Lovable communism: Japanese Communist Party creates anime idol character election songs and music videos

The Japanese Communist Party has launched its campaign for the upcoming House of Councillors election this month with the customary tactics of speeches in public places and canvassing, but has also created surely the most original videos by any of the parties competing for votes.

Released online on 7 July, the “WE ARE Kyōsantō!” (We are the Communist Party!) video features an animated idol, Koyō no Yōko, who sings a rousing anthem with the message that the JCP is fair to workers. Dressed in a trench coat and sunglasses, the idol character’s name is a play on koyō, or employment, and her music video comes a time when sexual and power harassment in the workplace as well as death by overwork and other employment issues are looming large in Japan.

we are kyosanto japanese community party music video idol

The catchy lyrics include such gems as “We are Kyōsantō! Seifu o KNOCK OUT! We are Kyōsantō! Seifu o knock out-o! Nihon o UPDATE! We are Kyosantō! Mirai o LET’S START!” (We are the Communist Party! Knock out the government! We are the Communist Party! Update Japan! We are the Communist Party! Let’s start the future!).

The video was preceded by a more subdued debut called “YA!YA!YA! Yatō Kyōtō” (Ya! Ya! Ya! Opposition Parties Fight Together).

These were followed, on 14 July, by “Senkyō de WOW WOW!” (very roughly, “Wow it at the election!”), starring the same idol.

It lies far beyond my expertise or comfort zone to analyse the subcultural terrain these videos are navigating, though the visceral impact is obvious. It is certainly taking various cues from Akihabara subcultures and established anime idols, and is also a curious inverse of something done by AKB48, the archetypal idol group popular with otaku which turned back to (historical) far-left political activism for inspiration for a music video in 2016. More importantly, though, is to avoid dismissing these JCP videos as wacky or incomprehensible, as a total outsider might understandably do. Context is everything.

The JCP has traditionally had a very strong youth wing, which formed a major part of the student movement in the post-war years (leading to many serious clashes with the New Left students). Its youth movement also famously was always very musical. In fact, this was one of the many reasons that the New Left factions lambasted the JCP: that it had not only abandoned the cause of a true revolutionary movement, but was focused only on fun singing and dancing in its activism, when the radicals believed the stakes were so high they justified and even required direct physical conflict with the police. (For a rough comparison, imagine if the main left-wing opposition party in Hong Kong had a youth wing that held peaceful concerts and camping outings while all the other young people were out on the streets clashing with the riot police.)

The legacy of this all-singing, all-dancing JCP remains today in the Akahata Festival that it holds typically every November for several days (though not since 2014), featuring plenty of music, sports and other activities.

While this series of videos may well represent fresh ground for the JCP and its hardworking publicity team, it is far from an entirely new development. The party has had mascots for several years now, causing something of a sensation when the characters appeared with the aim of making communism cute and disseminating a unique kind of kawaii kyōsanshugi. In fact, the idol Koyō no Yōko in the music videos is ostensibly a member of the “Kakusan-bu” (Proliferation Bureau) mascots and has been around ever since they launched in June 2013.

koyo no yoko mascot japanese communist party

We can also see apparent manga influences in one of its most prominent recent posters, which features a shōjo-like young female figure holding up a flag.

japanese communist party poster manga shojo girl

There might be a hint of Delacroix’s iconic Liberty Leading the People there but it also seems to suggest a reference to Aida Makoto’s 1995 pastiche painting Utsukushii hata (Beautiful Flag), from the War Picture Returns series, and which was used for the cover of Ōtsuka Eiji’s 1996 book “Kanojotachi” no Rengō Sekigun (Her/Their United Red Army), a key text in the development of kyōsanshumi New Left fandom discourse.

eiji otsuka kanojotachi rengo sekigun

The JCP also reacted well to the surge initiated by SEALDs (a group that was, not always accurately, associated with the JCP) by mimicking the students’ superb presentation skills in its own subsequent posters, which echoed both the message of SEALDs and the demographic of fashionable yet “normal” youngsters that group so effectively seemed to embody.

japanese communist party poster sealds

As such, the new videos by the JCP are not a one-off attempt to target a small coterie of netizens or an otaku subculture, but part of a general trend by the JCP and others to speak to millennials.

Faced with an ageing population and declining voter turnout rate, Japan took a bold step and enfranchised 18- and 19-year-olds in the summer of 2016. Unlike other nations, where millennials have mustered around visionary left-wing figures such as Sanders or Corbyn, the novice voters are often choosing to vote LDP thus far, possibly because they do not know enough about the other parties, which are sometimes quite new themselves. This is not to say that the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan or JCP do not attract any interest among voters in their late teens or twenties — far from it — but it also suggests that the impact of heavily, sometimes breathlessly discussed youth movements like SEALDs, Public for Future and Aequitas may be more limited when it comes to elections.

