Sunday, February 27, 2011

Scratching the Surface: Japan

Potentially interesting, but the preview isn't exactly gangbusters. 2005 documentary about Japanese hip hop.

Available for purchase on DVD.

Academic Cliché Watch Volume 4: Admitting Defeat

I had a very dispiriting exchange recently on one of the mailing lists I subscribe to.  The main topic at issue was the accessibility of research online and/or through illegal means.  The two separate issues got a little blurred, but my position basically was that it is our job as academics to work for the good of all, and that making our work available as widely as possible was part of our role in society.  Separately from the issue of the survival of institutions such as journals (which I agree are very important), several other discussants took the position that academic research shouldn’t be widely available because it might be subject to misinterpretation or misuse.

This is a position that I’ve seen surface before in the reticence to publicity of a lot of graduate students I studied with.  I always supposed this was simply a lack of confidence that people would grow out of.  Imagine my surprise to find that, quite to the contrary, it is a fear that only becomes formalized and rationalized as individuals of a certain type progress through the academy.

One of the responses was borderline offensive, equating the work of academics with that of the research subjects who we interact with, as deserving of careful protection as the cultural practices of isolated primitive tribesmen.  This is a complete abdication of the responsibility of representation that is inherent to the role of the academy.  It is our job, quite literally, to frame the world carefully and knowledgably for those who want to learn about it.  Saying that the public is somehow ‘unprepared’ for our work reminds me of nothing so much as those who complain that their students aren’t smart enough for what is being taught.  You’ve got it backwards.  It is not the job of your audience to interpret your work in the way you intended – it is your job to make your intention clear and accessible to your audience.

I received a response to this sentiment that dug even further into the depths of blinkeredness.  Essentially it boiled down to: “Yes, it would be great if we could all write material that represented our subjects responsibly, but we don’t live in a utopia like that, so I’m going to continue arguing for limited access to academic work.”  I find this absolutely stomach-turning, as it boils down, not to an admission of defeat, but a desire to eliminate the possibility of failure by getting rid of any condition for success.  “We are imperfect and therefore should not strive to work up to a standard that will withstand scrutiny.”  What this boils down to is professional irresponsibility.

Obviously, the audience for academic work is not often going to be a broadly-defined “general public,” and not all researchers have the skills as writers to push their agenda along those channels.  But consciously talking only to those within the academy is the height of ridiculous self-defeat - the world is full of thoughtful and inquisitive people, often in better positions to make practical use of researchers' insights than other researchers will ever be. We have to be willing to let our work into the world, realizing that it is subject to misinterpretation or misuse, but working to the limit of our various powers to limit that risk.  Anything less is simply cowardice.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

EXCLUSIVE: Gold Panda remixes Yamaan, "Blossom"

I've written here before about Yamaan, a producer from Tokyo's Temple ATS label.  Gold Panda, he of one of 2010's hottest albums, just dropped this version of the fourth track on Yamaan's "12 Seasonal Music."  The track, including vocals by Chiyori, filters Yamaan's pretty, clean sense of nostalgia through the beautiful dirt that now rules Western beatstyle.

Blossom (Chorus By Chiyori)- GOLD PANDA REMIX by YAMAAN

Also, I'm pretty sure I'm the first to have this joint, many thanks to Yamaan!

Download the MP3 here:

Friday, February 25, 2011

Japan is Run By Racist Idiots Who Prefer Robots to Brown People

Nursing robot 'Ri-Man'

Sometimes you just have to call 'em like you see 'em.  In this case, the strike zone is pretty wide.

On the one hand, you have the billions of yen over the years poured into programs to develop home-care robots.  I would be shocked to find that any remotely responsible health care expert could have thought this was a good idea even at its earliest stages.  Health care is not just about lifting and moving people - the CARE is right there in the name, and we're still quite a distance from developing any robot with that capability.

On the other hand, you have the intentional sabotage of a program intended to extend residency to highly-trained and carefully vetted nurses from the Phillipines and Indonesia.  This is reflective of a much wider resistance to any formal immigration liberalization.  Equally pathetic is the recent celebration of the arrival of a handful of individual and families from Myanmar as part of a U.N. resettlement program.  The latter is a more purely moral failure, where the former shows an inability even to act in rational self-interest.  I'm speculating a bit here, but I would bet short odds that the root cause of these ridiculous and shameful policy failures is the deep racism of a relatively small but powerful segment of the Japanese right wing.

