Why is Jazz so Popular in Japan? About my Experience Performing Jazz and Blues in Japan

Me at a local Osaka blues Jam session in 2016. This blues bar in downtown Osaka is called “Chicago Rock”, but it was really a tiny…TINY blues and soul hole-in-the-wall venue being kept alive through local community Jam session nights. With the start of each jam session 100’s of people would cram themselves inside this tiny venue.

It surprised me when I first moved to Osaka, Japan in 2015 just how popular jazz and blues music is in Japan.

One of the things that surprised me about Japan was just how big the Jazz and blues underground music scene is in Japan’s big cities. In particular, as somehow who grew up as a native Chicagoan listening to Chicago blues legends like Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy, I was surprised to meet Japanese street musicians and underground artists who knew more about these traditional Chicago artists than most of the musicians I knew growing up in Chicago’s suburbs. While I have always been more of a blues guitarist myself, I dabble in Jazz and spent my high school years (and year of studying at college before moving to Japan) playing guitar in the school jazz band. Jazz has an interesting role in not only the Japanese culture, but the Japanese economy as well that hasn’t been seen to this level in America in (what I’m imagining) is quite a few decades.

Why is jazz and blues music is so popular in Japan

My opinion backed up by my own experiences: A large part of Japan’s collective culture is the concept of “ichijikai” (一次会), “nijikai” (二次会), which can be complex. “Ichijikai” literally means “first meeting”, which is the first thing you do out with a group of people, be it friends or colleagues. The ichijikai is best if it’s something that the whole group can enjoy doing together, and because drinking parties are such a common part of the Japanese social dynamic, an extremely common choice for an ichijikai will be a course meal at an izakaya (居酒屋), which is a bit hard to translate but is commonly called a “Japanese pub” in English.

So, why am I telling you this? Well, while the first thing you do when you’re out with a large group is often to go to an izakaya or similar restaurant for some drinks, as people start to go home many people will opt to head out for another place. This is called the nijikai (二次会) or literally “second meeting.” With less people in the group and people looking for a coffee cure for their hangover, a popular choice for the next stop is often a jazz café. I believe this is also one of the reasons why cafes are so huge in Japan. Jazz cafes are a good place to calm down with fewer people, and they’re good because they still offer some choices of alcohol for those who want to keep drinking, but they also have coffee and teas, as well as appetizers for those who want to wind down for the night. With many people in Japan being brought to Jazz bars through friends, colleagues, and family members at these events, I have a hunch that many jazz enthusiasts got their first fix for jazz because of a love for the atmosphere of these places.

Photo op before the nijikai. Me and my university class in 2018

You can read a bit more about this concept of ichijikai and nijikai here : What Do People Do For Fun in Japan? The Concept of “Nijikai”

A brief history of jazz and blues in Japan: How the Meiji Restoration lead to the rise of jazz culture in Japan.

While jazz would come a bit later, the opening of Japan to the world, and especially towards embracing western cultures really began with the Meiji restoration in the late 19th century; A time when the last samurai of Japan would fall or assimilate into society, and Japanese traditions were being rejected by the elite of the country after Japan would observe the technology and control of western nations. This would eventually lead to Japan’s fascination with Western arts, music, and eventually jazz.

It’s a bit funny. Nowadays the stereotype of a weaboo who rejects western culture and embraces Japanese culture can be cringey, but this was actually extremely prevalent in late 19th century Japan when the country would open up to the world for the first time in centuries.

The early Meiji Restoration was a time of great political change, as well as a change in the psyche and image the Japanese people would have for towards themselves. One of the most novels to come out of this period was I Am A Cat (吾輩は猫である) by Natsume Soseki.

Click the above image to purchase I am a Cat on amazon. It’s a good read, and I receive a small percent of the sale. You can get a classic book and support this site! 😀

In this story, a cat observes the everyday routine of a teacher, him being the head of the household. His ways are strange, and he looks very different, but the teacher is a symbol of great authority and respect within the society. The cat may never understand him, but he can learn to domesticate himself. For it is a reality; the cat can only live inside the house with the permission of the teacher, and with the permission of humans. You may have caught the symbolism; The cat is a symbol of the Japanese population and way of life, and the teacher is a symbol for western nations, and western imperialism. The cat may survive, but only if he is to domesticate himself within the domain of a greater and more socially accepted power. As you can see from this example, not every person within Japan would accept western ideals with open arms, but having to come to terms with Japan’s role in the world was a reality for people living in Japan during this period. Along with western ideals comes western entertainment and art, including music, and eventually along with it the importation of Jazz. For the Japanese people, jazz would come to represent a symbol of this sophistication; One of being caught up with the times, and open to the ideas of the greater world.

The golden age of jazz in Japan: When and why jazz reached it’s height of popularity in Japan.

Japan would see a interest in Jazz growing throughout the 1920’s. As the Meiji Restoration influenced the native population to turn their attention to the west, along with the jazz boom of the 1920’s in America, jazz in Japan would become a symbol of western influence and the possibility of life outside of Japan. As World War II approached (and Japan’s infatuation with imitating Western imperialism would reach it’s ultimate conclusion), Japan would ban jazz for a time as jazz was deemed “enemy music.” However, jazz had reached such a level of popularity that, similar to baseball, the Japanese government never succeeded in implementing a total ban of the artform. In post-war Japan with newfound influence from the American occupying forces, jazz would see a newfound revitalization and would surge in popularity once again.

