Miyazawa – Tokyo Story


When we first met in 1993, Kazufumi Miyazawa was introduced to me as ‘a famous Japanese pop star’. I hadn’t met that many pop stars before but he didn’t exactly comply to the usual stereotypes. Okay, so he was wearing sunglasses, but so was I. After all, we were in Okinawa, the sub-tropical deep south of Japan. He was definitely good looking, exuded a certain coolness, but was refreshingly normal, a little shy.

We were in the garden of Shokichi Kina, Okinawa’s most eccentric musician, with a posse of his band and followers. With Kina dressed like he’d just come off the set of Star Trek, and talking for most of the day about spirits, Miyazawa had actually brought with him a semblance of normality. The following evening Kina would be joining Miyazawa and his group the Boom on a couple of songs at their concert in Okinawa. The Boom played a kind of ska and rock hybrid I was told, a bit like the Specials. Now they were topping the charts in Okinawa with a single Shima Uta (island songs), also the name given to the local music. Surprising in the first place since Miyazawa and the Boom are not from Okinawa, but from the Japanese mainland. Miyazawa’s manager, Go san, took me into the house to play me the single. I was intrigued, but half expected to hear just a cosmetic ‘exotic’ flavour of Okinawa. The Specials and Okinawan music seemed miles apart. On the other hand, ska and upbeat Okinawan ‘katcharsee’ tunes both had that infectious up beat rhythm.

Instead, Shima Uta explosively announced itself with an electric guitar intro, before developing into a classic sounding Okinawan melody, with Miyazawa playing the sanshin, the local snake skinned banjo, gradually building up to a rocking crescendo. Rather than taking from a tradition, it definitely added something. This was where Miyazawa really went against the grain in the Japanese pop world. He had talent- and in abundance.

That single, Shima Uta went on to sell over a million and a half copies, popularizing Japan’s most exciting roots music and winning the Japanese equivalent of a Grammy that year. Over the following years, Miyazawa would expand his horizons, travelling to and absorbing music from Indonesia, Jamaica, Cuba, Argentina and particularly Brazil. This year, 2004, the Boom are celebrating their 15th anniversary, as one of Japan’s most consistently successful bands. In addition Miyazawa recorded four solo albums to indulge some of his more ambitious and experimental leanings, mixing up those influences and collaborating with musicians from around the world. He is one of Japan’s most celebrated songwriters. Even within the more radical mixtures, the strength of Miyazawa’s songs consistently shine through. This CD is compiled from those four solo albums.


The starting point on Miyazawa’s musical journey was Okinawa. “There weren’t many opportunities to listen to Okinawan music in Japan when I first started to get interested in it” he explains “so I asked friends who went to Okinawa to get some tapes for me. I got the same kind of feeling or shock as when I listened to Bob Marley when I was a high school student. I really liked that the melodies were repeated often, almost incessantly, and the chorus too, with the same rhythm throughout, and I thought it was very similar to reggae. That was in about 1989 when we recorded our first record.”

In the 1970s, Haruomi Hosono had already found inspiration from Okinawa in some of his songs, which had not gone unnoticed by Miyazawa. “I knew Hosono was playing Okinawan music before he played with Yellow Magic Orchestra. Also, Shokichi Kina’s Haisai Ojisan was a hit in Japan in the late 70s, so I already had listened to some Okinawan music, but this was before I really got into it.”

