Top 10 Greatest Ever Songs from Asia

A Top 10 that started out as a Far Side Radio show. You can listen to the two programmes here.

Originally on the morning of the first show, I was planning on playing 10 of my personal favourite tunes in one programme. Soon, however, I realised I had numerous versions of many of the songs that came to mind. Then, instead of playing just my personal favourites, it got me wondering just what are, truly, the most popular songs in the region. I wanted to choose songs that were not just massively popular in their own country, but were popular in other countries in Asia, or in some cases around the world. They also have had to stand the test of time, and be popular today. Hopefully these criteria meant I could exclude Gangnam Style!

Eventually, I settled on this list, which is a mixture of some of my favourites and songs that somehow I thought couldn’t be left out. I hadn’t begun by putting them in order, but the more I got engrossed in the theme, the more, even sub-consciously it did become a kind of countdown. However, ranking the songs is purely subjective and wasn’t intended to be definitive. More a bit of fun. So, here we go. The Top 10 Greatest Asian Songs are:


(music: Chen Re Jing lyrics : Yen Huan)

I first heard this song over 20 years ago on some old EMI box sets released in Hong Kong of Shanghai music from the 1930s and 40s. I liked the atmosphere, repetitiveness, the sense of yearning of the song, and also the slightly deeper voice of the singer, compared to other tracks. I didn’t know anything about Bai Kwong (or Bai Guang as she is also known) at the time, but the song stuck in my memory. Years later, the late BBC DJ Charlie Gillett played a version on an album by American guitarist Gary Lucas. I bought the album and later interviewed Gary Lucas for BBC Radio 3 about how he discovered this music. Some time after this, when DJ’ing at a club in London, someone gave me a CDR of some remixes of these old Chinese tunes by the music producer Ian Widgery, who had renamed the track Waiting 4U. These are the three versions on the radio show.

I’m waiting for your return (x2)
I’m thinking of your return (x2)

I wait for your return to make me happy (x2)
Why don’t you return (x2)
I want you to return (x2)

If you don’t return there will be no spring light
If you don’t return hot tears will be all over my face
Up in the rafters the swallows have already returned
In the courtyard spring flowers have already opened up for you
Why don’t you return (x2)
I want you to return (x2)

(usually credited as ‘traditional’ but sometimes credited to Ros Sereysothea)

Travelling around Cambodia about 15 years ago, I became a bit obsessed (as I usually do) with finding local record shops. I was attracted to some great looking covers on a series of CDs and soon got to recognise the faces and names; Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea were both particularly omnipresent. Back in the UK I spent hours listening to the 30 or 40 titles I’d bought, and this is one of the songs I liked. At the time there wasn’t much information about them, although that subsequently changed with in-depth articles appearing in the Observer Music Monthly and elsewhere. This song was featured in the Matt Dillon film City of Ghosts, and when Dengue Fever from Los Angeles released their first record, this was one of the tracks they covered. You can hear both on the radio show.

This year, I’m 16… This year I’m 16
There are no worries
fa la la la
Life is like flowers,
giving off a nice scent
fa la la la la la la la

This year, I’m 16… This year I’m 16
There are no worries
fa la la la
What is love?
Is it bitter, sour, or sweet?
fa la la la la la la la


(traditional Korean folk song)
I can’t remember when I first heard Arirang, but it was in Japan where it is also a well known song. Some Japanese minyo or folk singers, like Takio Ito, used to sing it in Japanese, as did Soul Flower Union and Mononoke Summit, that you can hear on the radio show. I once had an album called Arirang in North and South Korea with about ten different versions. It seems this folk song is one of the few things that unites North and South Korea. There are hundreds of versions of it, it’s like the unofficial national anthem of Korea. Arirang is a mountain pass, although different versions place it in different geographical locations. This video is by the singer I played on the radio, Ja Sa Ik.

Arirang, Arirang, Arariyo
Crossing over Arirang Pass
You who abandoned me here
Will not walk even ten li before your feet hurt

Just as there are many stars in the clear sky
There are also many dreams in our heart

There, over there that mountain is Baekdu Mountain
Where, even in the middle of winter days, flowers bloom


(music and lyrics, Gesang)

This is another song I first heard in Japan where it is also well known. I was lucky enough to see the singer and composer, Gesang, perform it live in Tokyo. It’s about the Solo river that flows through Gesang’s hometown of Surakarta. I was working at JVC in Tokyo when Gesang recorded his album in the Victor Studio although at the time, 1994, I didn’t realise the significance. It’s the song I probably have most versions of. Just a quick look through my CD racks and iTunes library I came across about 20 different ones, and a whole album of covers. It’s also well known in China and an English language version of it (sometimes called By the River of Love) was sung by Hong Kong singer Rebecca Pan and was included in the Wong Kar Wai film, In the Mood for Love.

