Outside interest in decades-old Japanese music has skyrocketed in recent years. What do music heads inside Japan think about this trend? Daisuke Ito investigates.
Labels from across the US and Europe have reissued dozens of wamono records in the past five or so years, with a particular focus on 1980s ambient, new age and experimental music from artists like Midori Takada, Yasuaki Shimizu and Hiroshi Yoshimura. While ambient has been the focus, recent interest in Japanese electronic music from decades past has also stretched to boogie (Minako Yoshida), house (Soichi Terada) and techno (Shinichi Atobe). Labels continue to reissue Japanese gems, many of which fetch high prices on Discogs. The trend seems likely to continue.
Most of this hype, though, is from the perspective of outsiders looking in. Here in Japan, the re-evaluation of this music has been happening for a while now. In the early '80s, comic artist Takashi Nemoto and music critic Manabu Yuasa started reissuing a slew of obscure, out-of-print kayo kyoku (old Japanese pop) records as part of the influential Maboroshi No Meiban Kaihou Doumei (which roughly translates to "The Forgotten Classics Liberation Alliance") project. This, along with the UK's rare groove movement, which arrived in Japan in the '90s, sparked an appreciation for domestic rarities among Japanese listeners that continues today. In order to see the bigger picture of the current wamono movement, we need to take a look at what led to it.
For that reason, I decided to talk to four key figures in the scene—Chintam, Chee Shimizu, Toshiya Kawasaki and Ken Hidaka—to shed light on what led to this wamono explosion, explore what this worldwide fascination means for Japan, and find out how it's affecting music scenes here.
The word wamono has been in use among record collectors and enthusiasts in Japan for a while now. But the word didn't become common vernacular among club music fans until 2015, when the widely popular book, Wamono A To Z Japanese Groove Disc Guide, was published. The co-author of the book, Chintam, has worked as a record buyer for many record shops, and is currently the owner of Blow Up, a record store in Shibuya that specializes in genres like soul, funk, jazz—and wamono. He's also a regular DJ at GroovyWamonoSummit, a party that focuses on Japanese music, and has been involved with reissue projects under the Wamono A To Z banner (such as the reissue series, Wamono A To Z Presents Groovy Wamono Summit With Victor And Columbia).
In the book and in his sets, Chintam delves into a variety of Japanese records, with a focus on groovy, danceable rhythms. As someone who's been involved in Tokyo's record digging scene for over two decades now, he's the perfect person to ask about wamono's evolution.
"Up until the mid-'90s, there was no such concept of wamono," he said. "Being a DJ, I did own some Japanese records, but playing Japanese music in DJ sets was almost taboo. The rare groove scene that started gaining popularity in the late '80s and early '90s made it somewhat OK. Compilations from countries like the UK included Japanese music with American soul music influences―like stuff by Kimiko Kasai and Minako Yoshida―and we got reacquainted with domestic music in that way.
"Back then, when I would go overseas to buy records, I'd bring Japanese records with crazy drum breaks in them to give to, or trade records with, the buyers in the shop, in exchange for info. But personally, I wasn't into wamono stuff very much at that point. But around 1999, I got bored of listening to foreign music, and started wanting something different. I started looking for funky Japanese records in the context of the rare groove movement. Those records were cheap back then so I was able to buy a lot of records just to check them out. I would find stuff that made me go, 'Wow, this is like that one song, and it's crazy! Wow this is a cover of that song!' I discovered great stuff. It was refreshing for me, and I started collecting them for the purpose of listening more than playing in sets."
Since wamono simply means "old Japanese music," the word can encompass a wide variety of genres and styles. There are many DJs and collectors that became fascinated with wamono from the funk, disco and soul perspective like Chintam did. Before that, there were enthusiasts collecting expensive '50s and '60s "group sounds" (British-Invasion-era Japanese rock) and swing jazz records.
Chintam tells me that a "major turning point for the wamono scene" came around 2000, when many record diggers and DJs in Japan started digging for domestic funk and jazz funk records. Producer Yuji Ohno's work, like Hatsumi Shibata's album Singer Lady (reissued in 2008) and Lupin The Third soundtracks, were among the favorites. Besides digging for used vinyl, fans enjoyed wamono-related releases like Samurai-Era, the 1999 Japanese jazz compilation compiled by Kaoru Inoue (which is what got Mule Musiq's head Toshiya Kawasaki into wamono), and the Nippon Breaks & Beats mix series by DJ Muro's alter ego DJ XXXL, which collected drum breaks from Japanese records.