It was the success of Shima Uta in 1993 that changed Miyazawa and the Boom forever. “I went to Okinawa to take some photos for the Boom’s third album, to a very beautiful and natural area called Yanbaru and for the first time saw a deeper side of Okinawa. I saw some remains of the war there and visited the Himeyuri Peace and Memorial Museum and learnt about the female students who became like voluntary nurses looking after injured soldiers. There were no places to escape from the US army in Okinawa, so they had to find underground caves. Although they hid from the US army, they knew they would be searching for them, and thought they would be killed, so they moved from one cave to another. Eventually they died in the caves. I heard this story from a woman who was one of these girls and who survived. I was still thinking about how terrible it was after I left the museum. Sugar canes were waving in the wind outside the museum when I left and it inspired me to write a song. I also thought I wanted to write a song to dedicate to that woman who told me the story. Although there was darkness and sadness in the underground museum, there was a beautiful world outside. This contrast was shocking and inspiring. There are two types of melody in the song Shima Uta, one from Okinawa and the other from Yamato (Japan). I wanted to tell the truth that Okinawa had been sacrificed for the rest of Japan, and Japan had to take responsibility for that. Actually, I wasn’t sure that I had the right to sing a song with such a delicate topic, as I’m Japanese, and no Okinawan musicians had done that. Although Hosono started to embrace Okinawan music into his own music early on, it was in a different way to what I was trying to do. Then I asked Shokichi Kina what he thought I should do about Shima Uta and he said that I should sing it. He told me that Okinawan people are trying to break down the wall between them and Yamato (mainland) Japanese, so he told me I should do the same and encouraged me to release Shima Uta.”

After such a spectacular and unexpected success, he next turned his attention to Brazilian music. ” I first heard bossa nova when I was high school student. I had an image of bossa nova as a kind of salon music but then found out it was completely different. I saw Joyce performing live in Tokyo and it was incredible. It was fast paced, complicated and thrilling music. I tried to do something similar with the Boom and recorded our first bossa nova song, Carnaval. I then went to Rio De Janeiro to see people’s real life, to feel and understand the local beat and went to a samba concert which was fantastic. The audience really enjoyed themselves, sharing enjoyment with others and they seemed more like the main star than the artist to me. I was in the rock music business in Japan where always the rock star is in the centre creating a dream world which was quite unrealistic. The samba scene was a new experience to me just as Okinawan music had been, and I wondered if I could make Japanese samba that the audience would want to sing together with us. I think we kind of succeeded with Kaze ni Naritai, which became a hit single. The Boom then released two Brazilian influenced albums, Kyokuto Samba (Far East Samba) and Tropicalism.”

Tropicalism was the Boom’s most ambitious project thus far, encompassing a wide range of influences that Miyazawa had encountered from Okinawa, Brazil, Indonesia and reggae, far from what a major record company might have expected of a best selling rock band. From the original four members, with the virtually full time guest musicians, the Boom had blossomed to about fifteen musicians. With his band somewhat spiraling out of control, Tropicalism was to act as a catalyst for Miyazawa’s solo career.

“Tropicalism became like my solo album eventually as I had too many of my own ideas and asked all those other musicians to play with us. Although the four of us in the Boom were still at the centre of things, we didn’t play together on some of the songs. Anyway, in retrospect, Tropicalism lacked the Boom’s own atmosphere. I had lots of ideas, so I thought I should do this experimenting solo. I could then play with musicians who I really wanted to, and do what I really wanted. The songs I write solo are generally less pop than the Boom, the lyrics are more personal.”

Despite the global influences and recording locations, the Boom mainly concentrated on their home market, releasing a string of singles, mini-albums and original albums plus performing sold out tours nearly every year for their legions of fans. After that first meeting in Okinawa, Miyazawa and myself remained friends, even presenting a radio show together for five years. Miyazawa had changed from a young rock ‘idol’ to a mature and respected musician, constantly challenging the status quo of the Japanese pop world, lyrically and musically. He never took the easy option, to continue the formula that brought him and the Boom success. Perhaps this was a shrewd move, as while other Japanese bands disappeared in what is a pretty fickle market, the Boom fans remained remarkably loyal, many passionately following Miyazawa’s interest in Brazil, Indonesia and elsewhere, some even as far as visiting the countries themselves.