Bengawan Solo, this is a song of your history
People have been fascinated with this great river since ancient times
In the dry season, your waters are shallow, and in the rainy season, your water overflows till far
Around the source of the Solo River, there are a thousand mountains
And the river flows all the way to the sea

There are always many merchants on board ships going up and down the river
These ships also show your history


(music and lyrics, Shoukichi Kina)

I first became aware of this song, or to be precise, the album it was on when I was living in London at the end of the 80s. That’s because Ry Cooder had played on the album Bloodline by Shoukichi Kina from Okinawa, but virtually no one had actually heard it. One of the first things I did when I went to Japan for the first time in 1989 was to go and buy it. Immediately this track stood out. Apart from the melody, it was the heartbreakingly beautiful vocals by Tomoko Kina. I soon went to Okinawa to meet and interview Shoukichi, a memorable experience in itself. Around this time in the early 90s, the popularity of Hana (the full title is Subete no Kokoro ni Hana o, in English A Flower for Everyone’s Heart) started to spread more within Japan and around the world. Numerous covers appeared in Japan, Asia and Malagasy group Tarika Sammy recorded it on the Henry Kaiser, David Lindley project, A World Out of Time. It’s today an Okinawan staple. Kina has recorded numerous versions and just about every Okinawan musician seems to have recorded it. An insider on the Bloodline album once told me that Kina based it on Peter, Paul and Mary’s Where Have All the Flower’s Gone? That kind of makes sense, but I prefer to think it as having a bit more of Okinawa at its heart.

Rivers are flowing, where oh where do they go?
People are flowing too, where oh where do they go?
About the time when flow arrives somewhere
As flowers, as flowers I want to let them bloom

Cry as much as you can, laugh all you want
Someday, one day, someday, one day, the flowers will be made to bloom


(traditional Malay folk song)

Rasa Sayang is a song I feel like I’ve heard forever. I wanted to include a song from Malaysia and I’m a big fan of P.Ramlee and Saloma but couldn’t really settle on one particular song. Rasa Sayang is popular throughout the region, particularly Indonesia and Singapore. So much so, that there is dispute as to the origins of the song, with much consternation caused in Indonesia when the Malaysian Tourist Board used it in a TV commercial. With that in mind, on the radio I played an old version from Indonesia, Singaporean Dick Lee’s version from 1989 and a recent version by Hanie Soraya from Malaysia.

I’ve got that loving feeling, hey!
I’ve got that loving feeling, hey!
See that girl in the distance
I’ve got that loving feeling hey!

The cempedak fruit is outside the fence
Take a pole and poke it down
I’m just a new guy trying to learn
So if I’m wrong then please tell me

Pandan Island far in midst
With the three peaked Mount Daik
While the body decomposes in earth
Good deeds remain to be remembered

Two or three cats are running around
With the striped one which can vie
Two or three I can find
Which man can compare with you

Pisang emas brought on a sailing trip
One ripens on a box
If gold is owed, it can be repaid
But if it is gratitude, it is carried to the grave


(music; Weng Ching-hsi, lyrics; Sun Yi)

The most famous version of this song, is sung by Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng. If there is one artist who was popular throughout Eastern Asia it would be her. Personally I prefer some of her other songs, but this one is probably her most popular. It’s also one of the most popular songs in China, Chinese speaking countries and communities around the world. There’s something about these sentimental ballads that appeals in most countries in Asia; Japanese enka, Korean trot and Thai lukthung. This song is one of the ultimate examples.

You ask me how deep my love for you is
How much I really love you
My affection is real
My love is real
The moon represents my heart

You ask me how deep my love for you is
How much I really love you
My affection does not waver
My love will not change.
The moon represents my heart

Just one soft kiss
is enough to move my heart
A period of time when our affection was deep
Has made me miss you until now

You ask me how deep my love for you is
How much I really love you

Go think about it
Go and have a look
The moon represents my heart


(music and lyrics, Kazufumi Miyazawa)

I can remember quite clearly when I first heard this song. I was in Okinawa, at the house of local musician Shoukichi Kina, and Kazufumi Miyazawa of the Boom and his manager came to see Shoukichi. The Boom’s Okinawan inspired song, Shima Uta was a hit in Okinawa at the time and the band had arrived to play a concert that night. The manager played it on a little CD player. I thought it was good but didn’t realise it’s greatness and significance at the time. It was only a few months later when I started hearing it in convenience stores or in the public bath, it dawned that the song had reached the mainstream and had entered the public consciousness as well as mine. It went on to sell 1.5 million copies and brought Okinawan music to the masses. It’s since been covered numerous times, including several overseas versions. The most significant of these was probably in Argentina by rock musician Alfredo Casero. It was adopted by the Argentina football team for the World Cup song in 2002 when it was staged in Japan/Korea.

The deigo flowers began to bloom, and the wind began to blow, and the storm came

The deigo flowers were in full bloom, and the wind was blowing, and the storm had come
My recurring sadness is like a wave that crosses the islands

I met you in a forest of sugarcane
Under the sugarcane, we parted forever

Island song, ride the wind, with the birds, cross the sea
Island song, ride the wind, and carry with you my tears

The deigo flowers blossoms have fallen, and there is only the rippling of the sea
Our small happiness was a momentary flower on the foamy waves

Oh, my friend, who sang in the forest of sugarcane!
Under the sugarcane, we parted forever

Island song, ride the wind, with the birds, cross the sea
Island song, ride the wind, and carry with you my love

Oh sea, oh universe, oh God, oh life
let this evening calm continue forever!

Island song, ride the wind, with the birds, cross the sea
Island song, ride the wind, and carry with you my tears
Island song, ride the wind, with the birds, cross the sea
Island song, ride the wind, and carry with you my love

La, la, la…



I probably first heard this song on a Surapol Sumbatcharoen compilation but it didn’t register at the time. I took notice when it was in the wonderful film Monrak Transistor, and then would hear it on other albums of Lukthung. It’s a genre of music I love, and while personally there are other songs I probably like a bit more, I can’t argue with the popularity and influence of this song. It was later featured in the Danish / French film, Only God Forgives.

