I recently came across this interview I had done with Kazufumi Miyazawa, one of the most popular singers in Japan at the time. The band is currently on tour to celebrate their 25 years together and have released a compilation of their best known tunes, that includes some new and live recordings. The Boom were formed the same year that I first went to Japan in 1989, and I ended up working with them quite a lot, including a few overseas tours and presenting a radio show with Miyazawa. Good memories..
interview by Paul Fisher
photographs by Bruce Osborn
He may be a hero to hundreds of thousands of screaming fans, but Kazufumi “Miya” Miyazawa is no ordinary pop idol. As composer and vocalist with The Boom, he is one of Japan’s most innovative popular musicians, a rare item among his generation. From reggae to Okinawan folk, Indonesian gamelan to Brazilian samba, Miya borrows freely, but without a copycat approach. His music is blessed with an originality that for many is like a shining light in the dull world of Japanese pop.
The Boom’s Okinawan-influenced single, “Shima Uta,” was the mega hit of 1993, selling over 1.5 million copies and capturing the Japan Record Award–the local version of the Grammy. Last year, the band sold out a 42-date national tour and headlined several festivals, including WOMAD and Club Asia at the Budokan. The group’s current album, Far East Samba, has notched sales of close to half a million.
In person, Miya lacks the pretentiousness you might expect of a rock star, although he exudes a certain style, confidence and the good looks that have made him many a schoolgirl’s fantasy. He sits on the sofa at his manager’s Aoyama suite, bouncing his one-year-old son, Hio, on his knee. He speaks in a soft but resolute manner, taking time to answer each question carefully, patiently checking my comprehension. The challenge of changing the status quo looms ahead for Miya, but he insists he’s just an ordinary kid from the sticks who likes to sing. He is not immune to a laugh or two, but is more concerned about getting down to the serious issues at hand.
You were recently on the TV program “Music Station,” reading the lyrics from Tegami, your new single. What’s this all about?
Around the 17th and 18th centuries, Christianity was banned in Japan. There was a test called fumie which was used to find out who was a Christian. The authorities would ask everyone to step on a picture of Jesus Christ. Those who could, passed the test. Those who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, were obviously Christians, so they were executed. The single Tegami is a kind of fumie test.
What do you mean?
Those who can listen to and accept the message of the song are those who believe in themselves. Those who scream out “No!” are those who don’t believe in themselves–the ones who are not really musicians.
What is it about the lyrics that some musicians will find so offensive?
Basically, I’m saying, “Fuck Japanese pop music, it’s rubbish.” So a lot of people are going to hate me. Except, of course, the ones who have pride in their music.
Can you be more specific about which musicians will react?
I have no idea.
How did Sony react to Tegami?
I don’t know for sure, but I would think opinions are quite divided. People who like music will think it’s good.
What is it about the current scene that you deride?
The way the system just creates music to be consumed. It’s like it’s a throwaway product. I hate that buy, listen, throw away and sing at a karaoke bar mentality.
So Japan is just like the U.S. or Europe, where music has become just another luxury item.
Yes, but Japanese people have a desire to express themselves, and that’s why they need the medium of karaoke. It’s certainly not creative, but if people can get rid of stress through karaoke, then I think I can just possibly accept it. Most pop songs here have an eight or 16 bar intro. That’s to give the singer at a karaoke bar time to get from his seat to the microphone. And the songs can’t be more than a few minutes long. It was like that in the U.S. in the ’60s, but this music isn’t rock & roll. It doesn’t encourage originality. I want to do something different–not for karaoke–so I have to break the current system.
And how do you do that?
Well, Tegami is a poem reading, so it doesn’t work as karaoke. And our previous single, Kaze ni Naritai, had a very complex back rhythm to it, over 100 percussion tracks, so I think I’m also saying, “Try making a karaoke version of that!” But I do know that there are contradictions: I’m challenging the system, but in another way, I am part of it. In the end, I just want to sing–nothing more.
Is it the system that keeps you so busy with this schedule of touring, recording, videos, TV work?
If they don’t do anything for awhile, musicians always get scared that they’ll be forgotten, and will worry about what other bands are doing. The maximum number of records we can sell in Japan is about three million. U2, for example, can sell about 20 million worldwide, so you can see the difference. Japanese musicians don’t get paid high royalties compared to the big foreign artists, either.
As a successful band, do you now have the power to negotiate higher royalty rates?
I don’t think this is quite the time to do that. I’m kind of envious of the systems in the U.S. and the U.K., but we can’t just suddenly import their way of doing things. I think Avex Trax pays higher royalties, so it’s slowly changing in Japan. But to make really good music, we need a lot of financial support. In the end, I don’t want to be rich; I just want to make good music. It takes a lot of money for us to go on tour. Some singers or groups have formed their own record companies, but it has never worked out. I’d like to change the system, but at the moment we need the big companies’ money.
Do you enjoy the rounds of interviews, TV appearances and commercials, or is it just a bore?
