A curious allergy? Backlash against Aki Okuda at Fuji Rock reveals misunderstanding of political music in Japan

Fuji Rock, one of Japan’s premier music festivals, takes place in Yuzawa, Niigata, from July 22nd to July 24th.

This year, Aki Okuda, the de facto leader of soon-to-disband student group SEALDs, was invited to speak at a satellite event at the festival. As regular readers to this website will know, Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy-s is a loose group of students who came together to protest the controversial new state security legislation passed last year.

Okuda’s billing has irked quite a few people and sparked a debate online and in the media.

As these things are wont to do these days, the opposition to Okuda’s invitation gave birth to that most facile of expressions of dissent: a Twitter hashtag. The tag ongaku ni seiji o mochikomu na yo (“don’t politicise music”) began to buzz on the social media site, filled with anger at Okuda’s audacity to speak about politics at a music event.

No-platforming has become a hot topic in Britain and elsewhere, especially in regard to people with inflammatory views on gender, sexuality or religion. But these are usually for talks at universities or more high-brow events, and certainly for people coming from positions far more extreme than Okuda. A young man with views that may be generously described as liberal is hounded for appearing at a rock festival? We live in strange times, indeed.

This is all rather shocking for North Americans and Europeans, who readily expect their music idols to be opinionated and involved in politics.

aki okuda sealds fuji rock

The unflappable Okuda has been defended by many, including Masafumi Gotō of Asian Kung-Fu Generation, who is well known for his anti-nuclear stance. In fact, as Gotō pointed out, Fuji Rock was started with a strong environmental ethos and Okuda’s invite was to appear at the Atomic Cafe, an explicitly anti-nuclear event space that has been at the festival since 2011. No one who had attended Fuji Rock in recent years could have escaped the politics.

Ryūichi Sakamoto has also come out for Okuda. Somewhat iconically, Sakamoto and Okuda shared a stage, albeit briefly, at last year’s landmark August 30th rally against the security bills, incidentally when the award-winning musician and composer was still recovering from cancer.

Sakamoto told the Mainchi Shimbun: “Whether to politicise music or not is simply the choice of the artist. If you don’t want to listen to it, then don’t go to Fuji Rock, or just avoid that part of the festival. I don’t get why this is a problem. Rather, the problem seems more to lie in Japanese society itself that makes this into a problem.”

The New York-based composer knows what it is like to be in Okuda’s shoes. Long respected for his liberal views and campaigns for the environment, Sakamoto was one of the most visible figures of the anti-nuclear movement that emerged in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster. He spoke at rallies and launched a series of politicised concerts. For his troubles, he was targeted by the so-called netto uyoku (right-wing Internet trolls) and even explicitly chastised by the right-leaning Sankei Shimbun for daring to venture out of the world of music.

If these critics are to be believed, music and politics in Japan are like chalk and cheese. But that’s not the case at all. So it seems that these benighted yahoos don’t know their history. It goes without saying that, while there’s no local equivalent of Bono (thank the gods!), there is certainly a rich precedent for musicians wading into the murky waters of politics.

At the risk of confecting an inadequate history, here is a journeyman’s attempt at a summary. Let’s start from the twentieth century, for the sake of expedience. During the pre-war period, the Proletarian Musical League was forced to disband for its politics, suppressed in the same way as the government was crushing the Communists. After the war, Utagoe was a group of workers and students who would sing revolutionary songs at meetings. And when the government tried to pass the controversial Police Duties Performance Bill, which would have increased police powers, in October 1958, the earliest written declaration against the bill was signed by 27 members of Seinen Ongakuka in November of that year. It arguably helped get the bill shelved.

And then we arrive at the more stereotypical “political” images. The Japanese Communist Party’s youth wing, Minsei Dōmei, was once famous for its songs, while no New Left rally was ever complete without a rendition of “The Internationale”. (The unreconstructed radicals still sing the revolutionary hymn now.)

Songs like “Sanya Blues” and “Tomo yo” by Nobuyasu Okabayashi captured the zeitgeist of 1968, as did someone like Maki Asakawa. Though her songs were not generally political per se, she was popular behind the barricades. There is something of a classic shot of her standing in front of a blackboard scrawled with political slogans.

maki asakawa japanese singer

As explored before on this website, one of the singular events of the protest cycle in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s was the appearance of the “folk guerrillas” at Shinjuku Station in spring and summer 1969.

Shortly afterwards, the Genyasai music festival was explicitly designed to support the struggle against the construction of Narita Airport. Indeed, whether it was Zunō Keisatsu or Keiji Haino, you couldn’t get away from politics in the underground music scene. The bass player for Les Rallizes Dénudés was even Moriaki Wakabayashi, who went on to be Yodogō hijackers and is currently living in North Korea.

In the Heisei period, too, music has formed an essential part of the ludic nature of contemporary protest in Japan. From the punk band Aki no Arashi to Kōenji rappers, the Miyashita Park protests and the watershed reclaim-the-streets “sound demos” against the Iraq War, the results are carnivalesque, though the topsy-turvy spirit is quite curated and precise. The practitioners are technically deft and use media “tactically”, as Sharon Hayashi and Anne McKnight have suggested, even projecting onto the sides of buildings to achieve a visceral experience for the participant. A protest is always the staging of spectacle in the public space, yet these musical protests are organised anarchy, with carefully planned routes and timetables for the sound trucks so as to achieve maximum exposure to bystanders in the city.

All this adds up to something very different to the aggressive, confrontational and ideology-centric rallies and riots of the 1960s and 1970s. Freeter (precariat) protestors won’t do the snake dance like the Baby Boomers did, but they will boogie behind a thumping four-tonne sound truck as it moves slow down a boulevard as part of outlandish parades. The music varies from punk to noise or rave, and even includes chindon-ya (street bands) that everyone can relate to and feel uplifted by.