Won’t forget, won’t forget and won’t fade; like the moon that paired up with the sky
Won’t forget the flavour of the love that you’d ever entrust upon me
Won’t forget the past that we had ever passed through
Till the end of life, I would also not forget

(Won’t forget, won’t forget, won’t forget, won’t forget, won’t forget, won’t forget.)

Won’t forget, won’t forget and won’t fade, throughout the months and years
Won’t forget our love that was ever happy
Won’t forget the dreams we had before this
No matter how many months or years, I’ll also not forget

(Won’t forget, won’t forget, won’t forget.)


(music; Hachidai Nakamura, lyrics; Rokusuke Ei)

I don’t know about now, but when I was living in Japan in the 1990s, the holy grail for some Japanese artists was to have a Number 1 record in the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. A lot of the big J-pop stars of the day, such as Seiko Matsuda, Dreams Come True, Utada Hikaru, were all promoted by their record companies in the US at different times,sometimes with an ill-advised English language version of an album, a big budget video or a big name American producer. More often that not, these attempts ended in failure. Why they failed was a question I was often asked as a British music journalist working in Japan. Perhaps they should have learnt from Kyu Sakamoto’s Sukiyaki that still remains today, the only Japanese record to have been a US Number 1, in 1963. Firstly, it’s a great song Secondly, it was brilliantly recorded. Thirdly, it’s sung in Japanese. Contrary to popular belief that doesn’t mean it can’t be a hit. What did make a difference however, was calling it Sukiyaki (by a British record company), a title that had no connection to the song at all. In Japanese it’s called Ue o Muite Aruko (I Look Up as I Walk). There’s been load of cover versions over the years. On the radio show is a little known version by the US group Brave Combo. Sukiyaki remains as probably the most famous song to come out of Japan.

I look up as I walk
So that the tears won’t fall
Remembering those spring days
But I am all alone tonight
I look up as I walk
Counting the stars with tears in my eyes
Remembering those summer days
But I am all alone tonight

Happiness lies beyond the clouds
Happiness lies up above the sky

I look up as I walk
So that the tears won’t fall
Though the tears well up as I walk
For tonight I’m all alone

Remembering those autumn days
But I am all alone tonight

Sadness lies in the shadow of the stars
Sadness lurks in the shadow of the moon

I look up as I walk
So that the tears won’t fall
Though the tears well up as I walk
For tonight I’m all alone


Rough Guide to the Music of Okinawa

The music of Okinawa has an indefinable island quality. Whether it’s Cuba, Cape Verde, Madagascar, Java, Hawaii or Okinawa, island music is special. A bit like everywhere but totally unlike anywhere. Okinawan music has developed from a unique set of influences down the centuries as local traditions have mingled with those of sea faring and trading nations. As a result of feuding for it’s control and exploitation, the people have endured much suffering and hardship. Throughout, they have remained indefatigable, combining a mellow and genial nature, with a fierce sense of pride and identity. Music has evolved organically until the present day. While Japan’s musical traditions have been largely forgotten or ‘preserved’ by societies, Okinawa is the country’s only surviving enclave with a thriving and living local music rooted in a tradition. Tragic female vocals, shuffling syncopated rhythms and the lonely twang of the snake skinned banjo, the sanshin, can be heard everywhere; on the beaches, in restaurants, shopping malls, and at night musicians perform in numerous bars.

Poetically described as a “knotted rope cast into a distant sea”, the 73 sub-tropical islands of Okinawa Prefecture stretch for over 700 km from Kagoshima (mainland Japan’s southernmost Prefecture) almost to Taiwan. Situated at roughly mid-point is the largest island of Okinawa, a name sometimes used to encompass the whole archipelago, which are otherwise known under it’s original kingdom name, the Ryukyu islands.

Most Japanese might consider Okinawa as rather exotic islands, not exactly foreign, but not exactly Japanese. Get off the plane at Naha, the main port and biggest city and the balmy atmosphere is decidedly south east Asian. To the Okinawans, the islands are very much their own, with a distinct language, culture and music. Islands of sun, sea and sand, but also the sanshin and above all songs. The more recent of their vast repertoire of min’yo (folk songs) they call ‘island songs’ or shima uta.

While Okinawa got left behind as post-war Japan got modernized, westernized, industrialized, and even ‘internationalized’, the popular image of a backward island ‘paradise’ is somewhat fanciful. An island paradox is more accurate. Due to it’s strategic location as an important trading link between Japan, China, and south east Asia, Okinawa has been a melting pot, absorbing more foreign cultures than anywhere else in Japan. While the most notable influences are Chinese and Japanese, the pentatonic scale is identical to that of some areas of Indonesia, and related to Polynesia and Micronesia. In the last 50 years, the American military presence, currently around 50,000, has ensured a strong western influence too.

