New Horizons in Japan

Here is the third part of A Musical Journey. It’s a long one…

3. New Horizons in Japan

I’m a late developer. I didn’t discover Dylan until his fifth album. It wasn’t until moving to Japan that I began to properly appreciate the traditional English folk music that had been on my doorstep back home. I didn’t take much notice of the burgeoning punk scene either until it was already past its prime: I did see The Clash but that wasn’t until the 1980s. And when I arrived in Japan in the middle of that decade I had no idea a very late encounter with the Sex Pistols was also on the cards. More of that later.

The eighties was the most significant decade for me as I left the UK and moved to Japan. During the early years in my new home I published my first book (on education, not music), got married, became a father, and made the decision to stay on in Japan for at least a bit longer. In the next decade I completed an MA and then moved to another part of the country to take up a university job. Now I’m getting ahead of myself.

It was a hot summer night when I arrived in Japan for the first time. I was here to teach at St. Michael’s International School in Kobe for two years. When I boarded the plane in London for the seemingly endless flight, George Michael was number one on the UK chart with ‘Careless Whisper’ and I was to see him in concert as one half of Wham! a few months later.

Wham! on tour in China and Japan, 1985

As part of my new job it was possible to earn some extra salary by teaching English to adults in the evenings at the night school attached to the international school. A helpful American named Randy was responsible for organising the language classes at the night school but most importantly he introduced me to the delights of the Railroad. This was the name of the bar under the railroad tracks run by one of the language school’s former students. A custom had grown up that after classes every Wednesday evening a handful of staff and students would walk down to the bar in the centre of Kobe’s entertainment district of Sannomiya.

The small bar was tucked away from the busy street up a steep flight of stairs and it seated around twenty or so customers. Never advertised – other than by word of mouth – it became a regular haunt of ours and the owner welcomed us on Wednesdays and other nights too and kept me supplied with food and beer throughout the early days in Japan. At weekends it was often the first port of call on a night out that frequently kept us up until the morning.

On a typical night maybe four or five of us would meet at the Railroad before moving on to the Retreat yakitori bar, then perhaps on to another bar or izakaya and finally to the Second Chance which stayed open until 5 a.m. All conveniently within walking distance of each other in the Sannomiya district. Occasionally the closing time of 5 a.m. was too early for some of us and at these times a final drink was in order at Valentino’s the only bar that kept open until seven in the morning. From there it was into a taxi for the ride home and a much-needed sleep. Such was the lifestyle in eighties economic bubble-era Kobe when there seemed to be money everywhere and an inexhaustible round of parties and good times.

The soundtrack to these nights was the synth-pop that had become all pervasive in the 1980s. A-ha’s ‘Take on Me’ seemed to be forever playing in the background. It was also the first time I bought a CD player. Not having any CDs it was necessary to make a trip to the shop and buy some to test this new technological wonder and the first CDs to grace the machine were the albums Remain in Light by Talking Heads and ABC’s The Lexicon of Love.

Tom Waits was another relatively late discovery though I had been initiated into his world shortly before leaving the UK. Especially impressive was his early masterpiece Small Change with its memorably seedy cover photo and melancholy songs of late night excess and regret. His next album Heartattack and Vine continued the theme. It also contained ‘Ruby’s Arms’, a gem that was just right for those late nights and early mornings. By this time Waits himself was already transforming his early style into a new tougher and more innovative way of telling stories. This frequently involved much clanking of pieces of metal. I liked this a lot too.

Many Western musicians included Japan in their overseas tours and this usually meant a date in Osaka just a half hour train ride from Kobe. Among the many concerts I attended was a visit to see the Pet Shop Boys. I also went to solo concerts by George Harrison and Ringo Starr (though I’d rather have seen the other two Beatles). Most memorably there was another outing to see Bob Dylan, this time with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at Osaka-jo Hall on their 1986 tour.

An essential part of life in Kobe at that time was the English language monthly magazine Kansai Time Out which already had a firm foothold in the foreign community and in bookshops throughout Kansai when I arrived. Not just a guide to what’s on, it also contained many in-depth articles on a variety of topics. The magazine ran for 32 years, publishing its last issue in 2009. One thing it didn’t have when I came to Kobe was a regular music page and so it was that while lamenting this omission one evening in the Railroad I happened to find myself sitting next to the current editor. She asked me to write a music page myself (just one) and submit it. This I did. The article was a mish-mash of reviews of Western albums I’d been listening to plus a report of a visit to see a local Japanese band. It was a bit all over the place but somehow received the editor’s approval and was published in the magazine. Soon a monthly music page was included and I contributed regularly to its features.

