Tokyo Soundtracks: Controlling the Noise in Underground Clubs

Tokyo is one of the largest cities the world, with around 30 million people living in the metropolitan area. It’s also the most densely populated city on Earth. Tokyo is crowded, and it took me a few weeks to get used to it. Or, perhaps more accurately, it took me a few weeks to accept that going anywhere means being constantly surrounded by people, especially on the trains. It’s not exactly pleasant, particularly during rush hour or last train when station workers push people into train cars with a slab of cardboard.

Commuters jammed in on a Keihin Tōhoku Line train at rush hour, a shot I snapped on my mp3 player.

A cardboard-wielding station worker, waiting for the right moment to shove people into the cars for last train.

It follows that a city literally stacked on top of itself with high rises, neon signs and, of course, people, is incredibly noisy. Walk by any shop or restaurant in Japan and you’ll be confronted by announcers, both in-person and recorded, loudly calling out the day’s deals and offerings. From convenience stores to department stores, sales associates greet patrons with a hearty “Irasshaimase!” which roughly translates to “Come in! Welcome!” Ten minutes or so before closing, many stores play “Auld Lang Syne,” or the song you may better recognize as the New Year’s anthem, to alert customers that it’s time to start heading to the register. Big box stores often play tailored jingles on loop, repeating the store name and daily specials (I asked a cashier at the Yamada Denki electronics branch in my neighborhood what she thought of the Yamada Denki song, and she shot me a look of utter despair: a clear answer if there ever was one).

Businesses, buildings, and people everywhere in Kabuki-chō, Shinjuku district.

Stores also hire people to hand out tissues or uchiwa paper fans for free on the street while shouting the store, product, or event that they’re endorsing as you walk by. Anything from J-pop to American pop to film soundtracks to symphonies drifts out of the speakers strung above Shibuya’s teeming streets, which competes with Tower Records’ giant screen playing top-ten music videos (and Tsutaya’s display that shows new movie clips). At five o’clock in the evening across Tokyo (and actually all across the archipelago), a tune plays over the loudspeakers that line every street in town. The music, which plays to signify the end of the work day, is different in every town, but it’s somehow comforting knowing that music plays everywhere in Japan at five sharp every evening. The five o’clock music even played in the fairly remote fishing village in southwestern Japan where I lived from 2009 to 2011: there, it was the theme from the second movement of Dvorak’s ninth symphony.

Yet even amongst this fierce competition, there is perhaps no louder concentration of noise in Tokyo than the train stations. Upon entering you are flooded with a constant barrage of announcements, gentle safety reminders, the arrival and departure times of trains, and a sonic quirk that may be unique to Japan: station jingles. Every station in Tokyo plays short jingles over the intercom that let passengers know that a train is coming or going. Sometimes the jingles are excerpts; other times they’re original. At Ōimachi station near my apartment, for instance, the Rinkai Line plays The Little Mermaid’s “Part of Your World” for arrivals and “Under the Sea” for departures, while the Japan Railways trains use an excerpt from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” string quartet for arrivals and a rather frantic-sounding original tune for departures.

A selection of some jingles along the stops of the Yamanote Line, one of the busiest routes in the city.

Tokyo is undoubtedly cacophonous; that’s part of its charm. But what I find interesting is that a lot of Tokyo’s background music is Western in origin, yet Japanese in form and consumption; in other words, Western music is distributed by uniquely Japanese means, like train station jingles. This rupture is an interesting microcosm of what the idea of music connotes in contemporary Japan, and the interesting – if somewhat unsettling – history of music in Japan. The canon of indigenous Japanese art music stretches back thousands of years, when shōmyou Buddhist chants began to shape what would later develop into a formal set of Japanese musical aesthetics as exemplified by festival music as well as the the musics of and kabuki theater. By the start of the Edo period in the early seventeenth century, Japan enjoyed a dynamic, cosmopolitan musical culture, perhaps due to the fact that the newly instated Tokugawa Shogunate cut off all international contact.

But since the Meiji Restoration began in 1868 thanks to the looming threat of Western imperialism, Japan opened the Edo period’s closed doors in an attempt to modernize, which translated to the study and emulation of Western societies to see what made them tick. One of the biggest changes Japan made at this time was shifting the notion of music. The term for music in Japanese, ongaku, was to denote the freshly encountered Western classical music canon, while minzoku ongaku, or “folk music,” referred to anything that was indigenously Japanese. Japanese music was displaced by the fetishization of Western music.