Music in Okinawa is intrinsically linked to the past. Okinawa’s earliest history is of battling warlords until the 14th century when a unified Kingdom was established. Trading links with China were forged and Okinawa became a tributary state of China, achieving it’s ‘golden age’ of trade during the 15th century. At the heart of Okinawan music is the sanshin, derived from the larger Chinese sanxien, which arrived during this period, initially as an instrument of the Ryukyu nobility. In 1609 Okinawa was invaded by the Satsuma clan of southern Japan, and with them came a relatively modern political system and enforced changes including the levying of harsh taxes. Nevertheless, classical Ryukuan culture flourished. After Commodore Perry arrived in Naha in 1853, Britain, the US, France and Russia all tried to establish trading links with Okinawa. Japan, not wishing to lose it’s share of the cut, sent a force to invade the islands in 1879, afterwhich Okinawa was made a prefecture of Japan proper.

Despite Japanese efforts to suppress Okinawan culture and language, the music entered a new and important phase. Many of the now disbanded Okinawan nobility had become competent musicians. Forced to pay their own way, some moved to different areas of the islands to teach the local communities. Folk traditions were given a new lease of life, and on some of the outer islands, previously unaccompanied working songs, a sanshin accompaniment. Original songs were composed which gave rise to the modern day shima uta.

Towards the end of 19th century, mainly due to poverty, many Okinawans emigrated to Hawaii, Brazil, south east Asia and to the Kansai region of Western Japan. They didn’t leave their music behind and instead composed songs of emigration, including the island’s first major figure of shima uta, Choki Fukuhara. He established Marafuku Records, Okinawa’s first and most important record company, originally in Osaka in 1926. Even today many of Okinawa’s greatest musicians were born in Kansai.

Shima uta developed further as the people’s music, at all night beach revelries or mo-ashibi, which thrived until the second world war. With the outbreak of war, mo-ashibi were banned, and Okinawa entered it’s most tragic period of history. 150,000 or a third of the population died at the Battle of Okinawa. Using Okinawa as a buffer, many believe the Okinawans were sacrificed by the Japanese to save the mainland.

Under American control from 1945, musicians took the leading role in restoring pride and expressing the feelings of the people. Later a new music scene developed in clubs around the American military bases. These became progressively wilder, especially during the Vietnam war, the return of Okinawa to Japan in 1972 and as the GI’s developed a thirst for other forms of ‘entertainment’.

Most bands played soul, r&b, blues and rock covers, but it didn’t take long for these influences to gradually infiltrate Okinawan music. During the 1970s and 80s, the mixtures got more radical, and with Okinawa now part of Japan again, Japanese musicians started to mix Okinawan with western music.

At the beginning of the 1990s, Japanese record companies took the lead role in introducing Okinawan music to the mainland, as part of the burgeoning world music scene. which helped to revitalize the local music scene. Some musicians opened their own clubs, mainly to perform for an ever increasing Japanese tourist clientele. Japanese/Okinawan collaborations in some form, became the norm, as not only rock, but jazz and Japanese traditions became part of the mix, without the music ever losing it’s Okinawan identity.

As new trends evolve these too have been absorbed into Okinawan music, while at the beginning of this century, there is renewed interest on the mainland in the traditional music. This was spawned by the death in 1999 of Rinsho Kadekaru, one of Okinawa’s greatest musicians. and the hit movie “Nabbie no Koi”, that featured Kadekaru along with several other notable elder musicians, including Seijin Noborikawa who had a starring role.

This Rough Guide contains most of the spectrum of Okinawan music. Traditional songs are performed by both legendary and younger musicians, with sanshin, vocals, and usually the accompaniment of taiko drums and sanba (castanets). Other tracks are of Okinawan and Japanese collaborations on both traditional and original songs in a mixture of styles and instrumentation. Elsewhere, Japanese musicians perform their own take on Okinawan music, with the occasional input of the many western musicians who have become entranced with the music of Okinawa.


There was a no more revered figure in Okinawan music than the ‘Godfather’ of shima uta, Rinsho Kadekaru. With his slightly husky voice, pristine sanshin playing and whimsical character he entertained and inspired Okinawans for over 60 years. Born in Goeko, Okinawa, on July 4th 1920, Kadekaru began playing sanshin at the age of seven. By the time he was 15 he had started to participate in his village’s mo-ashibi parties, at which he first gained a reputation, before moving to Osaka for a few years. He was conscripted into the military during the war, after which he stayed on the Micronesian islands of Saipan and Tinian returning to Okinawa in 1949. His reputation had not been forgotten and he became one of the pivotal figures in the post-war Okinawa min’yo boom. Kadekaru recorded nearly 250 songs for local record labels, more than any other Okinawan musician. Koko Kuduchi is a duet with one of Kadekaru’s contemporaries, Seijin Noborikawa (track 16 ) and was originally released as a single in 1974 on the Okinawan label Marafuku, when Kadekaru was probably in his prime as a musician. Kuduchi is a type of song whereby the lyrics, sung in talking style, tell stories of people’s lives. Rinsho Kadekaru died in October 1999, aged 79.


Before Nenes, there was another female quartet; Four Sisters. These four real sisters (Chieko, Sadako, Kumiko and Midori) got back together after more than twenty years to record this song, taken from the youngest sister, Chieko Iha’s 1998 solo album. She started performing from the age of eight, and with her sisters had several local hits on the Marafuku label. After Four Sisters disbanded in 1974, Iha continued to record as a solo artist under the guidance of Tsuneo Fukuhara, the prolific songwriter, producer and owner of Marafuku Records. Shima Jima Kaisha (Beautiful Islands) is one of Tsuneo Fukuhara’s and Okinawa’s best loved songs, and features the composer on sanshin together with the Kurikorder Quartet, a group of top Japanese session musicians playing a variety of recorders.


