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Thursday, Feb. 21, 2008


Showa 33: the year Japan got all shook up

Special to The Japan Times

The recent hit movie series "Always — Sunset on Third Street," set in 1958, sugarcoated the harshness of postwar daily Tokyo life of five decades ago and kick-started the current Showa Boom.

Masaaki Hirao
Rockabilly pioneer Masaaki Hirao recorded in 1958 one of the first Western-style pop songs sung in Japanese. PHOTO COURTESY OF HIRAO MASAAKI MUSIC OFFICE

But that year, known in Japan as Showa 33, also saw the birth of something that in the eyes of the authorities was altogether less wholesome.

For it was 50 years ago this month that some 45,000 students descended on Tokyo's Nihon Gekijyo theater for the Western Carnival, a weeklong series of twice-a-day rockabilly concerts.

And though the hula-shirted, black-slack wearing girls in the theater's front row throwing colored streamers and toilet rolls stolen from department stores in the direction of their on-stage idols didn't know it at the time, the carnival can be seen in many ways as marking the birth of Japanese postwar teen culture. In the eyes of the establishment already coming to terms with an increasingly assertive student movement, such a mass display from pleasure-seeking youths was concerning.

During the short-lived rokabiri (rockabilly) boom that followed, the scene's principal musical figures, namely Keijiro Yamashita, Masaaki Hirao and the Anglo-Japanese Mickey Curtis, collectively reworked and transformed the American rock 'n' roll music they'd heard on the radio in the mid-1950s into their own new mother-tongue genre.

Seated in the successful music school he now runs in Tokyo's Azabu-Juban district, Hirao today recognizes that it was its social impact that separated the rokabiri boom from other youth movements.

Masaaki Hirao
Masaaki Hirao today, aged 70 EDAN CORKILL PHOTO

"There had been other foreign music booms before, but this was the first one to have a big effect on society," says Hirao, who in 1958 recorded what was arguably the first entirely Japanese pop song written in a western-style vein, "Hoshi wa Nandemo Shitteiru (The Stars Know Everything)."

"The media needed a word to describe our music and performance style, so they came up with 'rokabiri.' We'd never heard the word before," says Hirao.

While acknowledged by pop-culture historians of Japan, the rokabiri boom has usually been seen as little more than a short-lived American imitation. But a closer look shows that this powerful expression of teenage sexual and musical energy coincided with a wide variety of political and social changes.

Chief among these was the mass movement by young students to block the revised Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security (Anpo) with the United States, the agreement negotiated by the newly-formed Liberal Democratic Party following its landslide election victory in May 1958. Also forming part of the backdrop to Showa 33 was the penetration of television and an upturn in the economy widely seen as an announcement of the nation's return to its prewar economic vigor.

The roots of the rokabiri boom itself can be traced to the dance halls of American military facilities such as Yokota Air Base, Yokosuka Naval Base, Atsugi Naval Air Facility (all in Kanto) and Sasebo (in Nagasaki), where Japanese country-music bands honed their talents playing to Occupation forces expecting to see live the hits they were hearing on Far East Network radio.

Among the leading groups were the Wagon Masters. Their singer Kazuya Kosaka was dubbed the "Japanese Presley" — in 1956 Kosaka scored a major hit with a Japanese-language version of "Heartbreak Hotel" by Elvis Presley, who was arguably the first artist to fuse blues and country to make rockabilly.

Playing this more up-tempo country music at U.S. military bases following his graduation from the elite Keio High School in Tokyo, Hirao soon became infatuated with the powerful new rockabilly sound — and image — of Bill Haley and Presley, and was one of a handful of country performers who switched to the new rokabiri sound in 1956-57.

It wasn't until this louder, faster and rhythmic style of music played by a handful of young male singers and modeled on American rock 'n' roll moved out of the U.S. army bases and into Tokyo's jazz kissa (coffee shops where live music was played) that promoter Misa Watanabe saw the commercial potential.


"Lowteen girls in braids, pony tails, hula shirts, black slacks and white sweaters . . . screaming at the pelvic pulsations of guitar-twanging 'rockabilly' idols . . . and hurling toilet rolls . . . on which they scribble lipsticked love messages, such as 'Daite ageru wayo (I shall hold you),' before sending the tissue arching over the footlights."

Time magazine article from April 14, 1958, titled "Rittoru Dahring," describing the behavior of fans at the Western Carnival in Tokyo

The daughter of a Tokyo talent agent and manager of the Ginza-based jazz kissa Tennessee, Watanabe (together with her businessman husband) rented the 2,000-plus capacity Nihon Gekijyo theater in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward as the venue for the Western Carnival, a small-scale country-music event held Feb. 8-15, 1958. The original idea was that the carnival would be held twice a year during the slow months of February and August when few customers attended live events. (Further carnivals were held in May and August 1958.)

A shrewd observer of youth trends, Watanabe hoped that including some of the popular new rokabiri performers and scheduling sessions during the daytime (11 a.m and 3 p.m), would be enough to attract younger fans — including high-school students not always allowed to enter jazz kissa at night — to justify rental costs that were higher than those of the coffee shops. But not even the "Rokabiri Madam," as she became known, could have anticipated the consequences of her gamble.

Virtually unknown prior to their appearance at the first carnival, the combined visual and sonic impact of Hirao, Curtis and Keijiro Yamashita attracted unprecedented excitement and controversy. While lacking the overt sexuality of their western counterparts, they and their band members caused outrage for their raucous, spontaneous onstage demeanor — playing guitars in an aggressive strutting manner; sax players blowing while prostate on the ground — among critics used to the highly mannered performances of kayokyoku (classic Japanese pop songs).

"When Curtis, Yamashita and I started playing at the Western Carnival, we were the only artists playing in a 'rock' style," says Hirao. "The others were still playing western or country-style. This — and our costumes — were the main reasons we caught the attention of girls and boys.

"We couldn't see any footage of the American artists, so we looked at record sleeves and photographs from magazines to get an idea of what they wore. I would bring these pictures to a tailor and have shoes and shirts made for me. We didn't know exactly how they danced or moved so we had to guess by looking at the photos and moving our bodies to the rhythm of the music."

Not surprisingly, the increasingly influential mass media of the day, including some from outside of Japan, took a keen interest in this new youth movement. In a Time magazine article from April 14, 1958, titled "Rittoru Dahring," critics reacted predictably, decrying the "lacquered monkeys" (a reference to the greased-back hairstyles of the rokabiri artists and fans) and the "apelike mumblings" of the singers.

Mickey Curtis was one such "lacquered monkey." Born in 1938, Curtis spent the war years in Shanghai. On his return to Japan in 1945, he attended Tokyo's Wako Gakuen, a progressive school where, as a 15-year-old, he impressed his classmates with his uncanny ability to imitate country star Hank Williams' southern drawl. This soon led to an invitation to perform and tour U.S. military bases with his own country group.


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