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Japan Rocks! So Why is the Rest of Asia so Soft? [ 2005.11.23 ]

Rock and Roll, arguably the greatest cultural invention of the 20th century western world. As a young man from a western nation I can certainly vouch for the pure ecstasy this form of music bestows upon the youth of America, Australia, the United Kingdom, and central and northern Europe. What is it about six steel strings being amplified through an electric box accompanied by the sounds of belting drums that can inspire and whip whole generations of western youth into a collective frenzy? There is no one reason. It is for a blend of alternative theories that makes rock music such an enigma. Is it because the messages being sung strike a chord amongst teenage boys and girls about human relationships, feelings and emotions, as well as the passionate themes of politics and even religion? Or is it simply bored kids rebelling against their parents’ generation by turning their stereos up really loud to annoy the older folk with hard and fast sounds? Maybe the tune of the music itself filters deep into the brain and makes the listener blissfully happy for no particular reason. Of course all these aspects are true and present in every western society, however strangely enough and perhaps rather unexpectedly there is one more country that is filled with kids rocking out, Japan.

At first it might not seem so strange that Japan be filled with the chimes of jangling guitars and steady drum beats seeing as the nation has long since warmed to western culture through fast-food, baseball, and an appreciation of Hollywood movies almost as much as the people who these pursuits were created for, Americans. And since the United States was the birthplace of Rock and Roll music it would be just another piece of American culture to permeate across the Pacific into the Japanese Islands. But if this were really the case then why hasn’t South Korea, Taiwan, or even the Philippines similarly embraced the music of ‘Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll’? After all these countries have all to some extent based themselves around many of the cultural premises of the U.S. including political systems, sports, foods, and the convenience store lifestyle of 24hour access to beer and cigarettes. From this it could be argued that rock music would still have sprung up in Japan even if they and the US had never interacted politically over the past 60 years based upon its absence in these other countries. Clearly a US political and cultural influence in East Asia is not enough to tell the whole story of why Japan is so ready and willing to support a Rock and Roll lifestyle.

Other examples exist in places such as Hong Kong, Singapore and even India of Asian people’s hesitance towards the music of guitars, drums and vocals. These aforementioned countries were all, relatively speaking, peaceful colonies of the United Kingdom, a land that has influenced Rock music like no other. It even outweighed the dominance of America during Rock’s heyday of the 1960s. Why then wouldn’t these Anglo-Asian colonies ‘get on board the Rock and Roll express train’ and find enjoyment in the same way that they have enjoyed the British sports of horseracing, football, cricket, and an English style of education and governance? Clearly being politically and/or culturally colonised by a western nation is not a precursor to falling in love with Rock and Roll, the music of the West. This is why Japan’s love of Rock music is such an enigma. Here you have a form of artistic expression born out of the 1950s mid-western United States, twisted and reshaped by the working class youth of 1960s Britain, and then reclaimed hardened and repackaged by an aggressive set of American teenagers through out the 1980s and 90s. How on Earth could this possibly be of interest to the younger people of Japan, a distinctly unique and original culture, unless they discovered for themselves the powerful ability of Rock and Roll to convey social messages about love, hate and most aspects of life in general?

As a non-Asian observing East Asian culture one can generally feel a similarity between the three main tigers, China, Korea, and Japan. In a crude and rather disrespectful way it is often easy for a westerner to mistake art from one of these countries, say China, to be derived from another, perhaps Japan, but there is a genuine similarity between the theatrical, musical, and painted art forms of the three. This is quite understandable of course given their close geographical and ancient cultural ties. But what is it about modern Korea and particularly China that inhibits the development of Rock and Roll music? For China the answer may be more apparent since that nation has consistently dealt itself policies of international isolation when it comes to cultural assimilation. Perhaps a softer way to put this is China has a desire to strongly protect its own cultural integrity in the face of increasing globalisation, which sadly translates to Americanisation. No one can begrudge China of this. It is every nations birthright to live and act as their ancestors have done for millennia, but does this mean certain art forms need be unacceptable. Rock music is after all just another form of musical expression. You will find Opera of one kind or another performed in the palaces of Europe, the rich cities of America, and indeed in Beijing. Sculpture and Architectural design is practised all around the world but remains close to a single form of turning inanimate materials into aesthetically pleasing structures and monuments. No single culture claims sculpture as its own. Conversely no culture refuses to practise the art of creating statues because some other disagreeable culture already does so. It just so happens that carving lumps of rock into beautiful shapes and forms has been around a lot longer than shaping notes and melodies out of guitars and drums. America has statues by the thousands, as does China. So if America and indeed other western nations have Rock music, why can’t China have it too? Or rather, why doesn’t China’s younger generations take to this art form as their Japanese neighbours have?

