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Rockin' in the Land of the Rising Sun: A Beginner's Intro to J-Rock

Updated on February 7, 2012

Introduction

An old Japanese proverb, considered a national mantra of sorts, states that “the nail that sticks up shall be hammered down” (Whiting 70). This simple phrase captures the Japanese ethos of collective harmony in a nutshell: individualistic impulses and personal proclivities must be suppressed in favor of the norms of the group in order for society to function properly. In a society in which this mentality is applied to every conceivable profession, science, discipline, and art, how could a genre of music such as rock, in which the quality of a group or performer is often measured by how they distinguish themselves and rebel against mainstream culture, not only survive but thrive? Just as has been the case with so many other aspects of contemporary Western life, the Japanese have managed to adapt the quintessentially Anglo-American institution of rock music to their own national character and thereby made it their own. Whether Japanese rock musicians stay true to their artistic traditions through the tight unity of their bands and their faithful emulation of their influences or challenge social mores using elements of Japanese culture itself, they always find a way to bring the foreign idiom of rock ‘n’ roll back home.

J-rock: the Prequel

For twenty-five years following World War II, the Japanese music industry made an effort to tame and dilute the new music flooding the country by supporting melodic pop-rock. As American G.I.’s streamed into Japan during the U.S. occupation, so did an enormous variety of recordings of pop, jazz, R&B, and country music, all of which fascinated the younger generation in particular and would melt together into a raucous stylistic Frankenstein called rockabilly in the mid-1950s. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Japanese corporate paternalism and Western sonic textures merged to create kayōkyoku (“lyric-singing music”), a style that featured American ballad form and romantic themes as well as Western scales and singing, and was sung by clean-cut idols whose every move was choreographed by professional managers. Although the artists’ handlers and the songwriters who wrote their material maintained pervasive creative control, the past of top mainstream idol Kyu Sakamoto (who American listeners may remember as the singer of the 1963 crossover hit mistitled "Sukiyaki") as an amateur Elvis impersonator hinted at the growing influence of rock on young musicians. In the mid-1960s, the combination of a wildly successful 1962 tour by an American instrumental rock group, the Ventures, and the arrival of British groups, such as the Beatles, who featured a sound defined by a heavy beat and intricate harmonies, proved the catalyst for the first wave of Japanese rock groups.

Taming the Fab Four: the Group Sounds era

The short-lived “Group Sounds” fad of the late 1960s, Japan’s answer to the British Invasion, added Japanese formality and polish to rock but stimulated audience demand for the emergence of a more authentic and less imitative rock as a potent commercial force a decade later. Gur‏‎ûpu saunzu (“Group Sounds”) was in some ways very different from its models. Bands such as the Spiders and the Tigers were less akin to the Rolling Stones than to the Monkees, put together and kept together by talent agencies instead of by personal initiative, wearing identical outfits, and singing compositions of outside writers rather than the in-house singer-songwriters who characterized the best-known British groups. In effect, the Group Sounds bands were part of a calculated music-industry effort that used the kayōkyoku model to channel an increasingly frenetic foreign musical scene into something the elder generation in Japan could more readily accept. Despite their highly derivative and artificial character, these groups set an important and authentically Japanese precedent for future ensembles through their emphasis on the wa or harmony of the band: indeed, many Japanese groups do not emphasize a “star” lead singer. This egalitarian approach has arguably helped curtail the jealousies and infighting that tear many British and American bands asunder, and when a Japanese group does break up in the public eye, it tends to be more along the lines of a mutually amicable “spreading out” (in the words of a member of techno supergroup Yellow Magic Orchestra in 1983) than an acrimonious parting of the ways (“Yellow Magic Orchestra”).

Punks in Techno-Land: Underground Rock in '70s Japan

In the 1970s, Japanese musicians continued to adapt foreign models to their local circumstances against a background of lowered public acceptance of rock, freed by the relative apathy of the masses to gradually create a more original homegrown rock sound. While acoustic singer-songwriter pop (termed “new music”) and a revived kayōkyoku featuring synthesizers and saucy divas dominated the charts, Japanese rock groups explored the increasingly diverse strains of American and British rock to find inspiration. Some graduates of the Group Sounds bands, such as the members of supergroups PYG and Happy End, began to write their own material and turned to progressive rock and even country rock. Folk-rock groups such as the Alfee and Okinawa's Champloose attempted to merge elements of Japanese folk music with rock forms, while an influx of visiting American hippies fascinated with Asian culture spurred the formation of psychedelic groups like the Mops and the Golden Cups. By the end of the 1970s, such bands as Sheena and the Rokkets and the Plastics were embracing the stripped-down, angular punk and new wave sounds sweeping Britain and America. Towering above the other new artists of the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, was the massively popular Yellow Magic Orchestra, which combined the experimental, keyboard-based German krautrock of Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk with the slick sheen of mainstream Japanese idol pop, paving the way for rock’s comeback amidst Generation X.

