Rough Guide to the Music of Japan Vol. 2

The days of Japanese music being perceived at both ends of the scale as the worst excesses of idol pop or inaccessible traditional music are hopefully over. In truth, Japanese musicians have for years been skilfully adept at blending the traditional with the pop, absorbing foreign influences into their own music and coming up with some of the world’s craziest concoctions. A strict master to disciple learning system and preservation societies has meant traditions have been upheld, as well as updated by younger musicians on the outer fringes.

Today, Japanese musicians have discovered a new confidence in their own identity, leading not just Asia but increasingly the world in creating exciting directions in electronica, dance, jazz, avant-garde, improv, rock and other genres. That confidence of musicians as creators rather than copyists has translated itself into Japanese roots music too with shamisen (lute) players becoming household names. Since the 1930s and even before Japanese traditional melodies were combined with mambo, samba, other Latin rhythms, Hawaiian music and jazz. Gradually American and Western pop and rock influences took over leaving largely westernized music by the late 1960s, that apart from some notable exceptions continued through the 70s. During the first ‘world music’ boom from the end of the 1980s, Japanese musicians increasingly looked to what they had to offer. They found that local folk music or minyo had largely died out on the mainland, but down in the southern islands of Okinawa, the local music was still very much alive, uniquely in Japan, a part of everyday life. Japanese musicians started to incorporate Okinawan elements into their music, creating a new roots music scene.

Down in Okinawa, groups and artists who had been playing for years suddenly found themselves leading this trend. The effect of that first boom in Okinawan roots music had positive effects both in Okinawa, where still today local music is thriving, but throughout Japan. Eventually, musicians realized that in the not too distant past, perhaps from where they were born, there was good local music too and set about rediscovering the sounds that their parents might have grown up with. Being like an American was no longer cool, whereas being yourself was.

The search for homegrown roots music deepened through the 90s. Up in the north in Hokkaido, the Ainu (native Japanese) had been ignored for years to the extent many Ainu would rather hide their heritage. Today contemporary Ainu music is one of Japan’s most popular and hip styles of ‘world music’. While in the deep south, the tiny island of Amami situated half way between Japan proper and Okinawa, was thought of as a rather backward place that hadn’t kept pace with the rest of Japan. That image changed as Amami became a hotbed of local folk music. Even more than in Okinawa, music had survived and thrived, developing naturally among a growing band of singers and shamisen players in their teens, learning from elder musicians in their 70s.

This Rough Guide encompasses all these various styles of music from throughout the history of Japanese music and from throughout Japan. From ancient gagaku music that sounds almost as it would have done 1200 years ago to a recent shamisen bluegrass concoction that sounds like nothing you’ve heard before. Music from the current hotbeds of roots music from opposite ends of the islands, Ainu and Amami. The most quintessential Japanese music of all, enka, post war boogie-woogie that inspired a defeated nation, brilliant innovators of traditional instruments, Okinawan legends, music of the floating world inhabited by geishas a hundred years ago, culminating in a 20 piece free jazz orchestra who take as much inspiration from the futuristic Sun Ra Arkestra (some of who feature on the recording) as they do from ancient butoh dance. An album that defies categories, challenges stereotypes and highlights artists who are some of the most potent musical forces of the east.


Festivals (matsuri) take place throughout Japan throughout the year at temples and shrines of all sizes. From large cities to small villages, for New Year, spring, midsummer, autumn harvest or winter snow. Often loud, raucous events, music plays an integral part. Huge taiko drums might beat to the rhythm of the mikoshi (portable shrine) being carried around town, or rows of kimono clad ladies might dance in perfect sequence and sing in unison to the accompaniment of taiko and shamisen. Ushibuka Haiya Matsuri takes place every April on the coast in Amakusa in Kumamoto prefecture, Kyushu. The song and dance originated during the Edo period (1603-1868) when women would perform for the entertainment of the crews from the ships who had called at the port. These days some 3000 women dance to this song down the street, enjoyed by young and old. The song’s popularity spread to other parts of Japan, forming the basis for other local festival songs.


Chanchiki are committed to preserving and updating minyo, local Japanese folk music. Minyo used to form an integral part of daily life; celebrating weddings and other festivities, as work songs for planting rice or fishing, songs to dance to or as ballads telling of hardship. Until the 1960s, minyo songs and melodies pervaded the popular music scene while these days people have mostly lost any connection with minyo, perhaps hearing it performed only at local festivals. The leader of Chanchiki, Tsutom Tanaka, wanted to inject a fresh energy and impetus to minyo, restoring the balance between tradition and creation by seeking out almost forgotten repertoire and adding western instruments and elements of rock, Latin, African and other styles. He enlisted the help of like-minded young musicians such as female singer Makiko Ikeda, shamisen player Hajime Nishi and shakuhachi player Koushi Tsukuda. Adding to the line-up is bass player Tacoji and a horn section made up of members from Shibusashirazu.

The small island of Amami is the last drop of Kagoshima, the southernmost prefecture of Kyushu, the southern of the four main islands that comprise Japan. Amami lies geographically and musically half way between Japan and Okinawa, a unique hybrid of its two neighbours. As on Okinawa, the main instrument is the three stringed snake skinned banjo, the sanshin, although the Amami version has thinner strings, is tuned to a higher pitch and has a sharper tone. The music however is played in a minor scale as in the rest of Japan. Amami has one of the most vibrant local roots music scenes with a host of young musicians playing traditional music and updating it in ingenious ways. Born in 1983, Nami Makioka won three successive local folk competitions by the time she was sixteen. She made her first record in 2002, with this track taken from her latest album from 2007.