I've been watching Treme, and in the second episode there's a moment where a lawyer who is trying to navigate the insanity of post-Katrina police bureaucracy simply loses her shit and starts screaming curse words into a pillow.  I can think of few more correct responses to such a patently ridiculous situation as this one.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Notes from the Field: Indie Index - Hip Hop Sales in Japan

So, I recently had a chat with a new friend of mine (who at least here will remain anonymous) who worked for an indie label that released Western/English hip hop in Japan between 2006-2008.  I thought I'd share a few highlights from our conversation.  Most interesting to me was that, since he's not working for the label anymore, he wasn't shy about numbers.  I'm in a lusty, desirous relationship with information about how many units people are moving, and how much money they're making, so, with no apologies to Harper's:

Note: This may be an empty gesture, but I ask that you NOT use this information elsewhere without permission.

20-30,000: Number of units moved by Nujabes, the Japanese producer of jazzy instrumentals.  These numbers were big enough to set off a wave of imitators/followers.  This was not a record released by my friend's label, but it helped guide the direction of what they chose to release.

18%: The very highest royalty rate offered by my friend's label.  This is for artists who were established or otherwise expected to do particularly well.  The lower end of the range was 12%.  According to another source,  royalty rates have plummeted since in the last four or five years.

9,000: The number of units shifted by a record that did "pretty good" for my friend's company.  This was a record that, I was amazed to hear, was crafted by a Western artist, specifically for the Japanese market, expanding on a particular sound found on a handful of previously released tracks.

Y2,400: A pretty typical retail price for a Japanese release.  More than $30 at current exchange rates.  My friend added a couple of pieces to the puzzle as to exactly why this is so high.  First - higher production values of the average Japanese CD (digipacks instead of jewel cases). Second - the henpen distribution system, which requires labels to accept returns of unsold product from distributors, who nonetheless take their distribution fee even on unsold copies.  This leaves the label exposed to a great deal of risk.

$25,920: What an new artist could expect to make from a "pretty good" CD release, assuming the numbers above, and at 2006 exchange rates.

30: A very, very rough approximation of the number of hours it takes to make one fully developed, professional song, from start to finish. Probably an underestimate.

12: Rough average of the number of songs on a full-length album.

260: Number of hours spent recording a full-length album.

$99.69: Hourly rate of pay for recording an album that sells 9,000 copies.

This looks pretty sweet at first, but at least from a purely economic point of view, doesn't take into account a few things.  Most immediately, the costs of recording and promotion, which can fall variously on artists, labels, or even clubs, would have made this number smaller (or in a few cases, larger, maybe) than when it comes out of this simple equation.  Especially for a first album, this amount would need to account for initial investment costs, i.e. gear a musician bought for the purpose of teaching themselves how to make music.  Similarly, there's no accounting here for many, many hours spent teaching oneself to be at least a half-decent musician.   If Malcolm Gladwell is to be trusted, this would be about 5,000 hours (we're talking competent here, not someone of the world-class, 10,000 hours type).  With that one adjustment, suddenly the hourly rate for that first, moderate-performing album becomes . . .


Eat your heart out, investment bankers.

A final tidbit, from a totally different source:

6,000: Number of units moved by a fairly well-known and respected Japanese DJ/Producer.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Academic Cliche Watch, Minisode 1: "Famous"

"In her famous book, Our Vampires, Ourselves (1997), Nina Aurbach writes that  . . . " etc.

This was the opening sentences of a call for papers I just received.  Maybe I'm just stupid, but I've never heard of this book, and Aurbach's name only vaguely rings a bell.  This is a classic example of some bad academic writing's tendency to make claims rather than arguments for its subject (see also: "clearly," "obviously," "crucially," "not insignificantly," "powerful," ad nauseum.)

