking about my book, Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop. You can listen to or download my segment here. And don’t forget about the online companion for the book that I’ve put together: I’ve heard from a few people who are teaching the book this all that the webpage was very useful.

The Japanese translation of the book continues to do very well, with nice reviews coming out in many magazines and newspapers (for example, here and here).

In the meanwhile, I am moving on to other scholarly projects: co-editing a two-volume series of new scholarly essays and translations related to early postwar Japanese literary criticism, finishing up a translation of Karatani Kojin’s magnum opus The Structure of World History (Sekaishi no kozo), and returning to a longstanding project that involves rethinking Natsume Soseki in relation to the problems of modern property regimes and world literature.

I’ll try to blog here a little more regularly in the coming months, too. It keeps me off the streets–the wild, wild streets.

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