Interviews like this are usually okay. I’m not a “talent” though, so I don’t like talking about things I’m not interested in. I sometimes refuse them. I just look at each one being offered and decide on its own merits. If I wanted to be rich, I’d do all the TV stuff I could!
Where do you find the time in this hectic schedule to be creative?
When I’m traveling–in Asia, Okinawa, Brazil or Cuba. Those are the times that I get inspiration, pick up new ideas.
Do you feel pressure to come up with something new all the time?
Of course. But I always have a certain purpose, and it comes down to my own ambition after all. After we finished the album Puberty about four years ago, for example, we just didn’t have a vision of what to do next, so we took a six month rest.
You’ve described Puberty as the time you reached puberty. What do you mean?
Well, up until that point, I didn’t really have any of my own opinions, or at least they weren’t that thought out. Puberty usually comes at about 13 or 14, but my mental “puberty” came at about 25. Japanese people aren’t always given the chance to develop their opinions.
So this was quite a shock for you?
Yes. I’m from a conservative town, Kofu, and we weren’t encouraged to think about anything. The government, or educational authorities want to keep the system that way. It’s very clever. School is like a factory, just churning out people who are all the same. There’s no debate about anything. After graduating from high school, I came to Tokyo and started working part-time at a restaurant, where I began meeting people from China, Bangladesh, Iran and so on. We were getting paid very low wages, and I started thinking about their situation and things on a wider scale.
What were some of these new-found themes you wrote about for the album?
It was during the period that many foreigners first came to Japan from all over Asia, and I felt that our response as Japanese people and of the government was really poor. So one theme was about how we should treat foreigners. The illegal waste dumping from factories was another issue. Another theme was the relationship between the four members of The Boom, and between The Boom and our fans. We were thinking about splitting up at that point, as we didn’t have any direction. The song Sarabat means sayonara because we thought we might not be continuing.
But you did.
I traveled around Asia. I took part in the Asian musical Nagraland and conceived a vision for the future that became the Faceless Man album.
Some have called you the spokesman for the apathetic generation now in their late 20s or early 30s who grew up never questioning anything. Do you see yourself in this role?
I never tell people what to do. I just let them make up their own minds. I really just write about my own experiences.
You said earlier that you grew up in a conservative atmosphere.
And we weren’t poor, either.
And you weren’t a rebel?
Is that why you followed the path of going to university and didn’t just drop out and become a musician?
I didn’t want to disappoint my parents. Though I didn’t study much either.
What did you study?
Business. But I didn’t want to be a businessman.
So why business?
Because you didn’t have to know all the old Chinese literature for that course! But actually going to university was a chance to go to Tokyo and meet different people. As far as my parents were concerned, I was studying. They didn’t know that I was really just trying to be a musician. It was just like a legal way for me to be in Tokyo, a four-year moratorium.
Was this when you used to play in Harajuku on Sundays? On “Paradise Walk”–or “Din Alley,” depending on your point of view?
You used to play songs by The Specials and The Police back then.
Yes, and our own songs too. I never liked punk; to me, it was violent. But when bands like The Specials came around, I thought they were really different. I liked Led Zeppelin and Queen, but they didn’t seem very intelligent, somehow.
You said you’ve been inspired by traveling. What about your own “roots”? Where do they come from?
I really don’t know. I’ve felt sometimes that I haven’t got any musical roots at all. There was nothing to start from. After WWII, the Japanese gave up their own culture and became very Americanized. We have min’yo and Kabuki, and there was a small movement to protect our own culture, but it was very limited. If forced to choose, I would say that my roots lie in the pop music of America. It’s a kind of tragedy. I guess I’ve been traveling to countries that do have musical roots to pick up ideas from them.
One of The Boom’s most famous songs was Shima Uta. Did you get any adverse reaction from the traditional musicians, thinking that you had stolen their music?
I’m sure that some of the traditional musicians think that way, and I used to worry about it. The Okinawans were sacrificed by the Japanese government during the war, and the Okinawan intelligentsia today still believe the Japanese government was guilty. So I wondered if I could really make Okinawan music. I’m sure for some Okinawans it wasn’t pleasant to hear a Japanese man sing that song. But Shokichi Kina [one of the first Okinawans to combine traditional and rock music] really helped me. He invited me to play with him in Okinawa and just accepted me. I also think that, rather than breaking tradition, I perhaps encouraged young Okinawans to pick up the sanshin and play their own traditional music again. There is an invisible wall between Japanese and Okinawans and Shokichi helped to break that. He’s got a very big heart.
Has there ever been resistance from the people of other countries–such as Indonesia or Brazil–whose music you’ve embraced?
I’ve never had a chance to discuss that with anyone from those places.
Your fame in Japan has certainly risen sharply in the last few years. Are you still the same person as before?
Yes. I don’t want to be a rock star. I hate the drug thing that rock stars are associated with. It’s just not cool. All I want to do is play music.
There isn’t much of a wild side to the life of The Boom then?
Times have changed. Who knows? If this was the ’60s or the ’70s, maybe I’d be taking drugs.
So what is your pressure valve?
