BOOK ONE: Chapter 1


The Black Ships

When four black steam ships of the United States' navy took anchor in Tokyo Bay on 8th July 1853, they were described as 'giant dragons belching smoke' by a terrified urban coastal population who had never before witnessed steam vessels. For the Japanese government, the presence of the 'four black ships of evil mien' signalled that almost 250 years of self-imposed isolationism was about to be forced to a close, more than two centuries during which Japan's all-powerful Tokugawa Dynasty had exhibited such paranoid suspicion of gaijin (outsiders) that even shipwrecked foreigners washed up on Japanese beaches were summarily executed. Stuck within this deluded and solipsistic non-worldview, Japan's islanders entirely missed the enormous cultural changes that had, in much of the Western world, prepared for and permitted the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. And thus, here in 1853, Japan found itself paying a hefty price for its withdrawal from the world, as Commodore Matthew Perry stood upon the forecastle of the largest of the four ships, USS Powhatan, its powerful cannon all trained on the palace of the emperor as Perry demanded of Japan's government to be permitted to create a trade treaty on behalf of the US government. That such an important empire as that of Japan could, in modern times, have been dictated to by a single determined naval officer with a fleet of just four ships is as absurd as it is astonishingly true. For such is the manner in which Japan re-entered the modern world, forced at gunpoint to sign a euphemistically titled 'Friendship & Amity' treaty in the most unashamed piece of gunboat diplomacy that the world would ever witness.

Reeling and insensible from the humiliating events that had just taken place in their own capital city, Japan's shamed Tokugawa leaders burned with resentment towards their barbarian adversary. But their isolationist stance had been in place for so long that none had ever considered the possibilities of its being challenged. Indeed, from 1630 onwards, Japan's government had even forbidden its people to leave their own islands, while the small population of Japanese Christians - baptised by Spanish and Portuguese missionaries over the previous half century - were systematically massacred in 1638 and all Bibles burned. During those two centuries of withdrawal from the wider world, Japan's only outside contact had been with certain Dutch and Chinese sailors. But even these few foreigners had been forced to maintain Japan's incredibly strict protocols, promising to remain at all times on the tiny islet of Iojima, in Nagasaki Bay, many hundreds of miles to the west of Japan's main population. Unfortunately for the Japanese, while their military might of the early 1600s had been enough to reject all incursions from outsiders, Western science and technology had, these past two centuries, advanced so far beyond Japan's crossbow, sword and musket mentality that the folly of the Tokugawa Dynasty's isolationist stance had now been revealed by a single gung-ho American naval commander. And when, one year after his coup, Commodore Perry returned to Japan with a whole slew of gifts for the government, the items he presented to the waiting dignitaries were all chosen specifically to show Japan's military leaders how important it was that they trade with the West: a small steam locomotive, the latest rifles and hand guns, modern agricultural tools, a telegraph system complete with power lines, and modern fire-fighting equipment were all notable by their absence in current Japanese culture. Throughout the following two decades, Japan embraced Western change with an unreserved gusto: Japan's first bakery appeared in 1860, by 1869 came the first telephones, thereafter the first beer brewery (1869), the first daily newspaper (1870) and the first public lavatories (1871) - all set Japan on the trail towards modernisation.

Interlocking Multiple Meanings in the Japanese Language

My great love of Japanese music is partly due to the interplay of the lyrics, and the manner in which the imagery works on multiple levels. In Japanese, the limited number of sonics involved inevitably makes a word's meaning dependent on the context in which it appears. Just as the English word 'to' is similar enough to the words 'two' and 'too' to allow the possibilities of a playful multiple meaning to creep in, so many Japanese words allow for an even more extreme form of wordplay. This playfulness is such a central part of Japanese culture that it was employed in the form of a five-line kyoka poem written in the early 1860s to explain the shock, terror, chaos and confusion that the Japanese suffered on the arrival of the 'Black Ships'. The poem reads:

   Taihei no,
   Nemuri o samasu,
   Tatta shihai de,
   Yoru mo nemurezu

This kyoka poem was created from a complex set of interlocking puns, pivotal words known as kakekotoba, which enable the Japanese reader to see multiple meanings. From a literal reading, 'Taihei' means 'tranquil', 'Jokisen' is an expensive brand of caffeine-laden green tea, and 'shihai' means 'four cups'. Literally, the poem reads:

   Awoken from the sleep of a peaceful quiet world,
   By Jokisen tea,
   With only four cups of the stuff,
   No more possibilities of sleep tonight

