Campus Records

This article was written in 2005 on the occasion of Bisekatsu celebrating 35 years of Campus Records. Since then he has reached a new milestone with the release of a 45th anniversary album compilation two years ago. He was one of the first people in the music business to welcome and support me long before I moved to Okinawa and has been an enormous help and source of knowledge on Okinawa’s music history.

Campus Records

A mainstay of Okinawan music, discovers John Potter.

I’ve been in Campus Records, the Okinawan music shop on the island’s Koza City, for ten minutes and its owner Bisekatsu can’t stop giving me presents. I asked something about the singer Shuken Maekawa, and he’s rushed off to present me with the original vinyl single of a duet Maekawa made with Misako Koja years ago. He also gives me Sadao China’s original single ‘Bye Bye Okinawa’, a huge poster for this year’s Ryukyu Festival, a Campus T-shirt, and more CDs. Yoshikatsu Bise (better known to everyone as Bisekatsu) is celebrating 35 years as the owner of Campus Records – not just a music shop but also a small but prolific record label. As well as his life as shop owner and record producer, he has for many years been a songwriter, and a concert promoter both in Okinawa and occasionally in mainland Japan. The genial Bisekatsu is also a walking encyclopedia on the Ryukyu Islands’ music history.

Bisekatsu with a drawing of Rinsho Kadekaru

Born in Koza 65 years ago, Bisekatsu was brought up in Motobu, the beautiful western peninsula further up the coast of this subtropical island. He came back to Koza when he was 15. He’s not from a musical family but caught the Okinawan music bug early, which is not surprising given that this is one place in Japan where traditional music is still very much a living thing. It was in May 1970 that he founded Campus Records. At the same time he was employed as an office worker in a company, so his wife, who had never listened to music, was given the task of running the shop while he was absent.

By this stage of the story, Bisekatsu and I have adjourned to a coffee shop down the street and he takes up the tale. “I was a pupil of the musician and producer Tsuneo Fukuhara, and I learned to write songs and play the sanshin from him. But not long after I’d been playing, Fukuhara said I had no talent for playing the sanshin so I stopped and concentrated on other sides of the music business! I helped instead with production for Fukuhara’s company Marufuku Records and then started Campus Records myself.”

In 1972 when Okinawa reverted to Japan after its American occupation, Campus moved to its present location (officially re-named Okinawa City but still known as Koza to the islanders) and he stopped working at the company to be full time at Campus. In 1975 he also started making the first albums on the Campus label. “During wartime there was no minyo (folk song) in Okinawa because if you were singing in Uchinaguchi – the  Okinawan language – you might be mistaken for a spy by the Japanese army and killed. So singers like Rinsho Kadekaru and Shuei Kohama went to the South Pacific or to Osaka to sing minyo. Actually, the great Rinsho Kadekaru was not particularly popular in Okinawa at that time. Instead, the most popular musicians were Shouei Kina and Shotoku Yamauchi because they had nice, sweet voices. But I always liked Kadekaru. He was a kind of cult figure and he eventually became the most popular of all the minyo singers after his appearances in mainland Japan.”

“Just after the war, during the American occupation, jukeboxes were introduced to the island and became very popular. Because of them, a lot of singles were recorded. Also, if you played the same song many times on the radio it would become a hit, so people came to Campus to buy them. First of all there was only Marufuku and Victor running record shops in Okinawa. Then several others started. When you make a single and play it on the radio there’s a big connection made in people’s minds. Now is the digital time so it’s completely different. Then was the best time for record shops.”

“When I was a teenager minyo wasn’t so popular. But then Shouei Kina started a minyo sakaba (club) around about 1962 and at that time the first stars were himself and Seijin Noborikawa, Shuei Kohama, Teihan China (Sadao’s father) and then Rinsho Kadekaru. The popular women singers were Kame Itokazu and Kiyo Funakoshi. Every year Kina used to do a minyo show on the island, in Nakagusuku, and it was so popular that for three days the road to Nakagusuku was competely packed. My own car broke down because it overheated.”

Campus has distribution only around the Ryukyu Islands but this year a deal with Tokyo’s Respect Records has meant that two ‘Best’ compilation albums of Campus artists are being released throughout Japan to commemorate the 35th anniversary. These are called Campus Omote (Front) and Campus Ura (Back). Omote is as good an introduction as you can find, with big names Kadekaru and Noborikawa alongside bright new stars such as Mika Uchizato and Toru Yonaha. Ura is Bisekatsu’s more indiosyncratic selection of personal favourites and lesser-known musicians from around the Ryukyus. The albums sport two different Okinawan Sgt. Pepper style covers. “It was the idea of Kenichi Takahashi from Respect to make the covers like Sgt. Pepper. I chose the tracks. Omote is selling better outside Okinawa, but in fact, Ura has better sales on this island.”

So of all his many activities, what makes Bisekatsu happiest? “I like producing and making albums most of all. I feel this is what makes me happiest. Recently, Minoru Kinjo’s Jidai album, which we released, is the one I feel most proud of because through his songs you can find out and understand a lot of things about the war here, as well as before the war and after. I like that. This year we also made the debut album of Akira Wakukawa. He’s almost 60 but he sings real Okinawan songs and ever since he was a child has been singing and playing sanshin. I’m proud of that one as well.”

Considering Bisekatsu’s wild generosity and his great enthusiasm for sometimes obscure Okinawan music, I wondered how he continues to thrive and what will happen in the future. “I don’t worry about the future. My sons and daughter all work for Campus (daughter Makiko is manager of the young singers Chihiro Kamiya and Mika Uchizato) so I’m happy just to enjoy the rest of my life. Once or twice my daughter said that she wished I’d make a big record that would make some money! But I don’t care.”

(fRoots No.269, November 2005)

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