The rest of the call was actually really interesting, but think about how this choice of words positions the reader.  Either they agree that the book is famous, and they have gained very little from having their opinion confirmed, or they, like me, have no reason to agree.  In the second case, they may either a) experience a grad-school-like pang of insecurity and scurry off to catch up on some book that an anonymous emailer claimed was famous, b) pass through the phrase gaining little from that extra F word, or c) take the writer themselves for someone so wracked by insecurity that they don't feel comfortable citing a book without simultaneously claiming that it's "famous."  In none of these scenarios does the claim that a book is famous add value.

The Pre-History of Japanese Hip Hop 2: The Japanese Olio Minstrels, March 27th, 1854

I'm out of academia!  Temporarily! Maybe!  Check out my new blog, focused on my interests in weird fiction, experimental music, and generally all things so post-academic that they're not academic at all, over at

After hearing some academic rumors to this effect, I've finally done the digging, and it's true: when Admiral Perry sailed into Edo Bay in 1854, a troupe of minstrels was on board the U.S.S. Powhatan with him. They performed in both Tokyo and Yokohama, more than once. NYU's Victor Fell Yellin (whose name could actually be the title of a minstrel routine) has got the academically legitimized version.  Less authoritative-looking but very informative is this brief article (Japanese), which draws its information from Kasahara Kiyoshi's 黒船来航と音楽 (Music and the Arrival of the Black Ships).

And there are a few great images floating around the web: 

A program:

A Western depiction of the March 27th "Welcome Party" (talk about a euphemism) at which the minstrels performed.  I can't quite tell from this whether that's actually them on stage.

And best of all, one of several images of the troupe produced by Japanese artists of the era:

Friday, February 18, 2011

Lullatone - Experiments Around the House

Just got a nice mail from Shawn, of the Nagoya band Lullatone. At least at first glance, they fit very well into a broader Japanese indie trend toward pretty, cute, quiet electro-pop.  Also, like some similar bands, they get a lot of mileage out of toys.

Lullatone seem pretty explicitly a band targeted at the parents of small children (check out some of their album titles) but they do invite more probing analysis of what makes similar music so appealing for some young adults.  I'm going to go with crippling fear of the future and a desire to return to the safety of the nuclear family, but I might be projecting a bit.

(continues frantically looking for a job . . . )

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Finding the Freaks

Over the years, I've developed pretty sophisticated freak radar.  After six months in Tokyo, slowly circling and infiltrating and honing in, I finally struck real gold last night.
This is an unfortunately pretty crummy cel-phone picture of Zool.Gel, aka Keito Suzuki (Japanese blog), playing at Nantoka Bar, an anarchist spot in Koenji I'm going to write more about soon.  That is a fountain of red goop descending from a shelf.  It dripped and plopped throughout his intense set, which included earphone-mics shoved into jars of goop, lots of looping effects, and most of all, this amazing hand-blown glass water-flute that produced some tremendously weird bird-like sounds.
As good as the show was, though, the weirdest part was the connection - Keito is part of the band Topping Bottoms, which put out some tapes on the Not Not Fun label.  That's the same label that put out a fair amount of stuff from Racoo-oo-oon and some other Iowa-ish bands that I wrote about for Signal to Noise last year.
I feel like I've finally found My People - especially since Zool.Gel also makes weird hip hop beats.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Notes from the Field: Three Studios: Hip Hop Life

In the last month or so, I've checked in on a few Japanese underground producers to talk and see their equipment setups.  First, I got DJ Terror-D (Terada) of Deep Throat X to give me a tour around an MPC in his apartment in Kichijoji.  Then I took a pretty epic trek to see KOR-One in southwest Tokyo, and finally dropped in much closer to home, checking on DJ Muta right nextdoor in Koenji.  What I saw told me almost as much about their craft and their places in society as what they had to say.

It's probably better to refer to Terror-D as plain old Terada, since Deep Throat X, along with its porno-punk aggressiveness and noms-de-beat (partner Nakamura is known as Middle Finger), is on a hiatus following the release of their debut album, XXX.  At around the time that project was finished, Terada  decided to take a hiatus from his double life as both a fiery musician and a 'salaryman' for a tech-support company.  He took off for three months Tuva, a remote area of Russia where he studied traditional Tuvan music, including the surreal and beautiful art of throat singing.  When he got back from Russia, he began receiving unemployment payments, which seemed strange, since he quit his job rather than being fired.  He's now been on the dole for a good six months, and says his payments will run out in a month or two.  His plan after that is to enroll in computing school.  He's doing this even though he has a firm command of modern personal computing, since, again, the government will give him a stipend for retraining.  After that, he says, he'll go back to Russia.  Longer-term, he loosely considers that he might make a living teaching traditional Tuvan music in Tokyo.  Terada is now 33.