There is, however, an alternative translation based on those same pivotal kakekotoba words, in which 'Taihei' is 'Pacific Ocean', 'Jokisen' means 'steam-powered ships' and 'shihai' means 'four vessels', shifting the meaning to the far more alarming:

   The steamships break the peaceful slumber of the Pacific
   A mere four boats are enough to make us lose sleep at night

Japan's Rude Awakening - The Push to 1941

There was, however, something sinister in the manner with which Japan took its first steps away from its centuries of feudalism. For, whereas the West's Scientific and Industrial Revolutions had come hand-in-hand with new ideas such as democracy and dialogue, Japan took only the physical aspects of those revolutions and used them to shore up its rigidly hierarchical social structures. Japanese politicians happily took to the adoption of suits, ties, and top hats, but their outward appearance hid the fact that each was still appointed by the emperor himself. Indeed, every change was still overseen by the emperor, who became recast as the divine emanation of some imaginary Golden Age. Noting the power that European countries had long wielded through their armies' devotion to a single all-powerful Christian God, Japan's pragmatic leaders cleverly elevated the sun cult of Shinto to a state religion, destroying the old tribal Gods by uniting the people under the single all-powerful symbol of the emperor himself as the living embodiment of the divine: a living Jehovah, an Allah of the Far East, unquestionable, ineffable, beyond judgment. The failed Tokugawa Dynasty was replaced in 1868 by the Meiji era, whose arrival signalled a new nationalism motivated by such slogans as: 'Revere the Emperor!', 'Expel the Barbarians!' and 'Rich Country, Strong Army!'

Armed with this bizarre combination of new Western technology and fiercely singular Japanese nationalism, the next decades did not pan out in the manner that Matthew Perry had intended. The Japanese approach was best summed up by the cartoon character Mr. Dooley, a creation of American satirist Finley Peter Dunne in the late 1800s: 'The trouble is when the gallant commodore kicked open the door, we didn't go in. They came out!' Hungry for some of the same colonialism that had carved up the rest of the world, but unencumbered by the same changes in social attitudes that had accompanied scientific and technological advances in the West, Japanese armies left their islands for the first time since 1630 armed with all the modern weaponry they could wish for but still retaining their viciously xenophobic hatred of the gaijin. The results were immediately terrifying. In 1876, in a move unnervingly similar to what Commodore Perry had forced upon Japan, the Meiji government dispatched gunboats to Korea, where its government was forced to sign a similar treaty of commerce. Over the next thirty years, Japan's warmongering gained them many colonies, mostly from China, which was compelled to cede Taiwan, parts of Manchuria, the Pescadores Islands and several ports via the humiliating Shimonoseki Treaty. But the wider world was forced to pay real attention when, after several decisive naval victories, Japan defeated Russia in 1905. The euphoria of the Japanese can be seen in the words of the nationalist historian Taiyo who, later that same year, declared ominously that Japan was 'destined to expand and govern other nations'.

The first two decades of the twentieth century were indeed like a golden age for Japan, as the world's demand for her textiles, steel and iron created the nation's first industrial moguls. The Russo-Japanese War had shown Japan the need for vehicles on the modern battlefield, and throughout 1914-17, British cars were manufactured in Tokyo as Japan fought on the side of the Allies in World War I. Indeed, the Japanese considered them-selves to be honorary Westerners, little imagining that their continued expansionism could be causing long-term resentment within Russia, Great Britain and the United States. And so, by the mid-1920s, with the Ford Motor Company even having established its own factory in Yokohama City, Japan was transformed into the picture of a modern Western state.