In order to understand contemporary music scenes in Japan, I think that it’s imperative to remember the politics behind the worldwide spread of Western music, and at what cost that the Western canon became the default. And I don’t necessarily just mean the Western giants like Bach and Beethoven: the same can be said of popular music as well (think about it: the standard pop song form as developed in New York City’s Tin Pan Alley in the 1920s is now nearly ubiquitous). I’ll dig into these issues more in subsequent discussions of J-pop and the Nishimonai festival, so for now let’s return to the noisy soundtrack of Tokyo. Essentially, I’m suggesting that Tokyo’s noise may be regarded as oppressive, and in two main ways:

1. Tokyo’s musical soundtrack is a testament to Japan’s tumultuous geopolitical history and the collapse of the Japanese empire to the Western powers… and, of course:
2. It’s also just really loud (plus, even an overthinking academic like myself can recognize that shouts of “Irasshaimase!” have nothing to do with postwar Western hegemony, except perhaps if one adds global capitalism into the equation… but that’s a different issue entirely!).

So, do people in Tokyo have a solution to deal with all noise? And if so, how are they doing it? I think that one possible solution is found in the underground electronic music scene. Since August, I’ve been checking out a few shows a week at a hole-in-the-wall club (with actual holes in the walls everywhere) in the back alleys of Shibuya called Club Module. The first time I went there, I knew it was exactly what I was looking for: small, intimate, and serious about sharing a local voice and message. The first shows I went to featured strictly minimal and techno DJs, with the former species of electronic music being slightly more industrial and stripped-down than straight-up techno. Other shows I went to, though, featured electronica – a cousin to techno and sister to minimal that, like the latter, bravely marches into a realm of inorganic sounds and abstracted rhythmic sensibility – or noise artists. For anyone confused about what a noise artist exactly does, it’s a musician who works almost exclusively outside of pitch (and often rhythm) using non-musical sounds emitted from oftentimes homemade gear.

A set by Miyajima Shōtaro, a senior at Waseda University who moonlights as an accomplished minimal DJ. Resident artist and regular attendee (and DJ) at Module until October 1st, when he moved to Berlin, Miyajima’s sound was standard fare at this unique club and serves as a great example of Tokyo’s gritty, experimental minimal.

Module’s main floor and bar: a tiny music dungeon kept purposefully (and perfectly) untidy.

Module – which unfortunately closed on September 30th – drew a niche crowd of regulars, myself included. We patrons didn’t go there for the same reasons other people may go to night clubs playing more mainstream kinds of music (to drink, to dance, to meet people, and other reasons that you can use your imagination to figure out). Instead, I found that the reason I went was true for many of the friends and acquaintances I made at Module. Between sets, I was informed that they, too, were there to hear something different, and to push their sonic experiences into unknown territory.

DREAMPV$HER, an experimental noise/electronica duo who produce mind-bending sound through free rhythm and nearly complete atonality on their homemade gear. Though their approach is more experimental than that of Miyajima, these artists share an interesting overlap that their presence at Module emphasized: both establish a dark or intense mood by utilizing unconventional sounds. The first time I saw DREAMPV$HER at Module, Ryo – one of the group’s two members, along with Michael – was so into his set that he started hitting the wall with his fist.

Balloons line the dance floor– two stories underground – at Module’s closing party on September 30th. Photo by Uehara Yae

It’s interesting to me that the genres of minimal, techno, electronica, and noise happen to intersect despite their differences, particularly minimal and noise. While minimal isn’t as danceable as something with a firmer beat, like house music, it’s more structured than noise. Yet both genres experiment with non-tonal harmonies and sonic textures, and organize these sounds – these noises – into something more coherent. There are any number of explanations for why Japan’s regimented society and dynamic capital city enjoys such a vibrant underground musical world, and I think that Japan’s geopolitical musical history and Tokyo’s noisiness form its foundation: non-tonal musical expression offers an escape route from the politicized presence of Western harmonies in contemporary Japan, while the underground scene of artists and musicians in the midst of Tokyo’s raucous soundtrack are making sense of noise on their own terms.

Module’s closing was definitely sad, but now I can see if and how these genres cross paths with other scenes. Maybe I’ll find some interesting overlap, or maybe I’ll find endless depth into a particular kind of music. In any case, I’ll not-so-secretly be hoping to hear a minimal or noise artist borrow from the extensive canon of Tokyo’s train station jingles.

One thought on “Tokyo Soundtracks: Controlling the Noise in Underground Clubs

  1. Hi. Very interesting post. I’m travelling to Tokyo and was looking for these kind of places to enjoy the music I like in Tokyo night. Module looked like therfect place for me to go but now it is closed. Could you recommend me any other similar places or tell me where can I find experimental or noise related places? Thanks in advance

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