An Interview with Masanosuke Hanasaki of Taiyo Komon Spapan
Interview and Text by Anastasia Traynin
Photos Copyright Hiromichi Ugaya (except top image)
This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Heisei era and also its unprecedented end, with Emperor Akihito set to abdicate the throne on April 30. It is also thirty years since the start of Japanese avant-garde music and leftist satire theatre group Taiyo Komon Spapan. Their name, which translates as “the sun,” “anus,” and an alternative transliteration of supapan, an onomatopoeic word in Japanese for an explosion, is an oblique reference to the 1989 death of the previous emperor, Hirohito. Originally started as the “Japanese Frank Zappa” from within the Waseda University jazz scene, their sound is rooted in jazz, but often expands to old pop, punk, rock, folk, soul, blues, and other genre-benders, always serving as the backdrop for the politically driven lyrics and performances.
With a core cast of musicians, and other members coming and going, the band’s history rests largely on their live shows, with men in signature white briefs and women in school cafeteria-style white oversized dresses and hats, accompanied by masks, dancing and theatre as an audiovisual parody of the political figures and issues of the day. Apart from their continued critique of the emperor system and the rule of Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, they have ridiculed a range of targets, from US leaders to North Korea’s Kim family, and most recently, have set their sights on protesting the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Beyond the concerts, Taiyo Komon Spapan have released two singles, three full-length albums and two original film soundtracks. In 2017, the band had their first performance at Fuji Rock Festival and released the best-of compilation Taiyo Komon Spapan and Humans, featuring the new song, “Terrorist Trump and Humans,” an extended free jazz and punk takedown of the then newly elected US president. The compilation also includes the satirical sci-fi musical One and Only Flower in the World, directed by Yū Kajino, in which the band members play student victims of Abe’s education policy.
Taiyo Komon Spapan’s founder, songwriter, main composer, lead vocalist and guitarist is Shinjuku resident Masanosuke Hanasaki, a musician and activist since the 1980s. I met Hanasaki while travelling through Tokyo in early February and learned of the thirtieth anniversary celebrations, which will culminate with a September 1 collaborative concert. In person and during a phone interview, we discussed his political awakening, musical journey and the band’s origins, history, and potential future.
On April 16, the band will release music videos for the tracks “Nothing But Crystal Feeling” from the 2015 album Atomic Sunshine: Hippo and Man, with a special DVD release and performance at the Uplink Kichijōji screening of Kajino’s film Aun. Their final Heisei-era performance will be on April 23 at Kōenji’s Grain.
When did you first get involved with leftist activism?
In high school, I turned left. Older people on the street were giving out flyers to everybody and I signed a petition against the Japanese emperor system. I got a call the next day at my house and they invited me to a coffee shop. My image of leftists in those days [early 1980s] was that they were dangerous, so I was afraid to go alone and asked three of my high school friends to join. So the group persuaded me [to get involved].
What were the other issues besides the emperor system? You mentioned the Narita Airport eviction of farmers was a major issue and turning point during those days.
There were many other issues, such as school fees or student autonomy. For example, in Kyoto University’s Yoshida Dormitory, travellers can come and stay very cheaply, because the dormitory is completely governed by students and not the administration, but the school has been trying to break the autonomy.
There was fighting and killing among the New Left. During my university days at Waseda, I was only a member of a student activist group. In my university there was one strong group, Kakumaru-ha, and we were very weak, so we could not talk about the Narita Airport issue.
When did you start Taiyo Komon Spapan and can you talk about the exact meaning of the name?
It was during university. 1989 is the year that the emperor changed [from Hirohito to his son, Akihito] and the Heisei period began, so our band has the same thirtieth anniversary. Hirohito was the most hated emperor all over the world. As everyone in Japan knows, before Hirohito died, he had blood coming out of his anus. So our band is named after that.
When the emperor died, it was not a happy time, so the local governments prohibited festivals and there was a lot of self-imposed restraint. Many people thought that festivals were not majestic. So we organized a festival against the emperor and against this collective feeling. The name of the festival was Taiyo Komon Spapan. At first, it was not the band name but the festival name. We invited the very famous noise musician Keiji Haino, who still plays today. This became the origin of our band.
