“The nail that sticks out gets hammered down...”

Japan is a title-fight of contradictions. In the blue corner we find a feudal, island psyche that paints Japan as one of the most collectivist and conformist countries on the planet.

Yet in the red corner Japan’s avant-garde and experimental music scenes swing some of the world’s most powerful punches when it comes to improvisation and individualism.

In November 2014 Clash went to Tokyo to try and reconcile these incompatible polarities. Floating around the district of Shibuya, chasing radical noise mongers with a culturally probing set of questions there was a well-heeled Japanese proverb that fuelled our inquisition: “The nail that sticks up always gets hammered down”.

Now, if old proverbs ring true then how have Japanese musicians balanced singular, rebellious acts of creativity with a national psychology that screams: ‘behave’?

Our first stop was meeting Otomo Yoshihida, a sonic national treasure who made his name manipulating guitar and turntables with the band Ground Zero from the early 1990s. Our starting point was this: what makes Japanese experimental music so unique?

“Throughout the decades’ sagely recounts Otomo ‘there has been a lot of influence from the American and British music scenes but the influence is incomplete, it doesn’t copy directly into the Japanese version of it. I think this is what the Japanese strong suit is: the incompleteness of the influence. Maybe my age or the older generations we got a misunderstanding from the vinyl, and this misunderstanding led to original things. We also mix in our own traditions with the American and the British music to create something new; it is a strange mixture.”

Otomo delivers this ‘lost in translation’ theory just as he had concluded presenting a live show called ‘Chaos Conductor’. This witnessed a 30 strong gamelan of young music students all playing a different instrument under the guidance of intuitive hand signals from Otomo himself. The students were all from Red Bull Music Academy and featured such promising UK names as WIFE and Mumdance as well as the Japanese talents of Haioka and Albino Sound.

‘Chaos Conductor’ was a fitting demonstration of how a collective can react to the primary whimsy of a master. And there are few places in the developing world where hierarchies are more important than Japan. This is a nation that thrives on pyramids of power and a respect of the superior. Once you scratch the surface then all kinds of power related safety valves and syndromes surface across society. And they all hint at the cultural tension that might just divert an open mind dangerously towards turgid convention.

For example there is the culture of ‘nomikai’, or work place drinking games where a metaphorical pressure valve exists as its core function. During the extreme social drinking found at ‘nomikai’ no matter what you say to your boss, nor how you behave will matter back on the office floor. Zero recriminations. This therefore is a true expression of the carnivalesque and exists to allow the depressurization of servant / master tension.

Then there is the phenomenon of ‘Hikikomori’; a melancholic subculture of society who withdraw from everyday life into their bedrooms and garages. Here they find solace in isolation and sometimes suicide after they were bullied or pressurized too much either at school, university or their work place.

Japan has around 11 different cultural classifications for suicide meaning it’s far from the primary shame we find it to be in the west. In short, pressure is felt in Japan in the most sensitive of ways and you’d expect music to fulfill the role of calming balance to offset these dark forces though more often than not the stories we encountered seemed to usher our protagonists ever towards quiet acceptance rather than blistering expression.

The dynamics of conformism and the fear of being seen as rebel were really rammed home when speaking to the acclaimed noise artist Violent Onsen Geisha (born Masaya Nakahara) who despite being a radical explorer of noise recalls his childhood as being a nervous place where he repeatedly fell into cultural line:

“The governments all over the world, but especially in japan are very controlling," he says quietly, perched in one of RBMA’s colourful recording studios "They try to control so much. It is very important for people to express their real emotions and not just what we are expected to. But sometimes I prefer to express the little things, the thoughts that almost aren’t worth mentioning. I’m comfortable in doing this. When I was younger I wasn’t comfortable listening to underground music. Listening to pop made me feel more within society.”

Dwell for a while on Youtube and you’ll hear that Violent Onsen Geisha makes some of the most terrifying, freethinking and discordant music you may hear this week. Yet his preoccupation with being fingered as a rebel is wrought with fear when he confesses: “When I was a child I was worried about being treated as a rebel” he quietly continues “I was worried about being excluded so I was always trying to become more of the majority. I always wanted to be looking back at the rebel. It is difficult to think about the outcome of me being deemed a rebel. I wasn’t conformable enough back then to be individual. Everyone wanted to be a model student.”

This psychological mindset seems an almost unmanageable hurdle blocking any form of self-expression. It is remarkable that Japan does indeed exhibit a vivid avant-garde with this much fear and emotional baggage. So how can we trace the roots of the contemporary avant-garde?

Ironically, Japan’s fascination with warping post-colonial music forms were all triggered after the US unleashed their atomic weapons. In 1951 the Jikken Kobo (translation “Experimental Workshop”) was established against the backdrop of the nuclear attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. This extreme artist workshop hurled together artists, musicians and poets to reflect the spirit of the Bauhaus and other schools of vivid self-expression that hungrily plotted to warp the American and European post-colonial culture of rock 'n' roll, mirror musique concrete and vomit back up the screaming sense of the individual.