"I started noticing people overseas collecting wamono records around 2008 or so," recalled Chintam. "I was selling records from an online shop back then and there were people from other countries that would send me record titles in kanji. Dimitri From Paris was looking for Japanese boogie and DJ Spinna asked for Japanese fusion for sampling. First, it was the artists and DJs that showed interest, and then the general music fans started getting into it, I think because Japanese sellers started selling records on Discogs, and Japanese records started popping up on popular DJs' mixes."
It's now common to find house and disco DJs regularly dropping groovy Japanese cuts in their sets. Many producers see Japanese music as opportunity for finding untapped sampling sources. "For those outside of Japan, wamono is rare groove," Chintam said.
Paradoxically, the UK's rare groove culture ignited interest among Japanese listeners to rediscover their home country's musical past. "For us Japanese people, if there's one thing that was difficult with wamono it's that, because we understand the lyrics, it felt kind of weird to hear it on the dance floor at first," said Chintam. "DJs hesitated to play it at first. I'm sure that's why it used to be taboo. The music is straight-up boogie, but because the lyrics are in Japanese, people were like, 'Wait, is it OK to dance to this?'"
These days in the wamono scene, Japanese boogie and disco fever has cooled down, the revival of city pop (a loose term for Japanese soft rock from the late '70s) is past its peak, and '80s fusion and New Jack Swing is becoming the next hot thing. Because everybody looked for Japanese disco, boogie and funk records, stores ran out of stock and prices skyrocketed. Fusion records, on the other hand, are still relatively cheap, and have a different feel to them musically. Jay Worthy & The Alchemist's Fantasy Island is an example of a project that made liberal use of city pop and Japanese fusion samples.
"The album uses the kind of refined, sparkly sounds used in Junko Ohashi and Toshiyuki Honda's music," said Chintam. "That sort of music has a distinct Japanese feel in the melody and choice of sounds. I think that's what intrigues people in other countries. Japanese boogie records are all just expensive and city pop is a little overhyped by now. I feel like in the past decade, wamono's most accessible parts have been dug out. What I focus on now is Japanese fusion and Minyo (traditional Japanese folk music). I used to buy that kind of music for sampling reasons but recently I've realized the music is just as fun to listen to and dance to. There's something about the melody that sounds good to the Japanese ear. It's still cheap, and there are still so many out there, so it's worth exploring."
The rediscovery of groovy Japanese classics sparked by UK rare groove, as Chintam described, is the main wave of the current wamono movement inside Japan. On the outside, international labels have reissued a variety of Japanese records including disco, new age and ambient in recent years. Ken Hidaka works as a coordinator that handles deals between Japanese and overseas labels. He also curates projects and manages Midori Takada, one of the artists enjoying a newfound success thanks to wamono's popularity. He said he discovered international demand for wamono six years ago, and was taken aback by it.
"In Midori's case, her album Through The Looking Glass was on YouTube and had close to one million views. I met her before the reissue, and after the reissue came out in 2017 it had almost double the views. There's a number of unofficial uploads of rare music on YouTube that sometimes garner incredible view counts. Scenery by Ryo Fukui that We Release Jazz reissued has eight million views."
When licensing reissues, Hidaka sometimes hires Japanese writers to write liner notes to make sure the information is accurate. "When we did Through The Looking Glass with Palto Flats and We Release Whatever The Fuck We Want, we asked the writer Masaaki Hara, and when we did Colored Music's Colored Music we got Chee Shimizu to write liner notes in Japanese, which then got translated in English. The liner notes I see in reissues written by foreign writers sometimes read like it was based more on fantasy than research. I wanted to make sure we provided real information."
Hidaka said there is a "massive" list of records labels they want to reissue, but the process is slow and labor-intensive. It often takes a long time to get permission from the Japanese major labels that originally released many of the most sought-after titles, and requests are often rejected.