Has the style and number of members changed over time or mostly stayed the same?
Basically, the core members of the band are the same. The lineup changes, depending on the concept. Some concepts need dancers and some don’t. Sometimes we need three guitarists and sometimes one or two is enough. The core concept is the same, never changing: always leftist and political. Our first full album was Horse and Man, a live studio recording. We like live performances, not so much studio recording. At some point, I focused more on the studio recording but I’ve come to realize that live performance recording is better. And the studio money is an issue.
The second album was Terrorist Bush Versus All Human Beings. Also, we did the soundtrack for the Japanese documentary film Left Alone, which is about the New Left. You know the famous jazz song by Billie Holliday “Left Alone.” And the left. It has a double meaning. I think it’s a very cool movie title.
For the music style, sometimes it’s very rock and sometimes very jazz. Basically, we like black music. Jazz, funk. And also Frank Zappa. Always changing the style and combining lyrics and music. It’s parody. Every music style has a certain character of people. It’s a social structure.
Your character is the white underpants. What is the meaning behind that?
White underpants in Japan are the most unfashionable and ugly costume; they are an alternative feeling. Ugly is beautiful.
There are also women members of the band. Why don’t they wear the underpants?
We also want women to wear the underwear, or maybe even change to women wearing underwear and men wearing the costume, but this is very difficult, especially for Japanese women. But it’s not sexual. I look fat in white underwear and it’s not a stereotypically beautiful image at all. So for a woman in white underwear, it’s the same. You know, in the USA, for women there is now a movement for greater acceptance of different kinds of bodies, such as “fat” or disabled. What we are doing is something like that.
You play a lot of jazz with a bit of punk. Did you always like that kind of music?
At first in junior high school, I played folk songs. My parents didn’t play any music but my older brother did. So I heard famous Japanese folk like Aris and Masashi Sada and we played in a cover band at a junior high school festival. But this was very commercial and popular, not political.
The origin of Japanese rock history is only following the Beatles and Western influence so there is very little political rock music, but from the 1950s and 1960s, there were many leftist folk musicians. Like in the US when Woodie Guthrie went to a big labor union march and everybody sang “We Shall Overcome” and other songs. It was the same in Japan.
At first, the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) was the only communist party. When the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956, the JCP was divided and a New Left group splintered off. The New Left did everything in their power to be political, but they were very small, so only JCP had influence on the masses and in the art scene.
In 1922, JCP was the first communist party in Asia but in the 1930s, the Japanese government turned fascist and the JCP was banned in the period before World War II. After the war, the US army colonized Japan and freed JCP people from jail but it was not a Japanese action. At first the JCP welcomed the US army because they did some democratic reforms, but because of the Cold War, US politics changed. Many war criminals rejoined the government. At that time, the JCP divided into two groups: one connected with Soviet Union and the other connected with the Chinese Communist Party. The main group was influenced by Mao, and their base was in the mountainside and farming communities. They were armed and they attacked the local government and police station with Molotov cocktails. Many people were arrested. Sadly, the Japanese did not support the JCP, so their power decreased. They had their annual national conference from July 27 to July 30, 1955 and there they renounced violence and turned to extreme happiness and dancing. They organized a singing group called Utagoe Undō, sang labor protest songs and made a dance club based on Cossack song and dance. It was a very funny thing.
It’s very important and influential when we talk about Japanese music and the leftist movement. Some of the Utagoe Undō songs were very popular and some were commercial. Normal, non-leftist Japanese people learned leftist songs only from Utagoe Undō and the JCP had a music association for workers called Rō-on. In the mid-1960s, it was very strong and not commercial.
At what point did you move from folk to punk music?
In high school, I liked the Sex Pistols. The first Japanese punk band was Anarchy [named after the Sex Pistols’ song “Anarchy in the UK”]. They are from my hometown of Saitama, so we really liked them. Anarchy had one song against the emperor system but their record label prohibited it. Right-wing people invaded their concert and clashed with them. It was a very sad thing. I was very influenced by that situation so I organized a band in my high school days, a political three-piece punk band also in the style of the Clash and the Jam, called Chitsukeren, a sexual but political name like Pussy Riot. It was very political and emotional. After that, I organized a band that was very smart and fashionable but not political. You know, like Paul Weller’s The Style Council. In my high school days, we liked the Jam, so we thought The Style Council was too superficial. But in the end, I made a band like that, too.