His living arrangements reflects his willingly straightened circumstances.  His apartment could be best described by the disused English term “flophouse,” with all the mystery and desperation it implies.  It is a cramped, bleakly shadowy building in a dingy neighborhood.  We walk up a rickety staircase covered in a crumbly mix of sick-green paint and defiant rust.  As we take off our shoes in the narrow hallway beyond the outer door – there is nothing resembling an entryway – I notice a tub-like metal sink halfway down the dimly-lit hall.  This would be a great setting for a horrific Japanese splatter film, in which some defenseless schoolgirl is kidnapped and tortured by a maniacal doctor, her cries unheard even by the grey, indifferent neighborhood.

Things are marginally brighter in Terada's tiny room.  We squeeze in past a washing machine that half-blocks the entryway, into a space big enough to hold one and a half American queen size beds.  It's a traditional Japanese room – that is, it has tatami flooring and a closet intended for storing a futon during the day.  But since the closet seems full of basically unidentifiable junk rather than bedding, I have a hard time figuring out where Terada sleeps. He's told me there's no bath, so he regularly goes to shower at a mangakissaten, or bathe at an ofuro, a traditional Japanese communal bath of the sort which have become more and more scarce as private bathrooms have become standard in Japanese apartments.

It's midwinter, and Terada is running a gas heater.  Directly next to the door is a large, red gas can – fuel for the heater, and possibly also for the filthy one-burner stove Terada uses to boil water for coffee and tea.  It sits next to a sink, this one much smaller but of the same square-steel variety as the larger one in the hall - the handwashing station to its autopsy giblet-sluice. There's a small, dingy couch and a small CRT television, under which I will later notice a significant collection of porn films on VHS.  I hear movement through the walls and in the hallway, and imagine stooped, grey figures lurking about like ghosts, each of whom lives in quiet sadness in an equally fetid nest.  Terada shares a toilet with these moving whispers, and though I won't realize it until I'm on my way home, I hold back the need to pee for the duration of the visit. This is, in short, the apartment of somebody at the bottom of the social ladder.  His rent is about 30,000 yen, or $300 a month.  

What separates Terada from his neighbors (at least in his own version of events) is that he ended up here willingly, and is spending his days in study as he works to craft a freer, more fulfilling future.  The signs of this are just as prominent as the place's dinginess – the walls are lined with shelves holding books and vinyl, carefully categorized and labeled, and four guitars hang on another wall.  Below them is a broad desk, white but not particularly clean, with a computer monitor, speakers, and a few small keyboards scattered around.  Off to one side is a collection of DJ and music gear, including turntables, mixers, and CD players, mostly still under plastic – Terada tells me he hasn't been listening to or making very much music in the hip hop/electro style DTX is best known for, and he has to basically get his MPC out of storage in order to show it to me.

DJ Kor-One's studio space is a significant contrast.  He lives even further away from central Tokyo than Terada, but shares a spacious and clean 3LK (that is, three bedrooms surrounding a living room and small but comfortable kitchen).  His two roommates have balconies, and one is large enough to house a seven-foot climbing wall (although it cantilevers nearly over that roommate's desk).  Kaori's room is smaller and has only a window towards the parking lot, so he pays less than his roommates – only about 40,000 yen a month, a low price which helps make it possible for him to work only four days a week at his job at an amusement park. His roommates are musicians as well, and one of them spent much of my visit working on a remix for a Japanese reggae band.

Kaori’s bedroom doubled as studio space, but there was enough space for us to jam a little bit after he’d set up the MPC for me. He used a setup based on Native Instruments’ Maschine, a piece of software bundled with a controller that mimicked the look and feel of the MPC, with its array of drum pads.  Maschine has a few advantages over the MPC in terms of flexibility and convenience, but as Kaori pointed out and even an amateur like myself could tell after a quick comparison, the hardware/software combo couldn’t get the same level of responsiveness and sensitivity you get with the MPC.  It’s an almost imperceptible but really important difference.

