Why were Japanese people watching Soul Train?
The Japan–Soul Train Connection, Part 3
So last time, I promised to tell you why people in Japan even knew what Soul Train was in the first place. I mean, it doesn’t seem to make much sense: a Japanese band was on the hottest black music show in the US in 1980, but if you’d asked someone on the Tokyo street a few years prior what they thought about soul music, they’d have shaken their head and politely informed you that they had never been to Korea.
So, I guess I’ve got to explain how we got here.
But in order to do that, we have to go back from 1980, and talk about the disco scene in Japan. There’re a lot of stories I could tell here, but if we’re going to pick one, we might as well start with a guy named Ai Emori.
In the early 1970s,
Emori was pretty well known in the Japanese disco scene as being a hell of a dancer. This was good because it meant he got respect at basically any disco he went to, but a little inconvenient in that people also looked to him to learn new dance moves. Eventually, he realized that he couldn’t teach everyone at once, so he decided to start writing out his disco dance instructions. Some of these would be explanations of how to do popular American disco dances, but others were things that were unique to particular discos in Japan. Still others were things he’d invented himself, or with friends. These would show up in magazines, and also come included in disco records themselves.
It might seem weird that Emori would have access to put his stuff in record packages, but it’s pretty natural, considering that if you bought a funk or soul record in Japan in the 1970s, odds were that Emori did the cover art. He was originally a manga (comic book) artist, but by the mid 70s, he was getting so many offers to do album art that he quit his day job to concentrate full-time on disco.
Speaking of Emori’s album covers, the kinda weird thing is that all of the covers were different from the US originals.
At first, I thought this was a copyright thing — maybe the Japanese distributors couldn’t get the rights to the US artwork in Japan. But as it turns out (I asked him), Emori just preferred to do the artwork himself. Also, a lot of the US record covers were pretty abstract, and Emori felt that it was important that people knew that these were black artists (or at least, artists that black people liked to dance to — Herbie Mann is definitely not black). So, he filled the jackets with images of caricatured black people.
This continued on into the late 70s, when he did one of the pieces that got his work into the hands of just about every music fan in Japan. In 1978, Saturday Night Fever was released in Tokyo, and of course, Emori got called in to do the instructions. Apparently, he managed to talk the movie theater into letting him see it a day early, and he sat in an empty theater by himself, studying the moves, pantomiming them until they made sense, and then drawing them. He didn’t know how to work a projector, and they didn’t trust him with the print, though, so they had a projectionist run the tape for him. Every time a new move came on the screen, Emori would make the guy rewind it, over and over, until he figured it out.
The whole process took about half a day.
But, let me back up a bit, and set us back on the Soul Train tracks.
In 1974, Emori got an offer that he couldn’t refuse — an investor wanted to put down some money to open up a disco, and was willing to give Emori complete creative control. Emori was a little hesitant at first. He’d helped out with design and event promotion for a handful of local discos before, but he wasn’t sure if he could run such a risky operation on his own. Eventually, though, his curiosity got the better of him, and he agreed. He put together some plans, and Afro Rake was born. It opened July of that year.
Afro Rake was also a pretty big deal for touring black artists. Soon after the spot opened, a then little-known group called The Commodores (yes, Lionel Richie’s old group) was in Japan for a concert. Emori, who was already a fan, struck up a conversation with the group, and offered to get them into his club for free, and hook them up with free food and drinks. Apparently, The Commodores were so impressed with the spot that they got up on stage and performed for free — several nights in a row. Then, they went back home, and told all the other acts that they knew. Within a few months, Afro Rake was a mandatory destination for any black artist touring in Japan.
It wasn’t just artists, either. Basically, if you were young and fashionable in 1974 Tokyo, and especially if you were black, you probably spent some time at Afro Rake. Speaking of black baseball players in Japan, by the way, both George Altman and Buffaloes home run king Clarence Jones were also regulars.
By 1975, Afro Rake was legendary.
Word also got back to the black media in the US, and Ebony Magazine sent a reporter out to Japan to cover the disco scene in 1975 (click here to read the article).
The article’s pretty interesting — the Ebony writers seemed equal parts flattered and amused that Japanese people were taking their music so seriously. Of course, the Three Degrees (I talked about their Japanese career here) got a mention as well.
By the way, I mentioned that Emori hooked The Commodores up with free food. This wasn’t sushi or ramen — Afro Rake also had a full kitchen, and served up plates of soul food, cooked by people who knew what they were doing. I’ve obviously never had any of Afro Rake’s food (it was only open for a couple years), but apparently the hamhocks and beans and rice were pretty good.
So, let‘s get to Soul Train.
Sometimes in his interactions with black artists and military, Emori would occasionally hear about a TV program called Soul Train. He’d seen pictures of it in magazines, but he’d never seen the show itself, because none of the local stations carried it. But one day, a friend of his that he knew through his Afro Rake connections mentioned that the company he was working for was thinking about putting Soul Train on the air in Japan. But, his friend said, his bosses were worried that there wouldn’t be an audience for the show.
Emori knew how he could convince them. He told his friend to bring his bosses to the disco that Friday. When they showed up, he greeted them, and walked them in the front entrance. He pointed at the dance floor, which was completely packed with young, fashion-conscious, and soul-obsessed dancers. ‘See all these people?’ Emori said. The station heads nodded.
‘There’s your audience’.
Within a few weeks, Soul Train was playing on late Sunday nights on TBS.
So realistically, Soul Train was only on the air because a small group of people, most of them associated with Emori, were able to use their street credibility to talk a bunch of suits into taking a chance on the program.
But let’s bring it back to Yellow Magic Orchestra for a second.
According to a friend of mine who went to school with YMO’s Haruomi Hosono (and also did all of the photography for his first band), he and Hosono used to hang out at a bunch of the discos that Emori had a hand in. Hosono is also a pretty good dancer, and the two of them would learn the dances to all of the popular songs. And, like I said above, if you knew a dance, you probably learned it from Emori, whether directly or indirectly.
So, on that day in 1980, when Yukihiro of YMO said that a lot of people in Japan watched Soul Train, a lot of it had to do with people like Emori — the early ministers of the gospel of soul in Japan. And if YMO hadn’t happened, we would have had a very different Afrika Bambaataa, who has repeatedly said in interviews that he was influenced by sounds coming from groups like Kraftwerk and YMO.
So, all of you hip-hop fans out there: get your pens out. There’s an old-school disco dude in Tokyo that you all owe a letter of thanks to.