Did you ever have ideas for being something other than a musician or did you have another major at university?
I was a leftist activist, so the main purpose of going to university was never to study. In Japanese history, it’s well known that musicians, painters, and artists take a major in university unrelated to their passion. Japanese jazz musicians since the 1930s didn’t study music at university.
At Waseda University, I was in a university activist group and a jazz circle. Waseda University modern jazz society has produced many leading jazz musicians. I joined that club and another black music club.
Was the jazz club connected with activism as well?
That was complicated. On the jazz side, I only played music as a general member. In the other one, the leftist club, I was a leader. Eventually within the jazz club, the concept changed and went left. I “good brainwashed” and educated some of the musicians, a little. [Laughs]. Some of the members still in the band are from that 1980s jazz club.
Was Zappa really popular in Japan at the time?
Frank Zappa said he was not so popular in USA but in Japan, almost everyone who liked music listened to at least one song. I was influenced by his lyrics against right-wing Christianity. So at first our concept was being Frank Zappa in Japanese, against the Japanese politicians and all that.
It seems to be hard to make a living as a full-time musician in Japan and you have mentioned up and down periods within the band. Have there been any particular turning points over the thirty years?
Basically, at first we were students. Some people went and got stable jobs. Not only me and our band but also many other student bands were in a difficult situation. Some of them were not “brainwashed” and educated enough. Some people from our band have become famous musicians. They say things like “you are too leftist and I can’t make money,” so they leave and go commercial. Some are full-time musicians but still stay in the band.
It’s the same all over the world. It was the same in Frank Zappa’s band. Very good musicians like George Duke were in it for only a very short time.
That problem still exists. Some people want to enter my band just as musicians but they are not interested in the politics. They found a big record company doing music for TV or commercials and they have sponsors who are very nervous about political things so they can lose their jobs because of Taiyo Komon Spapan. It’s the main cause of the ups and downs.
Were you involved in any other political events during the early formative years leading up to the first album?
We did some events against the PKOs (Peacekeeping Operations). It was very important. The Japanese army is very restricted through Article 9 [of the Constitution]. The United Nations wanted the Japanese army to go abroad so for the first time, they made the Peacekeeping Operation Law, which took effect in 1992. There was a big movement against that and one very big festival in Tokyo that we played at the time.
How does your personal songwriting and composing process work? Do you start with just the words and add the guitar/other musical layers or is there more freedom and improv in putting a song together and do band members eventually collaborate?
Originally it was Hajime Kobayashi and me composing, but these days it is mostly just me. Now he is a very famous keyboard player in Japan. He is still leftist and still in the band, but it’s very dangerous. He does very commercial work every day. The number one keyboard hit in Japan was made by him, so we continue to discuss. Otherwise, sometimes band members collaborate and improvise, and sometimes I bring only the basic elements and we jam and make something together.
Your lyrics touch on serious and tragic topics in Japanese society, like suicide and the education system. Does your initial inspiration come from using musical satire to critique reality or is there something else driving your creativity as well?
Because I am a leftist, in a broad sense, I think art in the capitalist era is all about propaganda. Out process is first, we discuss with the band members and leftist activists about the topics for the music and secondly, I think about the lyrics. It’s always like that. So everyday I am reading the newspaper and in a café, I listen to normal Japanese people’s conversations and I search what they are talking about. Also, it comes from something that politicians like Abe or Trump say. That’s my inspiration.
You also directly critique the US.
The US influence is very big all over the world, for 100 years and still today. So we must talk about US issues. At first, we were only taking on domestic matters like the emperor system. Our second album was originally planned to be about Emperor Hirohito and his wife, Nagako [who died in 2000]. Then George W. Bush invaded Iraq and it was a very big thing, so we changed the album concept and it became about Bush and the war.
About the performance, in Western progressive protest culture, there is somewhat of a tradition of brass instruments, drums, visuals, satire, and sometimes masks. My reference is something like Bread and Puppet. From the Japanese perspective, where does your influence come from?
