Deep jazz from Japan

by Marc Rowlands


various Japanese jazz albums

“Geek culture,” replies a frequent visitor, perhaps rather flippantly, when asked to provide an explanation for the Japanese term Otaku. That hardly sounds approving.

 A relatively recent term, Otaku has in it short life been linked with obsessive fandom of anime and manga. Also the notorious Otaku Murderer, who abducted and killed four young girls in the late 1980s. It has been burdened with such negative connotations unfairly.

Rather than a pejorative, Otaku can alternately be defined in a positive light; dedication, learned, committed, passionate, well versed, determined, aficionado. To generalize any ethnic group, using even such laudable attributes, would be wrong, a gross stereotyping. Yet it is true to say that the positive traits of Otaku can be traced within Japanese culture and society, time and time again, long before even the term was coined, and not least within the Japanese love of music.

“I think the Japanese can be an obsessive people and they often have a great attention to detail,” reckons Irish photographer Philip Arneill who, having spent nineteen years teaching and documenting music culture in Japan, has an informed view. “When they get into something they don’t do it by halves, they really go the whole nine yards.”

Arneill’s previous photography projects in Japan have covered the jazz dance scene and rockabilly culture. But more recently his efforts, alongside researcher James Catchpole (who runs a English language Japanese jazz listings site), have been directed towards documenting jazz kissa bars. These aged outlets, part cafe bar, part shrine to jazz music, have been an integral part and unique expression of Japanese jazz culture for over half of the century in which the country has embraced the music. In their owners’ dedication and knowledge, within the serious record collections they hold and in their often pristine soundsystems, something similar to Otaku is clearly evident.

“We went to this place Pithecanthropus Erectus, named after the Charles Mingus album and that’s where it began,” says Arneill of the ongoing project, which has in recent years grown to include institutions far from the Tokyo city boundaries. “We did a couple more and before we knew it we’d done twenty. Then it was forty. Then we were approaching the 100 mark. It’s 120 now.”

While these bars are gradually being edged out of profitability and popularity, Catchpole and Arneill’s increasingly urgent documentation of the venues has found a home both on their website and as the artwork of BBE’s new J Jazz compilation.

J Jazz sleeve

This collection of music, culled from the personal archives of co-compilers Tony Higgins and Mike Peden, showcases some of the heaviest and best examples of Japan’s rarely recognized, homegrown, modern jazz scene. In their collision, these two endeavors offer a glimpse into a little known and fast fading musical world.

“It’s always been easier to access American records,” reckons longstanding U.K.-based enthusiast and record collector Tony Higgins, whose credits include music management, music TV production and work on several previous compilation. “They were broadly imported, it was easier to go there and buy them and there’s no language barrier. A lot of the music contained on this compilation has never left Japan. Many of the records were pressed in small numbers, never exported and almost none of these artists ever played outside Japan. It has remained largely unknown outside a very small group of die hard collectors.”

Jazz music arrived in Japan in the 1920s and its dances became popular social occasions, but with the rise of the military and a move towards fascism the music was outlawed, viewed by those who came to power as being too American and polluting the culture and identity of Japan. When the war started, jazz effectively disappeared. By 1940 all dance halls had closed and some associated instruments viewed as Western were renamed, like the saxophone which became kinzuoku seihin magari shakuhachi (roughly translated as “bent metallic flute”).

“After the war, Japan was occupied for about ten years by American troops,” explains Higgins. “And a bit like in Germany and Austria, where the Allies used jazz as part of a strategy of de-Nazification, it was also used in Japan to counter the fascist, isolationist sentiments of the previous two decades.”

First Flight

“During the war bebop had developed in America. So, when black musicians who were also servicemen brought that to Japan it blew the minds of the Japanese. But there was this crushing sense of inferiority; they’d just lost the war, the Emperor had been proven to not be divine, the Atomic bomb had been dropped on them. It was a massive psychological shock. In the context of that backdrop, Japanese jazz musicians were faced with the arrival of this new music which had a delivery and skill they’d never previously known. They felt an urgency to catch up.”

Japanese jazz players did catch up. And quickly. Playing to segregated bases, their versatility would be put to the test as they catered on differing nights to either white or black audiences. Jazz embarked on a huge revival in Japan and in the 1950s and 1960s the likes of Oscar Peterson, Art Blakey, Horace Silver and Miles Davis would tour there. Initially slow to recover economically from the war, the imported sounds of such musicians were not within the fiscal reach of many Japanese fans and so the jazz kissa bars were born. Their owners were often devotees of certain American artists, bars commonly being named after them or their recordings. Within their walls, all of the latest American sounds would be available to hear, their record collections an investment ensuring the venue’s popularity.

