Strange Boutique (November 2016) - "A reading list for Japan's music scene"

My Japan Times column for November coincided with the release of my book, Quit Your Band!, so I was faced with the awkward task of trying to tie the latter in with the former without being dreadfully cheesy about it. The approach I took was, rather than talk about my own book and make the column essentially an advert for myself, to write about other books people have written about music in Japan.

You can read the article on The Japan Times site here.

One of the overwhelming fears I've had about my own book is that it can't possibly cover the subject in a way that will satisfy everyone. Each reader will be entering with varying levels of advance knowledge and hugely different expectations. The prism through which I've come to understand music in Japan is not one shared by many other people writing about the subject, so the artists and themes that loom largest in my field of vision are going to be insignificant specks to someone else. I had to set parameters for myself though, and the route I chose for doing that was to just be open about the book's position looking at music from a position in the indie basement and to try to use that world as a microcosm to illuminate issues or themes that could be more broadly relevant.


All the books I talk about in my column limit their scope in some way as well, and you really should read all of them (and my book as well, obviously) if you really want a useful and broad picture of the music scene in Japan. Michael Bourdaghs' Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon does a great job of covering more or less mainstream music up until the end of the 1980s and putting it in its social context. David Novak's Japanoise: Music on the Edge of Circulation is obviously focused in a microscopic way on the noise scene. Kato David Hopkins' Dokkiri: Japanese Indies Music 1976-1989: A History and Guide focuses on the punk and underground scenes during its own specific time period. Julian Cope's Japrocksampler: How the Post-War Japanese Blew their Minds on Rock ‘n’ Roll deals with underground heavy rock and prog during the 1970s.


It's interesting that most of these books choose to end their periods of focus before the 1990s, and writing my own book I felt I could understand why. The 90s is a natural turning point in a lot of ways, seeing the emergence of J-Pop as the dominant "modern" form of Japanese popular music and the appearance of Shibuya-kei being a big enough thing in indie(ish) music that it disrupts narratives and demands quite detailed attention on its own. There's also the problem that assessing the relative importance of different artists and musical styles becomes more difficult the closer to the present day it occurred. Since the frame of my book was my own experience of Japanese music, which really began in late 2001 or thereabouts, I was never going to have the perspective needed to write a useful music guide, which again fed back into a structure that used artists primarily as jumping-off points to discuss broader issues about the scene as a whole.


There are particular things each book did well that I hope I was also able to do with my own work. Bourdaghs and Novak are both writing from an academic background (and for academic publishers), and so they are quite theoretically rigorous. I'm just a journalist, and not even a proper one at that, but I tried within the limitations of my ability to look at the structures, semiotics and culture of the music scene in something more than a superficial way. Hopkins' book is written with a real insider's eye, and so it rings with a kind of authenticity that, again, I hope I was able to evoke to at least some extent -- if a Japanese edition of my book ever appears, I'd like the people I see at venues and clubs around Tokyo to be able to read it and recognise something of their own experience in it. Cope's book retains an unapologetic focus on just what he likes, to the exclusion of almost anything else, and even if I lack Cope's swagger and buccaneering attitude towards the truth (there are fictional or somewhat fictionalised elements of my book, but they're separated from the main story), I admire his refusal to let more established narratives get in the way of him telling the story he wants. Julian Cope is also someone I admire a lot simply as a writer of the English language, and his book is by far the most entertainingly written and funniest of the four I discuss in my article. If Quit Your Band! manages to give its readers a little laugh here and there, I'm going to chalk that up as an important success.

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Comments: 2
  • #1

    Matt (Tuesday, 20 December 2016 04:50)

    Just ordered the book, looking forward to reading it.

    Question for you: do you see a dominance of passive observation in documenting the various music scenes in Japan? I've yet to find any that meets my (admittedly strict) criteria for hardcore, on-the-ground, investigative journalism, and I've been looking. Provided that that is indeed the case, I suspect its got something to do with a level of perceived cultural exclusion towards actively participating in the scene, but from personal experience gigging and booking all around Japan in various bands, that is very obviously not the actual case.

    And yes, molding one's scope is key, and applies to more than just genre: I get the feeling that the vast majority of people writing about the scene in Japan are doing it firstly as part of the greater Weird/Quirky/Cool/Unique Japan narrative and secondly as a study of particular music culture. Now, its not *wrong* to do that, but *if* that's the case (and I could totally be wrong here) then I would expect to see one particular approach than another.

  • #2

    Ian (Tuesday, 20 December 2016 10:52)

    Hi, Matt, and thanks for ordering the book. I hope you get something out of it.

    I suppose my first question would be what would the sort of hardcore investigative journalism you talk about actually look like?

    I'm not sure there's really enough journalism on the Japanese music scene to draw a clear themes from the coverage. I guess the stuff that's written from overseas (or based on a short visit) would have the obvious constraint of not having spent time embedded in the infrastructure of the scene, so those writers tend to focus on the music and just take the artist's word for it when it comes to anything about the broader context. In these cases, the weird/quirky/cool/unique narratives are likely just convenient (or lazy) hooks to make the story comprehensible to their readers.

    For writers based here, the nature of their coverage probably varies depending on what they're personally interested in. Writing about the Japanese music scene, like making music in it, is basically something you do out of futile, misguided love rather than out of any hope of making a meaningful career from it, and that means people are going to write about the aspects of it that interest them personally, in a way that satisfies them personally. If local writers fall into one of the weird/quirky/cool/unique narratives, it probably has a lot to do with that just being what attracted that writer to it in the first place.

    I think most English-language writers who cover Japanese music see their role as missionaries or evangelists for Japanese pop culture, and so their focus is on discovering and introducing new music -- and they're often very respectful of the original stated narratives of the people behind the work (either the artists, or in the case of more mainstream music that often means the talent agency management). Nothing wrong with that, and that's what most readers want. I've had quite fierce arguments with people over the question of whether or not "music is just music" and a lot of people cling tightly to this notion and violently resist the intrusion of wider context into the very personal relationship they have with an artist's work. I feel this is a very limiting way to think about music, and place much more emphasis on the aspects of where, how and under what circumstances music is made and experienced. I often feel musicians themselves are the least qualified people to discuss their own music meaningfully, because they're so embedded in the environment in which they're working that they can't see how it has shaped what they do.

    I don't know about a sense of exclusion in participating in the scene. I find that if foreigners are isolated from the scene here (as artists), it's more often that they've excluded themselves because they find aspects of the scene culture unattractive (the pay-to-play gigs in particular), so they gravitate around subscenes that don't give them that hassle. Once you are "in the scene" though, it becomes difficult to write about it critically because suddenly it's your friends and peers that you're shitting on whenever you write something. That was a fine line I had to walk in the book, although trying to understand people I disagree with's point of view and circumstances hopefully made it a better book in the end.

    Sorry, maybe this didn't really answer your questions, but these were the thoughts that happened in my head after reading your comment.