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Finding The Meaning Of Success, Deep Within Tokyo's Musical Underground

Ian Martin

It was a sweltering hot summer in Tokyo. I was sitting in my study, which doubles as a disorganized storage closet for unsold CDs, zines and tapes. An office worker, taking a cigarette break on the fire escape of the building opposite, was watching me through the window with an expression of disdain, wondering what I was still doing in my dressing gown at 4:00 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon.

At that exact moment, what I was doing was reading an email from the Japanese translator of a book I wrote about the underground music scene in my adopted country. In it, she was laughing about an ironic reference the book makes about the influence that Mark E. Smith and The Fall had on mid-'90s Japanese chart pop, but was unsure how to translate it. In a country and linguistic environment where Smith's defiantly Anglo-Saxon punk poetry never really found purchase, the reference is little more than an Easter egg for a select few. To translate the joke meaningfully would be to explain it, which would be to kill it.

Sitting there in my dressing gown, surrounded by unsold CDs from bands no one cares about, I didn't really understand the problem. The only people in Japan who were going to be interested in my book were exactly the kinds of people who were going to get jokes about semi-cult Manchester post-punk bands. It was all about knowing your audience.

Six months later, in a small, suburban bookshop near my house, I see it. A gaudy splash of yellow and blue leaping out from amongst the books on kabuki, war photography and Norwegian loft renovation. It's the book I wrote, sitting in an ordinary Japanese store, acting like it deserves to be there.

Released in English a year earlier under the title Quit Your Band! Musical Notes from the Japanese Underground, I'd always hoped that the book would be read by both English- and Japanese-speaking audiences, but had always assumed its audience would be confined to the same indie bubble all my other activities occupied. Seeing it in such an ordinary, mainstream setting made my stomach lurch with fear. Something I'd been able to keep personal, and in a lot of ways private — even during the year the English edition had had been on sale — was now acquiring meanings I had never anticipated, from an audience I had never expected.

I moved to Japan from the U.K. in 2001, anticipating a relatively short stay. Getting sucked into the alternate-universe rabbit hole of the indie and underground music scene was the key factor in the ongoing deferral of my return. When I got here, I soon was writing regularly (in English) about the music I was discovering, first on a blog and then in the pages of The Japan Times and other outlets. In parallel to that work, I dove into the thankless, financially draining world of event organizing and running a record label, Call And Response, specializing in obscure contemporary Japanese post-punk.

It was out of all three of these activities that Quit Your Band! first emerged as an idea, a book that would tie together broad-sweep journalistic analyses of the Japanese music scene with an intimate, insider's understanding of the world in which most bands and musicians lived their daily creative lives. Since they first suggested the idea of actually writing it, my publishers at Awai Books were eager to issue a Japanese translation. For me, reaching a Japanese audience was crucial — it was meant as a love letter to all the bands who toiled away, unacknowledged, in Tokyo's cramped basement venues and studios, creating glorious, ludicrous sonic art for basically no one. I needed them to read it.

It was the height of the typhoon season, and I was shaking the water off my umbrella and squelching through the door to a live venue in already-saturated shoes. The place, Ni-man Den-atsu, was just a few minutes' walk from where I live, in the Koenji district of Tokyo. But for almost everyone else, the rain had done a devastatingly effective job at keeping them away. A few more people dripped their way through the doors over the next hour or so, but the night was looking pretty grim, audience-wise, for the five bands on the bill.

That sense of doom lingered on through the first couple of bands, but at some point during the third something changed – a collective abandonment of hope that things might get better, followed by the elatory realization that we could have a good time with what we already had. The musicians from the other bands and the five or six actual audience members all started hysterically cheering everything, peppering each set with surreal, incomprehensible or plain obscene heckles. The barrier between performance and audience dissolved in a collective refusal to let the weather get us down.

Exterior of Ni-man Den-atsu.
/ Ian Martin
Ian Martin
Exterior of Ni-man Den-atsu.

