Because of Satoshi, the audiences that I had in Tokyo with my events were able to understand me. Satoshi created space for me to connect with people of a different language. English is quite a challenge in Japan, only a few people are confident enough to speak it fluently, or are fluent enough to speak confidently. Thanks to Satoshi, I had some great events while I was at SHIBAURA HOUSE. He was introduced to me as the translator, but after spending a full week together, I learned a lot more about him. And his English accent. It turned out that Satoshi studied in England, which gave him this amazing and totally unexpected accent that could perfectly fit Snatch, yes, the movie.
The weird thing is when you give a talk in another language, and it is simultaneously translated like what Satoshi did during my talks and sessions, that as a presenter, your flow gets somewhat disturbed. Satoshi asked to just speak for a couple of sentences, and then he would translate, and so on. Like a tennis match. Marcel, Satoshi, Marcel. However, I learned that he became really good at ‘recording’ what I was sharing, making notes as I was speaking, allowing me to talk in longer sprints. I could move from speaking in sentences to paragraphs to chapters at once. Amazing. I don’t know how I would have done things without him. Thanks again Satoshi!
Satoshi is a musician who used music and his fascination for English to escape Japan to England. And then used his English to find his place in Japan, balancing work and music. He shared his story with me on my last evening in Tokyo.
Out of place
I was in a brass band in primary school. I played the tuba. We practised quite hardback in the days when I was about ten years old. Every morning before school started properly, we had this extra session for practice. That was wonderful.
I had dermatitis, a skin disorder. I’m a allergic to a lot of things. I have had that since I was one year old. Japan, as a country, is supposed to be homogeneous. Everybody is supposed to look the same. But when you have such an issue like dermatitis you get picked at school by other kids. People pointing their fingers at me. Saying: ‘You look reddish.’ I was scratching all the time, and all the things that come with such a disorder. I couldn’t find my place. Somehow music became the place for me to be myself. I started playing the electric guitar when I was about twelve. Music became the centre of me. It helped me to distinguish myself from other people. So even though I had those physical problems with my skin, at least through music, I could show myself. That I was okay at something. And it became the central place for me.
Because of all that I had a different attitude towards others, I was ‘slightly twisted’. Where most of my friends and the kids from my school started to think about universities, I asked myself: ‘What is the point of going to the university?’ I couldn’t see myself fitting into society. And just like music, I was really into English. That was something else to distinguish me with from the others, to assure myself that I was somewhat okay. That I could do some things, like music and English.
I decided that I wanted to study abroad. And since I was playing electric guitar, I think even now you still can’t get a degree on electric instruments in Japan, I looked into where I could study. Maybe I could study jazz in the US, but jazz was not really my thing back then. I considered Berklee College of Music in Boston. I looked at schools in Canada, but then I bumped into this article by some Japanese guys that studied music in Yorkshire, England. Then I thought: ‘If they can do it, I should be able to do that too.’ I applied and did a foundation course there. That opened me up.
I felt that I, in a way, was a minority in Japan, because of this skin disorder. But when I went to England, I was a minority — not because of my skin disorder, but because I am Japanese. This made me feel quite comfortable.
I felt that I, in a way, was a minority in Japan, because of this skin disorder. But when I went to England, I was a minority — not because of my skin disorder, but because I am Japanese. This made me feel quite comfortable. I did not have any pressure to fit into society there. Since I am Japanese, there is no way that I can become a Brit. That was a comforting idea and made me positive. I found my place in England. Not because of the physical geographical reasons. Yorkshire is a quite racial biased place. It helped me to better understand who we are as people. If you put people from different backgrounds, cultures and histories into one place, people start to build up their own communities. This is, to a certain extent, a good thing, but at the same time, it separates people from each other. You have to find ways to approach others to better understand each other. It is difficult to create this racial utopia — this multicultural, multiethnic society I learned.
