Talked to Radwimps for The Japan Times
For this week’s Japan Times’ cover story, I talked to the band Radwimps, who wrote the soundtrack to the movie “Your Name” which has been a massive hit in the last year (to say the least):
Yokohama Arena feels special on this chilly Tuesday night in early March. It’s here that Radwimps — a rock outfit from Kanagawa Prefecture whose members could bike to this very venue when they were teens — are playing the first of two sold-out shows.
The group — featuring vocalist-guitarist Yojiro Noda, guitarist Akira Kuwahara, bassist Yusuke Takeda and drummer Satoshi Yamaguchi (though he has been on hiatus since 2015 due to a neurological disorder) — reminisces frequently during the show on their youth and watching gigs at this venue in the early 2000s. They play songs from across their career, touching on everything from pop-punk to experiments in electronica.
Yet the arena responds loudest to songs from “Your Name.,” the animated film about body-swapping teenagers for which Radwimps provided the soundtrack. When it comes time for “Zenzenzense,” the track most associated with the anime, excitement boils over.
Sounding off about JASRAC in the Japan Times
The Japan Times runs an occasional opinion column called “Sound Off,” and I stepped on the soapbox this month to talk about copyright:
At the start of 2017, it was hard to imagine a way that the Japanese Society for Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers (JASRAC) could garner more hate from social media users than its already received. The music copyright management organization has long been one of the most loathed institutions on sites such as Twitter and 2channel. People focus on its militant approaches to YouTube uploads or collecting fees from independent hair salons playing background music.
It only took one month, however, for JASRAC to find a new way to anger the online masses.
On Feb. 2, JASRAC announced its intention to collect fees from music school performances, defined vaguely enough to make a classroom setting fair game. The proposal, which would go into effect in 2018, would impact hundreds of music education institutes and, most likely, result in higher fees for students.
Writing about “kawaii” for Red Bull Music Academy
Accompanying a new video series, I wrote an intro article about “kawaii” for Red Bull Music Academy:
The word “kawaii” gets thrown around a lot in Japan. Spend a day in Tokyo and you might hear the word, generally translated to English as “cute,” used to describe clothing displays, pancakes topped with fresh fruit or kittens on display in pet store windows, as well as dozens of other things. It’s the defining characteristic – not to mention economic anchor – of the capital’s Harajuku neighborhood, home to the Kawaii Monster Cafe. It’s also so prevalent in Japan that Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s wife, Akie, pointed to kawaii as a big reason women in the country are held back.
Reviewing Ian Martin’s “Quit Your Band” for Time Out Tokyo
Over at Time Out Tokyo, I was asked to review fellow music writer Ian Martin’s book “Quit Your Band.” It’s good! Read the review here.
Writing about Showa Kayo Night and Quarta330 in The Japan Times
Busy month, but almost forgot to mention two recent articles in The Japan Times. First off, I caught up with the folks behind Showa Kayo Night for their recent Ooomori Edition:
Justin Miller isn’t a stranger to Japanese TV. He has been a guest on various morning shows to promote Showa Kayo Night, a party he co-founded in 2011. But the reaction he got after appearing on TV Tokyo’s evening program “You wa Nani Shi ni Nippon E?” (“Why Did You Come To Japan?”) really surprised him.
“It aired in May and I saw the impact at the next event,” he says from a fittingly retro bowling alley cafe in Tokyo’s Sasazuka neighborhood, near his day job. “I was coming from my school’s sports day, after running around in the sun all day. It was the first time I was late to it. I walked in, and everybody just started clapping.”
Also caught up with producer Quarta330 ahead of his new EP:
Unlike a lot of kids growing up in the 1990s, Toru Koda didn’t have much hands-on experience with video games.
“My big brother always hogged the system,” the 32-year-old, who records electronic music as Quarta330, says with a chuckle at a cafe in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward. “But I really liked watching games more. Even now, when I drink, I’ll watch video game speed runs on YouTube.”
Writing about YouTubers and Paellas at The Japan Times
Two stories this week, both of which I’m quite happy with. First off, I looked into the ever-growing world of English-language YouTubers in Japan. Specifically, I wanted to see if making a living from this — and obtaining the proper visas — was possible. I met up with one of the country’s most popular vloggers, Sharla In Japan, to disucss:
In 2015, Sharla of the YouTube channel Sharla In Japan found herself juggling two careers. Since 2011, the Canadian-born creator had been making videos about her life here to a quickly growing audience. But actually making them was tough, as she also had a day job.
“I hated it,” says Sharla, who’s asked us not to publish her last name for privacy reasons. “It was a startup tech company, I liked having the chance to help build the company up. But the hours were insane, it was your typical work-to-death hours, not getting paid for overtime.”
Increasingly stressed out, she soon realized her YouTube channel was actually pulling in about the same amount of money as her tech work.
