Japanese Indie Rock in America – Where We Are and Where to Go

Modern Japanese music has habitually been reckoned as rather a niche than anything mainstream in the western music world. Yoko Ono had her time, but after almost 3 decades she is still portrayed as the Asian woman who led the Beatles to collapse. Bands like Loudness and Shonen Knife have made their voices heard at a certain point, but for the second largest music market in the world this is far not enough. Japanese music has muted for too long, and the young generation are losing patience while wait.

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Here we are not talking about girl groups or Visua-kei bands. We’ve always known there are extreme Japanese culture fans out there who believe that anything “Japanese” is “hip” and “edgy” while wide culture appropriation is seen among these fans. Just as how there’s a distinction between the definition of “芸術家” and “アイドル” in Japan, in America most people understand “popular” and “respected” are two different words. The target audience of Japanese girls groups and Visual-kei bands however, are not the most representative ones among American young generation.

A year ago in another article I described the typical Japanese indie scene as two categories: hardcore-masculine-“oowa” type of toughies and newwave-whitewashed-bit-of-sissy shoegazers. Today the classification still applies. Generally saying the harsher emo youngsters follow the footprints of One Ok Rock, Coldrain and Crossfaith. They see the success these bands have made home and overseas and find the music easy to copy. However due to their limited vision it’s hard to have any breakthrough even domestically, not to mention going abroad. Most of their songs are just a mix and match of heavy bass lines, basic pop-rock tunes, accompanied with growing rage and end up tied with Anime shows. The westernized skinny hipsters however, set their eyes on foreigners and avant-garde youth du jour from the very beginning. Their fans are not your average Joes who go to Zepp Tokyo and RIJF (Rock In Japan Festival). They wear vintage clothes, eat no meat and write their Instagram captions in a lot of Katakana or only in English.

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Historically, we have to admit most Japanese people have always had this warped feeling of worship towards westerners, especially Caucasians. Back in the 60s when the Beatles fever hit the whole western world, Japan was the only place in Asia where the four-piece Liverpool band has become a national phenomenon instead of a minority favorite like in Korea and Malaysia. Meanwhile Japanese artists are eager for recognition of identity from the outside world. Now that we make out the contrast between roads that two groups have taken, it’s all clear to us. Japan needs more futuristic, edge-cutting music than the self-repeating and superficial entertaining ballads played on Music Station. White-washed music might not be, and shall not be the ultimate answer, but it’s a vital leap from as-is.

Since the 2010s, modern Japanese music has been witnessing a boost of “Neo-newwave” bands outrunning the traditional music industry. Notable leading ones include Suchmos, The fin., Never Young Beach, Yogee New Waves, Ykiki Beat/DYGL, Oh Shu and Mitsume. Together these bands created a posh sub-culture with core elements such as surfing, skating, graffiti and DJ while based at Shimokitazawa, the new Harajuku of indie music. These bands were mostly born in the early 90s and heavily influenced by western rock and jazz music from an early age. Some of them tend to sing in English as much as possible and try really hard getting rid of even the slightest Japanese trace. Not that they refuse their Japanese heritage, they just feel their own music doesn’t go well with the Japanese language.

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Speaking of their popularities abroad, especially here in the United States, indie music lovers are beginning to pick up local Japanese American artists like Mitski, and Japanese bands which sing in all-English like the Fin. Meanwhile these Japanese bands are responding with frequent oversea visits to major cities such as New York, LA, Berlin and London. The fin., Mitsume, DYGL, all have been to the U.S. and made several performances. Though not yet attracting a large crowd, they did enjoy increasing awareness from normal fans and received professional critical claims from fellow musicians. Some of the pioneers, for example DYGL, have successfully made connections with renowned figures in the industry. Most strikingly, Albert Hammond Jr. from the Strokes has produced DYGL’s debut album which just came out last week.

Japan Nite, a tour show featuring trendy new Japanese bands since 1996 has also greatly contributed to the Japanese indie scene in America. The bands they invite would usually attend SXSW as a warm up, and then tour the whole States at local signature indie venues. The fin. first came to the U.S. with Japan Nite in 2015. Last year they had Tempalay and Atomic Stooges, and this year they brought here CHAI and Walkings. They are devoted in promoting new blood so it’s not surprising when you find out the bands they present are not known by that many people even in Japan. Unlike what you usually see at concerts of major Japanese musicians such as X Japan, B’z, VAMPS, Hotei, and many more others where you see more than half Asian faces, at Japan Nite gigs the audience looks nothing different from a DIIV show in Brooklyn.

Japan Nite

Looks promising? At least I think so. The prelude of a Japanese indie music tornado has just seen its first few flaps of the butterfly wing. We won’t see it happen tomorrow but, at least before mini-skirt uniform girls occupy all Japanese TV channels.

 

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