There’s a café/bakery at Itsukaichi called the Little Mermaid, which I dearly love- it’s part of some behemoth baking conglomerate, but hey. I love it because serves tasty pastries and bread products, alongside donuts filled with cauliflower curry (which are bloody good) and sesame-coated pounded rice cakes containing sweet red bean paste*. I love it because it’s light and airy, and feels like part of a community. The coffee there, and generally in Japan, isn’t quite to my taste, but it’s still half-decent.
But I particularly love it because it plays music reminiscent of a certain kind of old film- optimistic 50s and 60s kids movies full of adventure. It’s the perfect music to accompany a breakfast coffee on a day off work, before hopping on a train to explore some new facet of Hiroshima. Sometimes the mood switches into lounge jazz instead.
I was playing Pokémon the other day (well, when in Rome), and I suddenly realised that the music playing in a café on the game resembled the music you often hear in similar establishments here. This is a nice little detail I would never have noticed before.
Lounge jazz in particular is everywhere, but Japan seems to have genuine affection for the sort of background music that gets lumped together as muzak. My workplace has a tape which genuinely contains a bossa nova remix of Greensleeves- oh, that such a thing exists! Kiosks have theme music. The Hondori shopping arcade plays a particularly irritating airy synth melody on repeat.
However, the strangest thing has started to happen to me. Like a werewolf catching its reflection in a moonlit pool mid-transformation, I have caught my eye in the mirror and realised with horror that I am starting to like having muzak around me. I know, I know. I don’t understand what’s happening to me. Has vaporwave softened me up? Is it because muzak is devoid of cultural context and so am I, out of place in a society I still don’t understand? Is it just because, on some fundamental level, I have no taste? At any rate, I need to investigate these feelings further.
Japan has also been at the forefront of the most bizarre, alienating, avante-garde wing of industrial music. The sort of cacophonous feedback-laced noise that’s almost impossible to tolerate, let alone like- listen to Merzbow for a sense of this (the youtube comments are high quality on his videos, BTW) . It’s sort of like anti-music- it’s so far removed from everything that makes music, and I can’t begin to understand why you’d ever want to listen to it. One of his records, Turmeric, heavily samples both the artist’s pet chickens pecking random objects and industrial machinery.
But in a strange way, I think you can draw connections between these industrial hellscapes and a culture of super-easy-listening background music. Certainly, I think the boundaries between music and not-music are less clear cut here.
Japan’s music industry operates wildly differently from the UK’s in a lot of ways. I will write more about this in the future, when I can do it justice. I haven’t seen any live music here yet, and my knowledge of the music scene is inchoate at best. For now, I’ll simply say- Japan, thank you for the muzak.
But I’ve also been listening to King Krule’s The Ooz this week, and some of the songs of Tunng’s upcoming album, and I’m in no doubt that my home country makes the best music in the world. More on this in the future too.
‘Till next time,
* In case you know Japanese food, and are thinking, ‘hey, aren’t those mochi?’, the answer is no, no they’re not. Or at least, they’re not like other mochi which I’ve tried- they’re harder and have a different texture.