Tablet & Marble’s Tokyo Vernacular Pop Song Adventure


For the Libration of Japanese Vernacular Pop Song  by Manabu Yuasa (music critic)

Many sing like others consume alcohol. Some drink like a fish, as others chant through the night. Some prefer to get drunk quickly by gulping down a stiff one, just as others sing a long tune while intently listening to themselves working their way through it. Not a few claim that the best way to stay in shape is to keep up with the latest hits and perform them at a karaoke bar as frequently as possible. The popularization of karaoke has definitely transformed the very structure of the Japanese vernacular pop song (kayōkyoku) industry in Japan. Now the distribution of record always takes into account both how they are listened to (appreciated) as well as sung (practiced). Singers are often expected not just to do justice to the music but also to guide listeners in their own interpretations of the tunes. Some believe that singers only represent one possible instance of singing. The most characteristic effect of karaoke is perhaps this shift of focus from singers to songs. In this respect, singers are but a material, equal in status to melody, lyrics, and sound. It is directors and producers who take the lead. Or not infrequently, composers and arrangers. It is extremely rare in major music companies for singers to lead the production of a record in order to satisfy their pride as a singer, or their sheer desire to sing.
          “Pop songs in Japan should only be thought of as consumable supplies, disposable commodities. That is their destiny, as long as they are a pop phenomenon. Or rather, that ephemerality is precisely their glory.” Such seems to be the traditional understanding of major record companies. The recorded material is perishable goods. It must have an expiration date. Once released into the world, it would be simply absurd and utterly at odds with common sense to force the material back into use and circulation. It is most probably this kind of thinking that forms the pop-music industry’s fundamental principle.
          Even so, the wild desire to sing, or to be a singer, manages to slip out of the “control” of that “industry.” After all, song is in the heart of those who seek to sing. It is the desire to sing that brings a record to the world. That must be the the order of nature (of the heaven, of gods).
          That is precisely the message those independent pop-song makers in Japan try to get across to us with their wide variety of songs and their diverse range of musical orientations. They are living all over the world, surviving, singing, and making records. In this world of independent pop-song making, everybody is equal as they should be. Everyone, including fiery pop-song makers who pour their soul into every single one of their tunes; moneyed older men who pay out of pocket for having their tune (in fact, only a slightly more elaborate version of them humming a favorite song) cut into a record; pop-song dames enraptured by their own splendor in opulent stage jackets; vain pop-song dads with a smile on their face as their kids obediently perform the tunes of these men’s own composition; or eternal pop-song pilgrims-apprentices, always on the road, struggling for 40 years, making their rounds peddling their songs at spas, banquet halls, bars, and cable radio stations all over Japan. Independent pop-song makers in Japan could not care less about in-house regulations. They sell or distribute their own products, quite recklessly sometimes, or send them to you without even being asked to. They are the absolute origin from which every information emanates. They take no order from anybody at all.
          Instead, they often get comments on their songs from passers-by:
          “Oh, you are a singer? Good luck!”
          “Eh? You a singer? Well, I could buy one of those, only I’m not sure if that’s a good thing for you. Listen, you are never going to make it the way you are now. If you are a singer, you need to think about your listeners a bit more. I love your politeness and all, but nobody will remember you if you keep effacing yourself like that. Can you at least say clearly what your name is? I can’t mention your record to my friends, I don’t even know what the title is or who the singer is. Stop mumbling like that, I can’t tell if you are singing or just talking to yourself. How serious are you? If you are so shy, why don’t you just quit?”
          “Why, that’s a lovely tune. Next time I see your record at a store, I’ll tell them I saw this person singing in a park in my neighborhood.”
          Independently-made pop songs have never been referred to as “indīzu” (indie). As the term for a certain style in rock as well as more broadly music from abroad, “indīzu” creates illusion of being something out of ordinary, something different than “jishu dokuritsu” (independence and autarchy). This generates further illusion where people are led to believe that a “genre” called “indīzu” exists. In fact, the term designates a mode or method of publication and distribution of a work, not a style in music. It is most unfortunate for the indīzu that its practitioners don’t even understand this basic fact. By contrast, independent pop-song making is simply egocentric. Since their records are self-financed, you would think that the songs need to be at least presentable, but some don’t even worry about that. Not a few leave their records to sit around their home or storage once they are made. They are to be given out on a whim to whoever happening to visit the house at a given moment. Some business owners have their songs recorded to use as their cards. What to do with those EPs proudly gifted to you? It won’t be no surprise if some feel too awkward to bring them home and decide instead to go straight to a dust bin at the closest subway station.