From freedom to structure
I studied music in Yorkshire for four years and then moved to London for four years. Music opened me up. I did the foundation there. I spent a year in Jazz school, but it was too much bebop for me. I just couldn’t bear it. When I went to the canteen, and there was this jazz band by other students playing bebop if you went to a pub there was someone playing bebop. That was too much for me. I do still like jazz, but this study wasn’t something for me. People think that jazz is quite free in comparison to classical music, but it still needs to sound like jazz, with its syntax, harmony and other things. I found a course on contemporary music, in a classical way. That was freer. I studied that instead. It was quite academic, but it helped me quite a lot in how to research and how to think. It was not only limited to music, but there was also philosophy and art.
There is something that is typical japanse. When people study outside of Japan, they start to look back and reflect on Japan. Because the values and the aesthectics are quite different.Western classical music with its ethics and beauty is quite different from traditional Japanese music. I started looking into traditional Japanese music — but then I thought: ‘Here is another Japanese person looking into Japanese music.’ I thought that it was nonsense. But after studying in England for a couple of years and then looking at the traditions of Japan, is something that I never spent time on at all. I never gave any value to Japanese music since I was brought up in Japan. Because of that I have had more exposure to Japanese music. I was just familiar with certain musical gestures, in a traditional sense.
In Japan you have this notion of ‘ma’. This litterally means ‘gap’, ‘space’, or ‘pause. It is the term for a specific Japanese concept of negative space. In traditional Japanese arts and culture, ma refers to the artistic interpretation of an empty space, often holding as much importance as the rest of an artwork and focusing the viewer on the intention of negative space in an art piece or piece of music.
In Japan you have this notion of ‘ma’. This litterally means ‘gap’, ‘space’, or ‘pause. It is the term for a specific Japanese concept of negative space. In traditional Japanese arts and culture, ma refers to the artistic interpretation of an empty space, often holding as much importance as the rest of an artwork and focusing the viewer on the intention of negative space in an art piece or piece of music. There a quite a lot of Japanese composers who play with that idea. I remember something my composition teacher once said. In Western music they tend to fill up the gaps in music, so that there al always musical notes on the lines of the paper. In Japan you have this notion of ma, where we consider silence or the negative space, a blank space inbetween notes as important as the notes. I think that it is not really unique to Japan, but we have a word for it which gives it some weight. In free jazz, they react to each other by listening. Ma is a reaction to something; a decision not to react or play a note which makes it is there.
Finding a place
I did my BA in Yorkshire on compositions and music writing and then moved to London. I decided to study Sonic Arts for my MA. I wasn’t really sure what it was, but I spent a year studying it. It was freer than what I studied before. Where in Visuals Arts, you need to play with visuals, with Sonic Arts you need to play with sound, then sound is your medium. But this did not really open me up at all. When you study contemporary music, you have a French-German way where people try to control everything. The other way is the American way, like John Cage. He was more into Buddhism and Orientalism. Cage did not see a reason why to control everything. I didn’t like Cage back then, I can now appreciate his significance, but Sonic Arts were more connected to John Cage, and that didn’t suit me back then.
London was really expensive, even back then. I struggled quite a lot and wasn’t really sure what to do. The study allowed me to come up with this beautiful dream to become the ‘greatest composer of the century’ or something similar. That images, that picture can only be realised in the concert hall platform, the ideal place for a composer. The more I studied, the more I realised that.
The structure of western classical music is topdown. There was a Japanese composer who criticised and analysed this. There is a supercomposer, there is a superconductor who can understand this supercomposer. They are the geniuses, they are the supermen. The orchestra is the soldiers to realise the compositions those geniuses came up with. Back then, I hung around with squatters, leftists and similar people in London, which made me question this western classical music structures. I was also struggling in terms of money. So I thought: ‘Maybe that platform is not for me.’ I started to look into something more Do It Yourself model. I decided not to stay in England, and moved back to Japan, about 13 years ago. I was quite obnoxious, thinking that I knew it all. So I said: ‘Fuck the music.’ Music was not the place for me anymore. ‘I’m going to work. Earn money. Pay tax. To create the circumstances that I can say whatever I want to say to the public.’ That was what I was thinking.
