, , , , , , ,

Here is some chilled out music by a great group. In this post I will be looking at the contrast we find when we compare music from the west to music from the far east (Japan). I have various musical genres and will be comparing the respective societies. So you’re in for dinner (food for thought more like) and a concert. This is the first in a series I will probably start entitled “Reflection” wherein I examine various aspects of Japanese media culture.

We will often hear many different kinds of music and it would just be a gross generalisation to say all western music of a certain type was the same and equally for Japanese music. However, it is undeniable that there is a definite contrast between the two mediums and it is reflected in so many different actions and attitudes, that it really begins to become quite daunting how far apart the two cultures are. I for one am in the UK and therefore I will have a lot of exposure not necessarily to European music (because the UK doesn’t like calling itself European despite how painfully obvious a fact it is) rather, the UK is mainly exposed to its own home grown tunes and that of the Americas. Now, despite however much the UK will bash America we do actually take to a lot of their own culture and a lot of their own styles and likewise (though not to as great an extent) they to us as well. Together, we often like to identify ourselves as ‘the west’ and this is how I’ll be using the phrase for the purpose of this discussion. Yes, I haven’t forgotten this post is about music and the culture clash, so lets dive into that. There are a few major points of conflict I have noticed in the music industry between the West and Japan. The first is lyrics.

Taking the above example, the song Arigatou by Home Made Kazoku. Japanese music seems to have much more fragrant and unabashed lyrics as compared to their western counterparts. In Japanese music, you will more likely find songs about support, meaningful lyrics about real life situations or just songs that are generally more pleasant in character than in the west. Now, this is not to say that we do not have such music in the west, because we obviously do and I said I did want to avoid absurd generalisations, so bear with me here. What I have noticed however, is that the Japanese seem much more willing to be able to talk about such things or write lyrics about these soft themes than we are in the west – particularly with the males. This is reflected in how music of the same genre seems to be so greatly different. Again taking the above example, we have a rap song, which seems to be singing about supporting each other, thanking people for being there for them and just about general care towards each other. This is in Western music but is normally towards the opposite gender in love songs or towards family but in Japanese music, it tends to be a broad phenomena extending to all different kids of people. There is much more of this kind of music in Japanese culture as compared to the west. The Japanese seem to be much more able to speak openly and in a more poetic fashion than we care to bear in the west. The Japanese rap and rock music scenes seem to be much more verbose than the western equivalent, not verbose in that they use fancier words rather, they are much more symbolistic and metaphorical in their lyrics. Such a thing is displayed in the next song, which is subbed:

This is one of my favourite bands, Back-On (which I found when I watched Air Gear) and one of the things I thought when I first heard it was how “weird” or kind of “mushy” the lyrics sounded – granted I was a lot younger than I am now. But this is the same kind of thing we often find in anime and in particular shounen – that “mushyness”. Japanese culture seems to be a lot of more open in their media (not necessarily their direct persons however), those awesome lines from One Piece that Luffy often shouts about his Nakama sound awesome and inspiring but we would never dare to repeat them or say something like that to a friend in the west. I feel, this is the same with how I felt about the song and lyrics. I can’t deny there is a certain attractive quality about the lyrics and yet you don’t hear of lyrics like that in the west. Why? Is this a good thing or not? I couldn’t say but I do think its a shame we’re so reluctant to express ourselves fully. When I first got into anime and listening to J-rock and the ilk, I was unsure as to the lyrics, they sounded a bit too fragrant or expressive which I didn’t think was the best way. Why is this though? Now, I’m not saying Japan doesn’t have its own forms of ‘dirty’ rap nor that the west doesn’t likewise have poetic and emotionally rich songs, nor that the Japanese rock scene isn’t as “hardcore” as the western one however, there is definitely a difference in attitudes and this is what is interesting. A lot of it comes down to how societies function in Japan, I would say. In Japan there is a much more communal effort, the individual is someone who shouldn’t be exposing themselves or trying to do things their way by their method – it is a community and people should support each other. The team effort seems to be the best fit in Japan – this is why a lot of their cultural practises differ from ours which I may discuss at another time. However, in relation to music, this is in contrast to the much more recent western ideal of individualism. In the west, confrontation, personal assertion and private morality and beliefs are the norm – we not only say we should have individuality and that it is crucial but also that no individual should be quashed for the sake of the many.

Now, I do not think this is necessarily a bad thing, there are pros and cons to both and one cannot really be ahead of another in terms of culture, however, the resulting differences in viewpoints are so large that it even perforated the music industry. This is, I think, one of the chief reasons behind why the respective societies and the music they produce are so different. However, none of this is to say that Western culture hasn’t been pervading into Japanese territory and vice versa – especially with the emergence of Akiba-kei (Akihabara style) or “Otaku” culture, into the west – which in Japan is seen quite negatively compared to the quite elated reception it gets over here. In any case, the west’s cultures and practises have definitely infiltrated Japan – not necessarily forcefully – but despite this, I would say that Japan is holding onto its culture quite strongly especially in the music scene, which we in the west have no inclination to mimic. I am of course talking about the now very common medium of entertainment: Visual-Kei. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it just means “Visual style” and it is an ever-growing style of band in Japan which involves make up, dressing quite vibrantly or extremely darkly and is normally characterised as being quite feminine in the eyes of the west – if not sometimes labelled cross dressing. If you are any fan of J-pop or J-rock especially, you will have guaranteed seen this style. But, just in case, here is one of my favourite Visual Kei bands An-Cafe:

Notice the nice girl playing guitar? It’s a guy… An Cafe featured a cross dressing guitarist (all credit due though, his guitar skills were awesome) and most if not all the band dressed quite effeminate, often wearing cute fluffy things, leg warmers on their arms and skirts on multiple occasions. Now, I have no desire to dress like this and certainly in the west, this is considered deficient in character if not morally wrong to a lot of people (not my opinion, just an observation). I think here is where we hit a very large crucial difference in Japanese and western culture in relation to music. In the west, men have to be macho – it how it God intended it and so it shall be. Whilst we have rising morale for people like transsexuals and transvestites (though both are often considered mental handicaps, for the most part) it is stigmatised in the West. I’m not saying that transsexuality and transvestite are rampant in Japan (they’re not) but it is clear that gender ambiguity and general gender displacement is not as taboo. The result is thus that styles like Visual Kei are born, with lyrics and music style being quite different. So again we can see that even gender role differences play a huge part in music and again we see how much of a contrast there is between the two societies.

Music isn’t just about the writers, music reflects an age group, a generation, a society and often it can reflect our morality. Being more feminine, having a greater social attitude, being more floral with words and roles – these are things we tend to find more in Japanese music (notice I said tend, not ‘always’ as I’m trying not to generalise) as compared to western music. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I’m not so sure it’s either really. I think it is just the way it is – let bygones be bygones. Music is an expression and that expression should be left to its respective authors. This post was not to criticise or even finger point, it was simply to take a good look at how differences in cultures pervade music, in respect to Japan and the West. I have nothing against Western music and I enjoy both but there is definitely an interesting parallel between them. I for one hope Japan keeps its wonderfully different and diverse culture and musical tradition. Some great finishing music (with a Ukata!):

Well, hope you enjoyed reading and found some good music. Or if you didn’t like the music, I hope you at least found the post insightful, if not at least something to ponder on. Drop a comment, I’d love to hear from others on the matter!