It became a mind-bending think-tank of artistic action. In fact Jasia Reichardt, the curator and critic director of the Whitechapel Gallery during the 1970s, has rated Jikken Kobo alongside Black Mountain College and the Independent Group as one of the three most influential collaborative groups of the 20th century. 

Jikken Kobo continued to set the tone through the 1950s and 1960s. It investigated the birth of electronics and collided with indigenous cultural pillars that further amplified the nation’s love of wild expressions. One example is the ‘gagaku’ percussion ceremonies, which were Buddhist rituals featuring completely improvised drumming sessions.

In 1960 an assembly of radical players called Group Ongaku performed a showcase piece called ‘Automatism’ at the freshly established Sogetsu Kaikan Hall built for cutting edge cultural performances. Pieces like ‘Automatism’ around this time reverberated deeply and soon gave birth to extremist collectives such as Hi-Red Centre; a performance group of art terrorists who seemed to directly influence the KLF in the UK over two decades later.

Hi-Red Centre were neo-Dadist in ideology and active between 1963 and 1964. They performed disruptive acts of art antagonism such as counterfeiting currency or publically mopping up the centre of Tokyo during the Olympics with ironic aplomb. They were socially reflective, anti-establishment and anti-commercial and raised questions about centralised authority and the role of the individual in society.

An interesting fact is that Hi-Red Centre were renowned for conducting their affairs in a very official manner. When they built ironic nuclear shelters for example, they did it behind the façade of being contracted officially. And this sensitivity to authoritative structures carries through to our next interviewees: Melt Banana.

Melt Banana are a hyperactive noise rock band who have been making audiences flip-out to their grindcore since 1992. When I ask them where they think Japan found its love of rebellious acts of music - their answer was is surprising. They see Japanese avant-garde culture emerging from a preoccupation with academia and formal engagement with experimentalism as a topic rather than a feeling.

“Japanese people like to have information about something before they approach it.’ state the shy duo of Yasuko and Ichirou, after extensive conferred whispering “It is sometimes easier to except things from abroad because they are already established and they are easier to understand through reading about them or to listen to. We like to get the information in the text and read about it before we listen to the music. Rock music came from outside of Japan and there weren’t many distributors. It was very hard for Japanese people to physically get the actual music to start with. So originally many people had to refer to articles and magazines rather than actually listening to it.”

A similar packaging of culture was instrumental in delivering the accidental and abstract music of John Cage straight into the hearts of Japanese high society. This music truly came to the insular island of Japan through one of the students of Cage. Toshi Ichiyangi was a young and talented pianist from Kobe who rose like cream through the ranks of various schools and scholarships to study in New York under Cage at New York’s Juilliard Conservatory in 1954.

In fact Ichiyangi became the ideal student of Cage. His success was obvious to all: during his ascent in New York he married the jaunty Yoko Ono, never one to pass up an escalating star, before he returned to Japan in 1961 to find a rapturous acceptance for his radical music. Challenging works such as 1960s ‘Music For Electric Metronome’ meditated across a open ended set of performance possibilities and were significantly boxed up as acceptable due to his kindred relationship with Cage.

Returning the favour of acclaim, Ichiyanagi brokered a tour of Japan with his master headlining in early 1962 via a series of gigs billed as the ‘John Cage Shock’. It blew the nation’s mind and was a huge moment in the Japanese further acceleration towards experimentalism. A fitting warm-up act further catalysed it: Yoko Ono with her bolshy performance art pieces. As Julian Cope observes in his excellent book ‘Japrock Sampler’: “Cage was percipient enough to recognise that so few so-called artists other than Yoko herself would have dared celebrate their debut performance at (New York’s) Carnegie Hall by mic-ing up the flushing toilet in the ladies room.”

Whilst John Cage found himself lauded by the nation, the warm up act had a harsher experience, Yoko Ono found herself waking up in hospital in restraints after a failed suicide bid borne from the unhappiness in her work, life and failed marriage to Ichiyanagi. However, regardless of the final column inches, it was undisputedly the spirit of expression and individualism that ruled the day as protégé and master dovetailed to draw a more expansive picture of ambition.

Once again we are back at the consuming relationship between master and junior. For a truly valuable insight into its relevance we sought an external viewpoint. We were delighted to be helped by an English journalist and DJ called Mike Sunda who was finding himself indispensible as a freelancer at the Red Bull Academy thanks to his many years spent on the ground in Tokyo.

“These social hierarchies are most prominent in the workplace’ explains Sunda “For example you don’t leave until your boss leaves. You also have a separate politeness register in the Japanese language when addressing a senior. And I guess that filtered through to other parts of society in general.”