One of the bands on the bill, a synth-punk trio called Jebiotto, were in their element. They had a new song, the title of which ("Dreams Never Come True") was a riff on perennially platitudinous long-time J-pop chart-toppers Dreams Come True, tapping into the weary cynicism many musicians have towards the distant banalities of the mainstream. Also, and equally, their own overlooked status in the underground. There's nothing maudlin about Jebiotto though: they delivered their message of no-hope through joyous, anthemic, '80s-style heart surges, making defeat into victory, a party out of a pyre. Here, sheltering from the rain in this dingy basement, we were the entire Tokyo underground music scene, a band of brothers partying on heroically in the face of indifference.

Whatever I wrote had to chime with the experiences and lives of that audience of basement-dwelling freaks in a way that didn't come across as superficial. However, before the book would get a chance to reach them, it had to first connect with an English-reading audience, which I imagined would be composed primarily of people like my younger self; either newly arrived in Japan or with some from-afar interest in its music scene and subculture. My publisher, Matthew Chozick from Awai Books, explained his thinking to me when it came to the English edition: While there are a handful of English-language books on Japanese music that deal with the history of Japanese music, "readers who wanted to continue onwards into contemporary Japanese music had nowhere – or no pages – to turn." As such, it was important to establish a broad historical and cultural context in which to place the music and issues the book discusses.

After the English edition received a small smattering of attention from mostly local, Tokyo-based, English-language media, and a generally positive response from readers and reviewers, work started on the Japanese edition. One early decision we had to make was whether Awai would publish the Japanese edition themselves or whether they would license it to a more established Japanese publisher. Awai specializes in quirky comics, poetry and nonfiction with cross-cultural appeal. (I hoped, still hope, that the bands whose records I release have the same opinion of working with me as I did working with Awai.) But when it came to Japan, where book distribution tends to occur on a shop-by-shop basis, largely dependent on the relationships publishers and retailers have built up over time, Awai felt they lacked the resources to do the book justice and preferred to partner up with an established local publisher.

I was at a party to celebrate the release of a new cassette by my friends' band Tropical Death, which had just come out on Call And Response with the ultimate goal of selling a respectable couple of hundred copies. A few of us had moved on to a restaurant to continue the party into the night. With us were the members of a wonderful, off-kilter indie rock band called The Falsettos, whose debut album had just been announced by the label P-Vine. Congratulations, with a slight patina of envy, were in the air.

In the grand scale of things, putting out an album on P-Vine isn't that radical a move. They're a thoroughly respectable independent label, rather larger than most, who have released a great many of my favorite Japanese bands at one time or another. Even so, there's cultural barrier crossed when signing with a label like it, the separation between a communal endeavor and the music business proper. When you cross that line, there's a sense of departure, of moving on. A fug of melancholy can't help but hang over the process.

For very small labels like mine, the presence of companies like P-Vine also represents a harsh reminder that even a small amount of money and power counts for more than all the good will you can accrue by spending mere time and energy on bands. A magnificently gothic-psychedelic-post-punk band called Hysteric Picnic had previously moved on from Call And Response to P-Vine, changing their name in the process, which had the unintentional effect of effectively erasing their earlier releases from memory. (I'd made cautious attempts to sign The Falsettos a couple of years prior, too.)

For the overall health of the music scene at its most grassroots level, these rare opportunities to achieve something a bit more serious are a necessary and good thing. But if I couldn't feel any real bitterness, I could at least do a passably convincing impression of it. In that spirit, I proposed a toast to the room with as little tact as I could muster: "F*** P-Vine!" There was a brief moment where the joke hung awkwardly in the air — it could have come across as an ugly truth masquerading as something more tongue-in-cheek, or it could have helped alleviate an unacknowledged and unwanted tension.

The joke landed with a few cheers and a lot of drained glasses. It probably helped that most people in the room by this point know that P-Vine's publishing arm, ele-king books, had been lined up to oversee the Japanese edition of Quit Your Band! It took me a bit longer to realize that what I was really trying to alleviate was my own awkwardness at something I'd written transforming from a quirky nugget of alternative culture into a product with real obligations to the market. I wanted the reach, but not the responsibility.