South Korea is the most perplexing example of how Asia in general fails to understand the musical genre of fast, loud music. For all intents and purposes the Republic of Korea is really following in Japan’s footsteps economically, historically, and culturally. Propped up by US military influence, one only has to walk down the streets of Itaewon in Seoul to see how much Korea has absorbed American values. Unfortunately though when it comes to modern music the most confronting sounds you will hear blaring out of shop speakers and nightclub windows are the sweet soft sounds of Pop music, Rock’s eternal nemesis. Like two brothers in a family, Pop is the high-flying businessman in a sharp suit and a fast car, all neat and tidy and loved by the Ladies. Rock is the black sheep of the family, the jaded cynic who cares less about money and more about having a good time, and well if the hangover means you cant come in to work on Monday then stuff it! There’s always another gig around the corner. This difference in attitude, the sleek and well presented purveyors of Pop versus the perpetually slack and rough around the edges idols of Rock is probably what makes a society like Korea altogether wary. Koreans love their mobile phones and their boyfriend/girlfriend matching designer clothes. It is a society or at least Seoul is a city big on material idealism. No one sits around in last years ripped jeans smoking cigarettes on the street corner talking about which underground alternative Rock star makes the best lyrical statements. They’re too busy looking at their reflections in the subway car’s window making sure their well-groomed head has not a hair out of place. As someone from the west it strikes me odd that young Korean men are so concerned with looking good that they cannot relax, settle down, and listen to the great sounds that Rock music produces. For all of modern Korea’s good points, of which there are many, it can be sad for a foreign resident to go years at a time without much Rock and Roll activity in their life, whilst just across the waters in Japan there is more Rock and Roll happenings in a week than Korea produces in a decade, so how can this be?

Historically it just might be that a seed was planted in Japan, a Rock and Roll seed that was allowed to grow and blossom into a beautiful tree with many different branches all producing wonderful flowers of Rock. The Beatles were and still remain the greatest Rock and Roll band of all time. Hailing from the working class port city of Liverpool in the North of England there was nothing particularly glamorous about their upbringing. Fortunately for them, the West was just waking to the realisation that Rock and Roll was a fantastic form of music, and it just so happened that these four lads were perfect candidates to lead the Rock and Roll revolution. Young, handsome, and extremely talented musicians, they suddenly found themselves taking the whole world by storm with their new sound. Then the unthinkable happened. John Lennon, the charismatic idol and leader of the group fell in love with (you know the story) a young Japanese artist by the name of Yoko Ono. Marrying in 1969 and producing a son six years later, the pair remained in love until Lennon’s assassination in 1980. There most certainly won’t be another band in musical history to dominate the global sound-scape as the Beatles did 40 years ago, and it remains difficult to imagine for someone of a younger generation as to how influential it would have been for a non-Western bride to marry a ‘Beatle’. Japan by all reports became infatuated with these four lovable ‘mop-tops’ and as that generation grew up and had kids of their own they would have passed on this newly found cultural appreciation for Rock and Roll music as produced by the Beatles. This may go some way to explain why Japan ‘gets it’ and the Mainland nations never have. Who knows, maybe if John Lennon had married a Korean woman it would be that nation and not Japan that so comfortably reveres the musical art form of Rock and Roll. Either way I admire the youth of Japan for adopting an introduced style and in many ways enhancing it, or at least keeping it alive and well. Rock and Roll is a state of mind not a political persuasion, so come on Asia forget the West. Just grab hold of the ‘Rock and Roll Express Train’ and enjoy the ride! Japan loves it and you can too.

By Bernard Laidlaw

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