City Pop: The Forgotten Soundtrack To Japan’s Economic Miracle
The story of how a hedonistic genre of 80s disco-funk-jazz born in Japan was forgotten and then rehabilitated, with the help of the internet.
She was fifty-nine then, strapped in her seat as the huge 777 plunged through the dense cloud cover on approach to Heathrow Airport. Drizzle hung between the city’s tall towers and mingled with exhaust fumes, making everything look gloomy. So — England again.
When the plane had landed, an old tune from her hometown which had recently resurfaced on the other side of the world, drifted over the cabin speakers. Sparkle, by Tatsuro Yamashita. That sunny, optimistic melody never failed to send a shudder through her, but this time it hit her harder than ever. She looked out at the dark clouds, thinking of all that she had lost in her life: times gone forever, friends who had died or disappeared, feelings she would never know again.
As the plane taxied to the gate and the other passengers began unbuckling their seatbelts, she was back in Shibuya. She could smell the street food, feel the excited rush of people all around her, hear their voices. She could almost see the flashing lights and the barrage of brand names — Japanese and Western — which they illuminated. Autumn 1991, and soon she would be thirty.
At the exact moment that our melancholic Japanese protagonist was landing at Heathrow, an upbeat English writer called James Eldred was entering a Tokyo record shop. Over the past few years of living there, he had become an expert on the record stores of the greater Tokyo area. Today he was looking for 80s Japanese City Pop, and this record shop specialised in 80s music. He was hopeful.
But when he read out a list of artists he was after, who he had heard people raving about on the internet — Hitomi Tohyama, Junko Ohyashi, Yurie Kokubu… the owner began to laugh.
‘No-one care about those artist!’ he chuckled. He explained that not only did nobody care about them now, but they never had. They had been one-hit wonders, at best. Now their music, as far as the record shop owner was concerned, was lost to time — and better for it.
James Eldred had heard about these artists from internet publications with a readership based in Europe and the USA, and on a compilation of City Pop called Tokyo Nights, again, released for the benefit for Europeans and Americans. He had assumed the compilations contained Japan’s most treasured musical output from the 80s. In fact, the artists it contained were the Japanese equivalents of Las Ketchup.
As a result of sustained post-war industrial investment and state planning on a level that would be dismissed as socialism these days, the country is in financial dreamland. Most of the money is coming from exports of high-quality technology made by companies like Sony and Panasonic, and cars made by Toyota, Nissan and Honda.
The wave of economic success has generated a new class of Japanese citizens. They dwell in city centers, can afford to buy imports of the few things Japan can’t make — like champagne — and have magnificent stereos in their cars. Theirs is the best standard of living in the world.
This is the environment, and attitude, from which City Pop springs. The young beneficiaries of the economic boom need something to listen to on their car stereos which chimes with the laid-back, optimistic vibe of their lives. City Pop, a hedonistic fusion of Disco, Funk and Jazz, is just the thing. Swinging beats and jazzy, synthesized soundscapes. Music made for dancing and driving; perfect for night-time cruising through central Tokyo. Drifting past the tapestry of bright, colorful lights which blur into one another outside the car window, along wide streets lined with lavish restaurants, under huge, dazzling billboards; everyone on their way somewhere, the world full of promise.
In 1992, Japan’s asset price bubble burst. The stock market and housing prices had become massively inflated, due to over-confidence brought about by decades of growth and success. Japanese people had to rein in their spending and, like the economy, their lives became less voracious. The eighties gave way to a Lost Decade. The economy stagnated, workers worked harder for less, and public displays of wealth were frowned on. City Pop disappeared from Tokyo.
Mere months before Japan’s ephemeral economic miracle faded from reality, something else was born. The first internet browser, written by Tim Berners Lee while working at CERN, was released to the public in August 1991. While Japan experienced its lost decade, the world slowly learned how to use the internet. In 1994, Aerosmith’s track ‘Head First’ became the first song to be released exclusively for download from the internet. The WAV file was 3 minutes, 14 seconds long and took an hour and a half to download at the time of release.
Jump forward 16 years or so to the 2010s and entire genres are being created with the help of the internet. One of them, Vaporwave — which, true to its name, was only around for a short time — relied heavily on samples of dated Japanese music. City Pop. Before long, Vaporwave connoisseurs were hunting for old Japanese pop music at its source — in the record shops of Tokyo.
Digging through crates of records in dingy rooms, they struck gold. More glorious music full of sparkling guitars, shiny brass sections and soaring sax solos discarded by Japanese listeners at the moment the technicolour mirage of the 80s dissolved.
Young people in the West, living through bleaker economic times, fell immediately for artists like Tatsuro Yamashita and Minako Yoshida. Now, City Pop is less a soundtrack to extravagant lifestyles than it is a mode of escapism. The dated quality of the recordings beckons you into an imaginary world of plenty, security and red leather car seats.
Music which was written during an adrenaline-fuelled era when the future seemed bright has found a new audience in a very different future. A melancholic one. One in which the most irresistible indulgence is a nostalgia for the past.
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