Born in Okinawa in 1952, as a teenager Takashi Hirayasu played guitar with blues and rock bands at bars and clubs catering for the American GIs taking part in the Vietnam war stationed at one of the numerous bases on the island. In his early 20s he became more interested in Okinawan shima-uta (island songs) and learnt the sanshin, the three stringed snakeskin banjo. He went on to join Shokichi Kina and Champloose as guitarist, helping to forge their seminal rock roots sound and took part in the classic Bloodline album in 1980 that featured Ry Cooder. After leaving Champloose he released his first solo album in 1998, produced by Takashi Nakagawa of Soul Flower Union, from which this track is taken, featuring ex-Nenes vocalist Misako Koja. Takashi went on to record two albums with Bob Brozman which gained international acclaim and has toured extensively around the world.


Somewhat ironically, Oki Dub Ainu Band have become one of Japan’s most successful exports in the world music scene. Ironic, because Oki himself doesn’t really consider himself to be Japanese at all, but in fact a proud Ainu, that is indigenous Japanese. Before Oki arrived plucking his tonkori, a brittle stringed instrument, the music of the Ainu had been virtually forgotten, reduced to being heard in one of the Ainu tourist villages in Hokkaido, home to most of the remaining Ainu living in Japan. Upon discovering his ancestry (he is half Ainu/Japanese) Oki felt it was his mission to bring the music of the Ainu into the modern age and give the young Ainu something to feel proud about it. He listened intently to ancient archive recordings of his Ainu elders which he combined with the music he had grown to love; dub, reggae and world styles. Oki Dub Ainu Band is the culmination of his original ideas.


The largest of the Ryukyu Islands in the deep south of Japan, Okinawa’s music scene encompasses minyo and shima uta (meaning ‘island songs’) together with an equally vibrant pop, indie rock and dance scene. Small, dark, cavernous clubs reverberate to the latest beats, contrasting with the white sand beaches, and natural beauty of the island. It’s from this creative atmosphere and confluence of cultures that the UK/US duo of Ryukyu Underground emerged. Keith Gordon and Jon Taylor desired to combine the traditional sounds around them with electronic production and other musical influences. Their first album in 2002 became an instant hit in Japan as did the follow up, Mo Ashibi, in 2003. Tracks from these two albums were then handed over to leading re-mixers and djs for the 2CD set ‘Ryukyu Remixed’ (2004) including this track, given a remix by Los Angeles producer/downtempo dj, Saru.

Jon Taylor and Keith Gordon of Ryukyu Underground

Jon Taylor and Keith Gordon of Ryukyu Underground


Seijin Noborikawa is probably Okinawa’s most loved and respected elder musician. However, he doesn’t fit easily into the ‘traditional’ musician category. He doesn’t usually dress in kimono, composes his own anti-war and other protest songs, developed a six-string sanshin, the ‘rokushin’, and is known as the Okinawan ‘Jimi Hendrix’ for his fast sanshin playing. Born in Hyogo Prefecture in Japan in 1930, he moved back to Okinawa as a child. A sanshin player from childhood, he was one of the founding members of a traditional music society and started recording from the 1950s. It was only after his starring role in the 1999 film Nabbie no Koi (Nabbie’s Love) and subsequent Hotel Hibiscus that his fame spread to the rest of Japan. Asadoya Yunta is one of Okinawa’s most famous traditional songs, this track taken from his album Spiritual Unity produced by Takashi Nakagawa of Soul Flower Union and featuring other members of the group.

Seijin Noborikawa pictured with Sadao China

Seijin Noborikawa pictured with Sadao China


Soul Flower Mononoke Summit is the acoustic version of Soul Flower Union, a rock group from Osaka. They were formed in the wake of the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995 when the group took to the streets of Kobe to play for the victims. This track is taken from their third album Deracine Ching-Dong (2007) and is their usual blend of Okinawan sanshin, the characteristic chindon drum (also the name of the music, a kind of early form of street advertising) plus accordion, clarinet guitars, hayashi backing vocals and the rasping vocals of Takashi Nakagawa. It was written by Azenbo Soeda (1872-1944) in 1908, a legendary political street singer who was reduced to silence by the authorities after the 1920s. Mononoke Summit play mostly these soshi enka (political street songs) while others are from Okinawa, and buraku (former outcast) songs, a contentious issue in Japan but not one this politically motivated group are about to shy away from.


Kawachi is a suburb of Osaka. Formerly a farming district, people have long enjoyed dancing at their summer bon odori festival, when the souls of ancestors return from the world of the dead. Kawachi Ondo developed unlike other ondo (dance music), the lyrics describing current events, the music embracing influences from 70s soul to reggae, electric guitar to string sections and took to being performed not just outdoors in the summer but indoors throughout the year. The musicians perform on a raised stage around which the audience dance in their kimonos in a circular style. Various stars of Kawachi ondo emerged who became known throughout the country. Kawachi Ondo became a source of pride for the working classes of Osaka, whose migrant workers in Tokyo organized their own annual festival. Hajime Ikoma formed his own team, Ikoma Kai, in 1970 and made his first record the following year. Kawachi no Ryu is one of his best known hits.


The thirteen stringed zither, the koto is one of three important traditional instruments, the others being the shakuhachi and the shamisen. The person who did more than any other to bring the koto into the modern age was Tadao Sawai (1937-1997). His compositions are some of the most performed and well known of the last fifty years, and his influence on a new generation of players is immense. His thoroughly inventive approach changed the rules of koto composition. Both left and right hands worked independently yet interdependently building layer upon layer of shifting rhythms creating a multitude of subtle textures. Dramatic hitting of the strings could be followed by serene passages of grace. Sawai performed around the world before his untimely death but left behind a legacy of over seventy compositions. This track, played by Sawai himself, is based on the theme of one of Japan’s best known melodies Sakura Sakura.