In addition to its role as a book publisher, ele-king is also well known for its eponymous quarterly music magazine, which focuses on experimental, post-punk, jazz and other oddball music and arts. So, despite the temptation for a label owner like me — with impeccable taste but miserable sales figures — to sneer jealously at P-Vine, being linked with ele-king was too good an opportunity to miss. If any Japanese publisher was going to get what I was on about, hopefully it would be them.

After all, there's no time for principled spite when I stand to personally benefit from an arrangement.

While I'd written the book with, as I say, the expectation of it eventually reaching a Japanese readership, one person I'd set aside no consideration for during the writing of it was its eventual translator. The book switches style, tone and voice constantly, between autobiographical depictions of my life in Tokyo, dry analysis of social, economic and institutional issues facing musicians, excitable descriptions of underground bands and semi-fictional sketches of life in the music scene. (I've heard aspects of it compared variously — and, I can safely assume, with some irony — to Susan Sontag, Don Quixote and Jean Baudrillard.)

The person who landed this task, music journalist Mariko Sakamoto, is, in some striking ways, an inverse of me. She left Japan for London at around the same time I traded the U.K. for Tokyo, carving out a career for herself writing about Western rock music for Japanese-speaking readers. For both of us, Quit Your Band! was a first — for me as a writer and for her as a translator.

"This was indeed the first for me," Sakamoto tells me, "I had done taped interview transcriptions many times, and that means I have more information and tools to rely on, such as the mood or flow of the conversation, nuances or inflection in speaking voice, to work out if the comment is meant to be serious or merely a joke. Written text is tad dry or inflexible."

Even after extracting the inflections of authorial voice from the dry text of a book, rendering it into the appropriate Japanese brings its own complications. By way of example, Sakamoto points out that, for a male narrator, even a word as simple as "I" varies between "watashi," "boku" and "ore," depending on the speaker.

"If the narrator is, say, George Orwell, he refers to himself as 'watashi,' " she explains, "If it's Haruki Murakami, it's 'boku,' and for Chuck D, probably it's 'ore.' " (She ended up having me say "boku" in Quit Your Band!)

From Sakamoto's perspective, the key goal was to ensure the book flowed with a sense of fun and captured the original text's veering rhythms, from level-headed critical analysis to vaulting hyperbole and back, even if that meant discarding some of translation's formal rules and its biases towards brevity and strict accuracy.

The announcement of the book from ele-king/P-Vine last autumn landed with a bigger bang than I'd expected. On popular music news website Natalie, the book's launch was tied with an item about megastar Namie Amuro near the top of its most-active news stories. It started to dawn on me that I'd perhaps misunderstood the audience. I'd written it for a mixture of overseas music fans who were curious about Japanese music and for Japanese band-scene nerds. While those potential readers were certainly out there somewhere, the interest the book was receiving in Japan was being driven by a much broader coalition, most of whom shared little interest in the scene I'd devoted my life in Japan to.

Making cultural generalizations about a country as big as Japan is tricky, not least because Japan often seems so keen to generate those generalizations itself. A cliché among foreign residents here is how easily people will allow the phrase "we Japanese" to dubiously prefix anything from "are culturally and racially homogenous" to "can't eat sweet food."

Meanwhile, there is a whole genre of exceptionalist literature called Nihonjinron devoted to classifying and defining Japanese people and culture against those of foreign countries – a notorious example being Tadanobu Tsunoda's influential but pseudoscientific 1978 book The Japanese Brain, which theorised that the structure of the Japanese language molds Japanese brains into something uniquely sophisticated.

At the same time, though, there seems to be a bottomless well of interest among many Japanese in what foreigners think of them and their country. TV crews wait at Narita Airport for foreign-looking visitors to come through the arrival gates so they can accost them with questions about what they are doing there. Foreigners' impressions about anything Japanese seem to draw an almost neurotic amount of attention. I probably shouldn't have been surprised — should probably have anticipated — my book tapping into this tendency.

