Listening and Imagining

Most people in the Western world have some idea about Japan, even if these ideas are largely imagined. It’s where people are stuffed into trains with the same intensity you use to desperately jam yet another outfit into an already over-packed suitcase, but it’s also the place where an endless horizon of mountains stoically rise above the clouds. It’s home to a vibrant youth culture where fashionistas stomp around the streets of Tokyo in combat boots, a Lolita-esque dresses, fake eyelashes and purple pigtails, but where you can also see a woman rushing to catch the train while making sure she doesn’t trip over the elegant folds of her kimono. Home to both samurai and to Pikachu, Japan can easily be imagined as a land of contradiction: a place where visions of an ancient past and a futuristic dream world coexist in the present.

Fashion in Harajuku, one of the best spots in Tokyo to get a glimpse of youth culture and Tokyo’s incomparable street fashion.

Nothing, and no one, but mountains as far as the eye can see. The Hachimantai Mountains, on the border of Akita, Aomori, and Iwate prefectures in northern Japan.

These contradictory, nearly competing histories are rather interestingly bound together by a singular notion of Japanese identity. In other words, the past, present, and future of Japanese society may be drastically different from one another, but they are linked by a general idea of “Japaneseness,” and perhaps what it means to be Japanese in contemporary Japan. But if these are all imagined ideas, in what way do they gain meaning, and how are these identities negotiated?

This blog explores the relationship between imagination and music. I believe that the deep connection shared by music and society is one of the most important avenues for people to imagine, and identify who they are. Music is a sonic imagining, a soundtrack that reveals a society’s collective unconscious, to borrow an idea from Carl Jung. From each society’s unique conception of beautiful music to the way that people listen to music, and to the way that music challenges listeners, music is capable of being historical, present, and progressive all at the same time. There is music from multiple eras floating around any society at all times, with each genre holding meaning to whoever listens.

Before this gets too abstract, though, I’ll give some examples that can help elucidate the relationship between space, time, imagination, and music that I’m trying to drive home. For instance, someone listening to Dizzy Gillespie may imagine, notes pouring over her, what it would be like to step into a jazz club in 1930s New York City and see the be-boppers strut their stuff. Listening to Rihanna or Ariana Grande may allow the listener to imagine herself dancing in the hippest new club in Los Angeles, and maybe spotting a celebrity. And perhaps those who listen to the non-organic, futuristic sounds of Aphex Twin are negotiating anxieties about a future that looks as though it will be more digital than it is human.

What happens, though, if the imaginings conjured by music are hundreds – or perhaps even thousands – of years apart, as is the case in Japan? While contemporary Japanese society has seemingly embraced the multiplicities of its own identity, music of Japan’s past follows a completely different set of aesthetic values, and is consumed in drastically different ways than music of Japan’s present: the upbeat, nearly saccharine, extremely kawaii genre of J-pop. All the while, these musics have almost nothing to do with the dynamic underground electronic dance music scene in Japan, except that this scene is reactionary and – by design – a grass-roots music making and listening experience. So if these music scenes are all so different, how are people relating to these musics, and what meanings are assigned to them that they can all be bound together as “Japanese”?

Over the next eight months, I’ll be exploring this question by immersing myself into these scenes. I’ll be going up to Akita prefecture to learn all about Nishimonai Bon-odori (西馬音内盆踊り), one of Japan’s three most important obon Buddhist festivals that honors one’s ancestors. Nishimonai boasts to be one of the oldest, most undiluted performances of Japanese indigenous music in the country today, which is why I think it’s an interesting entry point toward understanding music of Japan’s past and how it gains contemporary meaning. The music sounds nearly other-wordy, as are the costumes of the dancers; according to festival organizers, the festival has been performed (and preserved) for around seven hundred years.

Musicians performing “Ondo,” one of two songs performed at the festival.

Dancing to “Kange,” the other song performed at Nishimonai.

Next, I’ll be soaking up J-pop through Japan’s thriving, far-reaching, and extensively commercialized popular music scene, and pop culture at large. Anyone who listens to popular music knows that the music is only part of the consumption experience. This is especially true in Japan, where the most popular music group today – AKB48 – drips with a particular kind of sex appeal that reveals a lot about Japanese societal values. I’ll be getting into those issues later, but for now, take a trip into the teenage male subconscious through AKB’s newest single, Kokoro no puraka-do (心のプラカード, “Placard of My Heart”):

Tokyo’s Akihabara neighborhood: mecca of electronics, maid cafes, and otaku geek culture, and home to AKB48, short for Akihabara48.

And last, I’ll be checking out the underground minimal techno scene in Tokyo, and possibly beyond (Osaka has an exciting scene, and rumor has it that some of Japan’s most active minimal DJs work as a collective in Sendai, a vibrant city devastated by the earthquake and tsunami disasters of 2011). Although electronic dance music has become increasingly mainstream, minimal – which rests somewhere between the avant-garde noise scene, mainstream EDM, and art music of American minimalist composers like Steve Reich – errs toward the cerebral and poetic. The scene is small – most DJs are regular people who work or go to school during the day – but a desire to make and hear authentic music that’s off the beaten path binds this scene together. To give you an idea of Japan’s minimal sound, here’s a set by Ryota Kojima, an acupuncturist by day and minimal DJ by night that I heard at Club Module in Shibuya, Tokyo’s rather gritty (but always exciting) club district:

The infamous five-way crosswalk in Shibuya. If you don’t know your way to the club, you may get run over.

Now that we’ve laid down a roadmap to traverse space and time through music, stay tuned to see how historical multiplicities collide, and how individuals and nations are imagined through music. Each month will provide a deeper examination of the music, imagination, and significance – both individual and cultural – for each scene. And maybe our own imaginings of Japan will be challenged along the way.

One thought on “Listening and Imagining

  1. Love this post, Jillian! I really feel like I’m there with you! The Japanese music scene is so interesting and I think assigning meaning to the music will be an interesting exploration especially through your approach of immersion.

    I read these two articles in the New York Times and FORTUNE, they both reminded me of you & your project. Can’t wait to hear more. 🙂


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