Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon

Wish I’d Had These Books in Hand Back Then

Posted in Books,J-Pop,Music by bourdaghs on the July 19th, 2012

I finished writing my book Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop in late 2010. Chapter Five, on 1970s New Music, was the last one I worked on; the other chapters were mostly finished (and published separately as articles and chapters) years before that. I was able to make a few last-minute revisions in the summer of 2011, but for the most part my work on the book was finished in 2010. Since then, several important new books have appeared in Japan. I wish I’d had these available to me when I was doing the research for the project. They would have not only made my job easier, they would have made the book better.

Sakoguchi Sanae’s (砂古口早苗) Bugi no joo: Kasagi Shizuko (『ブギの女王・笠置シヅ子』) (Gendai Shokan, 2010) is the first biography of Kasagi Shizuko, Japan’s early postwar “Queen of Boogie Woogie” (excluding a quickie autobiography that Kasagi published in 1948, which I do cite in the book). It includes many photographs and a useful chronology of Kasagi’s life. Sakoguchi’s book fills a definite need: I wonder why it took so long for someone to write up the remarkable story of Kasagi’s life?

Ue o muite aruko (『上を向いて歩こう』)(Iwanami Shoten, 2011) by Sato Go (佐藤剛) is another long-overdue study, this one on Sakamoto Kyu’s 1963 worldwide hit, “Sukiyaki,” which I take up in my chapter three. There are several other books out about Sakamoto’s life, which I cited, but this is the first book-length study to focus on the cultural repercussions of Sakamoto’s global smash, both inside and outside of Japan. Like me, Sato is interested in Sakamoto’s relation to contemporary Western popular music, including Elvis Presley and the Beatles.

Yuasa Manabu (湯浅学)is a prominent music critic in Japan–and one of the participants, along with Hagiwara Kenta, in the taidan dialogue that was included in the Japanese translation of my book. Ongaku ga orite kuru (『音楽が降りてくる』 (Kawada Shobo Shinsha, 2011) is a collection of his articles and liner notes. It opens with a series of essays on 1970s New Music (Happy End, Hosono Haruomi, Endo Kenji, etc.), including the “rock in Japanese” debate that I write about. The other chapters range widely across genres and styles: Misora Hibari, Nakajima Miyuki, Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, etc.

Wajima Yusuke’s (輪島裕介) Tsukurareta ‘Nihon no kokoro’ shinwa (『創られた「日本の心」神話』)(Kobunsha Shinsho, 2010) is a critical history of postwar Japanese popular music centered on the genre of enka. The winner of the Suntory Gakugeisho book prize, it starts off with a question I explore in my own book: was Misora Hibari really an enka singer?

All of the above are highly recommended to anyone interested in the subject. When I started studying the history of Japanese popular music back in the late 1990s, I was shocked by the paucity of reliable scholarship on the topic available in Japan. As the above titles suggest, the situation has improved considerably since then, and I think it will continue to get better as writers and scholars in Japan continue to reassess the crucial legacy of music in Japan’s modernity.

If you know of any other useful recent studies of Japanese popular music, please drop a line in the “Comments” section.

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On YMO and Aging Gracefully

Posted in J-Pop,Music by bourdaghs on the July 13th, 2012

We were watching the live upstream feed of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s closing set at the No Nuke music festival outside of Tokyo last Sunday when my wife noted how well the members of the band have aged. It’s true. All three not only look terrific, they’ve also consistently been making excellent music the past few years. Would we could all be so vital when we reach our sixties.

Thanks to his work in film music and acting (cf. The Last Emperor), Sakomoto Ryuichi is the best-known member outside Japan. With his strong commitment to environmental and anti-nuclear activism, he remains one of the great moral authorities in the world of Japanese popular culture (I’ve been thinking about “moral authority” in pop music a good deal these days). He also continues to write and record challenging yet beautiful music, moving effortlessly between the worlds of pop, classical, and even Brazilian music. Here he is performing his composition “Thousand Knives” live in Europe from his world tour in support of his 2010 CD, Playing the Piano. On the tour, which we were caught here in Chicago, he played two pianos: one with his hands, the other by way computer programming and sampler.

Like Sakamoto, Hosono Haruomi continues to float between genres. The hero of chapter four in my recent book, he last year released HoSoNoVa, a delightful CD–and his first album with Hosono singing all the tracks in 38 years! It includes about half original numbers and half covers–including Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” Jimmie Rodgers’ “Desert Blues,” Hoagy Carmichael’s “Lazy Bones” and Leiber/Stroller’s “Love Me.” As that list suggests, Hosono continues to explore the possibilities of hybrid crossings of musical styles. Backing musicians include some of Hosono’s old cronies (Suzuki Shigeru from Happy End, Hayashi Tatsuo from Tin Pan Alley, Van Dyke Parks) and some new faces as well (Yoko Ono, Cocco, Nakamura Mari). Very nice.

When I first encountered YMO back in the 1980s, I thought the band consisted of Sakamoto Ryuichi and two other guys. Then, as I discovered Happy End and Hosono’s solo work, I revised that view: YMO, I decided, consisted of Sakamoto, Hosono, and some other guy whose name I could never remember. Then, about seven years ago, I finally discovered Takahashi Yukihiro. The turning point was the Sadistic Mika Band reunion: I hadn’t connected the dots until then and realized that Takahashi came out of that legendary band. When I saw them in concert in 2006, I was struck by the intelligence and beauty (not an easy combination to pull off) of Takahashi’s compositions. Since then, I’ve been a fan of his terrific new outfit, pupa. I also very much like Last Train to Exit Town, the new CD he put out last year with Suzuki Keiichi (late of the Moonriders) under the name “Beatniks.” As I’ve written here before, what really strikes me about Takahashi’s recent music is his ability to combine electronically generated sounds and acoustic instruments into a lush, organic sound. Maybe YMO was really Takahashi and two other guys all along?

