Discovering Japan: “A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop”

By Chris RandleNovember 21, 2013

Discovering Japan: “A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop”

Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon by Michael K. Bourdaghs

IN 2000, I WAS 12 years old, playing the brand-new Sega game Jet Grind Radio, in which your cel-shaded juvenile delinquent evades cops while spraying graffiti onto every part of Tokyo that isn’t made of neon. Some American music had been licensed for the game’s soundtrack for its US release, including songs by Jurassic 5 and Rob Zombie — gaming’s millennial fixation with “Dragula” will keep Zombie in plastic skulls for life — but they were outnumbered by unfamiliar Japanese artists like Guitar Vader, whose loopy “Super Brothers” was one of my first clues that music extended beyond Blink–182 and the Beatles. Before long, I would be buying $30-compilation albums by the decidedly kawaii duo Puffy AmiYumi and downloading every J-pop video that showed up on Kazaa, although many turned out to be mislabeled horse porn. How did the actual horse porn demographic ever find the stuff?

Like many infatuations, it sounds slighter in the retelling. I eventually drifted toward sustained obsessions with industrial bands and arcane comics. Michael Bourdaghs’s first encounter with Japanese music as an exchange student in 1980s Sendai turned out to be the beginning of a more enduring one. In Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-pop, Bourdaghs describes shelving his small cassette collection next to his new roommate’s home-taped library like a superhero discovering Earth–2: “I liked Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys; he liked Tatsuro Yamashita. I loved the Clash and the Sex Pistols; he, the Stalins and the Mods. We both were into Bruce Springsteen, but H was into Shogo Hamada even more.” Bourdaghs is now a professor of Japanese literature at the University of Chicago, and his book is a retrospective attempt to map this “alternative universe.” The “prehistory” of his subtitle is precise: Sayonara Amerika ends in the early 1990s, with the emergence of the cosmopolitan music that came to be called J-pop. Bourdaghs’s survey of the six decades leading up to this hyphenated moment disavows comprehensiveness, instead examining a few representative artists in essays linked as much by their concern with Cold War geopolitics as by the music itself.

Just as no one can write about US (nor UK) pop while ignoring the songs and struggles of African Americans, it would be difficult to discuss Japanese popular music without mentioning the country’s experience as a rapidly modernizing empire remade again by the lighter-handed hegemon that defeated it. Bourdaghs takes up this theme in his opening chapter, noting that Ryoichi Hattori, Japan’s most famous jazz composer, spent the war staging propaganda revues of pan-Asian friendship in Shanghai. At the time, military authorities banned jazz — as all contemporary dance numbers were known — as “the enemy’s music,” but occupied China was anarchic enough to allow Hattori to interpolate his latest fixation, boogie-woogie, without the wrong people noticing.

Hattori’s wartime music drew on Chinese musical traditions and African-American styles, though these often appearing in broad, deracinated forms. (“The boogie dance is the world’s dance,” a later hit cheered.) Filled with the blue notes and minor chords of a stateside swing standard, his “Janguru Bugi” (“Jungle Boogie”) was used to suggest dissolution, hedonism and other fun activities in Akira Kurosawa’s 1948 film Drunken Angel. Though American military censorship succeeded the local variety, many Japanese people felt a sense of cultural and even personal liberation after their nation’s defeat: Hattori’s frequent collaborator Shizuka Kasagi, who sang “Jungle Boogie” in the film, was only able to live with her secret lover after an air raid destroyed her home in 1945. Ten days after the republican viceroy Douglas MacArthur took control of Japan, the national radio network began programming popular music again; it had been absent, like color at a funeral, since Hirohito’s declaration of surrender.