“I was getting the same income doing something I enjoy, so why am I doing this other thing?” Sharla quit the job, and gambled on making YouTube videos her primary source of income. It paid off.
I also talked with Osaka outfit Paellas, about their new album Pressure:
Fitting into the sound of the moment while still standing apart from it can be a tricky thing to do. Paellas guitarist Satoshi Anan says he wanted the feeling of “now” to come out on his band’s newest album, “Pressure.”
“But I didn’t want to make it like fast-fashion clothes … or fast food,” Anan says, adding that he rectified this by adding some 1980s and ’90s nostalgia.
Writing about ryokan for Ethiopian Airlines and looking at 2017 for Metropolis
Two stories to start 2017…first, for Ethiopian Airlines in-flight magazine, I wrote about some of the best traditional Japanese hotels in Tokyo. Read that here, unless you find yourself on one of their flights sometime soon.
I also talked with a few of the artists in Japan who had big years in 2016, and asked them what they expected from 2017, for Metropolis.
Overall, Japanese music had a pretty good 2016. Heavy-metal-meets-cutesy-pop trio Babymetal continued charming listeners both at home and abroad, while fans of the golden age of J-Pop rejoiced when Hikaru Utada returned to the spotlight after a six-year hiatus. And perhaps you heard about Pikotaro? He had a pen, he had an apple…uh, something something.
But now the new year has arrived, and it’s time to look forward to 2017. We asked a handful of folks in the Japanese music scene who had a very good 2016 what they hoped to achieve in the coming 12 months…and what larger trends people should keep an eye out for (or, at least what artists are worth taking a listen to).
Looking back at the year in J-Pop for The Japan Times
Looked back at the year that was for The Japan Times, and focused on a divide in power that has emerged over the last 12 months.
Media, both domestic and overseas, spent a lot of time focused on the streaming services arriving in Japan in 2016. Months of “Can these platforms thrive in CD-loving Japan?” speculation reached a climax in September, when global market leader Spotify finally debuted here. There was a big press conference, launch parties and one final flurry of articles pondering if this could be the sea change so many thirst for in the country’s music industry.
One problem, though — that shift already happened, via digital platforms that arrived in Japan years ago, and which became pop cultural forces over the course of this year.
There are two ways to look at the state of Japanese pop music over the past 12 months. On one hand, 2016 was a golden year for looking back and celebrating artists that exemplify the traditional power structures so many tech companies are trying to disrupt, highlighted by J-pop titan Hikaru Utada’s comeback and the drama-cum-mourning around the soon-to-disband outfit SMAP. You can’t find either of their albums on streaming services, and only snippets elsewhere online for that matter. In these cases, labels and talent agencies held all the power. Same as it ever was.
On the other hand, there has been a new wave of Japanese artists aware of (or lucky enough to benefit from) how younger listeners are drawn to music today. Early 20-somethings and teenagers aren’t rushing out to buy CDs — they can’t afford to drop ¥3,000 too frequently — and they aren’t fixated on sound alone. Rather, they gravitate toward video-sharing sites such as YouTube and MixChannel, where users just like them can create their own dances and silly clips set to the music they like. Online, the listener holds the power.
And in 2016, they helped oddballs like Pikotaro (he has a pen, he has an apple) and Taiiku Okazaki achieve viral success. Those in their late 20s and 30s still embraced the artists that were big during their younger years, but the burgeoning digital generation anointed their own pop stars through their own mediums, highlighted by the ever-chipper Kana Nishino and the disco-indebted Gen Hoshino.
Catching up with tofubeats for Metropolis Magazine
Caught up with one of my favorite artists tofubeats for my first-ever magazine cover story, for Metropolis Magazine:
Yusuke Kawai grew up just outside of Kobe in a “new town,” the Japanese term for a planned community. Kawai, who records music under the name tofubeats, describes his government-developed hometown: “There’s no city center and no local shopping streets like in other towns. Every station has similarly designed shopping malls, just with different names.” They were ideal residential zones, with big-city vice swapped out for big-box chains and department stores. Kawai recalls the only cultural center of any sort being a music shop, rental store Tsutaya and second-hand shop Hard-Off.
“The new town was made from nothing, and so we didn’t really have any traditional festivals. To me, it was vacant. The new town didn’t really have its own uniqueness in Japan.”
Yet this space helped develop Kawai’s creativity and shaped his approach to music. As a teenager, he spent most of his time absorbing the CDs available at Tsutaya and used any other free time to hunt down new sounds on the internet. “I tried to find anything interesting around me, but there were always only ordinary things. And so I started to think that I have to remix what I had to make something new.” Kawai spliced up mainstream J-pop sounds and YouTube discoveries into a fidgety style, which helped him connect with like-minded people on message boards.