Laid-back cats

After the ice and snow of the Hokuriku area, the tropical climate of Okinawa was as much of a contrast as it’s possible to get. I talked a little before about the way that travelling by train insulates you from the sense of distance, and travelling by plane even more so. Still, one of the most interesting things that had come up in Kanazawa was the idea that beyond even that, the Internet has a powerful role in erasing those local differences that would emerge from the information vacuum. In that context, train or plane are at least designed to transmit your physical presence to places, where you can experience the immediate environment, albeit with its full regional context somewhat blurred.

Okinawa’s capital of Naha is a big city, with somewhere between half a million and a million inhabitants, depending on where you draw the city limits, but it differs from other comparable-sized Japanese cities in the outsized role tourism has in its economy. Linked with tourism is the position of the ongoing American military occupation (we can quibble about the strict legal status, but American military installations account for over 10% of the total land use in Okinawa, so it’s a military occupation however you want to spin it) – the profusion of jazz bars around town likely has some roots in the import of American music in the ’50s and ’60s.


Seijun Noborikawa & Misako Ooshiro

Another aspect is the local traditional musical style, based around the three-stringed sanshin and using a musical scale that differs noticeably from mainland musical conventions. As part of the former Ryukyu kingdom, Okinawa was annexed by Japan in 1879, and it retains a small but significant independence movement (by comparison, the Act of Union that brought Scotland into the UK was as long ago as 1707). Okinawan min’yo is part of how the region defines its identity as something culturally distinct from Japan, as well as part of how it brands itself to tourists. “Live houses” are visible all over the town, that on closer inspection turn out to be restaurants with live folk music performances. This may not seem that unusual, but it represents a foregrounding of live music in the local culture that contrasts with the unwelcoming black boxes that the words “live house” conjures up in Tokyo.

Looking around Tower Records also reveals a much more up-front promotion of local artists, with Okinawan music occupying a large section of its own, distinct from the J-Pop racks, and encompassing pop and rock as well as traditional styles. Orangerange and Mongol800 are probably the two most important big hit bands in terms of continuing relevance to the local music scene, with Ryukyudisco more on the dance music side. The prefecture also hosts the Okinawa Actors School, one of those child-factories that relentlessly churn out made-to-order celebrities, with Speed and Namie Amuro probably its most distinguished exports. More interesting was indie-trash trio Funnynoise, whose wonky but imaginative lo-fi pop jumped out most prominently.


Funnynoise

The city’s many independent record stores largely seem to deal with used vinyl and CDs, although it was interesting that they seemed to have a town map that they share around, helping to circulate customers among each other. Also remarkable was the prevalence of cassettes in one particular store. A few days previously I’d paid a visit to a newly opened cassette store in Tokyo that appeared to have emerged to capitalise on the growing appeal of tapes among a certain sort of indie aficionado, with one corner of the room devoted to selling the cassette decks on which to play them. This Okinawan store couldn’t be more the opposite, with racks upon racks of similar looking artists in brightly coloured kimonos, clearly aimed at people who have never not had a cassette player, and for whom CDs are a dangerously modern invention. This theme of things that are currently being adopted in hipsterish ways in Tokyo still being normal in more remote areas is something that will no doubt re-emerge as this trip goes on.

For this stage of the trip, Mission Control joined me and our first stop was Output, which serves as the main port of call for touring indie bands from the mainland, as well as an important hub for the local scene. In most regional Japanese cities there are roughly three dedicated “live houses”, with one or two of them being largely commercial ventures that use local bands as a source of money to fund the fees of high status touring acts, and Output looks at first glance to be one of those places, with the walls covered in posters for bands that were cool in Tokyo about five years ago. However, the role it plays in the local indie community seems larger than that simplified characterisation would suggest. The show we catch is a benefit event for areas of Fukushima still affected by the tsunami and nuclear disaster, and while the music has Mission Control cringing in the corner of the room, it’s interesting to see those connections still going strong five years after the disaster.

Walking around Naha at night, you get the sense that going out in the evening is a far easier porposition here than it would be somewhere like Kanazawa, and while I’m wary of imposing local “laid back” stereotypes on Okinawa, that atmosphere does seem to infuse the local nightlife. Like so many music bars, local rock bar Kurage incorporates a CD store and acts as a gathering point for local event flyers. It’s one of those places you can just show up at and pretty quickly get an idea what’s happening around town, and fortunately for us was populated entirely by helpful musicians.

One of the people we meet turns out to be Takashi Yoshimura, one of what seems to be a number of musicians who settled in Naha after travelling the country for years as a struggling musician and found it a welcoming place to settle. These “immigrants” tend to be far more knowledgeable about local culture than the people who grow up in it, perhaps as a result of their different background making them more finely attuned to the differences and less liable to take things for granted. As an immigrant myself, I’m very conscious of how this relates to my own obsession with Japanese music, as well as the accompanying anxieties I have about how this affects the authenticity of my reportage.

Yoshimura singles out Seijin Noborikawa, Misako Ooshiro and Misako Koja as key figures in Okinawan traditional music, and recommends Maltese Rock as an band who combine Okinawan music and indie rock in an interesting way.


Maltese Rock

Meanwhile, a couple of the other musicians in the room, including visiting singer-songwriter Mocche from Tokyo, stage an impromptu live performance that while there was doubtles an element of “Hey, he’s a music journalist: get your guitar out!” to it, was nonetheless a piece with the easygoing atmosphere of Kurage.

The following night, we hit up a tiny bar in a network of narrow alleys, where the owner, Maltese Rock’s guitarist and vocalist Morito is already half cut, having been drinking since the afternoon, and therefore extremely (if not always completely comprehensibly) friendly. While Yoshimura originally hailed from Eastern Japan and settled in Naha, Morito took the reverse trip and lived in Tokyo for a while in search of his break as a musician. In his case, the chance came in the form of a chance at a management deal with a talent agency, but what he saw, he didn’t like.

“They just wanted me to write songs like Mr. Children,” he says. So that was that. Welcome back home, kiddo. While Naha is a good place to play music if you’re able to perform easygoing folk or blues at restaurants, even locally popular indie rock bands like Maltese Rock struggle to break even. Even so, though, the fact breaking even is even a possibility for these bands puts their position way out of reach of most Tokyo bands.

Maltese Rock’s label is based out of the Sakurazaka theatre and culture centre, which acts as another local centre for live music as well as the arts more generally, while the route to which also gave me an opportunity to indulge my growing obsession with the grimy shopping arcades of Japan’s great and not-so-great cities – Naha’s network of covered arcades is a zinger. Also just off the arcade is Freaks A-Go-Go, which hosts semi-regular indie DJ nights and whose owner recommended other local bars Kaiki Club and Kuro for those interested in noise, metal and hardcore.

All of which is to say that for a city the size of Naha, it has more or less all the same things you’d expect any comparable Japanese city to have, which perhaps backs up the assertation Asuna in Kanazawa made about how everything in Japan is getting more and more similar. Nevertheless, the remoteness of Okinawa is historical and cultural as well as geographical, and while traditional Japanese culture and arts tend to get preserved as museum pieces that rarely interact in a relevant way with modern popular culture, the relevance of music in terms of regional cultural and political identity seems to act as a bulwark against some of the homogenising power of Tokyo-centric pop- and subculture.

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