A different kind of thinking about the book lies in the differences between the English and Japanese editions' titles. I gave the English version the subtitle Musical Notes from the Japanese Underground, which draws attention to my viewing position as near-to-the-ground, in the indie scene, an impression perhaps underscored by the cheekily pretentious and in-jokey way the subtitle plays off a Dostoevsky book I've never read. The Japanese edition, on the other hand, uses the subtitle An Englishman's Deep Exploration of Contemporary Japanese Pop and Rock. From the start, it emphasizes my foreignness, while at the same time it broadens the musical scope to include more mainstream music.

If this singling me out for my otherness troubled me in any way, it was mainly due to the masturbatory way foreigners' impressions of Japan seem so often to be consumed in order to reinforce facile stereotypes Japanese culture has about itself – that the Japanese are polite, hardworking, love sushi. However, the Japanese edition's editor, Tsutomu Noda, sees the book's value as providing a point view free from the assumptions someone immersed in Japanese pop culture from birth might have.

Tropical Death.
/ Ian Martin
Ian Martin
Tropical Death.

"There are several reasons why your writing is interesting," Noda told me, "One of them is that you are looking at Japanese music with the perspective of world history, which is something I often feel from reading British writers. Especially after seeing you deejay at the release party, I got the impression that you see things from an interesting, outsider's perspective. For example, a Japanese person wouldn't think to put [1970s pop trio] Candies or [stadium rocker] Tomoyasu Hotei in that [underground] context."

A more subtle change in how the title was adapted into Japanese was in the way Noda translated the phrase "Quit Your Band" as "Bando Yameyouze" ("Let's Quit a Band"). I had initially drawn the English title from the lyrics to a song I'd chanced upon a gang of teenage punk kids singing at a venue in Fukuoka, adapting the phrase "Konna bando yamete yaru!" ("I'm Gonna Quit This Band!") into a sort of blunt force sloganeering format intended to echo phrases like "Kill Yr Idols."

For a Japanese audience, the English title is simple enough that it might have been okay on its own. However, Noda spotted that there was a fondly remembered TV show in the '90s called Bando Yarouze! ("Let's Start a Band!") that we could pun off of. So the title began life as a Japanese song lyric, was adapted by me into an English book title, and was then re-adapted by Noda into a punny reference of an old Japanese rock TV show, where it ended up striking a dryly cynical (which in Japan seems to be considered distinctly British), yet nostalgic, note with a whole generation of people I'd never even considered trying to reach, because I wouldn't have known how to.

The actual release of the Japanese edition, then, found it spilling out into locations where I had never expected. Of course it was in Tower Tecords and Disk Union, but it was also in the big commercial bookshops like Kinokuniya, those little bookshops inside subway stations, and there in the little local suburban bookshop near my house. What were all these strange and unknown people – people from outside my suffocating, yet protective, scene bubble – making of it?

The Japanese translation of <em>Quit Your Band!</em> — displayed at a small, local bookshop as if it deserved to be there.
/ Ian Martin
Ian Martin
The Japanese translation of Quit Your Band! — displayed at a small, local bookshop as if it deserved to be there.

In the early days following the release, I was a shameless ego-surfer. If Japanese people collectively were obsessed with what foreigners thought of them, I was every bit as obsessed with what they thought of me. One tweeter thought the book was too expensive (true); one thought I'd overrated the indie rock band Supercar (impossible); another that I'd underrated pop-punk pioneers The Blue Hearts (no accounting for taste); and another furious that I'd failed to mention late-'90s garage rockers Thee Michelle Gun Elephant (my apologies). I also managed to get into a friendly argument online about George Orwell and the distinction between patriotism and nationalism — he thought they were clearly different, and I think they look very similar, from the perspective of an immigrant.

One surprising aspect that many people picked up on was a relatively minor point I made about the lack of much obvious criticism in Japanese music reviews, and the levers of control record labels and talent agencies exert over music journalism.