This brusque use of echelon has had various effects on the music scene. For a start, men in very conservative suits pepper many of the wildest rock gigs as their boss’s deadline vigor crushed any ability to go home and change first, a fact that must further impregnate timidity around the any mosh pits. In wider family structures this junior / senior respect-dynamic often delivers remarkably more sensible careers over unpredictable paths through music.

Mike Sunda further explains how this social hierarchy continues even into the nuances of music programming: “Even though we speak of music as being an outlet against the formalities of the society strict hierarchies remain in place. For example music lineups are planned according to seniority and age - not popularity or talent. Compare that with London where lineups every Friday Saturday see the 20-year-olds as the ones that are headlining since those are the ones that make the most progressive music.”

We talk further about the pressure valve of society in Japan. Inevitably perversions swell and spill over into individualism. Sunda then educates Clash on the ‘Crosplay’ scene, a subculture of sexuality and exhibitionism that can be found around the busiest of commuter routes: “There are girls who either before work or after work adopt radical costumes and then stand around posing. People stop and have their photos taken. Then they pack everything into a suitcase and hurry to work.”

Although it is notable that most of the girls’ outfits mimic an accepted video character, these super sexualised video game avatars are another strange example of boisterous selfhood and exhibitionism being brokered under the warm wing of accepted subculture.

Identifying a subculture however is not the same as accessing your desired clique in Japan. In fact you may be more likely to be shunned. And here is another social phenomenon that throws up more reasons why conformism is so yearned for. We found ourselves in the tranquil company of Daisuke Tanabe; a former graduate of the Red Bull Academy and an established electronic producer who was more than happy to delve into the juicy cracks of cultural deconstruction:

“In my elementary school years I used to be bullied," he says, with a resigned smile as we talk over a coffee, “mainly because I used to change schools a lot due to my father’s job. Japanese kids tend to be very tight within their own society. For another child to get into that group they need to be accepted, and once in then they fully accept but it’s not that easy for this to be smooth. Our groups can be very tight to start with.”

The reasons for such poorly osmotic social circles perhaps dates from Japan’s ancient nature as an island state comprised of mountainous terrain that is hard to farm, as Daisuke goes boldly out on a limb to speculate about: “I believe that this insularity of social groups stems from a history of being farmers. Back then everyone worked as a group and this remains in our DNA. If an outsider arrives they need to get into the social group to get the water provided for their fields or territory. So you’d need to get along with everyone in the group that exist there first.”

Then there are more predictable factors that bend culture towards a conservative stance: like money. This is another factor we stumble across during our exploration of the mythical nail being hammered down. Tokyo is one of the most expensive places to live in the world. Rents unfortunately ensure that existing as a rusty and awkwardly shaped metal object pointing in the opposite direction of dominant culture doesn’t last long when there is eye-watering rent to pay. In Berlin just two DJ performances a month will sate your landlord. Tokyo offers far less a forgiving schedule.

A good modern example of how high living costs can make a culture resistant to change is that of Chicago Juke music. It is no coincidence that when Japan embraced the visceral qualities of this North American sub-culture (and it's cousin sound, footwork) in the last few years it all happened in Osaka, in Osaka’s clubs and record labels where living costs allow a wider diet of risk taking and speculation.

These observations from Mike Sunda melt slickly into his overall meditations on whether indeed the “nail that sticks up always gets hammered down”. He tentatively proposes an answer to our quest: “In terms of 99% of your everyday people, then I suppose for them that would be true. You can’t perform well in a regular company or traditional company through being unique or by being particularly individual.”

He continues: “Just looking around aesthetically everyone wears the same suits and this very little variation from black-and-white. In terms of manners and general inter-human interaction these codes and trends do need to be obeyed. You have to obey those rules, whether they be linguistic or social or whatever. And if you don’t obey those rules, then you will struggle to progress.”

The trick therefore seems to be to exist where no metaphorical hammer can rule you. This would require operating outside of normal social structures to create your own economy where no hierarchies can reach you.

For example you could start a lauded experimental noise band. Which is what Melt Banana did. With this duo you get the impression that it wasn’t a case they WON’T recognize convention they simply COULDN’T recognize convention. As they recall by way of an answer that concludes our journey.

“We were always so focused on a music we never really considered that we COULD get struck down by a hammer." smile the pair after a long discussion with our translator “We don’t feel like the nail so much in Japan but when we tour overseas with foreign bands we feel lucky to be so different. Because we are part of the indie scene rather than working with the major labels we wouldn’t ever notice if we are being struck by the hammer. Even if we are the nail that sticks up!”

Words: Matthew Bennett

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The Red Bull Music Academy hits Paris in 2015. To apply to attend or for more information go to: http://www.redbullmusicacademy.com/academy

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