I hope these three guys keep on making music for decades to come. I mean, look how good they looked and sounded last weekend. Hosono sure plays a mean bottle:

Those 1950 California Concert Recordings by Misora Hibari and Others

Posted in Current Events,J-Pop,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the July 6th, 2012

In the last few days, the Japanese press have been reporting on a discovery I was involved in of a set of previously unknown recordings made in Sacramento, California around 1950 of a number of Japanese singers in concert. You can see the story in Japanese in the Yomiuri, Nikkei and Asahi newspapers, among others. In English it’s run in the Japan Times and the Mainichi.

The press coverage has understandably focused on the recording of the June, 1950 concert by then thirteen-year-old Misora Hibari and her mentor, Kawada Haruhisa. It’s a remarkably clear recording of the full concert, almost ninety minutes long. But the collection also includes recordings of concerts by a remarkable range of popular musicians from the day: Yamaguchi Yoshiko (known during the war as “Ri Koran”); the “Queen of Boogie Woogie” Kasagi Shizuko together with her mentor, composer Hattori Ryoichi and his sister, singer Hattori Tomiko; Watanabe Hamako together with Kouta Katsutaro; and the Akireta Boys in their postwar incarnation. There are also a number of recordings of performances by local Japanese-American musicians from the Sacramento area. The quality of the recordings vary from concert to concert (unfortunately, the Kasagi/Hattori concert recording has the lowest quality), but most are in remarkably good shape.

The recordings were actually discovered by a retired Bell Canada sound technician who collects old recording devices. In August, 2008, he purchased two boxes of wire recordings in an online auction from a seller in California, without knowing what the contents were. When he received the reels (twelve in all), he digitized them and began to figure out that they were concert recordings of Japanese performers. Although he speaks no Japanese, he was able to figure out the names of most of the performers and that the concerts themselves were held in Sacramento. Through an Internet search, he found my name because of a paper I delivered at a conference several years ago on the 1950 American concert tours by Misora Hibari and Kasagi Shizuko.

He contacted me in the summer of 2009 and described his discovery. To be honest, I was a first highly doubtful–I thought perhaps he had discovered recordings of concerts made in Japan that somehow happened to fall into the hands of someone in California. But he was kind enough to send me copies of the recordings. When I started listening to them, it was clear within minutes that these were indeed recordings of Sacramento concerts. It’s still not clear who made the recordings or for what purpose, but since they were clearly recorded directly off the stage microphone, it seems likely that it was someone connected with the Nichibei Theater, the venue in Sacramento that is mentioned in many of the recordings.

I’ve been working with the owner and other colleagues since (notably, Loren Kajikawa of the University of Oregon and Christine Yano of the University of Hawaii) to try to figure out how best to present this archive to the world. We did a roundtable panel at the Association for Asian Studies annual meeting in Toronto this past March and had a very good reception. The owner has since decided to donate the entire collection of recordings to the UCLA library. We have also sent a copy of the Misora Hibari concert to her management office in Tokyo, and I am currently working to find contact information for representatives of the other performers who appear on the recordings so that we can send them the files, as well.

I’m still in a state of disbelief about the discovery. I’d spent a good deal of time thinking about the 1950 concert tours. The U.S. Occupation lifted the ban on overseas travel by Japanese citizens in late 1949, and Japanese musicians scrambled to arrange American tours. Misora Hibari was invited to Hawaii by veterans of the 442nd Infantry Regiment and 100th Combat Battalion, the famous Japanese-American U.S. army units, for a charity show. From Hawaii, she traveled to the mainland for a concert tour on the West Coast. (More information about the Misora Hibari and Kawada Haruhisa 1950 tour can be found in a very helpful Japanese-language book,『川田晴久と美空ひばり―アメリカ公演』). The other performers crossed the Pacific shortly thereafter for their own tours.

Incidentally, I recently attended a dinner at UCLA where Senator Daniel Inouye was a guest of honor. Knowing that Sen. Inouye was a veteran of the 442nd, I asked him if he remembered the 1950 Hibari visit to Hawaii. He confirmed not only that he remembered it, but that he had been at concerts.

The recordings are significant in a number of ways. They give a remarkable snapshot of the state of popular music in Japan, circa 1950. To my knowledge, there are very few similar concert recordings from the period in existence. Moreover, they give a very palpable sense of the rapidity by which Japan was converted in the American imaginary from wartime enemy into Cold War friend. To my mind, the most intriguing aspect of the recordings is their significance for Japanese-American cultural history. I find it astonishing that a mere five years after their release from wartime internment camps, Japanese-American audiences in Sacramento and elsewhere were able to indulge so publicly and so gleefully in their cultural ties to Japan.

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The Sounds of Summer 2012 in Japan

Posted in Current Events,Music by bourdaghs on the July 1st, 2012

The media, both inside and outside of Japan, are finally starting to report on the massive demonstrations ongoing in Tokyo and elsewhere in protest against Prime Minister Noda’s decision to restart the Ohi nuclear power plant in Fukui Prefecture. Last Friday, tens of thousands gathered outside the Prime Minister’s residence in what has become a regular weekly event. Another large protest is planned for Shinjuku today, and on July 29 yet another protest will perform a symbolic circling of the Diet Building, the home of Japan’s national parliament.

Musician Sakamoto Ryuichi, who has been active in anti-nuclear and other environmentalist causes for decades, has just released a mesmerizing new recording, mixing sound samples from the protests outside the Ohi plant gates (“Saikado hantai!”: We oppose restarting the reactors!) with ambient-style music. You can listen to the piece here. He announced the release on his Twitter feed last night:

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