Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical History of J-Pop

By Henry, Eric | Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Annual 2013 | Go to article overview

Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical History of J-Pop


Henry, Eric, Southeast Review of Asian Studies


Michael K. Bourdaghs, Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical History of J-Pop. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. xii + 285 pages.

Michael Bourdaghs, professor of modern Japanese literature at the University of Chicago, has written a shapely, smoothly written, and informative book with many original ideas and insightful discussions. It is moreover enriched throughout by an excellent and extensive use of Japanese source material, including novels, historical works, and memoirs by singers and songwriters. The volume does not construe music as mere patterns of notes in a vacuum. Everything is embedded in a rich awareness of sociopolitical developments in Japan.

Japan was the first country in East Asia to develop music that could be called "popular" in the sense that it was urban, lowbrow, and media-dependent. Japan's first phonograph recording of a popular song--"Katyusha's Song" by Nakayama Shimpei [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1887-1952)--appeared in 1914 and sold 20,000 copies, an astonishing figure considering the demographic, economic, and technological conditions that pertained at the time. This, however, is not where Mr. Bourdaghs begins; nor does he attempt to provide us with a comprehensive history of popular music in Japan. As he explains in his introduction, his study is limited to the period from the end of World War II to the beginning of the recession that followed the economic collapse of 1990. He nevertheless refers to music of earlier and later periods, demonstrating a solid grasp of the historical context of the music that he deals with in detail.

Bourdaghs begins by examining film director Akira Kurosawa's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1910-98) use of music in eight films that appeared between 1945 and 1955. In general, Kurosawa regarded Western classical music as emblematic of sanity and strength and associated the Western-influenced jazz and boogie-woogie music emanating from Tokyo's seedy bars with instability and social corruption. Nevertheless, this "degenerate" music is prominently featured in his films. Also discussed in the opening chapter are aspects of the careers of the jazz composer Ryoichi Hattori [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1907-93) and the jazz singer Shizuko Kasagi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1914-81), both of whom began their careers in the 1930s.

In his introduction, Bourdaghs explains that his own popular tastes run to punk, new wave, funk, power pop, and old-time rock and roll. In view of this, I did not expect him to deal very insightfully with the singing of Hibari Misora [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1937-89), who, in spite of her great mastery of many styles, did not particularly cultivate any of those genres--but in fact his chapter on Misora is one of book's great strengths. Hibari, as he says, was the most important figure in postwar Japanese popular music and was one of the twentieth-century world's most talented singers. Bourdaghs traces her evolution from a child prodigy singing blatantly Western "boogie-woogie" music in the late 40s and early 50s to the brooding husky-voiced singer of enka [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] songs and other tragic ballads in which she seems to incarnate the age-old soul of Japan.

Chapter Three is devoted chiefly to the paradoxes inherent in the career of Kyu Sakamoto [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1941-85), a rockabilly singer who had a brief, remarkable moment of glory when his single "Ue o Muite Aruko" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("I Gaze Upward as I Walk") became a hit in the United States in the summer of 1963. It was released by Capitol Records as "Sukiyaki," a title recognizable to English speakers as the name of a Japanese dish, but having no relationship to the song lyrics, which concern male romantic loss. As Bourdaghs notes, neither the dish nor the name denoting it have deep roots in Japanese culture; they were Meiji-period innovations. …

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