The Boom did make some inroads internationally. They toured in Brazil, had an album released there, and played at a couple of festivals in Europe, including the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1997. The fame of Shima Uta spread outside Japan, becoming a much covered song in Asia, including in China and Hong Kong. Somewhat bizarrely in 2002 it became almost as well known in Argentina as well, sung (in Japanese) by actor and musician Alfredo Cassero, and chosen as the official song of the Argentinean football team at the World Cup in Japan and Korea. A ‘Best of’ the Boom was subsequently released in Argentina. Following this success, Miyazawa recorded a Spanish version of Shima Uta , titled Cancion de la Isla, included on this CD.

I saw the Boom perform numerous times, consistently impressed at how different each show was, with it’s own special energy. Yet there remained something almost intangibly Japanese about their music. The intelligence of the lyrics helped to set Miyazawa apart from his peers, largely unnoticed by me, but after about ten years in Japan, perhaps my ears had become attuned to a Japanese style of singing and melody. It was a pretty weird experience, not altogether unpleasant, being sometimes the only foreigner or ‘gaijin’, surrounded by thousands of excitable women. All would wave their hands waving in choreographed unison, regularly screaming ‘Miya’! Even I started to be recognized, just knowing Miyazawa made me undeservingly cool as well.


Following his experience with the Boom album Tropicalism, in 1999 Miyazawa released two solo albums in quick succession, Sixteenth Moon recorded in London, and Afrosick recorded in Brazil. Sixteenth Moon turned out to be a fairly straight ahead pop album, produced by Hugh Padgham, probably best known for his work with Sting, and featuring many of the same musicians who played on Sting’s albums. These include the distinctive drumming of Manu Katche, the brilliant Argentina born guitarist Dominic Miller and legendary bassist Pino Palladino. “I always liked Sting very much, and I felt that as I’d been playing for over ten years, I wanted to know how far I’d come as an artist, and thought that by playing with Sting’s musicians I might find out. I wanted to find out what quality of music I could create with them. I had no idea how it would go beforehand, so I wrote the music score out and the lyrics as well, although I don’t write the lyrics down beforehand usually. I prepared an English translation of the lyrics and made a demo tape. I didn’t care at that time if it was new or not. I wanted to create orthodox music of top quality, as if I had ordered a tailored suit for myself which fitted me perfectly.” This CD contains three tracks from Sixteenth Moon including one of Miyazawa’s first attempts to sing in English, My Heart, My Soul, My Fear.

Afrosick recorded straight after in Brazil was a different affair, with some of the leading lights of the contemporary music scene that had influenced Miyazawa’s music with the Boom, such as Carlinhos Brown and Lenine. “My mind set for making Afrosick was like a fashion designer’s collection which changes every season. My mode at that time was for hip, kitsch pop, aggressive and progressive rock. I wrote the melodies and Carlinhos Brown wrote the lyrics and arranged for the other musicians with Marcos Suzano. I produced the album together with Carlinhos Brown. Suzano and Fernando Moura arranged some of the songs and then asked others such as Pedro Luiz, Paulinho Moska and Lenine to write other tunes.”

Some songs on Afrosick were recorded in both Japanese and Portuguese, the latter released on a Brazilian version of Afrosick., while Miyazawa and his new Brazilian friends toured in Japan and Brazil to promote Afrosick. On this CD are four songs from the Japanese version of Afrosick.


Miyazawa’s next solo album, simply titled Miyazawa in Japan, probably mostly realised Miyazawa’s own original ambition for mixing different types of music into something cohesive, original and unique to him. To help him achieve this, he enlisted the help of American Arto Lindsay as producer. They were introduced by mutual friend Ryuichi Sakamoto about fourteen years ago, after a show at New York’s Knitting Factory. “I thought I had managed to make a style that mixed different types of music, but for the new album, I wanted to make a kind of natural mixture, almost unrecognizable, so it doesn’t matter what kind of music is in that mixture. Bahian rhythms are not so unusual for me anymore, it’s a rhythm naturally inside me. It’s the same with Okinawan music. These were very different and unfamiliar years ago, but now I can use them for my own music.”