Kunaichi Gakubu, is the Music Department of the Imperial Household Agency. They comprise about 30 members and perform gagaku for official occasions at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo and elsewhere. Gagaku is an ancient form of Japanese classical music and has been performed at the Imperial court for about 1200 years. One of the main types of repertory is togaku, a body of pieces brought to Japan by musicians who visited China during the Tang period (618-907). When performed without dance these are called kangen, the most famous piece of which is Entenraku. Netori are short pieces played prior to Entenraku in a free rhythm to establish the mode, in this case Hyojo. A gagaku ensemble uses a number of unique instruments such as hichiriki. a small bamboo pipe with a large double reed, sho, a mouth organ with seventeen pipes, ryuteki, a transverse bamboo flute, gakuso, a thirteen stringed zither and percussion instruments kakko (small barrel drum), dadaiko (large barrel drum) and shoko (brass gong).


Shomyo is the Japanese version of Buddhist chants, the adding of melodic patterns to sacred Buddhist words in Sanskrit and other texts in different languages. Buddhist chanting originated in the birthplace of Buddhism in India, crossed into China where it developed and entered Japan in the 5th century. Tendai Shomyo is one of the main Buddhist sects, founded by Saichu and Ennin in the 9th century at Enryakuji Temple on Mt. Hiei, having gained knowledge of rituals and chanting after returning from Tang Dynasty China. For 1,150 years it has been passed down from master to disciple. Usually largely unaccompanied, on this recording Tatsuya Koumazaki plays an acoustic guitar made from paulownia wood, as is the koto, the sound half way between the two instruments. This recording is a rare combination of different Japanese traditions and instrumentation.



The twang of the shamisen has been heard in Japan since at the least the beginning of the 17th century, although the earliest sources date back to 1562 in Osaka. The shamisen arrived in Japan via Okinawa, who first adapted the instrument from the Chinese sanxien into the sanshin. It is the instrument that has the greatest variety of uses in Japanese music, the backbone of kabuki music, folk music and the chosen instrument of geishas. This is one such piece performed by geisha in the pleasure quarters, known as kouta or short song, with often playful lyrics about love in various situations or about nature. Haru no Tatsu Tokya means something like ‘When You Get Angry’.


Takeharu Kunimoto first heard American bluegrass on the radio when he fourteen. The following year he went to see Bill Monroe play live and shook hands with him after the concert. This inspired him to take up the mandolin and he formed a Bill Monroe tribute band at school. By the time he was nineteen he started learning the shamisen and had become fascinated with rokyoku, (traditional style storytelling). A man with a keen sense of humour, over the years he developed his own wacky style of rokyoku, playing rock ‘n’ roll on the shamisen and telling hilarious stories at the same, and dropping in the occasional bluegrass tune as well. In 2003 he went to East Tennessee State University to study American traditional cultures and bluegrass for a year. He joined a bluegrass group and then formed his own band, The Last Frontier. Appalachian Shamisen is the ultimate melding of his two great musical passions.


During the second world war popular music was somewhat hijacked by the government for patriotic purposes. In post war Japan, the positive tone of the 1930s returned as Japanese elements were mixed with American music and other styles in one of the most creative periods in popular music. The greatest songwriter during this period and a legend of Japanese music was Ryoichi Hattori (1907-1993) whose vast body of work laid the foundation for post war enka. Tokyo Boogie-Woogie was one of Hattori’s biggest hits, recorded in 1948 by Shizuko Kasagi one of the most popular stars of the day. She also appeared in films such as Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel. This song, along with others helped revive the spirit of the Japanese people and symbolized a new optimism. Kasagi was a graduate of the Shochiku Revue and was known as the queen of boogie.


Enka is in many ways the most quintessential of Japanese music, sometimes compared to French chanson or Italian canzone. The term enka has only been around for about 30 years, although similar songs were previously classified as simply popular music. Enka connects individuals with their dreams and heartaches through music. Nothing comes easily to the subject of an enka song, the struggle being all important. Hibari Misora (1937-1989) was Japan’s greatest ever enka singer, but perhaps Harumi Miyako could lay claim to the present crown. Born in 1948 in Kyoto, her mother taught her various singing techniques including her unari, singing an important phrase of a song with a growling voice. She made her first record in 1964 and for the next twenty years was one of the most popular singers in Japan. In 1984 she unexpectedly decided to quit, citing exhaustion, a desire to lead a normal life and look after her ailing father. She came out of retirement in 1990 singing songs in a more pop style with a personal touch to the lyrics.


Born in 1948 in Hokkaido, Mortio Agata was one of the ‘gentle generation’ of singer/songwriters of the early 1970s, influenced by US folk/rock and hippy culture. Agata’s music evoked the spirit of 1920 and 30s Japanese popular music, mixing Japanese style melodies with western instrumentation. By 1987 he’d become fascinated with world music and formed the influential group Raizo at the beginning of the 1990s. Coming from similar backgrounds, Agata and producer Makoto Kubota have been working together for years. Kubota was one of the driving forces and taste makers of the burgeoning world music scene in Japan in the late 80s. In recent years he’s gained worldwide acclaim for his Blue Asia project. Tokyo Bushi was a popular song in 1920s Japan, with lyrics set to the tune of Marching Through Georgia which had arrived with the opening up of Japan to the Western world to which Kubota has added Brazilian Nordeste rhythms.


