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3:AM Asia: Japan’s music-makers in America

By Roland Kelts.

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When Japanese pop idol group AKB48, a heavily produced amateur team of late-teen and twenty-something dancers and singers, took to the stage in Manhattan’s aging Webster Hall club last month, we all clapped. These were cute young Japanese girls making their debut in the heart of the West’s media maw. Why not welcome them?

But the truth was, as always, more complicated. AKB48 flew to New York to make a splash in the world’s biggest media pond. They had already sung and danced to devoted American otaku types at the New York Anime Festival. They filmed a music video in Central Park. A few New York media outlets promoted them heavily.

But during their 5 p.m. performance on a Sunday in the East Village, they were hardly noticed by most New Yorkers.

Although today’s Asian pop music scene in America is led by the Japanese, there is a perception in the industry that it all depends on anime soundtracks.

That perception must change.

Last week in New York, I had tea with Miho Hatori, formerly part of the duo Cibo Matto, which was successful in both the United States and Japan. “I came to New York in 1993 and never looked back,” Hatori said, sipping from her mug of hot green tea. “It’s the most chaotic city in the world, and I love it.”

There are just a handful of precedents in today’s American music business: Yoko Ono (via John Lennon), Shonen Knife, Puffy AmiYumi. And for eclectic listeners, The Boredoms. Japanese pop music hasn’t survived the flight to the United States well, despite the twin successes of anime and manga.

“Today, without anime soundtracks, we’re nothing,” a New York-based Sony promoter said to me. “We need to [move beyond] anime.”

Is that possible?

The United States is large, much larger than most Japanese understand, and brutally diverse. Like Puffy AmiYumi did, Japanese acts need to tour – and tour hard.

“I love the craziness of America,” Hatori added. “This is the most inventive place on earth, but it’s not easy to make it here.”

Hatori is working on a new project called, appropriately: “The New Optimism.” She is hand-designing limited editions of CDs of her latest songs for devoted fans who want to participate in the creation of her art.

Sound familiar? A little club in New York’s East Village called CBGB once invited fans to participate in the creation of bands that would be known as Blondie and the Talking Heads. Back then, “going viral” was called “grassroots,” but it was the same MO.

In the 21st century, Hatori is an old-school anomaly: A Japanese artist who understands and invests in the American model. She has just written a song about American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, and she happily sent it to me.

At the New York Anime Festival, I attended performances by AKB48, anime voice actor and classical pianist Yui Makino, and one of New York’s newest Japanese imports, a singing and dancing maid cafe performer named Reni-chan.

“I visited New York a few times before I finally decided to live here last year,” Reni told me. “I took dance classes. In the first lesson, when my teacher found that I could not speak English, he told me to move to the back of the class. But once he started teaching and saw me dancing, he stopped the music and said, ‘You, come to the front.’ This never happened to me in Japan.”

“I was like a frog leaping into a different pond,” Hatori said of her decision to relocate from Tokyo to New York in 1993. “It was a matter of my identity back then. But now, paradoxically, I have begun to appreciate the true beauty of Japan. And I want to combine the two – my Japanese self, and my American future.”

Listening to Hatori and Reni-chan, I feel we’re all on the verge of a new Japan – one that may no longer need the United States for validation, but can comfortably fill Manhattan’s Webster Hall on a Sunday.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Roland Kelts is a Tokyo University lecturer who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. This article is hosted by 3:AM and Daily Yomiuri.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, October 23rd, 2009.