What Makes Swing Japanese?

by Ryne Hisada

20th-century Japanese jazz history is like if a couple that took a “break” wound up getting married. In the 20s, the country largely embraced jazz as a symbol of Western modernity. Then it transformed into an Axis power, outlawing and demonizing jazz, only until its post-war American occupation reunited the two, rekindling its love for swing and American mythologies

Today, Japan is the most fervent importer of jazz music, and arguably, by proportion of population, where jazz is most popular. 

But simply harping on the surprising popularity of jazz in Japan would do an injustice to its fascinating and often racialized history, one of debates between proponents and detractors to whom jazz was both a reflection and perpetuator of cultural change. Indeed, the arguments that conceptualized what “Japanese jazz” as a genre entailed, had to, by necessity, explore the oft-neglected and logically problematic question of Japanese essentialization: the belief that certain qualities of Japanese culture are unique and intrinsic to Japanese people. 

Ironically enough, cultural essentialization in racial narratives of jazz was (and is) not a phenomenon unique to Japan. In America, discourse around what makes jazz “African-American music” has existed for as long as jazz has been played. Even the seemingly innocent—and, to be clear, historically sound—claim that the blues are a manifestation of the Black experience in the U.S. complicates the authenticity of jazz played by White Americans. (“Never was a white man had the blues, cause nothin’ to worry about.”

Here arises a rhetorical roadblock to the globalization of jazz: how can jazz be at once under the proprietorship of Black Americans and shared as a universal language among all cultures?

Most Japanese, of course, are neither Black nor American (see: Reactions to Naomi Osaka). The conceptualization of “Japanese jazz” is thus a consequence of these racialized claims to jazz music. Supposedly, they’ve adapted traditional jazz to incorporate elements of Japanese musical (and non-musical) culture. Regardless of what the genre entails, as a cultural and historical reality, it makes sense, then, that some people, including good friends of mine in Tokyo, believe that they can distinguish “Japanese jazz” by ear.

Professor of Japanese history and author of Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan, E. Taylor Atkins, is a skeptic of this distinction. Counter to the insistence of prominent Japanese music critics, he is doubtful that the use of space (in Japanese, Ma, defined as “the relatively long, pregnant intervals between notes”) is a distinctively Japanese trait. Similar concepts exist in American jazz: Miles Davis is famously quoted as saying, “It’s not the notes you play; it’s the notes you don’t play.” 

Certainly, not all Japanese musicians share this belief or desire to essentialize Japanese culture in jazz. Professor Atkins, who traveled across Japan conducting interviews for his book, explained that many contemporary Japanese jazz musicians feel that their expression as individuals is far more important than “expressing themselves as Japanese.” But he concedes that if there is any distinctive characteristic of “Japanese jazz,” it is “probably related to the cadence of their language.” 

It’s at this point of the blog that I realize I haven’t yet shared an example of jazz played by Japanese musicians. Here’s Ryo Fukui (Spotify link).

Japan’s essentialization of its own Japaneseness is so pronounced and regular that it is, arguably, an inextricable facet of its culture. It has normalized even pseudoscience on national television. But for its jazz, there exists an additional exigency for justifying a unique “Japanese jazz”: to redress its fears of inferiority to and mimicry of American jazz.

There exists a phrase in Japanese that reveres the origins and authenticity of American jazz: jazu no honba, or “(real) home of jazz.” Before the Second World War, when traveling across the Pacific was a logistical impossibility for most jazzmen, the closest and most accessible “home of jazz” was Shanghai, where booming cosmopolitan nightlife attracted American musicians and dancers. 

After the war, though, as trans-Pacific transportation became increasingly accessible, Japanese musicians made their way to jazz hotspots throughout the U.S. By 1980, the student body of Berklee College of Music was ten percent Japanese. For a large part of the 20th century, it was seen as proper for jazz musicians in Japan to make a pilgrimage to these jazz meccas. 

Erena Terakubo, an Alto saxophonist and member of the esteemed Mingus Big Band was one such jazz pilgrim. Raised in Hokkaido, she received a presidential scholarship to attend Berklee and is now based in New York. Some of Japan’s most recognizable jazz greats (Toshiko Akiyoshi, Sadao Watanabe) attended Berklee, she explained, “which is why, today, there are so many Japanese Berklee graduates.” 

Perhaps due to this jazz brain drain—by which I do not intend to mean that jazz musicians in Japan are necessarily inferior—there exists a discrepancy between popular definitions of jazz in New York and Japan. The sort of Hip Hop jazz that’s popular in Japan today has a starkly different mood and musical culture than the bebop that Ms.Terakubo plays.

In the past few decades, the generic scope of “Japanese jazz” has expanded well beyond bebop. City pop, free jazz, and jazz fusion are among the most popular offshoots of traditional jazz in which Japanese bands have experienced great success. But perhaps the youngest branch of Japanese jazz, if it can be considered an independent genre, is video game music jazz, or VGM jazz. 

The near-ubiquitous presence of jazz and its influence in Japanese video games is a striking reality that, thanks to the internet and online communities, has garnered attention in recent years. 

8-bit Music Theory is a YouTube channel dedicated to the music theory analysis of video game music—mainly of Nintendo’s older franchises. They theorize that the technical limitations of early game hardware necessitated a short music track that loops; jazz sharing this looping form made the two technically compatible. “There’s a whole generation growing up who would never go see a jazz concert, but they would go see a band playing jazz versions of video game music.”

The distinction between Japanese and Western video game music, he admits, is a challenge to put into words. The big names in Western VGM, like Austin Wintory, were taught by—and inherited a tradition of—film scorers and film music. In contrast, Japanese composers like Koji Kondo and Nobuo Uematsu, while not necessarily jazz musicians, seem to share a list of influences: “They all really dug Japanese jazz fusion and progressive rock.” 

“It’s one of those things that everyone can kind of feel. There is a difference between Japanese and Western video game music. But it’s hard to put your finger on.”

It should be noted that cultural music can—and often does—have distinct characteristics without it being a consequence of essentialization. Country music, for example, has a characteristic lyrical style and instrumentation. But its listeners don’t believe romantic lyrics or banjo skills to be intrinsic to Southerners. 

The “Japanese jazz” dilemma arises from a particular historical legacy wherein there exists a need to justify listening to jazz played by Japanese as opposed to “regular jazz,” the characteristics of which have been heavily racialized in American discourses. Indeed, it is a consequence of an incomplete globalization of jazz.  

Is the concept of “Japanese jazz” a rhetorical excuse to distinguish Japanese musicians, or are there truly characteristic differences between Japanese and American jazz? 

Both can be true.

Ryne is a first-year in Davenport College. He can be reached at ryne.hisada@yale.edu.