Japan’s New Wave of Protest Songs

Twenty-three years after the flamboyant rocker Kiyoshiro Imawano riled Japanese power companies and electronics conglomerates with a series of antinuclear songs in the wake of Chernobyl, the singer, who died in 2009, is still generating controversy.

Soon after the crisis began at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in March, songs by Imawano, one of the country’s most famous rock musicians, and his band RC Succession began to receive thousands of views on YouTube.

His songs — and a fresh crop of Japanese antinuclear tracks — have been bypassing mainstream Japanese radio and television, which have appeared reluctant to play the songs, and finding a receptive audience on the Internet.

It is not the first time that Imawano and RC Succession’s songs have been heard via an alternative route. In 1988, two years after Chernobyl, the band released its album “Covers” independently after the band’s record label, Toshiba EMI, whose parent company built nuclear plants, would not. Among the tracks on the album was a reworking of the 1950s rock song “Summertime Blues” with antinuclear lyrics. The company took out a newspaper advertisement to explain its decision, saying that the songs were “too great to release.”

As the scale of the Fukushima disaster has become clearer, the mood in Japan has started to turn against nuclear power. Recent polls have shown a majority of the population is in favor of scaling back the nuclear industry. Yet it is still a challenge for music with lyrics that criticize nuclear power to receive a hearing on mainstream radio, television or to be released by major labels — a situation that many in the music industry attribute to the commercial power wielded by nuclear power companies. (According to a 2011 report from the Nikkei Advertising Research Institute, Japan’s power utilities spend roughly a billion dollars a year on advertising.)

In the early weeks of the disaster, Peter Barakan, a presenter for the Japanese radio station InterFM, began to receive requests to play “Summertime Blues” and another RC Succession antinuclear song, a reworded cover of Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” — both of which have received thousands of hits on YouTube.

When Mr. Barakan approached his station about airing RC Succession’s version of “Love Me Tender,” the radio station refused, citing the possibility of destructive rumors about milk contamination being generated by the line: “I don’t need radiation/I just wanna drink milk.”

“I played it to a guy at the station and he said, ‘Well actually it’s probably better if you don’t play it.”’ said Mr. Barakan, referring to a meeting with the manager of his program. “I said ‘Really, why not?’ He said it was possible that it could create fuhyo higai, which means ‘damage from rumors.”’

A still from Rankin' Taxi's video for "You Can't See It, And You Can't Smell It Either." Juxtaposed with images from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the song criticizes nuclear power companies.

Reticence also greeted the popular rock singer-songwriter Kazuyoshi Saito when, stirred by the crisis, he reworked his April 2010 single “I Always Loved You,” with new lyrics and renamed it “It Was Always a Lie.”

In the new song, which Mr. Saito recorded on solo acoustic guitar and uploaded to YouTube on April 7, the singer criticizes the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power for creating an illusion of nuclear safety in television commercials and school textbooks.

“It Was Always a Lie” was soon deleted from YouTube after Mr. Saito’s record label, Victor Entertainment, requested that the Web site operator take it down. The label’s reason, according to The Asahi Shimbun, was that the Mr. Saito’s video was “meant for private use” and was “leaked in a way he did not intend.” Mr. Saito has not commented on the video’s removal.

Mr. Saito’s composition, however, has been followed by a series of new antinuclear songs, some now receiving tens of thousands of views online. Among them is “You Can’t See It, And You Can’t Smell It Either” by the veteran Japanese reggae artist who goes by the name Rankin’ Taxi.

Set to an infectious up-tempo dancehall reggae beat, the song describes radiation as a threat to the powerful and weak alike. Rankin’ Taxi’s broadside against nuclear power — Tokyo Electric Power and Kansai Electric Power are both singled out in the song — is heard against a video montage of hydrogen explosions and other coverage of the Fukushima power plant, juxtaposed with the lyrics “It’s safe, It’s safe.”

Despite his video having been viewed more than 100,000 times on YouTube — including a version with the lyrics translated into English — the singer is circumspect about the potential for protest songs to change attitudes toward nuclear power in Japan. “I sang it, and people listened, but it came after the fact so it was almost like salt in the wound,” he said.

“There are still people pushing nuclear power. They are laying low at the moment, but they will be back when people have forgotten about Fukushima.”

Women are notable among the new crop of antinuclear singers.

The young female rappers Coma-chi and Rumi were both featured at recent antinuclear protests in Tokyo. Coma-chi’s hard-hitting song “Say ‘NO”’ has been particularly direct in accusing the Japanese news media of complicity in underplaying the risks of nuclear power. Against a background of dark beats, menacing synths and sound bites from recent antinuclear protests in Tokyo, Coma-chi intones: “I had enough of foolish variety shows/ media and higher-ups/ you don’t say anything if life is in danger/ the world is disgusted.”

Others are taking a different tack. The avant-garde composer Yoshihide Otomo and the Fukushima-based poet Ryoichi Wago have said they want to use the disaster not simply as an excuse to rage against nuclear power, but as a catalyst to make Japan rethink its energy policy from the ground up, with a focus on renewable energy and conservation. They are staging a mostly electricity-free music festival called “Project Fukushima!” (www.pj-fukushima.jp ) in the city of Fukushima on Aug. 15.

There is little point in “musicians and poets trying to solve the nuclear issue when not even specialist engineers can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Mr. Otomo wrote in the project’s manifesto. “However, this problem cannot be reduced to the radioactive leakage and the problems stemming from it. It is rather bringing into question how we should deal with electricity from now on.”

A forward-looking approach may be more widely heard than the protest songs in Japan, where, according to Toshikazu Okada, an entertainment reporter at the national daily The Sankei Shimbun, many mainstream media companies remain in thrall to the electric power companies. “They fear that the utilities will take revenge by stopping advertising,” he said, “so they do not report on the antinuclear movement.”

Many of the antinuclear songs are widely available on the Internet. “The mainstream Japanese media can dominate the discussion with the older generation,” said Mr. Barakan, the radio presenter, “but not with the younger generation, who have pretty much given up on TV and radio anyway.”

But the mainstream rejection of these political or protest songs, may not just be a matter of corporate pressure. It might have cultural roots as well. “Japanese prefer nonsense songs to message songs,” said Rankin’ Taxi. “It’s a hassle to think about the future, or about society. People want entertainment, not a message.”  

Published: June 30, 2011

Source: New York Times – http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/01/arts/01iht-JAPANMUSIC01.html?_r=1&pagewanted=1..

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