Hear Enchanting Mixes of Japanese Pop, Jazz, Funk, Disco, Soul, and R&B from the 70s and 80s

Franz Kafka’s unfin­ished first nov­el, pub­lished by his lit­er­ary execu­tor Max Brod as Ameri­ka, tells the sto­ry of a young Euro­pean exiled in New York City. He has a series of mad­cap adven­tures, winds up in Okla­homa as a “tech­ni­cal work­er,” and adopts the name “Negro.” Ameri­ka is a nov­el writ­ten by an artist who had nev­er been to Amer­i­ca nor met an Amer­i­can. His impres­sion of the coun­try came entire­ly from his read­ing. And yet, Kaf­ka leaves read­ers with an authen­ti­cal­ly vivid, last­ing impres­sion of the har­ried din of Amer­i­can life.

We may feel sim­i­lar­ly when watch­ing the films of Ser­gio Leone, who had nev­er seen the West when he start­ed mak­ing West­erns. Detached from their cul­tur­al ori­gins, West­ern tropes in the Ital­ian director’s hands reveal their arche­typ­al depths as avatars of law­less vio­lence.

Euro­peans have been dream­ing imag­i­nary Amer­i­c­as for hun­dreds of years. And giv­en U.S. pop­u­lar culture’s glob­al reach in the 20th cen­tu­ry, near­ly every place in the world has its own Amer­i­cana, an homage from afar made up of local ingre­di­ents. Nowhere, per­haps, is this truer than in Japan.

“Jazz and Japan shouldn’t mix,” notes Col­in Mar­shall in an ear­li­er post on Japan­ese jazz, quot­ing the book All-Japan, which alleges a lack of impro­vi­sa­tion in Japan­ese cul­ture. But they have mixed par­tic­u­lar­ly well, as you can hear in the 30-minute mix of 70s Japan­ese jazz above from Cof­fee Break Ses­sions, a YouTube chan­nel filled with intro­duc­tions to gen­res and styles from around the world. What’s more, jazz arrived in Japan as a dou­ble import, two steps removed. It “dates back to the 1920s,” writes Mar­shall, “when it drew inspi­ra­tion from vis­it­ing Fil­ipino bands who had picked the music up from their Amer­i­can occu­piers.” When Japan itself was occu­pied by U.S. sol­diers two decades lat­er, the coun­try already had a jazz tra­di­tion.

Japan­ese cul­ture has long since sur­passed the Amer­i­can influ­ences it absorbed to cre­ate hybrid gen­res Amer­i­cans have been furi­ous­ly import­ing at a seem­ing­ly expo­nen­tial rate. One of the newest such gen­res was actu­al­ly cre­at­ed by an Amer­i­can DJ, Van Paugam, who aggre­gat­ed a col­lec­tion of Japan­ese records into what he calls “City Pop.” In anoth­er Open Cul­ture post on this YouTube phe­nom­e­non, Mar­shall describes the music as “draw­ing influ­ences from West­ern dis­co, funk, and R&B, and using the lat­est son­ic tech­nolo­gies mas­tered nowhere more than in Japan itself.” Like Japan­ese jazz, city pop comes from music that began in the U.S. but become glob­al­ized and cos­mopoli­tan as it trav­eled the world.

Paugam char­ac­ter­izes his City Pop mix­es as infused with “themes of aus­tere feel­ings, melan­cholic vibes, and a sense of hav­ing mem­o­ries of liv­ing in a dif­fer­ent time and place.” The cul­tur­al dis­lo­ca­tion one might feel when lis­ten­ing to these songs comes from their uncanniness—they sound like hits we might have heard on top 40 radio, but their idioms don’t exact­ly click into place. This is espe­cial­ly appar­ent in the Cof­fee Break Ses­sions mix of late 70s, ear­ly 80s Japan­ese pop singers, above.

But there’s some­thing too provin­cial in call­ing City Pop—or the dis­parate types of smooth pop that fall under the designation—a Japan­ese take on Amer­i­can music, since Amer­i­can music is itself a hybrid of glob­al influ­ences. YouTube phe­nom­e­na like City Pop have them­selves become part of a uni­ver­sal inter­net pop cul­ture that belongs every­where and nowhere. Some­day every­one will expe­ri­ence the his­toric 80s pop music of Japan just as they’ll expe­ri­ence the his­toric 80’s pop music of every­where else: as part of what Paugam calls a “false sense of nos­tal­gia” for a past they nev­er knew. Hear more mix­es of Japan­ese pop, jazz, and funk over at Cof­fee Break Ses­sions.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

A 30-Minute Intro­duc­tion to Japan­ese Jazz from the 1970s: Like Japan­ese Whisky, It’s Under­rat­ed, But Very High Qual­i­ty

Stream Loads of “City Pop,” the Elec­tron­ic-Dis­co-Funk Music That Pro­vid­ed the Sound­track for Japan Dur­ing the Roar­ing 1980s

How Youtube’s Algo­rithm Turned an Obscure 1980s Japan­ese Song Into an Enor­mous­ly Pop­u­lar Hit: Dis­cov­er Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plas­tic Love”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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