‘There is no other band on the planet like us’ say Shibusashirazu. Little to argue with there, for once this is a group for which the word ‘unique’ can be applied correctly. Shibusashirazu (roughly meaning Never Be Cool) is a loose collective of around twenty musicians. Founded by bass player Daisuke Fuwa in 1989, the band comprises some of Japan’s top free and improvised jazz musicians combining experimental and avant- garde jazz with elements of rock, punk, Japanese pop, enka and traditional music, to name but a few of their eclectic influences. In concert they also feature butoh dancers, ‘groovedance’ girls and stage props that turns the stage itself into a piece of art. They’ve forged a considerable live reputation in Japan and in Europe, where in 2002 they opened Glastonbury Festival on the Pyramid Stage. This track features several members of the Sun-Ra Arkestra, probably their nearest counterparts in the west.

Go to the Shopping Page for this CD

Rough Guide to the Music of Japan Vol. 1

Like most things in Japan, the music can be bewildering to a foreigner. On the face of it, traditional culture is preserved with a devout passion; until you discover the students are only studying as a means to get married. Music schools and preservation societies abound and remain deeply conservative. While those musicians with the strength of personality to be free from institutionalisation, display an enormous capacity to create and experiment. After all, change and progression, often with a total disregard to the past, is the lifeblood of the Japanese.

The stereotypical images at the extremes bear little resemblance to reality. Unless you pay through the teeth, you’re unlikely to encounter a kimono-clad geisha plucking a shamisen (lute). Likewise, there’s little chance of stumbling upon some dead ringer copycat band playing salsa, soukous or whatever. Sadly there is one truth. The mainstream pop world is still (but less so) overpopulated by talentless ‘talentos’. This ever so-karaoke-friendly, mind numbing form of blandness is best left undiscovered. There is however a myriad of brilliant music, rooted in Japanese tradition and brought screaming into the present, that has remained buried somewhere under the quagmire of monstrosity and magic that is today’s Japan. Finally unearthed, and brought to you here on this compact disc.

Following the war, in their rush to embrace American culture, many Japanese musicians did seem to forget their own rich and diverse musical heritage. Parrot like boogie-woogie, rockabilly and jazz bands proliferated. Whatever the genre, these day’s there’s plenty of original, inspiring and challenging music, mixing up all kinds of elements. When it comes to music incorporating homegrown roots, musicians really do possess an extraordinary ability to adapt their own tradition and absorb outside influences.

While only a ‘rough’ guide to Japan’s music, just about all the major roots music styles and main instruments are presented. Not included are ‘popular’ forms such as kayokyoku, (standard popular music) or enka, akin to say American country music. The folk (min’yo) and traditional music worlds are in reality quite distinct from one another. Their inclusion together, along with modern roots music, may cause some purists to consider committing harikiri. Their idea of the ‘real Japan’ is that mystical one, before westernisation 130 years ago. This however, is the Japan of the imagination. Nothing is more ‘real’ than the happy co-existence of the old and new with a touch of kitsch thrown in.

During the post-war economic boom, Japanese people lost almost all contact with music on a daily basis. Nevertheless, a few of the songs and tunes selected for the CD, entrenched in folklore or still performed at festivals, will be familiar to almost any Japanese person. Others will be about as familiar as a pygmy chant in the rainforest.

Only in the southern islands of Okinawa is singing and dancing as much an integral part of daily life as eating or sleeping. Hence the slightly disproportionate number of Okinawan artists, and Japanese musicians who unable to get inspiration from the mainland, too turned to Okinawa.

In Japan where convenience is everything, music too often needs no effort to listen to, and no heart to perform. Okinawans put that heart back. Some of the Okinawan tracks are of the best loved folk songs, although performed in a not so conventional way. Others are less known but more radical, that push the borders of Okinawan music ever further into unchartered territory.

The Rough Guide to the Music of Japan is a comprehensive musical journey that reflects the many moods and contradictions of the nation. In the hi-tech urban jungle, the blazing neon of the advertising hoardes cast a shimmering light over the tranquility of a nearby temple. So it is with this compact disc; the past and present sit side by side, or mingle to convert into energy in an unparalleled fashion. An experience that is somehow uniquely Japanese.


Japanese often put the letter J before an adopted western entity. Hence we have the J-League, J-Pop, and here we have the original J-Rap. Kunimoto is Japan’s finest exponent of the traditional spoken art of ‘ro-kyoku’ that originated in the Kansai region. Typical stories tell of the separation of lovers, backstabbing and family feuds. Ro-kyoku was a big hit at the beginning of the century and produced Japan’s first ever recording stars. ‘Makura’ is taken from his second album ‘For Life’ which was recorded in Paris in 1993 with a mixed cast of Japanese and African musicians. Kunimoto’s word play is accompanied not by a Japanese drum but the djembe of Maré Sanogo, which sounds uncannily Japanese anyway.

From the CD “For Life” – For Life Records


Kawachi Ondo was originally music to accompany the bon-odori (festival of the dead) in Kawachi, a suburb of Osaka. As far as I can make out, there are only two refrains, played on guitar and accompanied by a drum, which are repeated over and over, with a kind of mesmeric effect. Attending a Kawachi Ondo festival is like stepping back in time, as hundreds of dancers move in a circle around a center stage, dressed in yukata (summer kimono). Kawachiya Kikusuimaru is Kawachi Ondo’s most famous traditional singer, although also it’s prime innovator. He was once releasing CDs nearly every month of his shinbun yomi (newspaper readings), setting his opinions on current events to Kawachi ondo. A flamboyant character, he’s constantly dressed in kimono, and has friends in high places. Kakin Ondo is not Kawachi Ondo at all, although the vocal style unmistakably is. Driven by a reggaefied beat, the story tells the fortunes of an ‘arbeiter’ a part-timer, and was used in a TV commercial, which brought Kikusuimaru national fame.