Miyazawa decided to work with some of the new generation of Brazilian musicians as well as some he had worked with on Afrosick. “I knew that Arto knows that younger generation. He heard Afrosick and told me his opinion and gave me some ideas, and we decided to work together on a new album. We’re completely different types, but I like the music he produced for artists such as Gal Costa, Caetano Veloso, Marisa Monte and Ile Aiye. I think he is an artist who gets power from playing with other artists. He gave me lots of advice during the recording and I learnt a lot. He advised me not to over express emotion too much, to sing in a natural way as the melody is strong enough to carry that emotion. If I had produced the album by myself it would have been too much in my style. I also had something he didn’t have, so this too worked well.”

Miyazawa was recorded at various locations around the world with some forty musicians roughly divided equally between Brazilian and Japanese. “First, I went to Bahia to record the rhythm tracks with six or seven musicians from Ile Aiye a famous percussion group in Bahia. I asked Juninho to play with me again, a guitarist who was on Afrosick before. Then I flew to Sao Paulo and worked on one song with a young musician, Max de Castro. After that I went to Rio de Janeiro and did some recording with Kassin, who was also on Afrosick and with Caetano Veloso’s son Moreno.”

“After finishing recording in Brazil, and just before flying to New York, our next recording location, I stopped in Buenos Aires for one day and had a meeting about recording there. In New York, we recorded at Arto’s friends’ studio. Arto is meticulous about studio work and never misses what sounds need to be recorded. He is like me as the type of artist who records the main sounds one by one in the studio but he has many more attributes that I do not have. The taste and atmosphere of Arto’s friends in New York, the rhythm tracks of Bahia and my own melodies all helped to make the music this time very interesting.”

“Back to Tokyo from New York, Arto and I continued recording for another month, including with Takashi Hirayasu from Okinawa, and after that we went down to Okinawa to record with Yoriko Ganeko . Buenos Aires was the last recording location for this project. We had already recorded Tango for Guevara and Evita in Rio de Janeiro but I wanted to make another version with real tango musicians in Argentina. The lyrics of the song were sort of flexible and I revised the words from time to time, as I wanted to make a kind of documentary song. Osvaldo Requena, one of the country’s most important tango musicians and arrangers, put a melody to my lyrics together with a tango orchestra. He read a Spanish translation of my lyrics and liked them. He said this was not only Japan’s problem, but Argentina’s as well. In Brazil, I kind of recorded according to Brazilian rules, but overall the album has no nationality with traces of the chaos or disease of Tokyo. It has some elements of Japanese tradition and a very modern style as well.”

A version of the album Miyazawa was released by Stern’s in the UK, titled Deeper Than Oceans. In 2002 Miyazawa performed at a festival in Pamplona Spain, and in 2003 played in Lisbon, Portugal, Tubingen, Germany and Warsaw, Poland. In Poland he was greeted at the airport by a group of students singing Shima Uta, having been taught it by their Japanese teacher. Miyazawa and his band went on to sing Shima Uta on national television.


This CD contains four songs from the album Miyazawa. The opening Final Groove version of Tokyo Story was released on the Japanese Best of Miyazawa, Miyazawa Sick, while the Okinawan language version, Uchina Furu Yuki was included only on the Japanese version of the album.

Aside to pursuing his musical career with the Boom and as a solo artist, the workaholic Miyazawa has been much in demand as a songwriter for other Japanese artists. On his fourth solo album Spiritek, he chose eleven songs he had originally written for other artists, to record himself. This CD contains three tracks from Spiritek.

Compiled specifically for overseas release, Tokyo Story introduces the work of one of Japan’s most remarkable musicians of the last fifteen years. The CD features a dazzling array of talented collaborators and musical mixtures from Japan, Okinawa, Brazil, Argentina, the UK and the USA. Miyazawa has been called the Japanese version of David Byrne or Paul Simon, yet is equally very much his own person. He is one of the greatest songwriters of his generation with his own set of unique influences, producing music with a distinctive Miyazawa stamp of quality.

Buy Tokyo Story and other Miyazawa CDs here


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