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Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012

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Making a connection: Danny Katz performs at Tokyo Club Suidobashi in Chiyoda Ward. KYOKO OBAYASHI

Jewish Japanese-American keeps multicultural connections in tune

Speechless until 4, Danny Katz's musical path conquered his dissonance and led him to Japan


Special to The Japan Times

Even in casual conversation, Danny Katz entertains. His voice doesn't just speak, it croons with comedic pacing, imitations and abrupt shifts in tone. He peppers his speech with accents, New York City slang, Japanese formalities or onomatopoeia.

Katz, 35, admits that his voice was also a weapon in his years as a Manhattan paralegal in the highly combative world of intellectual property law. And it's his voice that effortlessly bridges his multiple identities and varied worlds — as a Jewish Japanese-American, as a folksy musician, as a legal assistant in Tokyo's realm of corporate law and in the alleyways and byways of the underground international music scene.

Ironically, Katz remained voiceless until he was 4 years old: "My mom tried her darnedest to speak to me in Japanese and my dad in English, but apparently up until I was 4, I never talked. There was some kind of cognitive dissonance with language, although it's probably hard to believe now," he explains wryly.

Music was also a part of that multicultural upbringing, as Katz started piano before he could speak, and guitar at 13. "Ever since I can remember, there was music in the house, a variety of influences, from Kyu Sakamoto to Leonard Cohen. My parents had a large vinyl collection, and probably the stereotypical Japanese-Jewish parents' dream of Julliard Music School and fame for their child." He pauses a beat. "They gave that up pretty quickly," he jokes.

Katz's first exposure to music that mattered personally was folk-era music — The Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel. In high school, Katz sang in several duets outside of school, joining musical theater and "other suburban distractions, musically inclined."

University solidified both his musical foundations and his multicultural identity: "All my musical friends in college seemed to be radical feminists, leftists, all singing protest songs. And, although I've shifted very far from that, my song-writing foundations were there, in those kinds of environments, alongside Beat poetry in dimly lit coffee shops."

Katz attended Sarah Lawrence College, 24 km north of Manhattan, and its liberal environment also gave voice to various strands of his multiculturalism. "When my parents decided to have children, they at some point decided to make a concerted effort to accept both cultures; I never felt any tension to choose between the two cultures. It wasn't until university that I started thinking more intensively about multicultural identity or identity in general."

Katz attended Saturday Japanese school until the fourth grade, and Hebrew school throughout his adolescence. The summer after graduating from high school, he hiked through the Israeli desert in the interdenominational Nesiya program; in university he spent his junior year in Japan at Tsukuba University in Ibaraki Prefecture.

"I was encouraged to explore every facet of my identity in college, because no one at Sarah Lawrence would accuse me of being too self-indulgent. I was 19 and full of angst anyway, so I studied a weird mix of Jewish history, Asian-American literature, Japanese literature in translation, but also women's studies, gay/lesbian studies focusing on Asian-American identity," he recalls. Back in America for his senior year of university, "I was running the Jewish student group while pining for Japan."

Katz originally started work as a paralegal in New York to pay off student loans and save up for his future goal: a master's degree in Japan, studying ethnic musicology. Work as a paralegal also allowed him to pursue music on the side in New York's vibrant underground scene. He began studying the shamisen in New York, specializing in jiuta (traditional songs), hoping to incorporate his cultural background with his music. "You're either really good or really bad at shamisen. I studied it for seven years, and unfortunately, I eventually discovered I'm not so good at it," he says.

The years of pursuing music on the side finally wore on Katz's dreams, and before the life-changing intervention of 9/11, he had shifted his goal from a musicology master's in Japan to the practical route of extending his experience as a paralegal into becoming a lawyer. Although law had started as a "way to pay the bills," Katz found himself more interested intellectually in law itself.

Katz was thus studying for the law school entrance exam (LSAT) when the Twin Towers fell. "Back in my apartment in Brooklyn studying, I watched the tragedy on TV and thought, oh, well, that's bad. Yet, I immediately returned to studying, because I was so set to succeed for the upcoming LSAT. It wasn't until smoke and debris started coming into my window that I realized I needed to stop and go outside and figure out what was going on in the world."

The attacks re-established Katz's life focus: "I realized I wanted to get back to the music, because if I die tomorrow, I want to die knowing I am doing something I am passionate about and that I care about. I was pretty melodramatic about it, but I realize now that's a pretty common reaction to such a traumatic event."

Katz renewed his efforts to find a way to Japan. With his almost 10 years of experience in law, his job search proved relatively easy, and he relocated permanently in 2009, taking work at an international law firm in central Tokyo.

A dissonance with communication reared again, despite his fluency with the Japanese language. Law conventions in New York and Tokyo proved vastly different, and Katz had to adjust: "The challenge was in respecting the way my Japanese colleagues and clients write and speak English. I come from a very shoot-from-the-hip, direct legal world. If the client owes you money, it's simple: 'Look. This is your third reminder. If you don't pay, we are taking you to court'. In Japan, it's completely different: 'This is your 23rd reminder. We hope you are having a wonderful time and enjoying the spring flowers.'

"This cultural difference, this diversity in communication styles, that was the biggest challenge. Not a language barrier, but my own rigid way of handling interpersonal relationships, coming from New York and being confrontational in the first place — maybe that's my Jewish side — I had to dial all that down to be an effective paralegal here."

Musically, Katz enjoys navigating the cultural divide here as well. "There are absolutely amazing musicians in Tokyo, and they're performing without the mainstream radio distribution or the teenage girl fan base that's a prerequisite to fame in Japan. Knowing that they're out there, and knowing they're not jaded nor cynical about music is very inspiring to me, just amazing musicians doing it for the art, and not for the fame.

"It's a very different scene from New York. I also notice 60- and 70-year-olds playing in blues bands all around Japan, so I see people doing music across the age spectrum much more here than in the States, and it is encouraging, the lack of a time limit in Japan."

Although Katz realizes music may always remain a side venture, he is happy where he is now: "Ten years after 9/11, and I'm no longer obsessing over a musical career. I'm realizing it's something that is not necessarily going to generate any money, but I'm still doing it, because I love doing it. It feels like I've reached a natural balance, just thinking every day, how can I incorporate music into the fabric of my daily life?"

The March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami also reminded Katz how music unites people. He took two weeks off work to travel the West Coast, from San Diego to Vancouver, British Columbia, going back to his musical roots to coffee shops and small venues to raise money and awareness for Japan. Returning to Tokyo, he began actively seeking venues in Tokyo and other parts of the Kanto region, and now has a steady list of monthly musical engagements, with a new CD out this winter and plans to tour Tohoku and other areas of Japan next spring.

Giving voice to why music and multiculturalism naturally connect for him, Katz concludes: "When you perform, you are automatically connecting with people across languages or cultures, even if you are not talking about the elephant in the room, or whoever died, or whatever tragedy that happened. You're all together, experiencing something ideally cathartic, and for me, giving something tangible back."

For more information on Danny Katz's music, see www.dannykatz.com.


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