I always feel pressure, and sometimes I want to be released from that. But I don’t feel frustration, because I love music. I can understand about Kurt Cobain, but that was such a waste. I would understand it better if it was some cause that I would be willing to die for, but that was just a waste of a life.
Has becoming a father, as you did recently, changed anything?
I’ve become more conservative. But at the same time I’m more radical. When I was single I think I used to care much more about what everyone around me thought. But I don’t have to care about what people think anymore, because I’ve got my own family now. It’s like with the lyrics of Tegami; I’m not thinking about other musicians. It could be dangerous, I suppose, because it’s a radical message. But because I have the trust of my family, I have more power to challenge things.
Although The Boom is a four-member band, it increasingly seems to have become your solo project. Is this a fair comment?
No, not really. Think of a big ship. No one person can make it move. You could say the four of us are in the control room, but we need other crew from outside to help us. So, without me, the ship won’t move–no one would know the direction to go with it. But you could say the same of Takashi or Yama or Tochigi. The fans are also a part of the crew in a wider sense.
Speaking of fans, does it concern you that your fans are still predominantly young and female? That you haven’t attracted an older audience?
It used to. Three or four years ago, I used to question why it is mostly young girls who come to see us. But now I think it’s okay; in fact, it’s a good thing. There were, though, quite a few older people who came to see us on our last tour.
Is your message predominantly for the young?
For me, the meaning of rock music isn’t about playing electric guitars or whatever, but opening doors for a new generation. It also means breaking down the old system, and part of that is getting rid of the generation gap, where, say, 20-year-olds listen to this, and 40-year-olds listen to that. Kaze ni Naritai might have been a samba song, but its spirit is definitely rock & roll. Any generation can sing that song. It’s the same with Shima Uta–the melody might have been close to Okinawan folk, but it was also rock. I don’t mean a sound like the rock music of the ’60s and ’70s in the U.K. and America. I mean a new vision. It’s not punk, either, which is just breaking down the system without a vision of the future. What I call rock has a future beyond.
What is the new vision, musically?
Our last album, Far East Samba, was quite straight in its use of samba and Cuban rhythms. Bossa nova was clearly just bossa nova and Latin was just Latin. I’ve got great respect for those sounds, so that was our first step. Tegami, though, is the next stage and it’s an experiment with our interpretation. It has Brazilian rhythms, but it’s a rock version, it’s another sound completely. It’s really quite radical. There’s been nothing like it in Brazil even, with that mix of Brazilian rhythms and rock. There have hardly been any poem-reading songs in Japanese music either. Maybe some in the indie scene, and there’s rap, of course, but that’s different.
Have you always wanted your music to progress like this?
Yes, I suppose so. Shima Uta, for example, did mix rock and Okinawan folk, but it was quite simple. Then we recorded E-Ambe; it wasn’t just Okinawan, but had a Jamaican rhythm and Indonesian gamelan all mixed into it, so it was a new interpretation of Okinawan music. We seem to start off quite simply and then move on to other stages.
I know that you also want to take your music outside the country. What do you think is necessary to be able to do that?
Confidence. I think the next album might be good for other countries. We need about 10 more songs with our own style of Latin or samba music. Then we might go to the Festin Bahia, a festival in Brazil next year. We don’t want to go just to play; we’d like to release a CD as well.
And will you sing in languages other than Japanese?
We’re recording Kaze ni Naritai in Portuguese so that it can be released in Brazil. If the album Far East Samba comes out there, it could end up as a bonus track. Then, if we get a best of The Boom album released in China, we’ll probably do a version of Shima Uta in Chinese as a bonus track. But I don’t think a whole album will ever be recorded in another language.
Would you like to be considered in the future as a “Japanese Peter Gabriel” or “David Byrne” figure?
Maybe, but that’s not my goal. I think they’re really interesting and I like them a lot. But I don’t want to be a star or anything. I just want to introduce good music.
It seems to me that the bands who have made it to some extent in the West, like Boredoms or Shonen Knife, are on the fringe of the music scene here.
That’s right. Do you know Shinji Tanimura? He used to sing American folk songs, and then he began to sing enka. He has become quite well known in other Asian countries as an enka singer. I never liked him before, but I think that now he’s really trying to find some originality in Asian music. Shonen Knife or Boredoms may be pretty cool, but they’re not very original. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that I like Shinji Tanimura and don’t like those bands. It’s just that I prefer Tanimura’s way. He’s searching for his Japanese roots, and I’m basically trying to do the same thing.
The New York Times recently ran a feature that said something like Japanese music in America is about at the same stage as British music was 35 years ago before The Beatles. In fact, The Boom’s album Far East Samba was actually the first Japanese one listed in their top 10 CD recommendations. Is this an accurate reflection of the situation right now?
About half right. There are some good bands in Japan, it’s true. But I still don’t think we have enough pride in our music because of our lack of roots. Take some village in Peru, for example, which has both its own folkloric style of music and Madonna-like pop. Who can say which is advanced and which is backward?
Are you saying that it is important for you to make some inroads internationally?
Yes. Ultimately, I want to make music that crosses boundaries as well as generations.