Born in 1952, Takashi Hirayasu lived a double life as a young musician. He was a session player at Marafuku Records playing Okinawan traditional music with artists such as Four Sisters (track 2) while at the same time playing rock, soul and r&b covers in clubs in Koza for the American military. It proved to be the perfect training for his later career as guitarist with Shokichi Kina and Champloose, for whom he wrote and arranged much material. On going solo, his first album mixed up Okinawan music with a wide range of world influences, while a meeting with American guitarist Bob Brozman broadened his mind further. Hirayasu’s sanshin and vocals and Brozman’s Hawaiian and National steel guitar, blended together with intuitive ease on their first album “Jin Jin”, mainly traditional Okinawan songs for children, including Chon Chon Kijimuna, about a friendly tree spirit who can fly. The album became the best ever selling Okinawan album overseas. The two have since collaborated on an eclectic range of styles and with a growing number of musicians both live and on their latest album, “Nankuru Naisa”.


Formed in 1986, Shisars didn’t record their first album for another ten years but it was an album worth waiting for. Akemi Mochida and Yoshie Uno, (original member Jun Yasuba went on to form An-Chang Project) were joined by Natsuki Hattori on guitar, and guests including Wataru Ohkuma on clarinet (of Cicala Mvta) on the album “Kuwa no Shita de Biiru” that pushed the edges of Okinawan music toward the outer limits. Mochida and Uno, both from Japan, learnt songs from Tokyo resident Okinawans and from travelling to the outer islands of Okinawa. Psychedelic guitar and honking brass accompanied mainly Okinawan traditional songs, with harmonious, slightly quirky vocals. For their second album, released in April 2001 “Da Hua Gu”, Shisars jumble up the styles with even more zest. Itta Anma Makaiga ~ Karabato is a medley of two songs taken from this latest album, and are traditional children’s songs featuring Ohkuma, Hattori and Shinya Kimura on drums and percussion.


Misako Ohshiro was born in Osaka in 1936, although she grew up in Nago, in the northern part of the main Okinawan island. She started to learn music from the age of six and perform when she was nine. Initially encouraged by Tsuneo Fukuhara, she studied sanshin under Teihan China, the father of Sadao China. With her expressive voice she is sometimes regarded as the female equivalent of Rinsho Kadekaru, with whom she was a regular collaborator. Uranami Bushi was written by Okinawa’s first major figure of shima uta, Choki Fukuhara, also founder of Marafuku Records. Marafuku released records by all the greats of Okinawan music in the post war Okinawan min’yo ‘boom’. The original Marafuku still survives, although his son, Tsuneo Fukuhara started a separate company, also called Marafuku (but distinguished by a different logo) to carry on the tradition of his father.


Music runs deep in many families, none more so than the Kadekaru household. Rinji Kadekaru was born in 1956, and grew up listening to his father Rinsho (track 1). His voice and sanshin style is remarkably similar to his father, and in addition Rinji is a fine violin player which he also plays on this track. Jidai no Nagare (The Passage of Time) is one of the songs most associated with Rinsho Kadekaru who wrote the text. It tells the history of Okinawa, passed from one power to another, ‘From the rule of China to Yamato (Japan), From Yamato to America, Our Okinawa was changing hands rapidly, Our Okinawa isn’t what it used to be in the old days’. Rinji Kadekaru is accompanied by the BC Street Band with N’Naru Horns, a mixture of Okinawan and Japanese musicians playing brass instruments, electric guitar, bass and drums.


Sarabange is the latest, project of Kenji Yano, also responsible for The Surf Champlers (track 18), and Okinawan singer Sachiko Shima. Born in Osaka in 1961, Yano attended university in Okinawa, after which he became the guitarist with Rokunin Gumi, who combined Okinawan music and rock with a rare gusto. Still remembered for their powerful live shows, the group never recorded an album. Yano worked as a studio musician and engineer in Tokyo, before moving back to Okinawa. Sarabange combines Yano’s keyboards and stringed instruments with the min’yo style vocals of Sachiko Shima in music that they dubbed as “Okinawan Trance Music.” The two had first collaborated on an Hawaiian/ Okinawan crossover album, “Sons of Ailana” in 1995. Both Yano and Shima have recently worked with Tetsuhiro Daiku, and on music for television documentaries.


Misako Koja is best known as the former vocal leader of the female quartet Nenes (track 17) but has continually proved her prowess as a solo artist. She was born in 1954 in Kadena, near to Koza. She began learning sanshin when she was six from a relative, and then from Koutoku Tsuha and Setsuko Ishihara. She made her first recording when she was nine for Marafuku Records, and performed live from this time. She gained more prominence in Japan and overseas as part of the “Okinawan Chans”, three female vocalists who performed and recorded with Ryuichi Sakamoto toward the end of the 1980s (together with Yoriko Ganeko and Kazumi Tamaki) and toured in Europe and America. When Sadao China, put together Nenes in 1990 he chose Koja to lead the group, and so began a five year association that saw Nenes become one of Okinawa’s best known groups in Japan, and tour and record overseas. Leaving the Nenes fold at the same time to work with Koja was Nenes co-producer and keyboard player Kazuya Sahara, who had been partly responsible for shaping the Nenes sound. Warabi Gami, written by Sahara, was Koja’s first post Nenes single, exclusively sold at her concerts, and is heading toward status as a modern classic of Okinawan music.