Finally, DJ Muta’s space reflected the relatively greater success he’s had, both as a member of the group Juswanna and in working as a DJ for various events affiliated with Libra Records, one of the biggest independent operations in the underground.  In fact, just a few days before talking to him, I got to see him DJ in front of thousands of people at the final round of the Ultimate MC Battle.  Though his studio space was almost as small as Kor-One’s or Terror-D’s, it was in a one-bedroom apartment much closer to the center of Tokyo, and was packed full of much more high-end gear, such as a big-screen Macintosh and a sophisticated production desk that he’d built himself (including an impressive slide-out rack for his synth controller).  Like Kaori and Terada, Muta’s space was packed floor to ceiling with records, quite literally at the limit of the space’s ability to hold it.  This is what high-achievement looks like in Japan – a rather unspectacular apartment transformed with some ingenuity and hard work into something nearly livable.

I was relatively more interested in talking to Muta than getting a music lesson from him, but he did show me a couple of the pieces of software he uses to make music, and played a couple of things he’s working on – particularly, a mix he’d made including, of all things, Joni Mitchell.  I’ll be writing a bit more about my conversation with Muta, in which he had some really inspiring things to say about the reasons he’s a musician, soon.

Liyoon - Japanese Killer Whale

I can't believe I haven't heard about this already.  Apparently released about five months ago, this is in some ways a predictable Japanese "national pride" perspective on the discussion over whaling/dolphin hunts that's still boiling well after the release of The Cove.  But there are several weird/interesting twists, some of which will be obvious immediately:

It makes a lot of sense that this is in English, since the essential message is about the hypocrisy and even racism of the Western anti-whaling position.  The most convincing point made, as far as I'm concerned, is that pigs, like dolphins, are pretty smart animals, but the West eats tons of them anyway (actually, so does Japan, but I think the point still stands).

The really interesting part, and a vital reminder of the vastly different Japanese political landscape, is that Liyoon is Zainichi - a Japanese-born Korean.  He used to belong to a group called KP, which stood for "Korean Pride."  From an American perspective, it's odd to think about an ethnic minority pushing such an overtly nationalist (or at the very least, patriotic) viewpoint, but the dominance of American influence in Japanese politics and culture changes the math radically.  At some moments it makes sense to identify as Zainichi against a Yamato ethnic mainstream, but at least as often someone like Liyoon is going to encounter threats to the "Japanese" side of his identity, and feel the need to rise to their defense.

That reactive/defensive stance seems omnipresent - in fact, it pretty much explains the whole whale situation.  Most Japanese don't actually eat whale meat, but many nonetheless support the hunt because it has a symbolic power even if they're not participating in it.  It represents their ability to defy the West, and specifically America (home of the Sea Shepard), at least in some relatively small way.  If that element of defiance wasn't important, it's pretty clear most Japanese, at the very least, wouldn't care about whale hunting one way or the other.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

International Transport Volume 3 – Dirty Black Ships

“Tranquility now is just future anarchy unbirthed.”

In 1854, Japan learned the wrong lesson from America and the West.  There wasn’t any real choice – faced with guns, technology, and aggression, the alternatives were to either answer with more of the same, or to capitulate with the rest of Asia, South America, Africa, and Native America.  And so Japan modernized, from the top down, sending its greatest minds for immersion in Dutch Learning and its greatest spirits to the concert halls of Vienna to learn the even temper of the West.  This westernized elite had, arguably, even more power than those who inspired it, because in addition to wealth, they had unique access to a whole system of values – about individualism, freedom, and ambition – while Japan’s peasants continued to be fed the ideology of self-sacrifice.  They didn’t always buy it, the human spirit isn’t that easy to squash.  But enough of them did.

Today, things may finally be changing, in at least one way.  Japanese mainstream pop music is among the world’s shallowest, a wad of bubblegum shoved into the social eye of the truth, run by a mafia-esque elite machine which independent voices haven’t got much of a chance of penetrating.  But a bunch of artists and labels are working hard to change that – to get other voices out into the world, where maybe they can inspire some peasants.  This mix is a gift for all of them, inspiration from West to East, a mess of messages from the bottom to the top – from the workers to the kings, from the disgruntled to the complacent.  It's dirty but it's beautiful.  It's scary but it's seductive.  It's loud.