From the CD “Happy” – Pony Canyon


At the beginning of 1995, the city of Kobe was devastated by the Great Hanshin earthquake. Takashi Nakagawa from nearby Osaka decided to take his group Soul Flower Union to the streets of Kobe, to ‘cheer up’ the victims. In the abscence of electricity, his band were forced to go ‘unplugged’. They swapped electric instruments for Okinawan sanshin, and chindon, a percussive instrument used with clarinets and brass instruments. (see track 19). They played mainly old Japanese songs, including ‘Fukko Bushi’. Based on a traditional Chinese melody, ‘Fukko Bushi’ was the most popular song in the ruins of the Kanto earthquake that struck the Tokyo area in 1923. Nakagawa put new words to the melody, which included lines about ‘Nagata’ in Tokyo, the government area being rich, and Nagata in Kobe, an area of mainly immigrants, being poor. Too controversial to release for their major record company, the group formed the ‘punk chindon’ unit Soul Flower Mononoke Summit, and released a record themselves. The result is some of Japan’s most infectious music of recent years.

From the CD “Asyl-Ching Dong” – Respect Records

Soul Flower Mononoke Summit

Soul Flower Mononoke Summit


Every now and then, something catches the collective imagination of the nation, and experiences a ‘boom’. Responsible for the Tsugaru shamisen boom in the mid-1970s was recently deceased blind player Takahashi Chikuzan. Tsugaru is an older name for Aomori, in the north of Honshu the main island of Japan, and the shamisen is a lute like instrument. Known for it’s harsh cold winters, the folk music of Tsugaru is perhaps mainland Japan’s most exciting. The shamisen is plucked with amazing speed in intricate patterns and semi improvisations. Michihiro Sato, one of the best of the younger players, is an apprentice of another great player Chisato Yamada. On this version of Nikata Bushi, Sato’s shamisen is accompanied by shakuhachi.

From the CD “Jonkara” – Kyoto Records


One of Japan’s greatest vocalists, Takio Ito, the son of a fisherman, was born in Hokkaido, the Northern island of Japan. He grew up listening to the singing of his father as he worked, including this song, a Hokkaido min’yo standard that relates the life of a herring fisherman. He was a brilliant min’yo singer from an early age. A certified teacher at 18, he won the national min’yo championships three years running. However, he found the confines of belonging to the somewhat staid Min’yo assocaition, stifling for his creativity and promptly quit. Ever since, Takio has been expanding the realms of min’yo further and further, incorporating jazz, rock and other Asian traditional elements. At the end of the 19th century the government tried to root out traditional min’yo, as it was not deemed suitable for a western-style nation, and is perhaps Japan’s true ‘popular’ music. Takio’s driving, powerful versions of ‘Soran Bushi’ have become the highlight of his recorded output and live shows. Pumping your fist in the air to the response calls is obligatory.

From the CD “Ondo” – VAP Inc.


Yasuba Jun is the third ‘part time’ member of a Japanese female duo, Shisars who update Okinawan traditional folk with bits of honking sax and grunge-like guitar among other things. Yasuba Jun didn’t find time to appear on Shisars’ excellent album, but fortunately did find the time to make her own, equally brilliant solo album. Featuring one half of Shisars, and the same fine guitarist, her album is even more raw and sparse, with a sense of naiviety that makes it utterly refreshing. She doesn’t play the usual Okinawan sanshin, but it’s older cousin from China, the slightly bigger sangen. Yasuba Jun drew her inspiration from the usual ojisan and obachan (old folk) she observed singing and dancing in Okinawa. Amagoi Bushi is a traditional folk tune of Yonaguni island, the western most island of Japan, where she once worked in a sugar factory. No hint of saccharine here, just Okinawan music made naturally sweet.

From the CD “Yarayo-Uta no Sahanji” – Mangetsu Records


Takashi Hirayasu was once guitarist with possibly Okinawa’s most famous group, Shokichi Kina and Champloose. He was an important contributor to some of the band’s classic material, including the1980 album ‘Bloodline’ featuring Ry Cooder. After quitting Champloose he set about putting together an album to encompass his wide ranging musical influences.Among the unmistakably Okinawan melodies are rock guitars, plus African and Caribbean rhythms. Mangetsu no Yube (A Full Moon Evening) was written by Takashi Nakagawa of Soul Flower Union (see track 3) and Hiroshi Yamaguchi of the group Heat Wave, for the victims of the Kobe earthquake. The song is fast becoming a classic of Japanese music, in much the same way as Kina’s ‘Hana’ before. Probably, the best Japanese song of the 1990s.

From the CD “Kariyushi no Tsuki” – Respect Records


It’s time to put your arms in the air. Now bend your elbows slightly, relax your wrists, and then wave your arms and hands in the air, like a snake being charmed. For added effect run on the spot, or alternatively just jump. You’re now doing the Katcharsee. The dance the Okinawans love to do to the faster songs, and also the name of the upbeat style of music. Hiyami Kachi Bushi is classic Katcharsee, here performed by Ayame Band, led by another ex-Champloose member, sanshin player Takao Nagama. The sanshin is the 3 stringed snake-skinned banjo at the heart of all Okinawan music, and Nagama, from the Yaeyama islands, is known for being one of its fastest players. Much like Kina, he formed his own family band featuring his brother as keyboardist/arranger, with his sister leading the chorus. As yet, Ayame Band CDs and concerts have been exclusively confined to Okinawa. If the katcharsee is too energetic, this version allows you to follow the sanshin part with a simple guitar hero pose.

From the CD ” ‘Akemio No Machi Kara’ – Kokusai Boueki


“Roll up, roll up, get you’re banana’s here!”. Japanese had never seen a banana until the start of the Meiji period, towards the end of the 19th century. They first entered Japan through the port of Shimonoseki, facing Korea in the west of Honshu on the Sea of Japan. The nearest major city was Kitakyushu, right at the northern tip of Kyushu, the southern of the main Japanese islands. It was here that ‘Banana no Tatakiuri’ selling bananas with this colourful, rapping and stick beating began, in the town of Moji. Strangely enough it even exists, in pockets, until this day.