Tetsuhiro Daiku was born in 1949 on Ishigaki Island, the most populated of the Yaeyama islands. A mentor of Yukichi Yamazato, Daiku moved to the main Okinawan island port city of Naha when he was nineteen. He won several prizes for his sanshin and fue (flute) playing and a national NHK (the public broadcasting corporation) min’yo competition. He made several albums mainly for local record labels, before in 1991, his career took a unexpected twist after meeting Japanese saxophone player Kazutoki Umezu. The two collaborated with an ever growing number of other musicians on cello, percussion, guitar, clarinet, and chindon (a Japanese drum used for street performances), on a series of groundbreaking albums. Other groups have since been influenced by the original vision first heard on Daiku’s albums, including Osaka’s Soul Flower Union. As well as being one of Okinawa’s most respected musicians, Daiku is also one of the most traveled, having toured in South America, Africa and Europe. This traditional working song from Yaeyama features the trademark call and response vocals, provided here by Tsundalers, a trio of female singers that includes Daiku’s wife Naiko, with Kazutoki Umezu on sax and bass clarinet.

Tetsuhiro Daiku

Tetsuhiro Daiku


Akanars (The Sunsets) are a quartet of female singers, aged 19 when they recorded this song. They studied traditional min’yo under Tetsuo Uehara. Go-Go Chimbora is a popular traditional song, originally titled Umi nu Chinbora, from the island of Ie, west of the Motobu Peninsula on the main Okinawan island. Chinbora is the name of a type of conch shell, although the eventual meaning in this song developed slightly erotic connotations, after it became popular in the ‘pleasure quarters’ of Naha. Originally, a slow min’yo tune, it was performed at a faster tempo as an accompaniment to a dance. This high speed version features various Japanese musicians including Yoshiki Sakurai on guitar and Takero Sekijma on trumpet both of Strada and Cicala Mvta.


Rikki (full name Ritsuki Nakano) was born in 1975 on Amami island, now officially a part of Kagoshima, the southernmost prefecture of mainland Japan. Situated half way between the mainland of Japan and Okinawa, the traditional music of Amami, has received a corresponding mixture of influences from it’s larger neighbours. As on the mainland, min’yo is played in a minor scale, the sanshin is tuned differently to the Okinawan main island, giving a brighter tone and the singing is in a falsetto style. Something of a child prodigy, Rikki was born into a musical family and started singing shima uta from the age of four. She appeared at the Japan min’yo award show in Kagoshima at just five years old, winning the same award the following year and for next six years until 1988. Two years later, she captured the All Japan Min’yo award at the unprecedented age of 15. She first performed in Tokyo in 1992 and her first record was released by a major Japanese label in 1993. In 1995 she worked with one of Japan’s premier champions of Asian music, producer Makoto Kubota on her third album, that included Asian influences and reggae. She has also performed and recorded with the Boom (track 15) and Japanese singer Sandii, including at the MIDEM conference in Cannes, France. This track is one of the most well known songs on Amami, and features the sanshin of her mentor Shunzo Tsukiji.




Despite his age, Yasukatsu Ohshima, born in 1969 in Shiraho on Ishigaki island, Yaeyama, is one of Okinawa’s finest interpreters of traditional songs. He also has a penchant for writing his own tunes, including “Akai Ura”, that are nevertheless steeped in tradition. Situated over 400 kilometers south-west of the main Okinawan island, much closer to Taiwan, the music of the Yaeyama group of islands is unique within Okinawa, including in scale and vocal technique, sharing a stronger link to south east Asia. Originally, working songs (Yunta and Jiraba) would be sung call and response style, usually while working in the fields. The sanshin was incorporated into the music only about 100 years ago, until this time, being an unaffordable luxury to most of the 50,000 population, kept poor by oppressive taxes levied upon them by the Japanese and Okinawan governments. The eventual end of the taxation during the feudalistic era, became a catalyst for the development of Yaeyama min’yo. Ohshima learnt from listening to his grandfather playing sanshin at home, and didn’t consider a career in music until he moved to Tokyo when he was 20. Virtually self taught on the sanshin, the vast repertoire of songs he had heard growing up remained deep in his psyche and he developed his own way of singing, not strictly Yaeyama traditional, but in his own decorative style.

Yasukatsu Oshima

Yasukatsu Oshima


Ryukyu Underground is UK born Keith Gordon and American Jon Taylor, who met in Okinawa in 1998. Sharing an interest in Okinawan and contemporary dance music, they decided to collaborate to produce a radical new mixture by combining Okinawan traditional min’yo with elements of ambient, drum ‘n’ bass, hip-hop, jungle, dub and electronica. As yet unreleased, Tinsaga nu Hana Dub features the vocals of Naomi Ohshiro, Toshio Tamanaha on sanshin, and the voice of the compiler of this CD unwittingly sampled from the radio. Tinsagu nu Hana is one of Okinawa’s most popular children’s songs, describing the duties of children to their parents, “We paint our nails with balsam flowers, the words of our parents dye our minds”.