Unfortunately for the Far East, and for China in particular, the American stock-market crash of 1929 plunged Japan into crisis, as the depression that followed reduced American sales of Japanese luxury goods to a mere dribble. Having embraced modernisation to such an extent that the country now relied on foreign nations to buy its produce, Japan was further crippled by a sudden huge rise in population. Between 1868 and 1930, Japan's increased wealth had brought down infant mortality considerably, while increasing the average adult life expectancy, causing the population to more than double in size. Now without money from foreign buyers and having limited fertile land available for agriculture, Japan had to act quickly or starve; and its leaders cast their eyes longingly at China's millions of square miles of undeveloped farmland. Throughout the 1930s, great emphasis was placed on the superiority of Japan's military in comparison to her nearest neighbors. Japan's ultra-nationalists preached expansionist ideologies as though it was the nation's destiny to rule the Far East, and China especially. Looking for any excuse to re-enter China in 1931, the Japanese military bombed a Japanese-owned railway in China's Manchuria region then claimed it as the work of Chinese saboteurs. Japan then used this excuse to seize Manchuria, wherein they installed a puppet emperor. But the extreme bloodshed that followed only succeeded in alienating the rest of the world, who condemned Japan's actions and imposed sanctions. With wounded pride and unwanted exports, Japan withdrew from the League of Nations in 1933, and set about arming itself as never before. If no gaijin would come to the country's aid, Japan would have to do it all itself. The military mindset quickly spread into all walks of life, as the education system grew increasingly nationalistic and robotic. Everyone became geared up for the glory of Japan and the emperor, as the hierarchical society permitted no compassion for the flaws of others. As the author Yumi Goto later wrote in her reminiscences of pre-war Japan: 'Just as our language is written vertically, so did we pay attention only to the vertical order of society without looking sideways at our fellow human beings.' [1]

By 1937, Japan's belligerence finally succeeded in goading China into a full-scale war. But it was now a war that only Japan could win, as the country's increased militarism throughout the '30s had prepared obsessively for this moment, increasing the size of its army and navy many-fold and conscientiously equipping each soldier and sailor with the best that technology could provide. Furthermore, 200 years of practised xenophobia, an education system that preached Japan's natural supremacy over her neighbors, and a devotion to a divine emperor proved to be a vicious combination, The Japanese advance into China was spectacular in its mercilessness, as vengeful soldiers raped, murdered and torched the civilian population that stood between them and victory. In Nanking, even the Nazi head of the German consulate made an official protest that hundreds of women had been raped and murdered in his consulate gardens, whilst written accounts by seasoned Japanese military journalists Imai Masatake, Yukio Omata, Kawano Hiroki and others showed experienced men at the end of their tether at what they were witnessing, one concluding: 'I stood at a total loss and did not know what to do.' Later official estimates by the International Military Tribunal of the Far East placed the murder of civilians in Nanking alone at around 260,000.

There is no need for further discussion here of Japan's role in World War II, for we all well know of the extraordinary events and how they would unfold over the next decade, But this preamble is essential in order to fix our co-ordinates on where Japan's collective mindset had been in the eighty-something brief years between discovering Western technology in 1854 and unleashing that technology on its neighbors in the late 1930s. For it is clear that the Japanese people had been taken for a ride by their leaders, used as pawns by those hierarchs and warrior overlords, all of whom had no wish to learn the sensibilities of democracy, nor any desire to free the minds of their people from their centuries of muddle-headed feudalism, And so, for the everyday Japanese man, woman and child, World War II would come to a conclusion not when Japan was beaten, but when its people had been dragged screaming into the abyss, doused in petrol and set aflame on behalf of their beloved Hirohito; when its desperate young men had ridden fuel-laden aircraft into the sides of enemy ships in some pathetic and vainglorious belief that their own deaths would save their cosseted emperor from the ignominy of surrendering - once again - to the barbarian gaijin hordes.

Occupied Japan 1945-51

As the mushroom clouds cleared over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the Japanese awoke to a new and alien world. The country's redoubtable - but ultimately kamikaze - defence of Emperor Hirohito's honor had kept Japan's armies and civilian population in a state of belligerence far longer than could have been foreseen by the Allied forces, Buoyed up by an unfailing belief in the divinity of their Head of State, the Japanese had remained expectant of snatching victory over their barbarian adversary until they were way past 'the point of no return', So far past, in fact, that without the raw materials necessary for sustaining its war machine, Japan had caved in and begun to eat itself from the inside, tearing up its infrastructure to provide materials for armaments, like a man reduced to using his own amputated leg as a weapon.

And when SCAP (Supreme Commander of Allied Powers), General Douglas MacArthur, began to assess the state of the islands in September 1945, the Japanese were found to be on the verge of starvation. Japan's once-dependable food stores in such colonies as Korea, Manchuria and Taiwan (Formosa) were now beyond its reach. as were more recent acquisitions such as the sixty-four Pescadores in the Taiwan Strait, Sakhalin to Japan's near north and the volcanic Kuriles Islands to the northeast. Japan's already crowded main island of Honshu sagged under the weight of its three million returning troops, as bad weather throughout 1945 brought the rice crop down to only 70% of its regular yield and the fishing industry reported a drop to only 60% of its normal catch. The proud but defeated Japanese found them-selves with a lower per-capita rate of income than even poverty-stricken Malaya, as government attempts to boost the wartime economy had caused crippling inflation, with fourteen times more yen in circulation than there had been back in 1937.

