Of Place and Wind 5: Transformation in J-pop

Tetsuya Kaida introduces his favorite seasonal Japanese songs and explores the uniqueness of Japanese popular music.

I first listened to Rihanna’s Umbrella in a car, driving along the east coast of Scotland. Because it was the day after our unexpected encounter and the wind carried the scents of the landscape in through the car window, I can clearly remember the strong impression that the song made upon all my five senses, like an outburst of the voice of the soul.

Speaking of songs of the soul, Beyonce’s ballad Halo, which came out last year, and Rihanna’s more recent song Russian Roulette conjure up special mental images when I listen to them in Japan. Perhaps the original power of music lies in the way it resonates with the soul. This makes me want to talk a little about music.

Over the past few years, I have learned to appreciate Japanese music. After having been briefly exposed to classical composers in elementary school, I fell in love with music listening to the Beatles when my brother bought a guitar. Later, I remember playing many kinds of songs on my radio-cassette player, but the bands I was particularly fond of were the Carpenters, Chicago, Elton John, the Eagles… Other foreign bands like BSB and MLTR also captured my interest.

However, about ten years ago, I started noticing that there was something wonderful about Japanese pop music. Of course, having to sing at karaokes for various social reasons may have been a key factor in triggering this realization. Kuwata Keisuke’s Tsunami got wows! out of me. I whistled to Kuchibue (‘The Whistle’) by Mr. Children, while Imai Miki’s Goodbye Yesterday made me quiet. Other songs I loved were Umi no baraddo (‘Sea Ballad’ ) by Remioromen, Tabibito (‘The Traveler’), Life is Beautiful and Kokoro no koe (‘The Heart’s Voice’) by Ketsumeishi, Superkarma by Bump of Chicken, Niji (‘The Rainbow’) by Aqua Timez, Haruka (‘Far Away’) by GReeeeN, Harukaze (‘Spring Wind’) by Flumpool, and more recently, Best of My Life by Superfly, Butterfly by Kimura Kaera, Shunkashūtō (‘Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter’) by Hilchryme, Kimi ga suki (‘I Love You’) by Shota Shimizu and Love Forever by Miliyah Kato.

They are all just amazing.

As I have already mentioned, I give talks at foreign universities every now and then. On such occasions, I sometimes have the students in the room listen to a specially edited recording of J-pop songs. When I tell them it is the latest J-pop and ask for their opinions, reactions are surprisingly positive: ‘very cool!’, ‘I like all of them’… Some students want to know the title of the song or the singer’s name, or even try to get the CD from me. To all appearances, it would not be a bad idea for those involved in the Japanese music business to promote these artists overseas. Especially to the young people who are the audiences of tomorrow. Language barriers do not exist for songs that resonate within the heart.

My question is: what differentiates these popular Japanese songs from American and other foreign hits? With your permission, I will once more give my own conclusion on this matter (laugh).

- First, each song conveys a feeling of the time period when it was composed and contains references to the season and the weather.
- Second, the lyrics are complex, with many roundabout, indirect and euphemistic formulations.
- Third, the melody line is rich in layers and shifts and has a story-like structure.
- Fourth, at four-six minutes each, many of the songs are rather long.
- Fifth, most of them are seasonal hits, which are popular for a while and then die out.

I would love to know your opinion. When I go to the States, I often listen to the radio while driving my rental car, and what they broadcast is a mixture of songs that are quite old (well, from the 70s or the 80s) and recent hits. In Japan, you don’t get much chance to listen to oldies, unless it is in some special natsumero (‘nostalgic music’) program. And even then you ask yourself, ‘why on earth would they air such old songs?’

That’s the way it goes in Japan. While there is something universal about American music, which keeps it alive for a long time, Japanese songs are closely knit into the ephemeral mood of a certain year or season. Once the season is over, the song vanishes. Even at karaoke, you risk looking a little silly if you don’t stick to the latest stuff. Just as choosing the fish in season is essential when you eat sushi, songs also have seasons when they are sung and listened to.

My work is a perpetual chase after the ‘next strategy’, ‘the next concept’ or ‘the next theme’. Interestingly, it often happens that the ideas that I am most engrossed in at a certain moment coincide with the theme of some song by Ketsumeishi. For instance, when I keep mulling over notions of ‘flow’’, I come across a song titled The Flow on their newly released album. Then, as I listen to it, it fills me with happiness and I cannot help but sit back and nod with satisfaction. I do not feel particularly proud of these coincidences and do not find them strange either.

Not so long ago, I was invited to one of the group’s concerts and had the opportunity to meet them in person. I was impressed at how good-natured, wonderful people they were. Although we belong to different industries, I have a strong feeling that the things we create are based on similar ideas and wishes.

Let me add one more comment about ‘seasonality’. I have noticed that even my preferences for the PC-edited music that I usually listen to in my car vary depending on factors such as the season and the time of the day, the position of the sun and the moon, the presence of rain or snow, the atmosphere and content of the meal preceding or following the drive, and the ever-changing nature of the surrounding landscape. Each moment, a different seasonal compatibility with the music is created as the soul experiences various moods and the transitions between them. These transitions are much more subtle and capricious when I drive by myself than in the company of others. Perhaps solitude makes it easier to synchronize my inner world with the rhythms of my environs.

It is tempting to think of classical Japanese poetry such as tanka and haiku as creative expressions of the synchrony between the human heart and its surroundings in a different era. I trust you will excuse me for giving here another impressionistic and rather amateurish interpretation (laugh).

It will be exciting to see what seasonal songs are coming out in 2010. My heartfelt thanks go to everybody in the world of J-pop for their work, together with the hope that they keep delighting us with new experiences of the seasons. Will the theme of the next Ketsumeishi song overlap again with my concerns?

By Tetsuya Kaida

(This article originally written and published in 2010.)

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