Kurosawa’s films of the period associate popular songs with wild, feminine sensuality and classical music with rational, heroic masculinity, and Bourdaghs’s examination of how these gender associations played out in his collaborations with Hattori and Kasagi is both revealing and convincing. Some other connections and comparisons, though equally detailed, are more strained. His discussion of Japanese “rockabilly,” the confusing tag applied to all pre-Beatles rock and roll there, centers on Kyu Sakamoto, whose 1961 single “Ue o Muite Aruko” — retitled “Sukiyaki” for Anglophone consumption — topped the Billboard chart two years later, half a century before Psy, Far East Movement, and the enthrallingly hypermodern sounds of K-pop. Sakamoto is a sad and pertinent figure, chasing stardom in an America that would never recognize him as more than an exoticized novelty, but the fact that he died in a Japan Airlines crash more than two decades after his one global hit doesn’t quite justify the chapter title “Mystery Plane,” or the labored aviation metaphors that both critique and pay homage to Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train.

Similarly, when Bourdaghs reaches the late 1980s, he strains to connect Shintaro Ishihara and Sony co-founder Akio Morita’s The Japan That Can Say No — a nationalist polemic published in 1989, at the economic bubble’s warped apex — with the 1991 hit early J-pop duo Chage & Aska released after its implosion. The chauvinistic call for Japan to take up a “masculine role,” co-written by an amoral novelist turned right-wing politician, and the theme song to a surpassingly popular TV drama about lovelorn middle-class strivers are both revealing documents of their era, but the two seem to have little in common beyond a shared melodramatic tone.

Bourdaghs wears his erudition lightly: when the disco-era electronic group Yellow Magic Orchestra show up, ironically recapitulating Orientalist stereotypes in identical uniforms and a Kraftwerk-like deadpan, he takes up ideas of cultural quotation and synthetic affect at an obliging dash. Despite an avowed lack of musicological training, his explanations of such technical notions as the pentatonic scale — prominent throughout non-Western composition — made sense to this fellow dabbler. His prose tends to be lucid and accessible, though at times earnestly inelegant: “And if my readers find themselves feeling an urge to track down and listen to some of the songs I discuss, to engage in creative acts of musicking with them, allowing the rhythms and melodies to gain sway over their bodies and connect them to new and old forms of pleasure, and if those dancing bodies begin to think and rethink their own locations on various maps of the world, then the trap I have tried to set in the following pages will have done its work.”

The key term in that passage is “musicking,” coined by British musicologist Christopher Small in a 1998 book of that title, and recently adopted by academics (and even journalists) writing on pop. Small meant to demonstrate that “music” is a multi-dimensional activity, not just a document or a commodity, and that listeners, impresarios, and other participants are as much a part of that activity as performers or composers. Though Bourdaghs invokes this idea, its uneven application points to a persistent flaw in his fertile and often enlightening book. Sayonara Amerika ably charts how the geopolitical context of post-war Japan filtered through society to musical production, but it says little about reception, why the songs and artists he discusses came to be loved, whether for aesthetic or sociological reasons. Discussing Hibari Misora, queen of enka, Bourdaghs draws a rough analogy between that nostalgic genre and American country, yet his perfunctory reference to its “older, less technologically savvy” and implicitly uncool listeners makes one wish for a fuller consideration of the fans who populate cultural nation-states. Too often, he glides over the reasons a record might appeal to a particular audience or social group, and thereby over listeners themselves.

Bourdaghs fairly argues that he avoided J-pop proper in the interest of “historical distance,” but this is music animated by spontaneity, and examining its forerunners suggests consideration of current forms, and their fandoms. Pop’s onomatopoeia is prescriptive, and the best accounts — no matter the national context — can still capture some of its sudden, diverting thrill. In How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elijah Wald’s secret history of American music, for example, the music’s power comes to be defined by the young women who found liberation in the jitterbug or the twist. Pop without audiences is a pillow spared from sobs, an empty dancefloor, a chaste backseat. Bourdaghs’s atlas contains only aerial maps, a detailed topography missing the people who live atop it.


Chris Randle is a writer from Toronto and a contributing editor at Hazlitt.

LARB Contributor

Chris Randle is a writer from Toronto and a contributing editor at Hazlitt. Early next year his comic Charivari, with Mia Schwartz, will begin serializing in Adult magazine. His Tumblr is Beau Travail, his Twitter is @randlechris and his email is quimper [at] gmail.


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