From the CD “An Account of BANAtyans” – Active Voice


Oki (Kano) is a musician of mixed Japanese and Ainu (native Japanese) blood. Upon discovering his background , he followed his Kamuy instinct, the Ainu spirit, and moved to Hokkaido, the ancestral home of the Ainu. His cousin gave him a tonkori, a skinny, five-stringed wooden instrument, and suggested Oki bring the Tonkori and Ainu culture out of the past and into the present. The Ainu are said to be close to nature, but have never had their own land or the chance to develop their culture or socialogical status. Oki intends to rediscover the identity of the Ainu, with the creation of a new Ainu music. Utuwaskarap means ‘Let’s Understand One Another’ and takes nature and harmony as it’s theme. “People created by kamuy and brought up on this earth, shouldn’t hate one another. I’ll be waiting with hope.”

From the CD “Kamuy Kor Nupurpe” – Chikar Studio




Whenever a Japanese, or even Asian, character or scene is introduced in a film, invariably it will be accompanied by the drifting sound of the Japanese bamboo flute, the shakuhachi; supposedly evoking all the mysticism of the Orient. The origins of the shakuhachi can be traced back to early 7th century China. It has strong associations with Zen Buddhism, and was played by the itinerant monks, Komuso, during the Edo period. There are two streams of music, myoan the purely meditational, and the other that concentrates on the more musical aspects, of which there are two major schools, Kinko and Tozan. Both of these include gaikyoku, ensemble pieces, and honkyoku, ‘original, true, music’ for solo shakuhachi. It is within Honkyoku that the uniquess, and tonal possiblities of the shakuhachi can be appreciated. A sense of serenity, the lack of any rhythm or melody, half tones, quarter tones, the silence. Shozan Tanabe is one of Japan’s finest young players of the Tozan school, that introduces elements of western music. Nyorai Shizune is a modern composition that translates as ‘Tranquility of the Great One Truth’ that demonstrates the versatility of the instrument and the expression of the performer.

From the CD “Shizuka Naru Toki” – Kyoto Records


The Japanese biwa has it’s origins in ancient Persia, and is related to the Arabic oud. It’s believed the biwa entered Japan in the 6th century, specifically to Satsuma, the modern day city of Kagoshima and the southern most city of mainland Japan. The Satsuma biwa tradition, is the longest established in Japan, and in it’s playing technique is sometimes compared to the Delta Mississippi Blues. Yukihiro Goto, is a young player of the Satsuma biwa, who was equally influenced by American blues music. Ubue is a recent composition written by accordion player Aki Tamura, and also features shakuhachi.

From the CD “Poetry of Japanese Ballads on Biwa” – Zanmai Records


There is a no more respected musician in Okinawa than Tetsuhiro Daiku. A civil servant by day, he stills find time to teach hundreds of students, record albums, and perform live regularly in Japan and around the world. Daiku san (as he’s always called) is from the Yaeyama islands, about 300 miles south west of the main Okinawan island. Yaeyama shima uta (island songs) are quite different to those of Okinawa. The music, originally just vocal, grew out of the fields as working songs, known as Yunta & Jiraba, (also the title of the CD, from which this track was taken). He recorded several albums of traditional shima uta, before a meeting with Japanese saxophinist Kazutoki Umezu led him in a new musical direction. Mixing mainly Yunta & Jiraba with jazz and chindon, with an array of brass and stringed instruments, each album in this style has been groundbreaking.Asadoya Yunta originated on the island of Taketomi, the most unspoilt of all Okinawan islands, where time seems perpetually frozen and the means of transport is still water buffallo drawn cart. It’s the most popular song from Yaeyama, and is among the best known of all Okinawan tunes.

From the CD “Yunta & Jiraba” – Disc Akabana


The name is Yano, Kenji Yano. He was born in Osaka, but now makes Okinawa his home. He was a member of a group Rokunin Gumi in the 80s, who in concert reportedly could match Kina and Champloose in their heyday for pure passion, but who sadly never recorded an album. Always ahead of his time, and experimenting with new sounds, under the pseudonym of The Surf Champlers, in a master stroke he mixed mainly Okinawan Katcharsee classics with surf music. Producing, mixing, recording and playing all instruments himself. By the sound of it, in his bedroom. Virtually unknown in Okinawa or Japan, just recently he’s been getting some attention with his new project, “Sarabandge”, Okinawan Trance Music.

From the CD “Champloo A Go Go” – Qwotchee Records


Two seminal figures for bringing Okinawan, Asian and other ‘world’ musics to a Japanese audience are Makoto Kubota and Haruomi Hosono. Kubota and his band, featuring Hosono on drums and as co-producer, recorded Shokichi Kina’s classic ‘Haisai Ojisan’ in 1975. Arguably they created the first wave of interest in Okinawan music in Japan, Kina having a hit with his song two years later. Due to a now slightly dodgy original master tape, this version was slightly remixed by Kubota in 1989, and features Sandii on backing vocals. Kubota and Hosono have never swayed from their pioneering spirit. Kubota producing several Indonesian artists including Detty Kurnia and an ecclectic assortment of music with Sandii. Hosono, perhaps Japan’s only musical genius, seems to be the spark that lights everything, from folk and ‘group sounds’, to technopop and ambient.