The JCP is also not the only political party looking to pick up new votes with new tactics. Even the dusty Liberal Democratic Party is active in this regard, recently trying a fashion magazine and social media tie-up that backfired and stoked controversy. For the current election campaign, the LDP also produced a manga booklet and hired a famous manga artist to make a poster. The CDP is focussing on social media, a choice necessitated by its modest war chest but which also helps it reach millennials quickly. Another of JCP’s approaches for this campaign has included using hip hop music at an event, while another minor party has resorted to cosplay.

For the JCP, its tactics are not just about this one election but rather consolidating its position in the long term as the party of the have-nots. In additional to traditional Japanese left-wing issues like protecting Article 9 and the Constitution as well as the anti-war and anti-base movement, the JCP is competing with the relatively young CDP to be the voice of the precariat and under-represented. For some time now, the JCP has presented itself as the party of the working poor, of minorities, of gender equality, of the young — and of optimism. This is especially emphasised by the current campaign, whose main election motto is “Hope for tomorrow” and the lyrics to the music videos also make very plain.

japanese communist party poster equality

Though its parliamentary presence is modest, the JCP has a strong grassroots base and decent representation in local politics. Like all the parties, it is vital to attract a new generation of support in order to remain a viable political force, acutely so in the JCP’s case because it relies on subscriptions to the Akahata (Red Flag) newspaper as a primarily source of income. Purchasing a print newspaper, yet alone subscribing to one, is a foreign concept for probably most millennials.

Based on the policies it presents first and foremost to the public, the JCP no longer seems a communist party but more like a labour party. Indeed, the shifts we can denote in its presentation style are not merely cosmetic changes but reflect a gradual softening of ideology whose trajectory arguably traces back to the Sixth Japanese Communist Party Congress in July 1955 and the formal, final renunciation of revolution through armed struggle. The most significant recent directional adjustment affects the JCP’s long-held opposition to the Imperial House, even to the extent of agreeing to attend the opening session of parliament when the reigning emperor always gives a speech from a position higher than the lawmakers present in the chamber.

There is an even older precedent to this, though. In the late 1940s, the JCP famously launched a campaign to make itself seem more electable and moderate: its new brand of leftism, it said, was aisareru kyōsantō, a “loveable communist party”. Internal machinations and manoeuvres over the years notwithstanding, these mascots and videos are perhaps only the latest manifestations of an outwardly adaptable and savvy party.


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Local and international activists mark one year until Tokyo 2020 Olympics with week-long protests

To protest the Olympic Games is to protest a global system of corporate sponsorship and capital that takes precedence over the needs of the locals who actually pay in the end for the bonanza. As such, anti-Olympics groups are increasingly transnational, whereby protest movements in host cities join up with peers and allies around the world to work together.

Tokyo is no exception and the main grassroots groups leading the anti-2020 campaign — Hangorin no Kai and Okotowa Link — are enthusiastically partnering with a wide range of activists scattered all over the planet: the NOlympics Anywhere movement.

Marking one year to go until the 2020 Games kick off, this transnational grassroots movement is descending on the Japanese capital for an unprecedented one-week series of events from 20 July to 27 July, attended by organisers from eight recent and future Olympic cities.

tokyo 2020 olympics protests transnational events

The first day will see locals guide visitors around the immensely controversial New National Stadium site, whose construction resulted in expulsions of a homeless community from Meiji Park and residents from Kasumigaoka Apartments. (And this is putting aside the not insignificant matter of the stadium itself, whose original design by the late Zaha Hadid was famously detested by many Japanese architects and was eventually scrapped in favour of a native-born designer’s effort when the construction costs soared.) The tour will then continue around the bay area, which is transforming courtesy of a raft of taxpayer-funded buildings that will host the Olympic Village, accompanied, of course, by a clutch of condos so that the private sector can cash in on the boost to the real estate value of the area. (Something similar is happening around the stadium, too, where an expensive apartment block and hotel are appearing in a district formerly noted, and protected, for its scenic beauty.)

This inaugural fieldwork event is followed by another tour — outside “dystopia Tokyo” this time, to Fukushima on 22 July. Local activists have organised various such tours in the past, most strikingly last year when the Anti-Olympic Torch arrived from South Korea for the handover to Japanese campaigner.