          Changing hands between such insensitive people with absolutely no respect or consideration for music, independently-made pop songs not infrequently end up thrown out as non-burnable trash on the day of moving or house renovation, without a single stylus ever having dropped on its surface. This is not even wasting, it’s a pure burial. There exist in the world those who can hear such voices from beyond the grave. However, independent pop-song makers stand always at the entrance to this graveyard or beside its gravestones. Picking up an abandoned record generates another song. There’s one called “Little boy, don’t Throw Away your record as non-burnable trash,” for instance. In this tune a discarded record becomes a person. Falling in love with a battery, also thrown away at the same dump, the record dreams of a life with her at the dump site. Jostled around in the garbage truck, however, he gets cracked, his sleeve all flabby and torn up. The battery refuses to show any comprehension nor sympathy for the record’s deterioration, leaving him for a piece of styrofoam. The yearning for the battery brows the record further into smithereens. So little boy, the song goes, don’t throw away your record as non-burnable trash but please, please, keep it in the house.
          If a song can be anywhere, then it can also disappear into anywhere. If it can be born anywhere, it can also be found abandoned anywhere.
          Independently-made pop songs dismantle the very idea that pop music aims to sell, disrupts its premises, and undermines it. In that, independent popular music in Japan is more punk than indie rock music.
          You will never find anywhere in the world a rock tune recounting a mass departure (due to declining population) from a village. But mūdo kayō [the Japanese equivalent of lounge music] is capable of just that. I am talking about Kō Takada & the Hajirai Ekōzu’s (Bashful Echoes’) “Taihei Elegy.” The extreme thinness of their sound speaks to the feeling of emptiness as well as the financial predicament the group was in. “Taihei Elegy” is a meager song, a meager tune, or a meager sound, just the way some faces are meager. What are they being so bashful about? So afraid of people talking behind their back, they turned in upon themselves so completely that they have come to imagine they couldn’t allow themselves to let out even a song.
          Given that something like Hajirai Ekōzu exists in this world (their EP bears the number 4RS265, indicating that it was produced and pressed by the department of self-financed production at Toshiba Records, a company with long history of working with independent popular music), there must also be a Tamerai Ekōzu (Hesitant Echoes), a brother act as it were, singing, or having been singing, somewhere in Japan. Popular songs have always been willing to take up and raise awareness of big issues, whether it be anti-pollution protest or war-displaced Japanese in China, to say nothing of the atomic-bomb sickness and the racism against ethnic Koreans in Japan. While rock and folk music, often constrained by their forms, do little more than cheering up the youth, the world of independently-made pop songs has a formidable range of diversity, aggressiveness, fierceness, casualness and multi-directionality. When it comes to love, independent pop songs do not flinch from talking about lust, as well as romance in middle-, or even old-, age.
          Every Japanese is said to self-produce at least one record during their lifetime. Independent pop songs are actually a force to reckon with. There is no one, however, who appreciates and unifies it as a collective will. There may be some who dream of changing the music world by bringing these individuals together into some kind of association. That’s an idle notion. One should never forget that “independence” is the very linchpin of this autarchic part of the pop music world. “Independents” would feel “bashful” about paying membership fees, even if it’s just 10 yen. Wild flowers should stay in the field where they grow. Songs won’t emerge, nor will flowers bloom, unless they are left alone. Pop song’s spirit (the karma of the Japanese people, or the laws of heaven and nature) is in the impulse of someone who sings even without intending to do so, without ever wishing to make themselves known more widely to the world by some sales effort. A Japanese vernacular pop song is sometimes Buddhist invocation, sometimes the Quran, the popular dodoitsu poetry, fortune cookies, writings on the wall of a public restroom. It’s like an unstoppable divine purification. That’s why independent pop-song making knows no end.
(translated by Gaku Kondo)