From the CD “13 Classics” – Vivid Sound Corporation

Makoto Kubota in Hawaii

Makoto Kubota in Hawaii


With the departure of Misaka Koja, Yasuko Yoshida is now the chorus leader of the female quartet Nenes. Together with Kina and Rinken Band, Nenes have been at the forefront of the Okinawan music scene for nearly a decade.Their fans around the world include Ry Cooder, with whom they recorded in 1994, and Talvin Singh, for whom they supply backing vocals to the title track on Singh’s album ‘OK’. Nenes performed at the 1998 WOMAD festival in the UK, and took part in the subsequent Real World recording week. Taking a more simple and traditional approach than the ‘Uchina pop’ of Nenes, this recent composition features Nenes mentor Sadao China on sanshin and also ryukin, the Okinawan koto or harp. Although not at the same time, I imagine.

From the CD “Iijiyaibi” – Marufuku Records


Koto Vortex are four women who met while studying the koto under Kazue and the late Tadao Sawai. The Sawai’s were known for their innovative approach to the koto, and while following in their teacher’s quest for breaking the mould, Koto Vortex take the koto along their own path of exploration. The harp-like koto is probably the most conservative of the Japanese traditional instruments, originating in China and being absorbed into Japanese court music. Studied by young girls and taught by old women as a virtuous exercise before marriage, there is a massive void between the ages, of serious performers. Koto Vortex fill that void, and bring the koto vibrantly to life. The compositions they perform are often minimalistic and repititious, but hypnotic and intoxicating.

From the CD “Koto Vortex 1, Works by Hiroshi Yoshimura” – Paradise Records


Kicked out of bed at 2 am to go for a run in the freezing cold. Forbidden to offer more than just a cursory glance at a member of the opposite sex. A full length marathon a day. Remuneration, zero. The small print in the job description of being a member of Sado Islands first drumming group Ondekoza, a group ‘in search of the generative power and origin of the Japanese people’. Some would discover their rebellious spirit, and form a breakaway group Kodo. Eitetsu Hayashi the lead drummer with Ondekoza, had been with the group for 11 years. He joined Kodo at it’s inception but soon decided to break out on his own. The only member with a background in rhythm, Hayashi is undoubtedly the star of ‘wadaiko’ (Japanese drum). With it’s roots in Kagura, music offered to the gods, it evokes the sounds of nature- the roar of thunder, the crash of the surf, and the melodic hum of the breeze. Hayashi adds to that tradition with a dazzling array of instruments and sounds. On this piece he is accompanied by the nohkan, a horizontal flute.

From the CD “Eitetsu”- King Record Co. Ltd


Before the TV commercial, there was the chindon commercial. Musicians dressed in colourful costumes would walk the streets, carrying a banner, blowing saxophones and clarinets, usually led by a woman carrying and banging the three drums of her chindon. Clarinet and accordion player Wataru Ohkuma first helped to bring this colourful instrumental music storming into the present with the group Compostella. He also added the chindon sounds to albums by Tetsuhiro Daiku and Soul Flower Mononoke Summit. Cicala Mvta is the name of his own unit whose repertroire mixes influences from chindon to Klezmer, Balkan, Turkish and Nepalese music. Shi Chome builds ceaselessly in a never ending climax before screeching to halt with the chindon cello saw massacre.

From the CD “Cicala Mvta” – Respect Records

Cicala Mvta

Cicala Mvta

Go to the Shopping Page for this CD

Soul Flower Union / Mononoke Summit

In Japan, the words music and politics don’t exactly sit well together. On the face of it, a group who seem to have bucked the system is Osaka’s Soul Flower Union, who have released a new best of album.

At least with songs such as “All Songs Go Forward to Freedom”, “Swing Guerrilla Declaration”, “The Right to Live in Peace” and tackling issues such as Palestine and East Timor, you would think so. But not necessarily so, according to the group’s Hideko Itami “Many say Soul Flower Union is political but we’re just singing about issues in our daily lives. We just want to have fun with everyone and play good music. Plus do you know of any US musician that speaks out about the unbelievable events that have been happening in the world? I can name one…Patti Smith….who else?”

Well, The Dixie Chicks, Bruce Springsteen and REM for starters but Itami has a point. She thinks a lack of any political comment or ideology is ingrained in the Japanese music business. “Those who developed the music scene based it on absolutely childish principles. Plus being political won’t make money.”

Soul Flower Union was formed in 1993 out of two groups, the glam rock influenced Mescaline Drive, featuring Hideko Itami and Newest Model, a punk band fronted by Takashi Nakagawa. Soul Flower Union’s music became a somewhat wacky blend of rock and psychedelic music, yet from their first album they included extraneous elements that would set them apart.


They signed to Sony but for the last six years or so have recorded for an independent or their own label. Their latest album, the third of their “Ghost Hits” (this one 00-06) is the first to be culled entirely from independent tracks.

“Our music has become more open and free after we stopped working with the so-called big name record labels” explains Itami. “Soul Flower Union is based on various genres of music, from traditional to funk, jazz and punk. Through Soul Flower Union, this new “Soul Flower Music” has been produced that you can’t hear anywhere else in the world. Our audience has grown with us and supported us for all these years. We’ve always focused on progressing plus providing a good performance”.

And what are their most recent influences? “The members individually have been playing with various musicians from various genres and through these sessions have obtained more power which they bring back to Soul Flower Union. Our influences are not from just one particular genre but from various. Always fresh and live”.

The band’s acoustic version is called Soul Flower Mononoke Summit, formed in the wake of the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995 when the group took to the streets of Kobe to play for the victims. The recent “Deracine Ching-Dong” is their first album for nine years and is their usual blend of Okinawan sanshin, the characteristic chindon drum (also the name of the music, a kind of early form of street advertising) plus accordion, clarinet (the wonderful Wataru Ohkuma) guitars, hayashi backing vocals and Takashi Nakagawa’s rasping vocals.


