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When rock music came to Japan

The story of rock music in Japan is a troubling one. After the horrors of the Second World War, when the nation was still recovering from the catastrophic destruction of Hiroshima by the allied forces, Japan was drenched in American popular culture. 

During the US occupation, American radio stations sprang up all over the country, dominating the musical landscape. Throughout the ’50s, an entire generation of young Japanese people grew up on a diet of American jazz and rock n’ roll, all of them eagerly waiting for their favourite songs to come on the US military’s country-wide radio broadcast. 

By the 1960s, the influence of western rock music was clear as day. University students from Tokyo to Osaka began forming Beatles-inspired guitar bands, and soon a folk-rock boom was sweeping across the country. By the time western acts like The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Creedence Clearwater, and David Bowie landed in Japan in the late 1960s and ’70s, the nation’s youth had already started blending American rock and folk with their own cultural influences, creating a unique blend of music, the legacy of which can still be felt today.

The best place to start our journey across Japan’s musical landscape is in Tokyo in the late 1960s. In a dimly lit student room, Kenji Enzo is listening to Bob Dylan song ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ for the first time. Far from being impressed, he is struck dumb by Dylan’s nasal meanderings. Surprised by the realisation that this is the so-called music taking over America, Enzo cuts off off the radio with a sharp pinch. But the song keeps following, and by the third time he hears Dylan’s distinctive vocal oozing out of a tinny radio speaker, he finds himself strangely awe-inspired. “This guy is creating something that has never been created before,” Enzo remembers saying to his college roommate. His discovery is exemplary of a fascinating period of Japanese cultural history, in which the country’s musicians attempted to rekindle their fragmented national identity by absorbing and then reinterpreting imported music.

Tokyo acted as the nerve centre of this generational movement, with countless acts springing up across the city throughout the 1970s. The legendary Japanese rock band Happy End formed in 1969, just three years after The Beatles were invited to perform at the city’s Nippon Budokan venue, making them the first western rock band to play on Japanese soil. In a 2014 interview, Haruomi Hosono, a founding member of Happy End, described how he grew up with western popular culture and “even regretted that I wasn’t American”.

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However, as their sound progressed in the first years of the 1970s, Happy End established themselves as pioneers of a uniquely Japanese form of rock music that lay the foundations for an explosion in popular Japanese music. Happy End essentially re-defined the rock scene single-handedly. With their 1971 album Kazemachi Roman, they found a way of blending poetic lyrics written in their own language with the metric rhythms and cadences of Grateful Dead-era rock music. As easy as it would have been to adopt the same subject matter of American artists, Happy End used their songs to talk about social issues specific to Japan, which at the time of Kazemachi Roman was being rapidly urbanised. In tracks like ‘Natsu Nandesu’, for example, Happy End mourn the disappearance of the Tokyo of their childhoods which, by the 1970s, had been transformed into a hi-tech metropolis.

But the explosion of music in Japan throughout the 1960s and ’70s wasn’t isolated to Tokyo. In Osaka, a band known as The Dylan II set up a music venue called The Dylan Cafe. The folk nights they put on there birthed an explosion of acts to rival any coming out of New York’s Greenwich Village scene. Osaka’s musical culture was distinct from Tokyo’s and was far more philosophical and radical. The Dylan Cafe helped establish a thriving and politically active underground scene, where artists began experimenting with protest music in the vein of Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez. But The Dylan Cafe also acted as a hub for a range of more experimental artists, including Itsutsu No Akai Fuusen and Masato Minami.

But perhaps the most famous band to come out of the Osaka freak-folk scene were Sadistic Mika Band. Formed in 1972, founding member and guitarist Kazuhiko Katō was so impressed by the burgeoning UK glam-rock scene pioneered by the likes of David Bowie and T. Rex that he quickly went about forming his own glam-inspired band in Japan. With records like 1974’s Black Ship, Sadistic Mika Band made most of the UK’s prog-leaning bands look like amateurs. Today, Black Ship is regarded as one of the most important records of the 1970s, while the Mika band have been described as an important influence on bands such as Shonen Knife, who re-defined the Japanese musical landscape throughout the 1980s and ’90s.

With their re-moulded riot grrrl sound, Shonen Knife took the 1960’s American girl-group format and painted it red, channelling all the angst and fury of Japan’s underground punk scenes. At this time in the 1980s, Japan was full of incendiary rock acts, the ubiquity of whom aided the proliferation of a variety of subgenres in Japan’s cultural centres: Tokyo and Osaka – but also in smaller cities such as Kobe and Nagoya. The band, Loudness, for example, blended the progressive rock of Japanese artist Kuni Kawachi with the power-metal of American artists like Van Halen, who had toured Japan in 1979. Two years later, Loudness exploded onto the scene with their electrifying and accessible brand of speed metal, earning them a dedicated fanbase at home and abroad.

Today, Japan’s reaction to American popular music throughout the 1960s and ’70s can be felt in a number of contemporary bands. Kikagaku Moyo, for example, write and perform an incredible blend of psych-rock that has one foot firmly planted in the Osaka freak-folk movement, with the other stepping unrelentingly into the future. Incorporating classical Indian music, krautrock, traditional folk, ’70s rock, and acid-tinged psych, the band also run their own record label, Guruguru Brain, which is committed to showcasing not just their own work, but the under-represented music scene in East Asia. As a result of the work of bands like Kikagaku Moyo, Japan’s rock scene is more alive than ever.

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