A creature of the icy north

The music scene in Japan is a lot like the business world in the sense that a lot of the most important work gets done at after-hours drinking parties. That’s where invitations get made, collaborations get discussed, networking gets done, and information gets shared.

They can be tremendously fun as well, and there’s a terrible danger of them becoming too fun. I have a nasty 22cm scar running down my left arm from a broken bone caused by a fall after “networking” too hard, and as a result I’ve spent the past year or so developing a system that allows me to avoid getting drunk without obviously looking as if that’s what I’m doing. I think anyone who spends a lot of time on either the social side of the music scene or in the business world ends up needing to develop a system like this.

After the gig I wrote about in my last post, there was an initial stage of this at the venue’s bar area. I got talking to an old acquaintance of mine, Masahiko, who I’d known in Tokyo through his band Sutekiss but who was now back in Sapporo where he had grown up. I found it interesting how he kept referring to Sapporo, a city with a population of around two million, as a “small town”.

“Yeah, but it’s an island,” he explained, “Not just because it’s on an island. It’s cut off culturally.”

A pertinent comparison might be Fukuoka, which is also cut off geographically from the mainland on the island of Kyushu, and which is a similar size to Sapporo (a little smaller). However, Fukuoka has an effect on its surrounding cities similar on a microcosmic level to the effect Tokyo has on the wider Kanto area. Fukuoka draws in people from Kitakyushu (pop. 1 million), Saga (pop. 250,000), and even as far as Kumamoto (pop. 750,000), Oita (pop. 500,000) and Yamaguchi (pop. 200,000). Hokkaido as an area is relatively unpopulated, with half the number of people of Kyushu, spread over more than twice the area. It has a smaller gravity well.

Fukuoka is also a link in a chain of big cultural cities running from Tokyo through Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima. For a band going on tour, it makes more sense to go west than to go east. Low Cost Carriers have made it easier to access, but that is only in recent years, and a long history of cultural isolation can leave deep cultural marks that take more than a few cheap flights to undo.

Given the short length of my stay, it’s difficult for me to say whether it’s really true that Sapporo punches below its weight. It has an entirely normal number of venues, the death of the indie record store is something lots of cities have had to deal with, and I’ve certainly come away from these few days with a long list of bands I need to check out.cheers

Things moved on to another stage as people started getting hungry. We were in the midst of a period of national holidays, and it was clear that members of Hasymonew and Benbe were planning to be out all night (folk musicians are the hardest-drinking species in music wherever you go, it seems). While the topic of conversation veered from the Japanese porn industry to the works of writers and avant-garde dramatists like Kobo Abe and Shuji Terayama, the crowd at this stage of the party were keen to educate me in the rich pop musical history of their prefecture. As with a lot of the music that emerges from a certain place only to be swiftly absorbed by the Tokyo-based music industry, it was interesting to see them struggle to place some of the musicians – “Were the Bloodthirsty Butchers from Hokkaido? What about Yumi Matsutoya? (Correct answers: “Yes, no.”) – but one name they were all sure about and which stood above all others, at least in this folk-influenced crowd, was Miyuki Nakajima.

Once Nakajima came up, Hasymonew’s music started making a lot more sense to me. I’d seen similarities with Tokyo-based singer-songwriter Shugo Tokumaru before, although while clearly sharing roots in a similar tradition, Hasymonew seemed to be doing something with more rawness, both emotionally and sonically. Hearing Nakajima’s name come up suddenly put those similarities and differences into perspective, since while coming from the same 1970s “new music” background as artists like Yumi Matsutoya and the slightly earlier Happy End, she had none of the softness round the edges that those artists brought. She was entirely a creature of the icy north, and it’s that take on the musical tradition that I was picking up on.

Hasymonew drums (l), Benbe vocals (r)
Hasymonew drums (l), Benbe vocals (r)

One girl at the party who had been quiet through all the ‘90s J-pop singalongs and intricate discussions of the genealogy of the Hokkaido hardcore scene became suddenly animated upon discovering I was British. She had recently been in the UK for a trio of music festivals and while she struggled to name a good local band, she could rattle off lists of British bands she loved, going back to the 60s. Despite not having been born in 1995, she had very strong views on the Blur-vs-Oasis chart battle (she’s a Blur fan, which is still the correct answer).

At this point, I went into my angry music grandpa mode and demanded to know why she wasn’t in a band herself. The answer she gave was the same one I’ve heard before, which comes down to the idea that what the cool bands do nowadays is too difficult. She can enjoy listening to it, but she doesn’t feel worthy of trying to actually do something like that.

This comes back to one of my big problems with indie and alternative music in Japan (and elsewhere? I don’t know) at the moment: that it’s too good, and as a result inaccessible. The edges of the sound may not be polished, but the musicianship often is. The role of simple, easy, “I can do that!” music has been colonised in the public sphere by idols. There seems to have been a growth in the number of young girls making cheap, lo-fi hip hop in recent years, although a lot of the fan culture and media representation around that seems to be copping far too much from idol music, and it’s clear that the industry sees these girls as more or less idols-in-training. Indie and underground music seems to have abandoned this space, which to me feels like an abandonment of an important part of its social responsibility.

Not that a 37-year-old dude angrily demanding you go home and instantly learn The Fall’s back catalogue by heart is going to help either, of course.

The other question it left me wondering about, however, is how much of Japan’s youth does it lose to places like London and New York simply by its music culture being unable to project as attractive an image? How many potential musicians does the scene lose in this way? For every kid from Sapporo who goes off to Tokyo to start a band, how many does Tokyo lose to London in the same way? There’s a whole community of Japanese musicians in Tokyo who got swept up in the London music scene, only to be unceremoniously ejected from the country when their student visas expired, and who live their lives in a constant dream of when they might return. Is the only thing that’s preventing a more thorough hollowing out of a certain type of outward-looking, cosmopolitan musician the spite and meanness of racist UK immigration policy?

This guy is the coolest dude I've met so far on my trip.
This guy is the coolest dude I’ve met so far on my trip.

Karaoke at 6AM was a natural coda to a night like this. There’s a karaoke chain in Sapporo called Mash that’s selling point seems to be that it’s open 24 hours. Absolutely no one is drinking by this point, even the folk musicians, but that doesn’t stop the guy from Hasymonew belting out Miyuki Nakajima’s Fight at the top of his lungs for the first song.

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