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Friday, April 22, 2011

STRANGE BOUTIQUE

Japanese music fans need the shows to go on


Special to The Japan Times

Last month I wrote a hastily conceived piece for this column documenting the immediate reaction of the music scene in Tokyo to the Great East Japan Earthquake. It was a difficult article to write because the situation was still unfolding and so much was unresolved; however, a month later, a picture of the postquake music scene is emerging.

The initial effect on the live music scene in Tokyo was short lived. Gigs were called off at most live venues between March 11 and 13, but soon after that (a few isolated cancellations aside), schedules returned to somewhere near normal. However, since most venues book their shows at least three months in advance, the real effects are only just starting to emerge.

There isn't necessarily a problem with audiences. In the early days of widespread power cuts, irregular train schedules, and deep uncertainty over things such as aftershocks and the situation in Fukushima, people, especially those outside the central Tokyo area, tended to stay home rather than risk being stranded. However, audiences are starting to return to live venues now that those worries have, if not gone away, at least dragged on long enough to make fear of them mundane.

Tsurio Mochizuki, the manager of Koenji live venue Ni-man Den-atsu (aka 20000V), says the effect of the disaster in the Tohoku region on audiences in Tokyo (which is about 250 km away) is hard to judge, since from gig to gig attendance has always varied quite wildly. However, he agrees that audiences are not the real problem.

"I think people in Tokyo basically don't want to be gloomy," Mochizuki says. "They want to go out and have fun. The real problem is getting bands to play. We came through March fine in the end, and are doing OK in April: It's our May schedule where the real effects are showing up, because of this atmosphere among so many bands right now."

To put it in economic terms, the problem in the live scene, as it is in many aspects of life in eastern Japan right now, is one of supply — not demand. Just as with the ongoing electricity blackouts and the empty shelves in stores where beer used to be, the Tokyo live scene is facing a supply shortfall. Bands are simply unwilling to book shows against this backdrop of destruction, tragedy and uncertainty.

Just as record labels throughout Japan postponed their March and early April release schedules, many anime series vanished from the airwaves as well. Authorities throughout Tokyo hastened to put up notices cancelling hanami (cherry-blossom-viewing) parties and urged "restraint" among park visitors during the hanami season (which numerous young Tokyoites blithely ignored) because no one wants to be seen to be promoting a distraction from the Tohoku tragedy, though that's what people throughout the city are actually in desperate need of.

This atmosphere is one that fades the further west you travel, but even as far as the western island of Kyushu, while local bands rock on unrestrained at venues in Fukuoka, Kumamoto and Kagoshima, the situation in Tohoku nags at the scene. Mostly it takes the plain form of charity donation boxes at concert venues, but some events, such as the 15th anniversary celebrations at Fukuoka's Canal City shopping and amusement center, have been transformed entirely into charity fundraisers.

The plethora of charity events that have sprung up since March 11 has demonstrated the music scene's sincere desire to help the victims of the disaster, but it also reveals a sense of guilt at what many of those involved perhaps see as their own frivolity. These events raise valuable money for relief organizations, but they also provide an answer to the question, "How can I do something as trivial as playing music when so many people are suffering?"

Of course, most musicians know the answer already. They themselves are music fans, they themselves are among those going out and attending shows put on by others. No music fans are calling for less music, and indeed, foreign artists who have pushed ahead with their tours, from 1980s pop star Cyndi Lauper to Australian punk trio Spazzys, have met with rapturous receptions from audiences of all sizes. There is never any justification needed to make music, and the warmth, intimacy and open-hearted goodwill on display at so many gigs over the past month is testament to the live music scene's place in Japan's social and cultural fabric, not least during times of crisis and uncertainty.



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