Mononoke Summit plays mostly Japanese soshi enka (political street songs) dating back up to 100 years, but there’s a definite Okinawan leaning to this album, both in the songs and the addition of young sanshin player and singer Natsuki Nakamura.

I wondered if this was a result of Itami recently relocating to Okinawa. “Natsuki was born in Taisho, Osaka, an area where a lot of Okinawans live” says Itami. “Six years ago she returned to Okinawa to be Seijin Noborikawa’s pupil. She’s been a fan of Soul Flower Union since she lived in Osaka and sings and plays not only Okinawa traditional songs but collaborates with other music genres. Taking advantage of my migration to Okinawa, Natsuki and I are thinking of blowing a new wind in the minyoukai , the traditional Okinawa music world, full of many rules and customs. ”

For me though, the album’s highlights are two buraku (former outcast) songs their versions taken from a buraku community in Kyoto. “We were raised in the Kansai area. In this region, there were many Korean-Japanese. The buraku was a strong issue and many people from Okinawa and Amami migrated here before World War II. They were my neighbours and these two songs are from where I was raised. As a neighbour, the history of discrimination will always be a lifetime issue.”

A lifetime issue maybe, but sounds like politics to me.

Originally published in The Japan Times in October 2006

Go to the Shopping Page for Soul Flower Union

TAKASHI NAKAGAWA Interview in fRoots

The visits of Donal Lunny and band to Japan, have been as much memorable for his own wonderful band, as for some collaborations with Japanese musicians. In 1996, with his group that was originally assembled for the Japan concerts, he played with Kodo, the spectacular drummers group on Sado island. Last year, as well as Kodo again, the Donal Lunny Band was also joined by a few members of Japan’s hottest rock roots band, Soul Flower Union. ( the acoustic version of which, Soul Flower Mononoke Summit, were featured in Folk Roots No. 160.

While in Japan, Donal took his band into a Tokyo studio to record with Soul Flower’s leader, Takashi Nakagawa, a session I was fortunate enough to witness. These sessions would be used for Nakagawa’s solo project, later to be titled Soul-cialist Escape. However, as the tapes rolled on, so did the time, and they ended up recording only 3 of the 4 songs intended. Thus Nakagawa, and two other Union members went to Real World Studios in England where Lunny was making his new album, to record one more song, and mix all four.

Back in Tokyo, a jet-lagged Nakagawa (he had only just got back to Japan that morning) spoke of the trip, and the forthcoming album. “We recorded Mangetsu no Yube, and Donal was just great,he had a real feeling for the song.” enthused Nakagawa. Mangetsu no Yube is one of the best songs to emerge from Japan in the last 20 years or so. It was co-written with Hiroshi Yamaguchi of Heat Wave (who played live with Donal and band in Tokyo) for the victims of the Kobe earthquake. This tragedy also led to the formation of Mononoke Summit, as his until then electric band, were forced to go unplugged to perform in Kobe at that time. Mangetsu no Yube, and other songs manage to maintain a strong Japanese flavour, while at the same time containing Irish elements in an uncontrived way. The fruits of the Nakagawa /Lunny recordings have just been released in Japan, the full title: “Original Notion (sic) Picture Soundtrack: Soul-cialist Escape in Lost Homeland.”


“I felt like I wanted to do something by myself, without Soul Flower, and go away from Japan and record with other musicians ” explained Nakagawa “I’ve always liked Irish music, but more like the Pogues or Van Morrison, not really traditional music. I didn’t even know who Donal Lunny was, but when I met him I got a good feeling, we seemed to like the same things.It was also great going to Real World studio. I never met Peter Gabriel, though I saw him playing table tennis quite often!”

Meanwhile, Soul Flower Mononoke Summit, have recently released their second CD “Levelers Ching Dong”. Like the first one, it’s a live recording released on their own label. Their usual record company, Sony had refused to release the first one, due to a controversial lyrical content. Was it the same with this one? “Probably, but I think they would also have objected to the music” said Nakagawa.
Most of the songs on Levelers Ching Dong date back 70 or 80 years. “They were mostly hits at the time, and some of them are still well known now.” said Nakagawa. He again raises controversial issues such as discrimination against Japan’s so-called ‘Untouchables’. “The song Kakumeika is one of Japan’s oldest revolutionary songs, people think that this kind of discrimination doesn’t exist anymore in Japan, but it still does.” Also included is Arirang one of Korea’s best known traditional songs. Nakagawa is particularly interested in Korean culture and last year undertook a trip to North Korea.”We went on the Peace Boat, from Nigata to Wonsan and then to Pyongyang. It was quite an experience, we weren’t really allowed to see ordinary life in the countryside, but we went to a department store and everyone was surprised at how we looked. The North Koreans were really nice people.The music also shares similarities, and people danced the same way as they did in Kobe.”

Nakagawa is almost alone in being essentially a rock musician, but also interested in Japanese old and traditional music. “Young people aren’t generally interested in traditional music, but gradually hopefully they will be. Everyone has that tradition inside them, just like they do in Okinawa or in Ireland. But tradition conveys the image of the emperor, also because America won the war, we all looked to America and thought how fantastic democracy was, and rejected our own tradition. The method for teaching traditional music is so boring, there’s no room for creativity. I don’t like the really decorated voices of traditional music, I just sing from the heart”. Nakagawa doesn’t want to follow any trends, and would like to compare himself in the future to Billy Bragg, Tom Waits or Lou Reed. He also wants to take Soul Flower Mononoke Summit to play concerts in Europe sometime, to introduce Japanese traditional music, and meet different people. “We went to Ireland as well, when we told people we played traditional music they were so interested, they just didn’t think of Japan as having any traditional music”.

Originally published in fRoots 1998