The history of rock music in Japan is troubling. After the horrors of World War II, as the nation was still recovering from the catastrophic destruction of Hiroshima by Allied forces, Japan was steeped in American popular culture.
During the American occupation, American radio stations sprang up all over the country, dominating the musical landscape. Throughout the 1950s, a whole generation of Japanese youth grew up on a diet of American jazz and rock n ‘roll, all eagerly awaiting their favorite songs to air on U.S. Army Radio across the country. .
In the 1960s, the influence of Western rock music was clear as day. University students from Tokyo to Osaka began to form Beatles-inspired guitar groups, and soon a folk-rock boom swept the country. By the time Western bands like The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Creedence Clearwater, and David Bowie landed in Japan in the late 1960s and 1970s, the country’s youth had already begun to mix American rock and folk with their own cultural influences, creating a unique blend of music, whose legacy is still felt today.
The best place to start our journey through the musical landscape of Japan is in Tokyo in the late 1960s. In a dimly lit dorm room, Kenji Enzo first listens to Bob’s song “Like A Rolling Stone” Dylan. Far from being impressed, he remains silent by Dylan’s nasal twists and turns. Surprised by the realization that this is the so-called music invading America, Enzo suddenly cuts the radio off. But the song continues to follow, and the third time he hears Dylan’s distinctive voice ooze from a small radio speaker, he finds himself strangely inspired by awe. “This guy is creating something that has never been created before,” recalls Enzo telling his college roommate. His discovery is exemplary of a fascinating period in Japanese cultural history, during which the country’s musicians attempted to rekindle their fragmented national identity by absorbing and then reinterpreting imported music.
Tokyo was the hub of this generational movement, with countless acts popping up across the city throughout the 1970s. The legendary Japanese rock band Happy End was formed in 1969, just three years after the Beatles were invited to perform in the city’s Nippon Budokan Hall, making them the first Western rock band to perform on Japanese soil. In a 2014 maintenance, Haruomi Hosono, founding member of Happy End, described how he grew up with Western popular culture and “even wished he was American.”
However, as their sound progressed through the early 1970s, Happy End established itself as the pioneers of a uniquely Japanese form of rock music that laid the groundwork for an explosion in popular music. Japanese. Happy End has essentially redefined the rock scene on its own. With their 1971 album Romain Kazemachi, they found a way to blend poetic lyrics written in their own language with the beats and metric cadences of rock music from the Grateful Dead era. As easy as it would have been to adopt the same subject as the American artists, Happy End used their songs to talk about social issues unique to Japan, which at the time of Romain Kazemachi urbanizes rapidly. In songs like ‘Natsu Nandesu’, for example, Happy End mourns the disappearance of the Tokyo of their childhood which, by the 1970s, had turned into a high-tech metropolis.
But the explosion of music in Japan in the 60s and 70s was not isolated in Tokyo. In Osaka, a group known as The Dylan II created a concert hall called The Dylan Cafe. The folk parties they had there spawned an explosion of acts to rival any exit from the Greenwich Village scene in New York City. Osaka’s musical culture was distinct from that of Tokyo and was much more philosophical and radical. The Dylan Cafe helped establish a thriving and politically active underground scene, where artists began to experiment with protest music in the vein of Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez. But the Dylan Cafe has also served as a hub for a range of more experimental artists, including Itsutsu No Akai Fuusen and Masato Minami.
But perhaps the most famous group in Osaka’s freak-folk scene was the Sadistic Mika Band. Formed in 1972, founding member and guitarist Kazuhiko Katō was so impressed with the burgeoning British glam-rock scene, started by David Bowie and T. Rex, that he quickly formed his own glam-inspired group in Japan. With records like those of 1974 Black spaceship, Sadistic Mika Band has passed most of the progressive British bands off as amateurs. Today, Black spaceship is considered one of the most important records of the 1970s, while the Mika group has been described as a significant influence on groups such as Shonen Knife, who redefined the Japanese musical landscape throughout the 1980s and 1990s .
With their reshaped riot grrrl sound, Shonen Knife took the format of a 1960s American girl group and painted it red, channeling all the angst and fury of Japan’s underground punk scenes. By this time of the 1980s, Japan was teeming with incendiary rock acts, the ubiquity of which contributed to the proliferation of a variety of subgenres in Japanese cultural centers: Tokyo and Osaka – but also in more cities. small like Kobe and Nagoya. The group, Loudness, for example, mixes the progressive rock of Japanese artist Kuni Kawachi with the power-metal of American artists like Van Halen, who had toured in Japan in 1979. Two years later, Loudness exploded on the stage with their electrifying and accessible music. brand of speed metal, which has earned them a dedicated fan base at home and abroad.
Today, Japan’s reaction to American popular music throughout the 1960s and 1970s can be felt in a number of contemporary groups. Kikagaku Moyo, for example, writes and performs an incredible mix of psych-rock that has one foot firmly rooted in Osaka’s freak-folk movement, the other relentlessly projecting itself into the future. Incorporating classical Indian music, krautrock, traditional folk, 70s rock and tangy psyche, the group also runs their own label, Guruguru brain, who is committed to showcasing not only their own work, but the under-represented music scene in East Asia. Thanks to the work of groups like Kikagaku Moyo, the Japanese rock scene is more alive than ever.