"When you're talking about digging up rare records, I feel like it's hard finding anything new anymore," said Hidaka, "but when you're talking about re-releasing important works to be consumed by a bigger audience, there are still many titles that need to be out there. Kimiko Kasai's Butterfly is owned by Sony Music, which is notorious for being difficult with reissue licensing, but Be With Records were able to put it out after a few years of negotiation. There's a good chance we'll be seeing a lot more reissues in the future. "
While a lot of the reissues are led by international labels, Mule Musiq is one Japanese label that's stepped up to the task. Owner Toshiya Kawasaki launched wamono-focused sub-label Studio Mule in 2017 and released a roundup of domestic disco and boogie called Midnight In Tokyo Vol. 1. He's since taken on interesting projects like jazz pianist Fumio Itabashi's 1982 masterpiece Watarase and a cover album full of classic Japanese material.
"The reason I started the sub-label is simply because I didn't want foreign labels to take all the great music," Kawasaki said. "Right now, Tower Records, HMV and Japanese record labels are all doing reissue projects but often the distribution is limited to the domestic market. And I feel it's not promoted properly. I felt that with Mule Musiq I could introduce the music to a global audience. Also, any label can get licensing and just reissue an album, but I wanted to figure out what the next step for the wamono scene should be. In order to overcome the time-consuming licensing process and the potential risk, I realized that we could just do covers instead. That's how Studio Mule's cover project started."
This project enlists people like producer Kuniyuki Takahashi and Dip In The Pool's vocalist Miyako Koda among others, covering tracks like "Carnaval" by Taeko Ohnuki and Mariah's "Shinzo No Tobira." Following a few singles, they've released an album of covers entitled BGM. Kawasaki's also released re-recorded versions of albums from the jazz bassist Motohiko Hamase called Intaglio and Reminiscence.
"Musicians generally like to see their music re-released and accessible to the world," Kawasaki said. "I'm disappointed when labels are reluctant to make that happen. Music is supposed to be listened to and a lot of listeners want to be able to hear music they otherwise can't get. And the best thing for us diggers to do is to introduce the records out there that are still cheap but are not very well-known to a wider audience. I feel like reissues of wamono should focus on that as well. Studio Mule's compilations do feature some rare tracks, but we also highlight cheaper records that anyone can buy for 1000 yen."
Like Chintam, Kawasaki rediscovered Japanese music through UK rare groove. But Mule Musiq's wamono releases tend to have a distinct edginess that's carving out a niche in the wamono landscape. Kawasaki said he sees a difference in the kind of wamono that's popular overseas and inside the country.
"The new age and ambient kind of wamono is something that's bigger in Europe, while in Japan light, mellow city pop is more popular. Music From Memory was on it pretty early [with Kuniyuki Takahashi and Dip In The Pool] and then other people started getting into it and discovered there's some great stuff. So, in that sense I feel like the wamono scene abroad is not necessary about looking at it from a dance music perspective. Also, right now 12-inches are getting more expensive, and the kind of records that sell are more like LPs for home listening. With that in mind, the kind that we focus on in Japan is not too wamono-esque, not too new age, but something that can be a part of a dance music context."
Kawasaki's releases feel different than the wamono reissues international labels tend to do, but also stand apart from the popular sounds of the Japanese wamono scene. Another person I talked to was Chee Shimizu, DJ, noted digger and owner of online record shop Organic Music. In 2013 he published a book titled Obscure Sound, which highlighted masterpieces and rarities like Gigi Masin's work, which Music From Memory later reissued, and Tadanori Yokoo and Haruomi Hosono's Cochin Moon. The knowledge he shared with friends in Amsterdam at Music From Memory and Red Light Records was particularly important to the wamono movement.
"I met them through DJing, but we all started listening to non-dance music," Shimizu explained. "We'd listen to anything, regardless of genre. It wasn't chill, it wasn't dance but we'd play it in our sets. We'd call it 'listening music' and we'd share stuff we found in that vein with each other. Back then when I DJ'd I wasn't playing Japanese stuff, but they told me, 'I'm sure there's stuff like this in Japan too. Could you bring it next time you come here?' So I started looking for this kind of stuff in Japan. That was like eight years ago. I'd hit up record stores in the Kanto region with [fellow digger] Dubby and pick up Japanese ambient and new age records that were being sold at a few hundred yen at the time. I hadn't really been paying attention to much Japanese music until then so it was refreshing. I found some stuff that could be played as part of that 'listening' sound so I'd take them to Amsterdam and trade them for other records. I think those records that Dubby and I brought were one of the reasons why European labels became fascinated with Japanese ambient and new age. Of course, it didn't happen right away and it took a while for that sound to catch on, but I wasn't really trying to make it a trend or anything. I was just sharing music with friends."