J-Rock as Phenomenon: A Sampler Plate

Since the late 1980s, Japanese rock has come into its own as a flourishing of artist-owned indie labels and the new promotional medium of the music video fuel the massive crossover success of alternative acts that could never have gained commercial traction in previous decades. The youth of Japan, facing an increasingly uncertain future, turned to chaotic fashions and styles of music that appeared more and more alien to traditional Japanese values, at least on the surface. Some of the new rock groups, such as early success stories BOØWY and BUCK-TICK, incorporated noise-rock and goth-rock into their hard-edged sound and dark make-up. Shonen Knife, meanwhile, became darlings of both Japanese and American alt-rock artists and fans (Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain among them) with their zany take on the jaunty pop punk of Blondie and the Ramones. the pillows (sic; many groups in recent years have decided to spell their Romanized names in a modified English called wasei-eigo that uses non-standard orthography), the brilliant green, and B’z are among the many bands that play a wide range of music encompassing arena-rock, pop-rock, grunge, and J-pop and have broken sales records in the process. Pervading all of these acts, as always, is a palpable sense of the unshakable unity of a group that chooses to distinguish itself collectively from their fellow citizens, thereby paradoxically embodying the core principles of Japanese society while defying them. The groups may not necessarily be dressing the same now, but they still maintain a distinct sonic and physical equilibrium between band members both in performance and on record that embodies their commitment to their ensemble’s single artistic goal.

Glam Meditations: The Distinctive World of Visual Kei

The best illustration of Japanese rock’s blend of traditional values and counter-cultural agitation can be found in its most unique sub-genre, visual kei, which peaked in domestic popularity in the 1990s but is enjoying a growing renaissance among American and European fans. Visual kei (“visual style”) groups, such as X JAPAN, LUNA SEA, and Malice Mizer, play a music whose sound is heavily influenced by glam-rock and heavy metal with touches of Western classical orchestration, but their namesake visual aesthetic and their lyrical subject matter revel in distinctively Japanese elements. Each band member wears a distinctive costume and their own set of elaborate and androgynous makeup, a practice which, though superficially similar to the shows of rockers such as KISS and Alice Cooper, ultimately owes a great deal to the traditions of Japanese kabuki theatre, in which men would don garish masks and costumes to portray both male and female characters in lurid melodramas and bawdy comedies. Lyrically, visual kei music often revolves around humanity’s fundamental struggle to understand the duality of human nature, be it between emotions, between genders, or between the self and the divine. In effect, their wild performances constitute a kind of unorthodox kabuki play exploring the pathos of the Japanese struggle to achieve idealized wa in an imperfect world.

New Audiences, New Meanings

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, Japanese rock music proves itself to be anything but an oxymoron by finding a middle ground between old values and new attitudes. The Internet and the rising popularity in the West of anime and Japanese video games, both of which frequently hire Japanese rock groups to record theme songs for them, have allowed Japan’s rock royalty to curry favor with new fans around the world, thereby leapfrogging the strictures of the J-pop industry. Now more than ever, the rest of the world is being exposed to music that takes a quintessentially Anglo-American form and imbues it with many of the hallmarks of Japanese culture. From the submission of the individual player to the integrity of the group, to the desire to study and emulate the acknowledged masters of one’s rock genre of choice, to the incorporation of kabuki and Asian philosophical constructs into visual kei, Japanese groups play foreign-sounding music their way. Perhaps, Japanese rock musicians have discovered that in a society where the rough edges are supposed to be smoothed out for the good of whole, it is better to stick out together than to stick out alone.

©earswideopen, 2012, all rights reserved

Citations

Whiting, Robert. You Gotta Have Wa. 2nd ed. New York: Vintage Departures, 2009. Print.

“Yellow Magic Orchestra.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

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