Shoukichi Kina (Photo: Heiko Junge)

It was around this time, at the end of the eighties, that the great music revelation occurred when I finally discovered Okinawa and its music through my wife Midori unearthing a couple of tapes by Shoukichi Kina and Champloose. A friend of hers had briefly been a member of Champloose and had passed the tapes on but they had remained neglected and unplayed. I didn’t know it at the time but it’s not too dramatic to say that the course of my life was irrevocably changed.

Until then I had been underwhelmed by the Japanese pop music I’d listened to as it seemed too in awe of Western music and the Japanese rock bands I had listened to seemed pale imitations. Or else there were boy bands such as Hikaru Genji, and innocuous female ‘idols’ such as Miho Nakayama and Kyoko Koizumi (now a fine actor in middle-age). Kina and his exuberant Okinawan-style music was something else and this led to my meeting him for the first time in Kyoto and featuring him in an interview in KTO magazine. Thereafter to the discovery of much more music from Okinawa, visits to many of the islands, and eventually to the first The Power of Okinawa book. And some years later, of course, a move to Okinawa. It was no great surprise that the emphasis in my music articles gradually changed from UK and Western pop to Okinawan music and to other roots music in general.

The arrival of Dominic Al-Badri as the editor at KTO meant the chance for a little more music coverage as he was a music enthusiast with wide tastes. His encouragement led eventually to the idea for a book on Okinawan music. The music section built up gradually so that a page of album reviews was now included every month. In my early days of writing for the magazine I had once contacted more than twenty record companies in Japan requesting review copies of their releases but didn’t get a single response. But now we began to get plenty of review copies and could even afford not to accept tapes any more but only CDs for consideration.

I was able to meet and interview musicians whose music interested me. Among the first, after Shoukichi Kina, was Japanese singer Sandii who made a number of adventurous albums in the nineties with influences from South-east Asia. Then there was Jamaican reggae artist Bob Andy; Okinawan singers Nenes, Yoriko Ganeko, and Yasukatsu Oshima, English folk musicians Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick; and, on a visit back to England, Kate Rusby. Contributing to the magazine also enabled me to write about subjects other than music and so there were features on alternative education, film, literature, women’s football, Shinto, and a travel piece on Nabari in Mie Prefecture where I had moved in 1998 to take up my post at Kogakkan University.

But before the move to Nabari there was the earthquake. At 5:46 a.m. on 17th January 1995 the Kansai area was struck by what became known as the Great Hanshin Earthquake which claimed well in excess of 6,000 lives. For a long time afterwards (and still sometimes now) we measured time in pre and post-quake terms. After three days without electricity and with water in short supply we left our damaged house to stay for the next two weeks with friends whose home was relatively safe from the devastation we saw all around us in downtown Kobe.

I had already seen Osaka band Soul Flower Union a couple of times by then but the earthquake and its aftermath drew me closer. It’s well-known that the rock band unplugged to play for some of the most stricken victims of the earthquake in the hard-hit Nagata district of Kobe. This led to their emergence in an acoustic alternative incarnation known as Soul Flower Mononoke Summit who incorporated chindon street music into their repertoire.

A year after the quake they returned to play at Nagata Shrine and I interviewed them for a KTO feature. Members Takashi Nakagawa and Hideko Itami were welcoming and friendly and for some years Midori and I cooperated with them by translating their original song lyrics into English for the CD booklets of their numerous releases and went to see them play whenever possible. Here was a band that was becoming aware of roots music from around the world and dabbling into Irish, Korean and Okinawan styles and instrumentation. They were not a high-profile band but were always far more rewarding than most of the bigger names – and with a political edge too which quickly found them cast aside by their major record company Sony. Years later, Hideko Itami moved to Okinawa and was very helpful and supportive during and after my own move to the island.

Writing for KTO was not without the occasional mishap. Smokey Mountain were a young band of two boys and two girls from the Philippines. They had visited Japan to appear on national television and came back later to promote their second album release. I was asked at very short notice – the same day I think – if I would go to Osaka and meet them in a hotel where they were giving interviews. Not having listened to them at all I cobbled together a few generalised questions. It did not go down well when (forgetting about their Japan TV appearance) I began by asking them if they had ever been to Japan before. One of the boys answered with an indignant “Yes!” He managed to stretch the word to several syllables.

Possibly worse was the calamity that occurred when I had the task of writing a monthly column to preview upcoming concerts in the Kansai area. These were often of artists I knew little about so had to check the facts. But when it came to James Taylor I was on safe ground, or so I thought, and previewed his visit with a summary of the Boston singer’s past glories. At least one irate person phoned the KTO office later to complain that she had bought a ticket and then been shocked and dismayed to discover the concert was for a completely different James Taylor.  I like to think that at least it opened her ears to some new music.