It’s something you get better at with practice.

Playlist after the jump.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Japan the Beats

Welcome to everyone finding my blog via my column at Tinymixtapes.  A couple posts of particular interest:

Japanese hip hop prehistory: Jagatara

The Sumo Tapes: Ganja, Rappers, and Big Fat Asses

You can also find a ton of good stuff just by following the "Japanese hip hop" tag, conveniently attached below.

For those headed the other direction, here is the most recent Japan the Beats at Tinymixtapes, about Origami, nostalgia, and indie-farm fashion.

Synergy, baby!

A Job You're Supposed to be Terrible At: Lessons from Six Months of Fieldwork

As of this morning, I've officially been in Japan for six months, at the pleasure of the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science.  I have six months left on my current appointment, which was granted to me to fund research into Japanese hip hop.  Ethnography/fieldwork/journalism/ “research” is something you can only learn by doing it, and despite some previous experience this stretch has been full of new challenges. I guess it's a pretty rare situation I find myself in, but maybe more universal principles can be derived from the various ways I've screwed up.

Writing is an Excuse for Not Working. In the afterglow of completing a dissertation that was at best 15% fieldwork, this has been the biggest, hardest lesson.  I had worked hard to develop a craftsman's discipline – getting up every day and writing for three or four hours, crawling bit by bit through a big project.  Writing was the be all and end all, the Alpha and Omega of my existence as a doctoral candidate, and as a job seeker in the academic market.  So it was strange when, on finding out about my posting, a member of my committee gave me this sterling advice: “Don't worry about writing.  Focus on research.”

Research is What Happens While you Make Plans.  It's important – even vital – to have a research agenda.  There are, of course, plans to be made, appointments to set up, contacts to cultivate online.  But it's even more vital to figure out the right place to spend time doing nothing.  This may seem like the most obvious thing in the world to properly trained ethnographers or anthropologists, but particularly for someone trained in theory, it takes a while to sink in.  I end up with notebook pages full of hot leads, new contacts, and essential facts just from sitting in a bar or in someone's office with no particular agenda.  It's a lesson for life, really – be ready for anything, including boredom.  Boredom, after all, is the seedbed of opportunity.

Booze is in Fact Not an an Ethnographer’s Best Friend. I (and I know I’m not alone in this) drank a lot in graduate school.  Considerably more, even, than I drank in college. Since most of my initial research took place in bars and nightclubs, the habit naturally continued during my doctoral research. And on some level I found it a lot easier to interact with people in Japanese after downing a few beers.  But there comes a certain inflection point where that method of connecting to people becomes less and less effective – particularly, this is true once you’re already a known quantity in a community and the job becomes much more about following up on leads and interviewing people, or more generally about pursuing a particular agenda rather than just learning “the lay of the land.”  I actually had to quit drinking entirely for health reasons about a month ago (don’t mix booze and allergy meds!), and I’ve found myself a lot more effective since then, because I’m able to be more methodical and less impressionistic.  Not to mention the crazy amounts of money I’ve saved.

Quit Getting Up So Early. Depending on your specialty, a corollary to Lesson 2.  In the world of music, the only things that are going to happen before noon are things you do alone.  And that's not where the action is.

Shit Happens (So Take Care of Yourself). On top of the predictable challenges and time-consumption of moving and settling into a foreign country, I got pretty ill for about two and a half months this past fall. This wasn't a life-threatening illness, but rather a combination of allergies and sinus infections that took my energy levels and focus down to about 70%.  I spent this period repeatedly cursing myself for collapsing exhausted before getting out to shows where I could do research (see also Lesson 3), meanwhile feeling certain that health was just around the corner.  What I didn't do was go to the frickin' doctor.  The language barrier was certainly an intimidation factor, but I  should have known better.

And finally, Blogging is Fantastic. Not only does an online notebook give you a great place to collect the random thoughts and tidbits of information that collect like whitecap flotsam during a project like this, without drawing you into the vortextual depths of overthinking, it simultaneously gives you a platform for networking, an increasingly vital element of research - to say nothing of the infinite joys of self-promotion.