On 21 July, a major symposium will be held at Waseda University with the prominent anti-Olympics scholar Jules Boykoff as the keynote speaker. His lecture will focus on his frequently cited framing of the Olympics as “celebration capitalism” (itself an extension of Naomi Klein’s idea of “disaster capitalism”), whereby usually unacceptable levels of state intervention into civil society and the militarisation of the city are permitted for the sake of the Olympics spectacle, or where the public purse is raided to allow the private sector to profit from the Games.

jules boykoff symposium tokyo 2020 olympics

A press conference will be held (tentatively) at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on 23 July, followed by a solidarity action on the evening of 24 July that is being billed as the Hottest Shinjuku Street Protest. This is a provocative reference to the very real danger that athletes, staff, volunteers, and spectators will face at Tokyo 2020: the Games are being held at the peak of the city’s hot and humid summer, which may well result in fatalities if recent summers are anything to go by. (The 1964 Summer Olympics, to which the forthcoming Games almost obsessively looks back, actually took place in the cooler, autumnal month of October.)

shinjuku protest tokyo 2020 olympics

Other events during the week include an evening “picnic” for activists held in a park in Tokyo — a type of public space increasingly under threat as 2020 looms — as well as a teach-in for invited academics and a seminar on housing and environmental issues. The week culminates in a panel discussion at Sophia University called “Make Olympic History” where grassroots groups Comitê Popular Rio Copa e Olimpíadas, Anti-PyeongChang Olympics Alliance Action, NON aux JO 2024 à Paris, NOlympics LA, and Hangorin no Kai will share their know-how and resources to build strategies for protesting the upcoming iterations of the Olympics.


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Anti-Olympic Poster Committee issues open call for anti-2020 poster designs

Calling all designers and artists! The Anti-Olympic Poster Committee is a new initiative by the Institute of Barbarian Books, an independent print workspace in Fukushima, which has issued an open call for participants.

People are encouraged to “join” the committee by creating a poster “based on the idea of being against the Olympic spectacle” and sending the design to the organisers, who will print and display it at the Institute of Barbarian Books. If you have only a vague idea for a poster or require design help, the organisers welcome sketches of unfinished ideas that can be collaboratively refined with contributors. Posters will be exhibited at the Institute of Barbarian Books for at least a week each and also archived digitally on the AOPOC tumblr page.

anti-olympic poster committee 2020 design

anti-olympic poster committee 2020 design

Further information can be found on the project website, at the Shinjuku infoshop Irregular Rhythm Asylum or by contacting the Institute of Barbarian Books.

It is especially apt that a site in Fukushima should launch this project, given that 2020 is overtly framed as the “reconstruction Games” that will bring hope and infrastructure back to the Tōhoku region. This mantra is vehemently rejected by both anti-nuclear and anti-Olympics campaigners, who see it as an attempt to gloss over the remaining problems in the district and the on-going Fukushima crisis.

Few stridently anti-2020 voices have emerged in the mainstream art and design field in Japan, though architects were initially some of the most prominent critics of the original stadium by the late Zaha Hadid, and the choice of design for the venues has attracted disparagement as uninspired and safe. With some notable exceptions, only a relatively small number of anti-Olympics works have appeared in public at major art museums (the Mori Art Museum, being privately funded, has enjoyed freedom in this respect). The situation is, of course, quite different on the independent or fringe scenes, where anti-government and anti-2020 voices are very common.

The Anti-Olympic Poster Committee recalls the Anti-Olympic Arts Council, an earlier project launched by Hangorin no Kai (No Olympics 2020) members as a call for support and a platform to share information on culture-related Olympics issues.

Two of the leading figures in Hangorin no Kai are Misako Ichimura and Tetsuo Ogawa, who both have art backgrounds. The anti-2020 activism has a strikingly artistic, and parodic, quality, as discussed here before, and Hangorin no Kai even once organised an anti-Olympics poster workshop event in February 2013. The Anti-Olympic Design Project was a deliberate counter-version of an exhibition showcasing the design achievements of the 1964 Olympic Games at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. Instead of celebrating and facilitating the Games through art and design, Hangorin no Kai asked people to make anti-2020 posters and placards that they could then display near the museum one afternoon shortly after the exhibition started. The items participants created were consciously crude and polemical, since the activists’ sentiments did not require the sheen that Dentsu so expensively coats onto the pro-2020 publicity that currently surrounds our lives.

hangorin no kai anti-2020 olympics tokyo poster protest

The guerrilla event was also timed to protest the mounting pressure on homeless people ahead of a visit to Tokyo by the International Olympic Committee in March 2013, which would eventually culminate in controversial evictions from public parks in the city after Tokyo won the bid.