It was not through the magazine but an acquaintance in London that I got to meet up with two of the UK’s biggest musical icons to tour Japan. A friend in London had introduced me to Pat who was a roadie or ‘guitar technician’ for several high-profile musicians. Over a few drinks in a South London pub Pat said he would soon be coming to Japan with Rod Stewart and would get in touch. I thought no more about it but Pat was true to his word and phoned me after his arrival in Osaka. It was the day before Rod Stewart’s concert at Osaka-jo Hall. He had VIP passes for the whole family but first he asked me to come over to Osaka that afternoon as Rod wanted to get some people together to play a game of football. I hadn’t kicked a ball in earnest for many years but duly turned up in tracksuit and trainers and took part in a full-scale game which found me on the opposing side to Rod Stewart who was far and away the best player on the pitch. I recovered enough to take my seat the next evening at the concert at a sold-out Osaka-jo Hall. We arrived in the afternoon and Pat gave us a backstage tour. After the show, Rod Stewart gave our son Akira (then six) a signed football and uttered the memorable words: “I hope you’re a better player than your dad.”

Pat returned to Japan later that year but this time he was with the Sex Pistols on their Filthy Lucre reunion tour of 1996. He got in touch again. The Sex Pistols were playing four nights in Osaka at a smaller all-standing venue. I missed the first night but went to the next three and even took advantage of Pat’s (or the Pistols’) hospitality by staying overnight after the last date and sharing Pat’s hotel room. A group of us including Pat and three of the Pistols went out a couple of evenings to eat and drink and I was put on the list as ‘interpreter’ so I didn’t have to pay.

The one absent member of the Sex Pistols on these nights out was John Lydon (or Johnny Rotten, I should say) who kept away from the rest of the band except for their appearances on stage. Each night when I arrived Pat ushered me into Johnny’s dressing room where there was always a box full of beers which Pat proceeded to take from freely and give to me as sustenance during the gig. Not that the concerts were over-long. They were just one hour including encores. I ran into Johnny only once. I was standing at the urinal in the backstage toilet five minutes before one of the shows was due to start. He came in and stood beside me. Not a word was spoken by either of us. The Sex Pistols were doing this for the money but it was great to see them and their performances were all I had hoped they would be, full of passion and in no way were they going through the motions.

The Pogues

But these were diversions from the direction I was taking. After a long hiatus from listening to English roots music I was now back there again and it all happened because of being away from home. The discovery of Okinawan music opened up the realisation that all roots music has connections and things in common.

The Pogues were doing with Irish music what Shoukichi Kina was with Okinawan and I saw them a few times in Osaka too, including the last but one appearance of Shane MacGowan with the band. There was an Irish boom in Japan in the 1990s and I could see musicians such as Altan, Mary Black, Sharon Shannon, Mairead Ni Dhomhnaill and Donal Lunny. There was African music too and Mory Kante’s Akwaba Beach album introduced me to another kind of roots music and to concerts by Salif Keita and Youssou N’Dour. I had also discovered the music and culture of the Basque Country but that’s another story.

The rediscovery of English roots in Japan was kicked off when I listened to Kate Rusby’s first solo album Hourglass and I began to see what a rich vein of folk song also existed in my own country. Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick came to Osaka and I interviewed them. I even started listening to the esoteric traditional recordings of Peter Bellamy and wondered why I had ignored them before.

Richard Thompson (Photo: Ron Sleznak)

Back in 1969 I had been at the Royal Festival Hall in London when Fairport Convention unleashed folk-rock on England. Richard Thompson’s work with the band that night and in the decades that followed has been phenomenal and he – like Rusby – is someone who has the gift of being able to write songs that are so much influenced by the English tradition that you cannot see the join. Decades later I saw him twice in Japan. The second time was an evening at Osaka’s Club Quattro where he played one of the best solo concerts I’ve ever seen: just the man and his acoustic guitar mesmerising the audience. On that night I didn’t have to write about him or do an interview and I was just there to enjoy the music. And it was wonderful.

The inevitable eventually happened and after years in Kobe and Nabari I finally decided to take early retirement from my university and move on, and where better than to Okinawa. The music was the catalyst for the move. I had already written a book to introduce it and wanted to update and write a better one with the music and culture close at hand. We moved to Okinawa in 2009.

The Kansai Time Out interviews with Bob Andy, Martin Carthy & Dave Swarbrick, and Kate Rusby can all be found now in the Features Archive.

Explore posts in the same categories: A Musical Journey

4 Comments on “New Horizons in Japan”

  1. kumim Says:

    I really enjoyed reading that, especially mentioning of many English bands/artists I have always enjoyed. As an adult with an Okinawan mother (though I did not grow up there), I learn something new about Japan and Okinawa’s artists and culture every time you post a new entry. Nice work, just wanted to let you know folks are reading this. Thanks and cheers, Kumi

  2. Michael Bradley Says:

    I enjoyed that John…looking forward to the Okinawan years…

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