My experience first moving to Japan and playing jazz and blues in Osaka’s underground music scene.

Japanese language school gym day, photo taken late 2015

Moving to another country can be lonely. Even after studying Japanese HARD for almost 2 years I could still barely hold a conversation. I learned here firsthand that there is a big difference between being able to understand a language and being able to use that language. I could understand a reasonable amount of Japanese, and my reading was good for how much time I had put in, but I simply didn’t have many opportunities to speak the language when I was living in the US. Actually, it’s more that I lacked the courage to just dive into a Japanese discord channel or chat, but that does take a lot of courage to reach out to people in your second language, and even in 2014 the internet wasn’t quite the vast ocean that it is today.

More than anything, learning a language is a lesson in endurance-building. I had moved to Japan in early 2015 and enrolled in a language school. Classes at the school would run from 6-8 hours a day, which is pretty much brain-imploding levels of language learning for an English speaker learning a language as complicated as Japanese. At night I would push myself further, but I could feel my social life wasn’t building the way I had hoped. I had just moved to another country and wasn’t feeling the most confident in my speaking ability. On top of that, I was just too exhausted to try and meet people on the weekends. At least, I was too exhausted to speak to people in Japanese all weekend. This is where jazz, the blues, and music comes in to save the day.

Is jazz popular in modern Japan? What about blues? Why? What’s the difference between the two?

At this point, jam sessions around the Osaka area would become a valuable communication tool for me. I might not have been able to speak Japanese yet with much confidence, but I could play a mean blues solo. For those who don’t know, Jazz and blues are often performed in similar bars, although there are specialty blues bars, and specialty jazz bars. I would say that Japan, and especially Tokyo, has a much higher number of Jazz bars. Blues and jazz have technical differences, while jazz stems from blues, and blues tends to have a stronger sense of community backing it than jazz. I’m more of a blues man myself, but I love jazz as well. So, I would find a jazz and blues bar, go play some tasty licks, and get out all of the things I wanted to say but couldn’t say in Japanese, only I would say it with my guitar chops instead of my chops…chops.

So, why are blues / jazz jam sessions so popular in Japan?

Photo taken at Chicago Rock, 2015

This is conjecture, but I think the community aspect of soul music and jam sessions translate really well to the Japanese collectivist culture. At blues jam sessions in particular, the emphasis is placed less on what is being played, but more on how it is being played, and having a direct line of communication with the audience. Jazz and blues, more than any other genre’s, are inherently live performance arts. Listening to albums after the fact is a treat, but you can’t beat seeing a great jazz or blues musician in person. They feed off the energy of the crowd, and the crowd feeds off the energy of the performance. It’s entirely a give and take. For me personally, when I wandered into some of these bars in early 2015, lacking confidence and feeling self conscious about my Japanese ability, having the option of getting up on stage and feeling the call-and-response of the audience was a really great opportunity for me to feel like a part of the greater community, and relieve a ton of stress while I was at it.

I think that may another reason why these jam sessions are so popular: stress relief. If you think about it, karaoke is pretty similar to blues and jazz jam sessions. Karaoke is SO popular in Japan, because screaming at the top of your lungs in a tiny soundproof box is really great stress relief. Also because of Japan’s bureiko (無礼講) culture. (You can read more about the bureiko culture in this article I had linked previously) These jam sessions serve as a great outlet and place to get away from it all.

My experience performing at a jazz / blues jam session in Osaka Japan

The first major bar I went to was called Chicago rock. I’m a Chicagoan, so I thought it would be funny to go to the off-the-beaten-path bar on the outskirts of Osaka and jump into their jam session. As I walked in, I was met with some initial hesitation (This is what happens as a foreigner in Japan when you don’t charge in like a bull, brimming with confidence.), but I was welcomed with open arms when I opened up. “Chicago! Hey, everyone! This guy is actually FROM Chicago!” People were really friendly after that, and after watching the main set I got pulled up on stage to riff on Sweet Home Chicago. It was a great time.

My first visit to Chicago Rock, October 2015

A few months later, I came back to Chicago Rock as a university student and a changed man. Now I could speak just a bit…just a bit more Japanese. Things were really setting off this time! This was a full-on jam session. (At Chicago Rock nearly every set turned into a jam session, but this was an official one.) Musicians waited on standby outside the bar, a precarious staircase leading to the bar area and stage smaller than the smallest apartments even in Japan. I weed through the crowd to put my name on the jam session rotation. “Evan Stark: Guitar”, and head up to the steps to get things ready. It’s one of those things that sticks out in my memory looking back on this event. It’s funny, having to tune up your guitar outside on the street is a humbling experience that leaves an impression, a commonality with all of the best rundown jazz and blues venues in the world. It’s during moments like this where you can truly bond with the people around you and your fellow performers, everyone aligned for one night for the pursuit of earth-moving soul in a single unified key. I had a lot of fun that night, and got a lot out. Moving to another country is stressful, tiring, and unavoidably scary at night, but it really helps sometimes to just be able to get it all out.

If you want to learn more about the Japanese culture, language, or my experiences living here, I think you will enjoy the articles below!

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