I had only heard the name Bread and Puppet, but I looked into it more and it’s very interesting.
Japanese demonstrations are a very traditional style. Only physical demonstrations and no music. Actually, I like this tradition style. Snake demonstrations or French-style march, where the protesters take up the whole street.
In Japan, even though music is generally not leftist, theatre and film is more so. So growing up as a leftist musician, I was kind of jealous of those scenes. [Laughs]. As a high school student, I went to a very famous leftist drama at the time, held with a big tent in a park. It had a band with brass and drums and only natural sound. No PA. I was very moved by that. I’m very happy to now have a legendary saxophone player with my band, Kanji Nakao. He was in a group that I saw when I was in high school. From Japan, I’m mostly influenced by drama and film, not music.
Can you talk about Japanese and other filmmakers that have influenced you?
There are many, but especially I’m very moved by American leftist theatre from the Roosevelt era, the late 1930s and 1940s, before the end of the war. Later, they went to Hollywood, but also they were part of the Red Scare. You know the musical drama The Cradle Will Rock from 1937? That’s Orson Welles and Marc Blitzstein in the leftist era. Also there were many European smart leftist intellectuals, like Brecht and Stravinsky, who fled Europe. They did very advanced conceptual leftist theatre. I was very moved by them going into a factory and showing theatre. I was very inspired by this work.
And of course Japanese tent theatre, which is very leftist. Sometimes police came and stopped it. Myself and other student activist comrades from other universities, like the University of Tokyo, wanted to do the same tent theatre, like our first Taiyo Komon Spapan festival that protested the festival restrictions. But the university and police stopped that drama. I was part of a sit-in protest to protect that theatre but we lost and the tent had to be moved out. I was very influenced by that kind of experience.
Since the band’s satirical theatrics often extend to sexual elements, especially between male band members, is there any subversion of sex in mind, perhaps related to your subversion of “beauty”?
In Japanese, sexual matters are very controversial. Traditionally, the Japanese had fewer taboos about sex, as can be seen in shunga [erotic woodblock prints], but 150 years ago the Meiji government wanted to westernize and they restricted every aspect of sexual material. So in the 1960s and 1970s, some leftist activism was very connected with sexual expression. The famous film director Nagisa Ōshima made the film In the Realm of the Senses, which included actual sex and hardcore scenes. It was the first movie of that kind in Japan. We could never see the full scenes in Japan but people could in France. That kind of weird and stupid thing is still going on to this day. Some European art films that show women’s pubic hair are censored in Japan with ugly white dots. Japanese police and government are very restrictive about sexual matters. So I also bring sexual topics into my band.
When people see your band, maybe they have some association with this kind of thing and also queer sexuality.
Yes, I think that’s right. So I have the underpants. You know, I think the Japanese indie music scene is not intelligent and has no sense of humor. Seriousness is the Japanese way. It’s fake seriousness, I think. Japanese traditional art like kendō, sadō and the tea ceremonies, karate, Zen Buddhism, Miyamoto Musashi and things like that are so serious. So the rock musicians are also not joking. They are trying too much to look good and come off as very stylish. So the underpants are a purposeful counterpart. At first, we tried to imitate a costume concept, something like the famous US gay band The Village People. The guitarist is a policeman, the bassist is a beggar, and the singer is a doctor. We tried but it cost too much to make the costume. So only underpants are OK, but you can imagine our roles.
Given that you always have many band members and radical theatrics, what kinds of venues do you have a strong relationship with?
The Japanese avant-garde rock scene has no money and there are very few people who attend. For example, Keiji Haino is very popular in Europe and USA, with maybe 500 or 1,000 people in the audience, but in Japan I’ve been to some avant-garde concerts with only five or ten people. Japanese people don’t like avant-garde and advanced music, only idol groups and pop music. So very few venues accept us, a very advanced concept band.
Sadly, the Japanese music scenes are too divided between the different genres. For example, the Japanese jazz scene is very small and does not want to communicate with others. It’s the same with the black music scene and the progressive rock scene. These small communities are very closed and don’t try to open up. In our band, it’s first the lyrics and the concept, and then the music. So it crosses different genres, but it’s a very Japanese way to like only one genre. So our band has a difficult time finding where to play.