That was around the time that my dad retired from his job. He gave me this crazy advice. He said: ‘There is no point in getting a proper job in Japan anymore. because that idea, that model of lifelong employment will no longer be there.’ I thought: ‘hey dad, that is some crazy advice.’ He told me to freelance — not exactly in those words. He said: ‘Working for a big company is great, but jobs within companies don’t last anymore. When you hit 50 of 60, they let you go. Just go through the world, and acquire a skillset to earn a living yourself.’ I started to work as a translator, doing verbal translations. I did that for about five years. I wasn’t looking for employment, but I was trying to find a place where I could somehow find a balance.
I said goodbye to music, but I still was making music. I was trying to find a balance between work and music. I tried working at Honda. That was crazy, a typical Japanse manufacturing company. I worked as a translator for the cost accounting department. Back then, I had no idea what that meant, but manufacturing cost accounting is a really big thing. I had to wear a jumper suit, even though I was in the office. Every day, I went to the office, all dressed up, doing gymnastics in the morning, which was all a part of the company’s culture. But that wasn’t me.
I guessed that a non-Japanese company would suit me better. I switched to Dell. Not as a translator. I was hired by an Australian woman, a super enthusiastic manager, and I was still quite young, around 27, and she persuaded me to come and work for Dell. She offered to work out the work-life balance together. That appealed to me, so I went there. But after a month or so, she left the company. I worked there for about six months. It was a great experience to understand a non-Japanese company in Japan and how they work. I expected things to be in an American way since Dell is American. But that turned out to be different since most people there were Japanese. They turned out to be more aggressive since some of them studied in the United States so they could play this non-japanese card in the office. That was tough. I decided that an American company also wasn’t something for me.
I continued to work as a freelancer, and I stumbled upon a translator position in an Indian company. That turned out to be quite good, to my standards. They are not as rigid as a Japanese company, they’re more flexible in a good way, as well as in a bad way. Things could be quite rough in many ways: in terms of communication, payment and so on. Japanese companies are really neat in those fields. But one of the benefits for me was that it was an IT company, so I worked project-based. Which meant that I worked on one project for three to six months, and the projects were done. That didn’t constrain me, restrict me and made that I did not see the same faces every day. A project had a maximum of one year. That model worked for me. So I found my place, in a way, financially but obviously, it is less creative. It is okay. Not the best, it is not something I want to so forever. But I found a way to survive. I don’t get depressed, I get a bit of money, and because I am freelancing on a project basis, I can also do different things. And while I am doing all these things, I carried on making music.
Sometimes something happens, when there are moments that are beyond my control, that are beyond anybody’s control when something beautiful comes out. That is fascinating. Then you get a buzz out of it and makes that you want to continue. In music, I try to create a place, a space. Some people are more into visual things, for me, that happens to be music and sound. It helps to build up my identity and makes sure that I’m sort of okay.
I now make improvised music. It is free. I usually have an idea what to do which can have an academic or political reason. I chose my materials. Sometimes I do solo performances, but solos can also become a bit boring. Then I try to play with other people. Because it is free improvisation, I try to react to what is going on in a situation, to the platform, space, stage or the other people’s sound. With the ‘fixed’ music like Bach where the music is written, you play the music that is preconceived. There is some room between the notes for interpretation, but the idea is to perform it in the best possible way. With improvisation, where all musicians have their utopian musical realm in their heads, you need to negotiate and react to the other. Like ma, what I talked about before: maybe you play more, or maybe you play less — or nothing at all because a lot is going on. Sometimes something happens, when there are moments that are beyond my control, that are beyond anybody’s control when something beautiful comes out. That is fascinating. Then you get a buzz out of it and makes that you want to continue. In music, I try to create a place, a space. Some people are more into visual things, for me, that happens to be music and sound. It helps to build up my identity and makes sure that I’m sort of okay.
nl/minato is an educational platform that aims to create a dialogue from social, political and cultural perspectives. In this programme, the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and Shibaura House, as well as various groups in the Minato-ku area, collaborate to organise events to make Minato-ku and its neighbouring area a stage for study, with citizen participation and lively discussions.