Kyoto born Donto, who died in January 2000 aged 37, first came to prominence as guitarist and singer with group Rosa Luxembourg and later Bo Gumbos who played Bo-Diddley inspired New Orleans style music. In 1995 Donto was part of a unit “Uminosachi” that recorded a wacky blend of Indonesian, Indian and Okinawan music. He relocated to Okinawa, where he took up the sanshin, and recorded three solo albums. Whatever he turned his hand to, Donto did so with his own unique style, intelligence and humour. “Jin Jin” (Firefly) is an unreleased recording of a well known traditional song, performed by Shokichi Kina, Takashi Hirayasu and others, and features his partner Sachiho, formerly of the group Zelda, on backing vocals.


It is difficult to overestimate the effect on Okinawan music that the Boom’s number one, 1.5 million selling single “Shima Uta” had in 1993. Even today, this is perhaps the best known “Okinawan” song in Japan. Although interest in Okinawan music had swelled on the mainland from the end of 1980s, it was the Boom that brought the sanshin and Okinawan influenced music to the masses. The Boom’s singer and songwriter Kazufumi Miyazawa had encountered Okinawan music through spending time there, and recorded and performed live with various musicians including Shokichi Kina, Rikki and Yoriko Ganeko. Later influences on the Boom’s music would include Indonesian and Brazilian music, but Okinawa has remained a constant element in their increasingly eclectic mixtures. “Tida Akara Nami Kirara” was originally released as a limited edition single in Okinawa, for the “Sanshin 3000” event in 1995, where it was performed in a stadium by Kazufumi Miyazawa, various Okinawan musicians and 3000 sanshin players. The single soon became a rare item, available generally for the first time on this album.


After the death of Rinsho Kadekaru, perhaps Seijin Noborikawa stands as the island’s most loved and respected elder musician. Noborikawa (or “Seigwa” as he is often referred to) equally stands alone, not easily fitting into the ‘traditional’ musician category. He doesn’t usually dress in kimono, doesn’t only sing traditional repertoire but composes his own, anti-war and other protest songs, developed his own six string sanshin, the ‘rokushin’ and is known as the Okinawan ‘Jimi Hendrix’. Born in Hyogo Prefecture in Japan in 1930, he moved back to Okinawa as a child. A sanshin player from childhood he performed as a backing musician for a theatre group, where he perfected the traditional style and first met Rinsho Kadekaru, an association that would last a lifetime. Noborikawa later worked on an American base where he heard and digested the American hit songs of the day, an influence that gradually crept into his own music. Nevertheless, he was one of the founding members and later president of a traditional music society, and taught the sanshin to a 12 year old Sadao China. Despite his standing, perhaps overshadowed by Kadekaru and other traditional singers, he released relatively few albums. It was only after his starring role in the 1999 film “Nabbie no Koi” (Nabbie’s Love) that his fame spread to the rest of Japan. His album released in 2001,”Spiritual Unity” was produced by Takashi Nakagawa of Soul Flower Union, who along with his band mates play on some of the songs, including guitar and the Japanese chindon drum on “Naritai Bushi”, a recent Noborikawa composition.


Of all the Okinawan artists during the 1990s, Nenes championed the cause of Okinawan roots music in Japan with probably more success than anyone else, while making some inroads overseas. Originally intended to make Okinawan min’yo accessible to young Okinawans, Nenes were brought together by Sadao China, who had first combined Okinawan music with pop elements on his 1977 local hit, “Bye, Bye, Okinawa”. With Nenes, China took a backseat role as producer and songwriter, where he was able to expand that vision further and with greater effect. The unison voices of Misako Koja, Yasuko Yoshida, Yukino Hiyane and Namiko Miyazato were combined with China’s sanshin, over a backing of guitars, drums, percussion, bass and perhaps most notably, the keyboards of co-producer Kazuya Sahara. It was a winning formula, first heard on the 1991 album “Ikawu”, now a seminal album of Okinawan music. During the next 10 years Nenes released another 6 original albums, varying the influences to include reggae, Brazilian, Hawaiian and Indonesian music, some staying closer to the tradition than others. Recording locations included Indonesia, Hawaii and Los Angeles, and recording guests Ry Cooder, David Lindley and David Hidalgo. Misako Koja (track 8) left Nenes in 1995, and was replaced by Eriko Touma, the subsequent line-up disbanding in 1999. This version of Umkaji, a Sadao China composition originally on their second album, ‘Yunta”, was recorded live at one of their last concerts, and is a rare recording of all five of Nenes singers together.


The ever inventive Kenji Yano released one of Okinawa’s most extraordinary albums in 1995. Under the pseudonym of The Surf Champlers, he combined Okinawan traditional and surf music on the album “Champloo a Go Go” released on a local label. Whereas he’s playing sanshin on a western tune on “James Bond Theme” included on the Rough Guide to Japan, Toshin Doi is a traditional tune played surf style on guitar with keyboards and other backing instruments. One of Okinawa’s best known tunes, Toshin Doi is performed often as a rousing finale, at concerts, parties and celebrations. The song takes it name from Toshin, the ship that traded with China when Okinawa was an independent kingdom. A hazardous journey, it’s safe return would be rejoiced at by the Okinawans.

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Kazufumi Miyazawa – fRoots April 2003

My first trip to Japan in a year, after ten years of living there, and I’m immediately reminded why I like it. First I’m inquired of by customs, ever so politely, that it hadn’t accidentally slipped my mind to declare those firearms, drugs and pornography I might be carrying. Within a whisker, six people are loading my suitcase onto the 10:30 am ‘Friendly Limousine Bus’ and bowing in unison as we head off to downtown Tokyo. I confidently adjust my watch to 10:30. God, this country is efficient.