In an effort to check immediate starvation, General MacArthur introduced official food rations of just 1,050 calories per day, and decided to concentrate his efforts on rebuilding. Cities were a nightmare of homelessness, with many conurbations entirely destroyed; indeed, firebombing had razed to the ground over 60% of Tokyo's buildings, leaving 'vast stretches of flatness, dotted with shacks made of cardboard, corrugated tin, and bits of wood for most of the way from the docks of Yokohama to downtown Tokyo'. [2] With neither customers nor the required raw materials, Japan's car manufacturers concentrated on churning out household goods such as pots and pans, and agricultural equipment; even occasionally being forced to grant 'food holidays' to allow their workers to forage for their own food. Despite their willingness to co-operate with their conquerors, the humbled Japanese were compelled, under the terms of their surrender, to raze all of their military installations to the ground and destroy all military equipment [3] before the reconstruction of their country could commence.

With Japanese demokurashii (democracy) as his ultimate goal, General MacArthur's administration (henceforth known as SCAP) began by making a pledge to rid the islanders of their overly feudalistic social system. In 1946, in an effort to promote the wider distribution of income, MacArthur began first by trying to break up the major zeibatsus - wealthy conglomerates whose many-armed octopus had for centuries held Japanese society in a stranglehold. Initially targeting such zeibatsus as Nissan, Nomura, Nakajima, Okura, Furukawa and Asano with an aim for their total dissolution, MacArthur was to achieve only partial success, as the US authorities gradually recognised that retaining the infrastructures of these massive combines would be essential in order to move Japan forward. Instead, the Mitsubishi and Mitsui conglomerates were chosen as guinea pigs for the new approach, being split up into 240 smaller firms, [4] while SCAP coerced the Japanese government into introducing a number of trade-union laws in a major effort to rekindle in the work force ideas of an independent trade-union movement. Such ideas had been attempted during the 1930s, but had been constantly thwarted by the old order of zeibalsus. The Land Reform Act of 1946 implemented the issuing of financial loans to allow tenant farmers to buy their own land, whilst law reforms throughout 1947 provided Japanese workers with their first-ever guaranteed minimum wages, holidays and sick leaves, maximum working hours and safety conditions, accident compensation and the right to engage in collective bargaining.

In November 1948, the Japanese made another formidable break with their recent past when seven of their most well-known generals were hanged for atrocities committed during the war in the Philippines, China and Southeast Asia. This episode included the execution of Japan's highly esteemed former Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo, with life sentences for sixteen other Japanese generals. MacArthur also adopted a system of reparations to be paid by the Japanese to nations victimised by their rampant imperialism. However, this last idea was terminated in 1949 in favor of stabilising the Japanese economy in order to bring in a succession of strong psychological changes to the manner in which the Japanese viewed themselves and the wider world. This seemingly benevolent act on the part of the American administration was, in fact, driven by MacArthur's desire to create not a Western-style but an entirely US-style democracy within the islands.

MacArthur began by implementing a new constitution, officially drafted by the Japanese government led by Prime Minister Kijuro Shidehara, but conceived and realised in the offices of SCAP. The constitution reduced the mighty role of the emperor from that of living divinity to a mere 'symbol of the State and unity of the people', simultaneously placing the sovereignty of Japan in the hands of its people. The Japanese received a Bill of Rights and new legal guarantees that legislative bodies would in future be responsible 'to all adult citizens'. Educational reforms were also put in place to remove from schools all of Japan's pre-war rituals that promoted feelings of ultra-nationalism, while the school system was reorganised on the American lines. Ironically, SCAP was so determined to present American democracy in a positive light to the Japanese that all works criticising America were banned. Satirical cartoons that made fun of SCAP were also banned, while any mention of SCAP's censorship policies was likewise forbidden.

The first stumbling steps towards the liberation of Japanese women began in 1949, with the legalisation of abortion and the right of daughters to inherit the same property as sons. Even greater social changes came when Japanese women in bad marriages gained the right to sue for divorce. Pre-war Japanese society had always deemed marriage failure the height of social disgrace, and women were always blamed for such break-ups. Moreover, Japanese civil law did not provide women with support from former husbands. These hitherto unimaginable social changes even allowed Japanese women to become landowners, and young women over sixteen to marry without their parents' consent, as a rigorous program of birth control also came into being.