It accounts for about half of a page in the book, but a lot of people nevertheless remarked on it. Perhaps part of the reaction can be attributed to one of the benefits foreignness here confers: the clownish ability to say out loud things that would attract censure if they came from the mouth of a Japanese person. I noticed that a lot of the people singling out this point were journalists, and that's when it made sense to me: I'd addressed a common gripe of many of them, and they were now using me to say it without seeming to complain themselves.

In any case, the whole immediate aftermath of the book's release was fun, helped immensely by the fact that everyone seemed to enjoy it. It was reviewed fairly positively in the Mainichi Shinbun, one of Japan's biggest newspapers, and positive feedback was filtering through to the P-Vine/ele-king offices from people in the music industry (who couldn't, of course, say anything publicly).

The positive response it received also unnerved me. At the same time the Japanese edition was catching its biggest buzz, I was recording the audiobook of the English edition. Going back, painstakingly, word-by-word over the text I'd originally written some three years previously was humbling. So much of its analysis felt half-assed, the wordplay and metaphors sophomoric, the ideas increasingly out of date – either Mariko Sakamoto had written a much better book than I had, or somebody out there was, very soon, going to catch me out.

Both of those possibilities seemed likely, and so I started looking out more diligently for criticisms, feeling a curious sense of reassurance, coupled with predictable irritation, when I found them. A particularly negative Amazon review (which infuriated Matthew at Awai) came as a huge relief to me, and sent Sakamoto and I into a brief, masochistic spiral where we competed to blame ourselves for this solitary person's dislike of the book.

I now think the reason I was seeking out criticism so much was the fear that the positive reaction the book seemed to be getting was masking some greater, unspoken negativity. It's often a case where I'll write something thinking it of little significance only for real-world events to shine a different light on it. When I wrote about the value of a negative review, I didn't realise the extent to which, as someone who creates things, how important it is to feel people around you are being honest.

In the book, I half-joked that it was "a story about love," but it really was. Even while writing in English, for an English-speaking audience, it was first and foremost a love letter to those unknown, unheralded and most likely forever unremembered musicians toiling away in the bottom basement of the music scene here. And yet the reaction from that quarter – from the people whose acknowledgment I most needed – had been muted.

These were people I'd known for ten years and more, and Quit Your Band! had the ability to communicate to them thoughts I simply didn't have the Japanese skills to express in our regular interactions. And yet as the book came out, life in the Tokyo underground had just continued to grind on in its own desperate, unambitious, hand-to-mouth way. The interest the book had accrued wasn't really spilling over into my label or events, and from within the music scene there didn't seem to be much interest in it whatsoever. My search for criticism was really a search for some meaning at the heart of this silence.

The year ended on a strange note. Things seemed to be going well, even for my label (which, admittedly, has always had a very low bar for success). But, rather childishly, I had decided that little bookshop near my house was the wrong kind of success to seek, and that somehow this search was the same thing as failure.

A few days after the New Year, an email arrived from a musician I'd known since the early days and whose influence hung heavy over much of what I'd written in Quit Your Band! He'd read it and was moved by the feeling of acknowledgment he'd found in its pages. As 2018 started to grind back into gear, it became clear that word on the book was spreading and increasingly starting to register, not only with people I know, but with friends of friends, people I'd never met, musicians I'd never heard of. The novelty of my position as a foreign eye on the Japanese music scene was summarised succinctly by a writer for Record Collector magazine, who summed up his review by calling me "the indie rock Lafcadio Hearn," but at the same time the book seemed to be establishing a place for itself as a reliable and honest depiction of a world that gets too little attention in any language.

Very few musicians make it through more than a few years of sparsely attended shows in gloomy black boxes before they quit their band and devote themselves to something less dispiriting. Those that keep going a decade or more have to find the fuel to continue in such small and infrequent moments of validation. I'd just written a whole book about this, but I was only just starting to learn to take my own advice.

Ian Martin is the author of Quit Your Band! and the owner of Call and Response Records.

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Ian Martin