In the slipstream of 3.11 and Fukushima, music continued to play a vital role in the protest movement that sprang up. The street actions, such as the April demo by Shirōto no Ran (Amateurs’ Riot) in Kōenji, utilised various sound trucks front and centre with different ambulatory music corps, while as noted, Sakamoto emerged as one of the leaders and most dynamic organisers of the anti-nuclear movement. Though the large rallies are gone, take a visit to the Kantei and Kasumigaseki area on a Friday night and you will still hear lots of music accompanying the weekly vigils.

In the recording studios, the political anger was less overt but nonetheless present. The band Quruli released a political song inspired by Minamisōma, the devastated town on the coast of Japan, to name just one example of the many responses to Fukushima from the mainstream music world.

That being said, (self-)censorship prevails because major record label signees are unable to write political songs, since doing so would almost certainly deny them television exposure, as Noriko Manabe has observed. (Oh, that chicane of media, advertisers, government, academia and power companies they call the nuclear village.) To get around this, the likes of Kazuyoshi Saitō used metaphors in songs (he even resorted to a disguise in one video). However, most of the anti-nuclear songs came from artists on independent labels or were anonymous uploads to the platforms like YouTube.

The musical pedigree continued last year with SEALDs, one of whose main members is a rapper and whose call-and-response actions bear the hallmarks of Heisei-era protest. And right now, Yōhei Miyake, who is running again in the House of Councillors election this month on a ticket supported by Tarō Yamamoto, has made his whole schtick his musical background. His speeches at rallies are like a live music set.

This is not to suggest that music is a tool limited to the Left or opposition movements. In fact, the nation state exploits music stars when it suits its interests. Who can forget the turgid appearance of AKB48 and Exile at the ASEAN summit in Tokyo in 2013?

The Self-Defence Forces, meanwhile, also opted for AKB48, hiring the idol group’s Haruka Shimazaki to front a recruitment video. As Japanese hip-hop scholar Dexter Thomas, Jr put it:

The aim behind using AKB 48 seems to be an attempt to appeal to a specific male desire to protect “their” women, all while cleverly sidestepping the possibility of danger.

Most countries’ military commercials give a glorified version of military service — bravery, sacrifice, adventure. We see images of men and women holding guns, sitting in tanks, and actually preparing for combat. This commercial does none of that.

Instead, the SDF commercial spends more time on close ups of the pretty girl’s face than anything else. The rest of the shots are mainly dedicated to pictures of young men standing at attention or running with tote bags. The last shot of a uniformed soldier is a smiling man hugging a young girl, with the caption “Disaster Relief”.

In other words, there is no mention of armed combat. The cutesy voiceover tells the viewer that the military is a place that is “like the sky, full of unlimited dreams”. This is no longer a military recruitment spot, this is an invitation to Tokyo Disneyland.

Ironically, AKB48, that most banal of pop groups, also appropriated the Zenkyōtō campus strikes of the 1960s for a saccharine summer release this year.

Shinzō Abe is actually rumoured to be a big fan of AKB. If that’s not politicising music, then what is?


Further Reading

Carl Cassegård, “Japan’s lost decade and its two recoveries: On Sawaragi Noi, Japanese Neo-Pop and anti-war activism”, in Perversion and Modern Japan: Psychoanalysis, Literature, Culture, edited by Nina Cornyetz and J Keith Vincent, London: Routledge, 2010.

Carl Cassegård, “Lovable Anarchism: Campus Protest in Japan From the 1990s to Today”, in Culture Unbound, Volume 6, 2014: 361-382.

Carl Cassegård, Youth Movements, Trauma and Alternative Space in Contemporary Japan, Leiden: Global Orient, 2014.

Yayoi Uno Everett, “Scream against the Sky: Japanese Avant-Garde music in the Sixties”, in Sound Commitments: Avant-Garde Music and the Sixties, edited by Robert Adlington, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Sharon Hayashi, Anne McKnight, “Good-bye Kitty, Hello War: The Tactics of Spectacle and New Youth Movements in Urban Japan”, Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 13 (2005): 87-11.

Noriko Manabe, “The No Nukes 2012 Concert and the Role of Musicians in the Anti-Nuclear Movement”, The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol 10, Issue 29, No. 2, July 16, 2012.

Noriko Manabe, “Uprising: Music, youth, and protest against the policies of the Abe Shinzō government”, The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 12, Issue 32, No. 3, August 11, 2014.

Noriko Manabe, “Music in Japanese Antinuclear Demonstrations: The Evolution of a Contentious Performance Model”, The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 42, No. 3, October 21, 2013.

Noriko Manabe, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Music, Musicians, and the Antinuclear Movement in Post-Fukushima Japan, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Robin O’Day, “Differentiating SEALDs from Freeters, and Precariats: the politics of youth movements in contemporary Japan”, The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 13, Issue 37, No. 2, September 14, 2015.

Seiko Ōki, Hitoshi Suzuki (ed.), 1969 Shinjuku Nishiguchi Chika Hiroba, Tokyo: Shinjuku Shobō, 2014.

Yoshitaka Mōri, “Culture = Politics: the emergence of new cultural forms of protest in the age of freeter”, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 6 (1), 17-29.

David Slater, Robin O’Day, Satsuki Uno, Love Kindstrand and Chiharu Takano, “SEALDs (Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy-s): Research Note on Contemporary Youth Politics in Japan”, The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 13, Issue 37, No. 1, September 14, 2015.

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