On “Tablet & Marble’s Tokyo Vernacular Pop Song Adventure”  by Yuko Mohri

In this project, Tablet & Marble’s Tokyo Vernacular Pop Song Adventure, you will take a round bus trip that commences at the National Museum of Modern Art at Takebashi, Tokyo, crossing the Ryōgoku Bridge to Kiyosumi and Fukagawa, before traversing the Shin Ōhashi Bridge to Yaesu, Ginza, Roppongi and then back to Takebashi. Instead of the traditional running commentary by a tour conductor, broadcast on-board is a dialogue between Jun Tablet and Manabu Yuasa, two walking encyclopedias of kayōkyoku, or Japanese vernacular pop music. The itinerary, which takes about two hours in total traffic permitting, is divided into four parts. Each time the bus approaches a given part, you will hear a selection of relevant “gotōchi songs” [literally “local songs”; see below], ranging from extremely major releases to independently-produced EPs, from the Shōwa era to today, all with our two presenters’ erudite remarks.

When the bus reaches the Azabu area, for instance, you will be listening to “We Middle-aged Men” (1971) by the singer Shōichi Ozawa, who graduated from Azabu Middle School. I will leave you to discover on-board the sudden flurry of Tablet’s (truly brilliant) impersonations of the DJs from the golden age of TBS Radio including Ozawa. Instead, let me quote from the lyrics of the song.

          We middle-aged men don’t have a song
          That’s why we sing old songs from thirty to
          Forty years ago
          But it’s sad, they’re always the same, over and over again

Ozawa is lamenting his current status as a “middle-aged man.” To make his grief more understandable to today’s listeners, Yuasa helpfully complains in his comment that “recent songs are way too hard to sing, not like the music of old days, with just verse, bridge and chorus.” Of course, Ozawa’s lyrics are not just about him being unable to keep up with the younger generation. The song goes on to speak of his “old man.”

          When my old man was my age
          They did have songs they called their own
          Like, “Shall I keep on going or turn back under the aurora?”
          Or, “Is that what you said?”

The quote about the aurora is from “The Song of a Wanderer” by Sumako Matsui, the first modern star actress in Japan, while “Is that what you said?” is taken from “Shinonome Melody (Strike Melody),” a song closely related to the anti-prostitution movement. These were the hits in sync with the times of the “old man” (by the way, the song by a “young girl” that Ozawa’s middle-aged man says he sings, “feeling awkward,” is Rumiko Koyanagi’s “My Castle Town” [1971]). Ozawa enrolled at Azabu Middle School in 1942, the year the Pacific War began in earnest. And in 1945, at Japan’s defeat, he came home from the Naval Academy to find Tokyo reduced to ashes by the US bombing. The war, a decision made by politicians much older than Ozawa, took everything away from his generation, people, houses, culture, and song . . . . That’s why now “We middle-aged men don’t have a song.”
          But in a Tokyo burnt to the ground, Shōichi Ozawa was still able to discover popular entertainment like show tents and street performance. Even as he went on to become a famous actor and radio host, he spent half his life researching vanishing species of unformalized folk performing arts across the country, which he later compiled into Japan’s Itinerant Arts (also 1971), a seven-LP anthology of his field recordings. Many of these arts would have completely disappeared from national record/memory if it had not been for his work, which culminated in enormous archives on a par with Harry Smith’s that ignited the folk music revival in the US.

Similarly, Akira Kurosawa and the Los Primos’ masterpiece “Love You Tokyo” (1966) will play as the bus comes to the Ginza district, where many vernacular pop songs were set. The song, Tablet informs us, began its life on the B side of an EP, the first run of which was limited to only 1,000 copies and initially didn’t sell at all. Some of the members left the group even before the record’s release. Things started to change after a midnight radio show at a local station in Kōfu, Yamanashi Prefecture, played the tune repeatedly and the band bought the EP out of pocket from the record company and gave out as freebies to bargirls in the area. Catapulted into the limelight, the song was massively distributed by the record company to cabarets in Ginza and radio stations, soon becoming a super-hit selling 10,000 copies per day. That’s the miracle story behind “Love You Tokyo.”
          At first, Seiji Mori, the Los Primos’ main vocalist, felt embarrassed about performing these lyrics written in “female language,” as Tablet also explains. And yet, singing a woman’s feelings in falsetto, a style that Yuasa has dubbed “powerless singing,” was a standard practice in mūdo kayō [literally “mood song,” the Japanese equivalent of lounge music] that suggests a synchronicity with the soul music developed by Black Americans at around the same time. Not just “Love You Tokyo,” but many of the independent pop songs on the present playlist adopted the minority’s point of view, or were actually sung by the minority, something that art in today’s Japan tends to forget or turn a blind eye to.

