Closing Meditations: The Human Condition and the Power of Music

It’s hard to believe my time in Japan this time around is coming to a close, but it’s even harder to believe that there was ever a time when I didn’t yet have these experiences. My experience has exceeded all my overarching objectives as a Fulbright-mtvU scholar – to expose myself to the music happening in Japan today and to listen to each scene as a soundtrack for contemporary society that challenges space-time relationships, notions of (national) identity, and just what we think “society” is, anyway. The ideas I’ll be exploring in my dissertation have evolved into sophisticated perspectives, and I have become more confident of the kind of scholar I aim to be (which is to say, highly egalitarian and eager to share and learn without ever stepping foot into the infamous “Ivory Tower” of academia). And although I’m not exactly looking forward to leaving Japan, I am extremely excited to share this amazing music with my future students at Cornell, where I will be teaching a course called “From Zen to J-pop (^o^)/: Listening to Japanese Society through Music” in the upcoming fall and spring semesters (to any incoming Cornell first-years who are reading: sign up!).

But more than anything, the past nine months have been profound on a personal level. I’ve spent much of my adult life in Japan in varying locations and capacities: as a gainfully employed member of mainstream society in rural Awaji Island, as a student in the ancient but chic city of Kyoto, as a traveler across the archipelago, and now as a researcher in Tokyo and Akita (with excursions to Osaka and Kyoto). Each time I’ve come back to Japan my relationship with this complex society has evolved, as has my Japanese alter-ego “Jiru” (which is less an alter-ego than it is my untranslatable Japanese self). There are always ups and downs when you’re living abroad, but I’ve learned in the past nine months how to negotiate these waves better than ever, and this has largely been through music. Music has the power to form communities – to bring people together – and create common goals that can triumph even the darkest bouts of loneliness, isolation, and cultural fatigue.

This is what I mean:
My preparation for the Nishimonai Bon-odori Akita has opened my mind to a uniquely “Japanese” (re: indigenous) aesthetic sensibility, which in turn has demanded that I set aside the deeply engrained Western aesthetics that I, as an American, grew up with; remember, notions of rhythm and harmony – or ideas about what even constitutes music – are neither universal nor objective. Essentially, dancing to this music and letting it cycle through my body has bestowed an alternate consciousness – a different musical vocabulary — and over the months that I’ve practiced these movements and listened carefully to the music for dance cues, I’ve found myself relying on a different kind of musical intuition that has developed in the process. It’s the intuition that binds everyone together at the dance lessons and that guides the entire atmosphere of the August festival. As I mentioned in a previous post, when we dance in Akita, we communicate through this mutually shared alternate musical consciousness, this space that all of us committed to Nishimonai enter whenever we step into the rehearsals. I can’t wait to see what that space feels like during the actual festival in August (rest assured, I will be returning to Japan this summer to practice and participate — and I get to wear one of those awesome hikosa-zukin masks!).

At the same time, I’ve found whom I truly consider to be “my people” here in Japan by going underground: people with whom there is a strong sense of connection and understanding, friendships where the bonds are transcendent and where we share similar views on music, society, and even capitalism (disclaimer: none of us are exactly fans). Since I was an adolescent, I’ve been questioning just what constitutes society and have been curious about the ways that the concept of the nation state and (global) capitalism affect the human condition. As a lifelong musician – I was a serious classical trumpet player in a past life and performed at Carnegie Hall when I was 16 – I’ve also been curious about how music is connected to whatever “the human condition” can be said to be. Most of the underground musicians I’ve met and become friends with here in Japan wonder about the same issues, which is just amazing for several reasons. For starters, I only had a vague sense of what music in the Japanese underground would sound like based on my experiences dabbling in the Osaka underground several years ago; finding underground music this time around was an intensely intuitive process and, as I mentioned in my post about the amazing electronics duo DREAMPV$HER, I only knew that I would recognize what it was that I was looking for when I heard it — and it turned out that looking for something “different” brought me to a scene where being and sounding “different” is valued. Moreover, the fact that these musicians have similar opinions on music and society as me, which in my experience are often unpopular or misunderstood, has been as fascinating and surprising as it has been moving. Like the members of Clock Hazard, I’m a musical idealist and this scene has deeply resonated with me. Similar to Nishimonai, the music in this scene is the glue that binds us together. My consciousness has been opened up by this music as well: going to countless underground music shows over the past nine months has revealed spaces where musicians project utopian (or dystopian) realities through their fresh, different perspectives on musical sensibility, and thereby challenge mainstream society’s projection of reality in the process. Many of these musicians are full-time artists living bohemian lifestyles that run counter to mainstream society and are instead living for the alternate universe of the underground, for their contribution. It’s been extremely inspiring, to say the least.