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Left-wing political activist Fumiaki Hoshino passes away after nearly 44 years behind bars

The left-wing political activist Fumiaki Hoshino passed away on 30 May at the age of 73.

Regarded by some as a political prisoner, Hoshino was recently revealed to have liver cancer and moved suddenly — and without advance notification to his family — from a prison in Tokushima where he was serving his sentence to a medical treatment centre in Akishima, Tokyo. There he underwent surgery, which initially appeared to go well, but his health then deteriorated and he did not recover.

He was imprisoned for the death of a police officer in the so-called Shibuya Riot Incident of November 1971, when a left-wing faction protested the terms of the reversion of Okinawa to Japan. Already a veteran anti-war activist from the campus struggle at Takasaki City University of Economics and against the construction of Narita Airport, Hoshino was leading a group of Chūkaku-ha (Central Core Faction) peers that became involved in a violent clash with police officers, during which one was killed. He was arrested in August 1975 and initially received a 20-year sentence in 1979. Hoshino always maintained his innocence but upon appeal a guilty verdict was returned in 1983, along with an even harsher, full-life sentence. This was confirmed in 1987 and the appeal for a third trial rejected by the Supreme Court. He was then transferred to a prison in Tokushima.

fumiaki hoshino activist japanese chukakuha zengakuren

The evidence in the trial was based largely on the testimony of apparent witnesses — fellow activists who made statements during interrogations but which were later retracted. (By contrast, Hoshino was a exemplum of the stoic New Left policy of not speaking or co-operating during police interrogations or investigations.) Asserting wrongful conviction (enzai), Hoshino’s defence argued that there were various elements in the evidence and testimony contradicted by Hoshino’s clothing on the day and his position in the march in relation to where the incident took place.

His family and supporters first started campaigning for a retrial in 1996 and have continued to hold regular demonstrations and rallies in Tokyo and Toshima which attracted hundreds of people. Alongside calling for all evidence in his case to be disclosed, they were also collecting signatories for a long-running petition as well as pursuing legal action over censorship of letters between Hoshino and his wife, Akiko, who he married in 1986. The campaign, organised as the main Hoshino Defence Committee and a grassroots network of local branches, recently applied for early release due to Hoshino’s age and health, though this was rejected, and took out full-page newspaper ads to raise awareness of the case. It also made an official complaint to the United Nations about his treatment in prison.

Conditions behind bars in Japan are harsh, with no heating during winter nor air-conditioning during the humid summer. Hoshino also had his privileges removed for very minor offences in a series of occasions over the years that supporters believe were punitive because of his retrial efforts and political background. They recently held a press conference at the FCCJ to share their views about Hoshino’s indefinite detention.

In prison, Hoshino was a prolific painter and the Hoshino Defence Committee and its various regional chapters often held exhibitions of his work around the country. The latest is scheduled to take place next month in a city in Saitama Prefecture. I have long followed the movement, writing about it here and elsewhere, and it is one of the most impressive examples of the shienkai or kyūenkai support groups for legal defendants — and a prominent part of what scholar Patricia Steinhoff calls “Japan’s invisible civil society”. A protest was also scheduled to take place in central Tokyo in Hibiya and around the Ministry of Justice in early July, though may not now go ahead.

Many others were arrested in connection with the death of the police officer during the Shibuya Riot Incident, including Masaaki Ōsaka, who was apprehended in 2017 after 45 years on the run and is currently standing trial.


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“The Name of the New Era is Taiyo Komon Spapan”: Thirty Years of Music, Politics, and White Underpants

An Interview with Masanosuke Hanasaki of Taiyo Komon Spapan

Interview and Text by Anastasia Traynin
Photos Copyright Hiromichi Ugaya (except top image)

taiyo komon spapan japan music band interview avant-garde politics

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.

taiyo komon spapan japan music band interview avant-garde politics

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.

taiyo komon spapan japan music band interview avant-garde politics

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.

taiyo komon spapan japan music band interview avant-garde politics

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.

taiyo komon spapan japan music band interview avant-garde politics

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.

taiyo komon spapan japan music band interview avant-garde politics

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.

taiyo komon spapan japan music band interview avant-garde politics

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.

taiyo komon spapan japan music band interview avant-garde politics

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.

taiyo komon spapan japan music band interview avant-garde politics

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.

taiyo komon spapan japan music band interview avant-garde politics

taiyo komon spapan japan music band interview avant-garde politics

taiyo komon spapan japan music band interview avant-garde politics

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


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