The extremely diverse range of music that once flooded Tokyo went through a process of gradual sifting as its medium changed from SP to vinyl to cassette to CD and to paid streaming services, where “no single private individual owns the music” (that is, only the megacorporations do). Independent vernacular pop songs, produced “with the sincerest of feelings” light years away from the consumer society, rarely saw the light of day. Toward the end of the twentieth century, the efforts of the collective “Lost Masterpiece Records Liberation League” including Yuasa brought these songs to the attention of music aficionados at long last, although time has since consigned them back to oblivion. Most of the playlist here is unavailable anywhere on the internet, and only those who own the actual records can listen to them. These songs, however, continue to exert its influence on Japanese pop music, now rebranded as “J-Pop,” just like the vanishing point in a landscape painting, or the blackhole left after the disappearance of a star.
          The age of COVID-19 is coming to an end. Once again, Tokyo is undergoing radical transformations. Tablet & Marble’s Tokyo Vernacular Pop Song Adventure conjures up this city as it once was, and the genius loci of a metropolis still in flux.

(translated by Gaku Kondo)

Tablet & Marble’s Tokyo Vernacular Pop Song Adventure
Director: Yuko Mohri
Disc Jockey: Jun Tablet & Manabu Yuasa
Recording Engineer: Masato Hara
Assistant Engineer: Kiyoshi Tsujimoto (Freedom Studio Infinity)
Recording Studio: Freedom Studio Infinity, Tokyo
Designer: Akira Sasaki
Translator: Gaku Kondo
Production Management: Ryojun Yui
Curator: Yung Ma
Special Thanks: Kazuo Sasaki (Toruba), Kunio Eto (Nippon Columbia), Ken’ichi Hoshi (Victor Entertainment), Ryosuke Kitamura (Universal Music Japan), Art Week Tokyo

Gotōchi song” [songs themed on specific districts and locales] is one of the core genres of kayōkyoku, Japanese vernacular pop music. Tokyo especially was the subject of numerous masterpieces, some of which are well known, others not so much. Favorite nightlife haunts of members of the cultural industries then on the rise, such as cinema, radio, TV and advertisement, the brightly neon-lit streets of Ginza, Roppongi and Akasaka played the central and recurring role in the Shōwa era pop songs. It fell to another new mass media, karaoke, to spread such these to every corner of the country for people’s singing and listening pleasure.
  Blooming in the latter half of the Shōwa period, the time of recovery and reconstruction for Japan, kayōkyoku often went beyond simple romance (its staple theme) to address dazzling yet potentially subversive cultural phenomena, or grueling labor and homesickness that characterized the lonely life of city dwellers. The genre’s historical evolution, marked by voracious incorporation of a diverse set of foreign influences including French chanson, Latin and Hawaiian music, jazz, rumba, mumbo, surf music and so on, mirror that of Tokyo as a city that have constantly changed its shape in response to the shifting taste.
  Singer Tablet Jun immersed himself in kayōkyoku from a young age, and was the last and youngest vocalist of the legendary act Mahina Stars. Yuasa Manabu’s criticism freely crosses the boundaries of music genres, while he has worked as an executive director of “Lost Masterpiece Records Liberation League” to salvage countless independent-minded songs that dropped out of capitalism. With these two experts who know kayōkyoku inside out as our guides, the present tour seeks to conjure up the genius loci of Tokyo through a slew of songs from extremely mainstream to underground.

Tablet & Marble’s Tokyo Vernacular Pop Song Adventure