Something in the Air

The question “Do you like Japan?” is one you’ll hear often, functioning as a rhetorical foot in the door for the more pressing, “What do you like about Japan?” More and more, that’s when I start talking music. Not J-Pop, or any one kind of music really. I mean the wonderful, absurd ways music intrudes on daily life in Japan.

“But there’s music everywhere,” you say. True, and perhaps I’m too easily won over, but I don’t recall ever being surprised in quite the same way back home. That surprise arises both from musical traditions entirely new to me and the way familiar songs are mugged and misplaced and given new meanings.

If you’re traveling, you may already be sick of jittery loops of koto music in temple gardens, or the irritating tune played ad nauseam on the trains. But listen a little longer, a little more carefully.

I remember the first time I heard “Auld Lang Syne” played over and over again to signal that it was time for all of us to clear the hell out of SOGO department store so they could mop the walls and wax the mannequins. I knew instantly what was wanted, and even if I hadn’t the sheer repetition would have driven me toward an exit.

Not long afterward I sat in a chain café, surrounded by pleasant middle-aged women leafing through furniture catalogs. From the speakers overhead, Trent Reznor groaned, “I want to fuck you like an animal.” I looked around, hoping in vain for a chat about what kind of animal Trent Reznor had in mind. Domestic turkey? The red-lipped batfish? I still feel cheated.

And once, in a bakery in Ujina, I was assailed by a children’s choir singing something called “The Bible Tells Me to Be Healthy.” I was buying a sticky cheese bun.

This time of year things get interesting. The BGM is never quite BG enough, is it? It’s loud, in fact, and I forgive you if your thoughts go wandering in the dark the next time you’re forced to live through “Last Christmas,” a song for which someone, somewhere, deserves to be beaten with a length of wet rope. On the other hand, I’m happy handing over Robert Burns in exchange for the unearthly gagaku that fills the air at New Years. The strange, insectile drone of the bamboo shō has never gone stale. It’s just too odd a thrill to get accustomed to, and I suspect that no matter how long I remain in Japan, it will always leave me feeling intensely alien.

New Year’s Eve is also the time to sit with my family watching NHK’s Kōhaku, a garish, four-hour “singing contest” pitting female against male artists. It’s also an annual testament to the pop music industry’s freedom from facile concerns like talent, originality, or even bare competence. Somehow, I’ve tricked myself into thinking this is fun, and so it is. At midnight NHK commences live coverage of temple bells across the country being tolled 108 times. This signals a mass descent on the local shrine to be cleansed of the old year’s evils, so that we can begin sinning afresh hours before the sun’s even up.

And don’t forget the gentler style of nightlife. I’m not wild about enka or other fading pop genres, but listening to Misora Hibari sing “Shina no Yoru” while drinking shōchu and hot water is the fastest way I know to fall hopelessly in love with the dead. A handful of desolate old min’yō songs, heard late at night, have raised the hair at my nape like no other music ever has.

And you may not like karaoke, but be assured that karaoke adores you, especially after that third beer. Particularly for the traveler, refusing to grace some steamy little bar with your own, onliest spin on “Tiny Dancer” is a bit mean-spirited, no?

A fair number of bars and cafés serve, in part, as places for the owners to share their record collections. Japan is susceptible to musical fads, and as each wave breaks and recedes, the shore is littered with stranded diehards. Once you have several thousand recordings of fado or funk or British folk, what else is there to do but open shop? Murakami Haruki’s defunct jazz bar Peter Cat was one example. And where better to be on a gray afternoon than across the bar from a melancholy café proprietress, gazing into the murk of a half-drunk mug and listening to ballads about the drowning deaths of Lisbon prostitutes?

You get the point. Keep your ears open. And let us know if you hear anything good.

Matt Mangham

Matt Mangham is another unlovely scribbler adding regularly to the 2.5 quintillion bytes of data churned out daily for the betterment of mankind. He sometimes wishes he was a bear. And not some second-rate species like the contemptible Sun Bear either. A proper arctic monster, stalking the windswept rise of tundra and making thoughtful noises best transcribed as "hrraunnngggppPPHH." Mostly, though, Matt Mangham wants to be allowed to wear pretty things without being laughed at.