So, what are these projections of reality purported by mainstream society? This is where J-pop comes into play. J-pop listening and consumption culture reflects the conditions of mainstream Japanese society and many of its societal values. As a market-driven industry, J-pop simultaneously targets and reinforces its audience by being just familiar enough to be easily accessed but just edgy enough to remain interesting. I realize that I haven’t posted about it much, but in my experience it’s not only the least challenging music to access mentally and understand – by design, anyone from around the world can get into it at any time thanks to the Internet and global media flows – but the paradox is that this music, which purports to represent the Japanese everyman (and I do largely mean everyman), is paradoxically the hardest music to access physically, as I discussed in a post about consumerism and popular culture. The fact is that the experience of engaging with J-pop isn’t really about music at all; it’s more about consuming goods and identifying, as a fan, with a “brand” and its various associations. Japanese popular music – as well as the popular music in the U.S. and South Korea, I would argue – seeks explicitly to brand the (Japanese) nation abroad through soft power, and what political scientist Douglas McGray has dubbed “Japan’s Gross National Cool” (check out his article in Foreign Policy Magazine to read more about Japan’s soft power). In other words, Japanese popular culture is actively exported abroad through campaigns, such as Cool Japan (see Cool Japan’s English website here), that have helped contribute to the image that many Americans have of Japan (“It’s so cute!” “It’s so orderly!” “It’s so repressed!” “It’s so futuristic!” “It’s so deviant!” “It’s so weird!”), as well as to the image that Japan – at the mainstream level – has of itself, which, since the Meiji Restoration of 1868, has been vis-a-vis notions of the Western world.

But the bottom line is that all three of these music scenes reflect the conditions contemporary Japanese society and challenge just what “Japan” even is. I’ve based the methodology of my research around these musings and, therefore, have sought to understand through first-hand experiences (which vary depending on the scene) what these musical scenes can reveal about contemporary Japan when compared and contrasted to each other. My methodological meta-argument is that, had I just concentrated on a single scene, I’d be missing out on the broader societal context that helps us to understand how people engage with this music. Using specific examples to underscore what I mean, the indigenous music scene as encapsulated by Nishimonai works in tandem with mainstream Japanese values because it literally has to brand and sell itself in order to exist, and is tied up with the financial stability of the region. The underground music scene, in the meantime, is explicitly anti-mainstream, which is to say that it is anti-consumerism, actively pushes aesthetic and experiential boundaries, and encourages individualism and creativity. In the background all the while, everyday life in Japan is defined by mainstream conditions that value conformity and the notions of Japan pushed by popular culture and the economic and political interests of the Japanese nation-state, which the traditional and underground scenes actively negotiate through their music.

Given the nature of my project, I’ve spent the past nine months – and will spend the last three months I’ll have in Japan when I return for the summer – in full-on observation mode; I’ve been considering and connecting everything I see (and hear!), and it will be interesting to see how I transition back into life in the U.S. in August when I’m no longer urged to live as highly an examined life. I’m optimistic, but there will be challenges: whenever I’ve returned to the U.S. after an extended period of time in Japan, I always have a bit of a hard time going from Jiru to Jill again; after living abroad and returning to your place of origin, you kind of feel like a foreigner in what is supposed to be your home. In the case of Japan, I’ve found that there are certain everyday customs which are very hard to abandon on command, particularly bowing — it really does become second nature, and nothing makes people look at you like you’re insane more than bowing at fellow Americans as an extremely tall, blonde-haired, blue-eyed young woman from Vermont. It will also be strange to speak English all the time again (my English is actually kind of rusty now, if you can believe it), and I’m always appalled by how unpunctual, dirty, and inefficient everything seems in the U.S. after living in a place where trains run on time to the second. As Jiru, I adapt to Japanese society and the Japanese language, which necessitates a certain degree of ambiguity, formality, humility, and indirectness that runs almost entirely counter to American customs, which end up seeming shockingly direct when you’ve been away from them for a while (People actually saying what they think? People wearing leggings as pants … in public? Unthinkable!). And even though I’ve spent the past nine months mourning the loss of cheese in my everyday life, the food in the U.S. always gives me stomach trouble when I go back.

What will be the most interesting, though, is how I transition from living this musical life, where I’ve joined together with the old ladies dancing in Akita and the underground artists raging against the machine in Tokyo and Osaka, to life in upstate New York again. I’m sure it will be very bittersweet to say goodbye, but the good news is that I’ve made these relationships for life and that this isn’t really goodbye. Not only will I come back to Japan and meet these wonderful people again and again (and hopefully convince some of them to come to New York!), my life has changed because of these relationships, and I will carry these perspectives and experiences with me wherever I go. I’ve also been so inspired by the underground music scene that I am thinking of DJ-ing myself. But the fact is that the experiences I’ve catalogued on this blog have transformed me into a different person: a more tolerant, patient, grateful, open-minded person, who feels more connected to her work, her goals, herself, and the world around her than ever.

And that’s the power of music.

4 thoughts on “Closing Meditations: The Human Condition and the Power of Music

  1. Hey, I think your website might be having browser compatibility issues.
    When I look at your blog in Chrome, it looks fine but when opening in Internet Explorer,
    it has some overlapping. I just wanted to give you a quick heads up!
    Other then that, wonderful blog!


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