On arriving in Akita City, I’d been worried that I wouldn’t be able to meet anyone, and the point that I shouldn’t expect to be able to walk into a place and instantly make friends with people stands as an important one, especially in what Japanese people call “the countryside” (Akita City population 320,000) where people often live an hour’s drive or more from the main urban hub.
However, the music scene in Japan is a small world and my expectation isn’t quite as unrealistic as it sounds. In this case, an experimental music friend of mine from Tokyo, Tom, who used to live in Akita, was after some frantic messaging able to introduce me to his friend Ritsuko. We met at the station and she led me to a small, retro-styled izakaya where the first person we saw going through the doorway was Junpei, the drummer from 1970s progressive rockers Anzen Band.
Originally from Akita, he has recently returned to his hometown and opened a jazz bar called J’s Café, where we decided to make our next destination.
At J’s Café, we met up with one of Junpei’s guitarist friends and as they slid into some jazz standards, Ritsuko started to give me the lowdown on the local underground scene. The key local organiser goes by the name Billyken, and curates an event called Game of Death, which does a New Year’s extravaganza every January gathering together all the local scene’s key players. Billyken himself plays in the bands King Lion and Head Slider, while other local punk and garage rock faces include No Realize, Fun Freaks and Gyro Captain.
A spontaneous collaboration Junpei did with his famous fan Rolly a couple of years back.
Ritsuko eventually joined the jam session on piano, and I found my deeply rooted revulsion at music with any kind of broad, unifying power running up against the essentially inclusive nature of what was happening. After talking with The Earth Earth in Aomori, I had used that the way the images of John Lennon and Jim O’Rourke were referenced culturally as a way of representing two conflicting attitudes towards music, and this was exactly one of those situations where I needed to lock away my inner Jim, but it was visceral – I can enjoy listening to some people playing Let it Be or Honky Tonk Women, but I couldn’t step up and sing them myself. “Let’s do Tears in Heaven!” someone cried, and I would have cut my own throat rather than take part.
It’s all about the environment though. While I genuinely hate Eric Clapton and everything he stands for, a lot of my instinctive reaching for the esoteric is a protective response to the sensory overload the mainstream pushes on you. We build up barriers around what we are willing to accept as a way of curating our own sensory experience and giving it some semblance of order, giving ourselves some semblance of control over it. To break down those walls, you and your environment have to work together, reaching inward and outward, to both include and to accept. In the Japanese rock festival scene, this is what Fuji Rock does so well, creating an environment where the homogenising infleuence of the mainstream is removed, which counterintuitively then makes things from the mainstream easier to digest.
J’s Café is the kind of place where you have to leave those inhibitions at the door. I eventually allowed myself to be cajoled towards the mic and sing. As a private tribute to Kosuke from The Earth Earth, I did John Lennon’s Jealous Guy. Of course.
At this point, we were joined by another local musician: Yamada from local hardcore band Difrakto. When I had asked the gang in Aomori about what was good in Akita, they had paused, pained expressions, reaching for something they knew must exist but couldn’t pin down. Was there music in Akita? There must be, but what? Difrakto was the one band they could all agree on. They also turned out to be my friend Tom’s old band. As I say, it’s a small world.
One thing I felt from listening to Yamada talk was the degree to which the Tokyo music scene mitigates against bands mixing outside their genre circles. Despite being a hardcore band, the music Yamada was most enthusiastic about came out of Tokyo’s (Koenji’s?) Black Smoker Records, a label that deals primarily with dub and hip hop. He had recently been playing shows with artists like Killer Bong and Dooomboys, and he was keen to explain that his concept of what constitutes punk was far more about an ethos than a sound. It’s how you live your life as a musician, not what kind of sounds you make. There are places in Tokyo where these sounds mix, like Koenji’s DOM Studio, but heir rarity makes them notable.
On the adjoining table, Junpei and his guitarist friend were getting drunker and drunker. The Anzen Band live album was on at full volume. “We did this on tour with Rainbow,” he says, “Rainbow’s staff recorded it for us.” It rocks.
“Difrakto were playing a show in Hirosaki,” says Yamada apropos of nothing, “and we got accused of being a racist band.”
The conversation was jumping around like that. This is something that interests me in particular though.
Apparently one of Difrakto’s members was a big fan of Motörhead, and he was wearing an Iron Cross pin as a tribute to Lemmy. Some (Japanese) guy in the audience was shouting “Fucking fashion punks!” and then accused them of being racists on Twitter afterwards.
Discussion of racism in Japan (and among privileged, middle class white people like me) often operates on a pretty childish level that begins and ends with something blandly tolerant like, “He didn’t mean it in a bad way,” that inevitably gives benefit of the doubt to the offender rather than the offendee. Of course Iron Cross Guy hadn’t meant anything racist, but then what you mean and what you say aren’t always the same thing. Yamada was interested in this area of disconnect, even as he was obviously hurt by his band having been tainted by the accusation.
One issue we considered was that punk is by its nature confrontational and the meaning is often less important than the provocation in the first place. None-more-confrontational punk legends G.I.S.M.’s most recent release has the words “Privately owned international Jew banks finance both sides in a war, making a killing from military spending” on the cover, which for me goes way over any line that might exist, but the purpose of it is more provocation in general than a specific message. For Yamada, the line is somewhere between wearing an Iron Cross (acceptable) and wearing a swastika (unacceptable). The lines are many and extend outwards in a lot of directions, intersecting at times, so no one is ever going to agree on exactly where these limits are. For punk bands, who often exist in these semiotic grey zones, having the tools to be able to discuss them is doubly important.
The other interesting point for me about this story was that their accuser is saying two things. Firstly there is the accusation “fashion punk” (i.e. an idiot who doesn’t know the meaning of the imagery they appropriate) and secondly “racist” (i.e. someone who at least on some level does know the meaning of the imagery they appropriate). Whether there is as much of a contradiction between these two claims is a matter of debate.
It seems to me that there is some responsibility on both sides in a situation like this. If you make a statement (visual or verbal), you have a responsibility to be able to explain why you made it and what the intended message is. If all you can do is shrug and say, “It looks cool,” you’re not necessarily wrong, but you’re always on very solid ground either. At the same time, someone who calls racism really needs to be able to explain why and against whom that something is racist.
Much as I sympathised with Difrakto’s position, I also couldn’t help admiring the guy who’d made the accusation as well, simply for being outspoken enough to wade into that debate with such all-guns-blazing abandon. As far as Difrakto were concerned, I agreed with them that there was no problem with wearing an Iron Cross pin, but at the same time, they’re punks so they ought to have thick enough skin to let stuff like this bounce off. Far more interesting to me than the rights or wrongs of the specific incident was the existence of an argument about it in the first place. As I say, in these cases, finding agreement in the semiotic borderlands is futile, and the process is far more important than the result. What made me happy here was that I was seeing the process.