“The one that most people know and that many will mention is called Basie, up in the middle of the northern part of the Honshu island,” says Arneill. “It’s somewhat become the stuff of legend; still run by the original owner, a very colorful character, very slick, wears a lot of jewellery and sunglasses indoors. A very cool guy. He’s met a lot of very famous jazz musicians through the years and he still holds court there every day. The soundsystem in there is particularly great.”

"Swifty" Sugawara at his cafe Basie. Photo by P. Arneill.

“Swifty” Sugawara at his cafe Basie. Photo by P. Arneill.


The popularity of American jazz in Japan during the 1950s and 1960s, bolstered by kissa bars and the tours of visiting artists, is still evident within some of the documentation by the Tokyo Jazz Joints project. This adoration however proved stifling to Japan’s ability to find its own voice within the music.

“Japanese musicians saw Black jazz musicianship as the touchstone of what they should try to attain,” says Higgins. “But, of course, they could never be Black. They copied the fashions, some even went so far as to take on the drug habits of these musicians. Drugs in Japan were virtually unknown, yet some Japanese players became heroin addicts because they thought it was key to emulating the Americans.”

Higgins identifies classically trained pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi, who was discovered by Oscar Peterson when Peterson was on tour in Japan, and Sadao Watanabe, the saxophonist/flautist from Akiyoshi’s band as key players in the country finding an original sound in jazz. Both went to study at Berklee School of Music in the U.S. and demonstrated to the next generation of Japanese musicians that a new and distinct voice was possible.

“Their first records would show elements of hard bop, funky jazz, but they were starting to use Fender Rhodes electric piano. They were starting to stretch out,” says Higgins of this next generation of Japanese musicians such as Terumasa Hino and Masbumi Kikuchi. “Elements of freeform, less structured, some of it was almost psychedelic. Impressionistic music. Like in Europe and America, jazz in Japan wasn’t hermetically sealed, so the influence of other music, like rock, started to seep in. By the late ’60s they’d started to make some pretty far-out music. And that’s where our compilation really starts.”

BBE’s J Jazz compilation offers an odyssey through such varied, progressive and sometimes experimental post-Coltrane sounds, from the late ’60s to the early ’80s. Though much of it will be new to the ears of even jazz aficionados, it is incredibly rewarding, accessible and distinct.

“The sociological context of jazz in America just didn’t exist in Japan,” says Higgins. “You could never have that political frisson, that charge, that undertow, that weight that’s always there in American jazz. It can’t exist. It’s unique to the Black American experience. Japanese jazz has a different soul to American jazz.”


The tell-tale signs of Otaku run throughout these selected recordings from the highly considered writing, through the studied, expert musicianship and the faultless engineering and production. The mastering and pressing of the original albums they are taken from are pristine. But what, if not the Black American experience, is the backdrop or soul of the music found herein?

“It’s an interesting question,” ponders Higgins. “Possibly a desire to exert one’s individuality while remaining part of the group dynamic? Several years ago I interviewed the American bass player Gary Peacock. He lived and worked in Japan for several years in the late ’60s and early ’70s, moving there ostensibly to study macrobiotic cooking and meditation. But, of course, he ended up playing there. He told me that he hadn’t realized that at that time the notion of individuality in Japan was relatively alien. There was an amazing album called The Individualism of Gil Evans and he told me a story where he had to explain to Japanese musicians what was meant by individualism. Part of their culture was about maintaining the harmony of the group, not being an outsider. It’s different now, of course, but back then it wasn’t a fully formed idea. With that in mind, the music of the late ’60s to late ’70s, saw a lot of musicians trying to break away from that group mentality, that stifling of individuality, yet still remain within a coherent whole. They were trying to redefine the balance.”

Those musical efforts, like the dedication of the jazz kissa bar owners, can now be discovered by a new audience far from the restricted locales they have inhabited for the last half decade. In combination, Arneill’s photographs and the J Jazz compilation justly set center stage an exciting and undiscovered soundtrack to a beautiful, disappearing backdrop. Not before time.

J Jazz is out now on BBE Records, and the Tohru Aizawa Quartet LP Tachibana, which contains “Dead Letter,” among other killers, will be reissued by BBE this summer.


Responses from Facebook


2 Responses

  1. This isn’t listed on ebay; However, Audrey Morris, Chicago Jazz Singer and Pianist’s 1906 Baby Grand Steinway Piano is being auctioned by Leslie Hindman on October 17th. There were a lot of great musicians that joined Audrey creating music at that piano: Teddy Wilson, George Shearing, and Oscar Peterson, to name just a few. Audrey always said there was no greater emotional outlet than music, and this piano has a lot of great vibes. So for anyone out there that may be intrigued with an instrument that contributed to the creation of some great music, check out Leslie Hindman, October 17th, catalog #585, Lot 1054.

    – Colleen Pelka
  2. Great article! Now I just need to get my hands on some Japanese Jazz vinyl….

    Panerai Straps

Leave a Response