After a few days grappling with the urban jungles of Tokyo and Yokohama, I feel ready for a trip to the countryside. I’m also ready to see some music, and hear that the Boom are playing in Toyama, about five hours north west of Tokyo on the Sea of Japan. Two birds, one stone. The singer of the Boom, Kazufumi Miyazawa has recently released his third solo album, just issued in the UK (through Stern’s) titled Deeper Than Oceans. Although somewhat known in Brazil and Argentina, and other parts of Asia, perhaps finally Miyazawa is on his way to receiving recognition in Europe. For over ten years in Japan, he’s been a kind of Paul Simon, David Byrne and Peter Gabriel figure rolled into one, bringing various unknown music from around the world to the Japanese masses.


To get to Toyama, I have to board the shinkansen (bullet train). Even at such high speeds, the metropolis of Tokyo disappears slowly. Passing through an endless succession of tunnels cut through the mountains, we eventually emerge into open countryside. I change trains and get on the ‘Thunderbird’, in a stroke realising one of my childhood dreams.

For their latest tour, the Boom are playing at small towns and villages on open air, or specially constructed outdoor stages. “Delivering music to the people” is what Miyazawa calls it. Makes a change from the usual antiseptic Shimin Kaikan or city halls that most tours comprise. Last year the Boom had one of their biggest successes ever, with the release of their album Okinawa- Watashi no Shima, continuing their love affair with the island. In 1993, their single Shima Uta sold a million and a half copies, becoming probably Japan’s best known ‘Okinawan’ song. Somewhat bizarrely last year 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 beleaguered (yes!) Argentinean football team at last year’s World Cup.

Much Music

Such rare success of a Japanese song overseas became big news in Japan, and by a fate of timing, the album was released at the same time, featuring a new version of Shima Uta and other Okinawan influenced songs.

After a long bus journey from Toyama, I eventually reach the outdoor stage, in a park on the outskirts of the city, just in time for the start. To say Miyazawa has the audience in the palm of his hands is an understatement. They stand up when he stands up. They sit down when he sits down. They wave their hands when he waves his. At one point Miyazawa stands on his head. There are limitations I learn, but nevertheless Miyazawa has in abundance what I can only describe as natural charisma.

Two hours of greatest hits, and a fair smattering of Okinawan songs later, the show ends in a tumultuous finale. The whole exhausted entourage, eleven musicians and at least as many staff, retire to a Toyama restaurant. Miyazawa is clearly shattered. Today was a national holiday, he’s been touring incessantly, recording, acting in a TV drama, writing essays, books, travelling, but still graciously accepts my request for an interview. Together with two of his personal managers, we sit ourselves down at a table tucked away from the larger group, promising to be back before the main courses arrive.

I begin by asking how he first got interested in Okinawan music. “There weren’t many opportunities to listen to Okinawan music in Japan when I first started to get interested in it, so I asked friends who went to Okinawa to get some tapes for me. 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, the same rhythm throughout, and I thought it was very similar to reggae. That was about thirteen years ago in 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 form 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.”

In 1999 he 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. “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 create orthodox music of top quality, as if I had ordered a tailored suit for myself which fitted me perfectly.”

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.”

Miyazawa and his new Brazilian friends performed in Japan and Brazil. His fans lapped it up, but Afrosick didn’t manage to popularise Brazilian music in Japan, in the same way he had succeeded with the Boom. As a solo artist he was still to forge his own identity as a Japanese musician playing essentially Brazilian music. Instead it sometimes sounded like Brazilian music, just sung in Japanese.

Deeper Than Oceans probably realises 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.”

Deeper Than Oceans 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.”

Miyazawa believes his latest solo album is probably his best suited for an international audience. ” 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.”

He is planning to tour in Europe later this year, having performed at a festival in Spain last year. “I like this unit of musicians very much and would like to do concerts with them in Japan as well as in Europe, but I might need to make a solo album every year with them as the circle of the Japanese music scene is very fast. It might be different in Europe, where people seem to think of what they are doing in a longer term. I want to be well prepared anyway, to always have a permanent unit to play with in Europe when I am offered any chances. I also have to think of the Boom too of course, and a ‘Best of’ was released last year in Argentina. The fact that Shima Uta was such as big hit in Argentina, while sung in Japanese, gave us some confidence that we don’t always have to sing in English.”

Suddenly realizing my promise that this would be a short interview, we return to the main table where everyone is still waiting patiently. Probably never before has the end of an fRoots interview been greeted with such a collective sigh of relief.

Next day my shinkansen arrives back in Tokyo about one minute late for which we receive a gracious apology over the train’s loudspeaker system. Two days later I arrive back at Heathrow to find the Underground isn’t running due to flooding. I decide to take a bus. While queuing up a bus driver comes up to me. “Have you got the time, mate?”. My watch may be nine hours ahead, but at least the minutes are still pretty accurate from my first morning in Japan. The bus driver adjusts his watch. I can’t but help feel there was a certain amount of irony attached to that simple question. Eventually the bus departs nearly an hour late.

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Kazufumi Miyazawa – The Conversation, Tokyo Journal, Feb. 1996

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..


The Conversation:

Kazufumi Miyazawa
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?

That’s right.

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.