We have even experienced venue owners kicking out our band. So we still can’t play many live houses in Tokyo, but there are still a few advanced places that let us have a show. Most of the owners are leftists and support the avant-garde style. In the early 2000s, we could only do an in-store live show at Tower Records in Shinjuku, when many other venues had evicted us. At that time, they had a good attitude towards hosting indie and avant-garde music. Now Tower Records is only in Japan, but it’s more commercial. Last year, we did a performance in the Ikebukuro area but the owner prohibited us from wearing white underpants, so we could only do it wearing clothes. That kind of thing happens many times. We are very concerned every day.
How much does audience participation and interaction affect the performance, whether at a big outdoor festival like Fuji Rock or a small Tokyo venue?
Normally our concept is divided into three parts: the show, seated discussion time, and then again the show. But some people who only like music dislike that style, so they go home during the discussion time. In the case of outdoor festivals, it’s a very good opportunity for us because there are many people at the festival, but it’s a difficult matter because in Japan the people who go to festivals don’t normally listen to music or go to live houses [live music venues]. They go with their work friends to one big event, like a hanami cherry blossom festival. Fuji Rock Festival can be like that, too. They only go for fun and they see a funny band wearing white underpants. Festival people are only party people. They enjoy our band a lot but they don’t try to understand our band’s actual concept.
What is your view on the current state of leftist social movements and counterculture in Japan, especially the music and art within them? How does Taiyo Komon Spapan fit in with the scene, or are you doing your own thing entirely?
This is a very important question. Within the leftist scene, it’s not such a good situation. The liberal and ecological, environmental, anti-nuclear movement is popular. Many musicians have taken up these issues and sing about them, like Ryūichi Sakamoto formerly of YMO. They do some kind of anti-nuclear movement and many people follow them, but it’s only anti-nuclear and they do not sing about capitalism and class. So I think their addressing of it has failed because the Japanese nuclear power plant issue is very connected with the economy. The nuclear power plants are in the poor villages and it’s very big money. It’s a class and capitalism thing. Now the job rate is low and many people are getting poorer because of the rise of China. So many poor people support the nuclear power plants for work.
It’s a key point, but the musicians don’t care about poor rural people, so they sing only about abolishing the nuclear plants. It’s only supported by the middle class and upper middle class city people. And the very sad thing is that the liberal, ecological people actually support the emperor system. The current emperor [Akihito] and empress Michiko often go to shake hands with the evicted people in Fukushima. The conservative people really like the emperor, so they cry and enjoy that. So many other intellectuals like novelists now also support the emperor, saying he is “peaceful” and “anti-nuclear.” We think it’s a big problem. In the case of theatre and film directors, there are some leftists and communists, but in the music scene maybe it is only us.
The current main political issues seem to be the changeover of emperor and the 2020 Olympics. How are you involved with that?
Of course, we are starting to organize some events. The problem is, there is the music scene on the one hand, and on the other hand, the political and leftist scene is kind of stubborn and traditional. No music, no art. They don’t understand the underpants things, so it’s very difficult to connect the two things. But we want to try.
Beyond that, what is your main political position these days?
I think the main problem in the world is capitalism. Even though I have some criticisms of it, basically I believe in Marxism. I’m a communist.
You’ve played many concerts in Japan. Do you have plans to perform in other countries?
I want to go overseas. In the future, we want to be a global band. We sing about global things, such as capitalism. We collaborate and play together with some Japanese avant-garde jazz musicians. They are not political but also not commercial. Some are not so famous in Japan, but rather more famous in Europe or the USA. They take advantage of having no lyrics. Japanese lyrics are very difficult.
We have the thirtieth anniversary show on September 1 and we will invite other musicians. It is very important for our band and for the Japanese music and leftist art scene, so we want many people to come.
Horse and Man (1998), live in-studio recording
Penis (2000), maxi single
Terrorist Bush Versus All Human Beings (2003), studio album
Sorrow Goodbye (2004), maxi single
Left Alone (2004), soundtrack
Lazarus (2007), soundtrack
Atomic Sunshine: Hippo and Man (2015), studio album
Taiyo Komon Spapan and Humans (2017), best-of compilation