By Patrick St Michel
Every few months, a Japanese music act starts trending on YouTube or gets attention from a Western media outlet. Save for very rare moments, these performers go under the microscope because they embody the persisting idea of ‘weird Japan’, of being so strange and foreign that they have to be seen.
It doesn’t matter if the songs they make are catchy, or if the groups involved have any sort of talent. From Babymetal to Pikotaro (the Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen guy), the fixation falls on how crazy and wacky it all is.
There are many issues raised by this attitude, but the biggest is how this mindset trickles down to all Japanese music. Maybe the zany tag feels OK attached to internet ephemera and J-Pop crossovers such as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. But that idea, that bands and artists from Japan all fit that description, persists in the West. All non-English-language music faces hurdles to attention, but Japanese artists also have to deal with instantly being seen as ‘strange’.
They are playing at a disadvantage.
Ian Martin, a music writer and record label owner based out of Tokyo, has long been aware of this obstacle. ‘From the start, I felt it was important to write about Japanese music not as a weak imitation, nor as something alien and unknowable, but as artists in the same basic world and on equal terms with overseas bands’, he writes in Quit Your Band, his new book that offers a glance into the inner workings of the Japanese music ecosystem, alongside a little memoir.
Over the course of 242 pages, he covers a lot of ground – the history of Japanese rock, the challenges of playing gigs in Tokyo, AKB48 – but connecting it all together is a passion for the scene he finds himself part of, and a desire to celebrate the music emerging from it.
Well, a chunk of it. ‘This book is not a guide to Japanese music, nor would that even be possible in so slim a volume,’ Martin writes early on. This is a work coming from his perspective, based out of the Japanese underground and, particularly, the western Tokyo neighbourhood of Koenji (‘an intoxicating place’ which gets its own chapter here). Yet it is one of the better viewpoints you can ask for.
Since moving to Tokyo from England in 2001, Martin has become a columnist for The Japan Times (full disclosure: we both contribute to the paper, and I consider him a friend and an inspiration when it comes to writing about Japanese music) and launched the label Call And Response. He’s also organised all sorts of shows and gatherings around the capital. If one wants an intro to the Japanese music scene – especially its labyrinthian live scene – Martin is an ideal candidate.
Quit Your Band is divided into three sections – a brief how-I-got-here, a compact history of Japanese pop music, and then a guide on ‘how not to quit your band’, aka an examination of Japanese music from an independent position. The first two portions set the scene, offering a breezy but well-rounded summary of the Japanese music landscape and history.
The latter, in particular, offers one of the better summaries of postwar Japanese music out there, considering similar texts are either highly exaggerated (the frequently eyebrow-raising albeit engaging Japrocksampler by Julian Cope) or exhaustingly academic (dry essays hidden away on Google Books). Martin strikes a balance, offering up a tight but accurate glance at the nation’s last few decades, delivered in a way that won’t make you feel like you’ve been teleported back to undergrad.
The meat of Quit Your Band comes in the third section, though. This is where Martin really digs into Japanese music, from the challenges of playing in Tokyo gig spots to the continued relevance of CDs to the intersection of indie music and idol pop. It’s a quick-moving dive into many corners of the nation’s music area, sometimes zipping between subjects a little too quickly.
Martin packs a lot in, but he manages to maintain a good balance between introduction and deeper analysis. Readers with no or just a passing knowledge of Japanese music will see inner workings from someone who has experienced it from many different angles, while those more familiar with it can wrangle with Martin’s criticism. Peppered throughout are entertaining anecdotes, many of them breaking up the analysis with humour.
What stuck out to me most was the flurry of band names whizzing by on every page, ranging from major acts to short-lived outfits with barely a digital footprint. Martin has long been unflinching about what he doesn’t like, which has made J-Pop centric message boards and comment sections online not his biggest fans (fans of boy bands such as Arashi shouldn’t expect any glowing words).
But Quit Your Band is ultimately a work of passion, documenting groups lost to time and showing that Japanese music is not a global novelty, but full of variety and novel ideas. Quit Your Band is a great intro to the nation’s under and overground, but what ties it all together is the same sense of attachment music fans anywhere can relate to. Absolutely nothing weird about that.
The ‘Quit Your Band’ release party happens on February 18 from 6.30pm at Kichijoji Gok Sound, featuring Hyacca, Nakigao Twintail and more. Entrance is ¥2,000 (with one drink).