But if many of these cultural changes appeared to be happening too quickly for some of the population, negative opinions were held in check by the exotic and attractive nature of the occupying force. Japanese society had long considered such things as eating in public, sitting on railings, and checking one's hair in a shop window to be the height of bad manners. And yet when the newly arrived Americans did such things, the Japanese found it strangely charming. [5] During these early post-war years, the urban Japanese soon grew accustomed to seeing American GIs on their streets, giving them directions and often receiving cigarettes and chewing-gum as thanks. Young Japanese women known as pan-pan girls began to dress in the styles of modern Hollywood in the hope of enjoying a romantic liaison with a GI.

Japanese homes situated in cities such as Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, or near large ports like Kobe and Yokohama began to pick up American music broadcast by the US Forces' Far East Network. Gradually, as the sounds made by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington became increasingly familiar to the Japanese, even black culture and jazz began to develop its own social kudos in this notoriously racist society where foreigners had long been dismissed as gaijin. A few Japanese musicians who hoped to earn money at the US Army and Navy bases attempted to play jazz. However, when they found it impossibly difficult, they turned instead to the blues, Country & Western and boogie-woogie. The boogie-woogie was particularly embraced by the Japanese, who adored Shizuko Kasagi's wild voodoo rendition of 'Jungle Boogie' in Akira Kurosawa's 1948 movie Drunken Angel. Furthermore, her impassioned performance of 'Tokyo Boogie-Woogie' later the same year gained Kasagi a new and younger GI fan base, through the song's many broadcasts on the Far East Network.

Because of the agonisingly slow manner in which both the emperor and his generals had accepted Japan's inevitable defeat, the long months before the surrender had taken its toll on a civilian population long resigned to their fate, and there was a desire among many of the young Japanese to learn English and assimilate as quickly as possible. Indeed, even though they still felt an allegiance to Hirohito, many older Japanese men and women were not slow to adopt Western styles. Nonetheless, extreme poverty among the vast majority of Japanese ensured that they were still forced to wear the loose-fitting mompe and geta footwear of the peasant classes, as crouching war veterans clogged the filthy streets hoping to hear the clink of a couple of hundred yen in their begging bowls.

The Japanese Economic 'Miracle' 1951-53

At the beginning of 1951, Japan signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty, enabling General MacArthur's SCAP administration team to pull its occupying forces out of the islands. MacArthur's policies had been so thoroughly implemented that the Japanese were already beginning to experience a massive economic recovery - a recovery that seemed to outsiders to be nothing short of miraculous. If the truth be told, however, certain obvious elements had conspired to propel Japan forwards in this extraordinary manner. Most important to their economic recovery was the outbreak of the Korean War the previous June. For, although Article$nbsp;9 of Japan's new constitution had insisted that the nation renounce militarism, America was determined to utilise as many of Japan's automotive, aeronautical and munitions manufacturers as was possible against Communist Russia and China. Thus, throughout 1951, Japan's captains of industry found themselves in the midst of a 'special procurements boom' and 'special market economy' that allowed them to make huge sums of money from equipping the American military with aero engines, fuel tanks and various spare parts. Indeed, in one eighteen-month period from early 1950 to mid-51, the fortunes of Japan's car industry swung from facing total oblivion to making profits of $340,000,000. Furthermore, these vast sums were made whilst watching not Japanese but American soldiers taking all the necessary risks to guard Southeast Asia - ironically pitted against Japan's two most dangerous historic enemies. More-over, in spite of the two billion dollars that the US government had already pumped into the country, Japan's continued usefulness to America's war machine ensured that her conquerors exempted her from paying further war reparations. Whilst Great Britain, the USA's primary ally throughout World War II, sank to her knees and never recovered from President Roosevelt's Lend/Lease repayments, Japan's outrageous belligerence in Southeast Asia was being rewarded with million-dollar handouts.

Japan felt these effects of capitalism and democracy so immediately that it was almost impossible for them to judge Western culture as anything less than miraculous. Despite the privations of the immediate post-war years, by 1953 the Japanese economy had grown so rapidly and so visibly that the population was earning more than during any other period of Japanese history - and wages were still rising. From jobless and homeless to gadget-filled-modern-property owners in under a decade, the Japanese of the post-war age celebrated their new lives with the kind of vigor that only the newly redeemed can. And for the many Japanese who rushed out to buy Nissan's own version of the British Austin A40, when it first hit the streets in May '53, the car's appearance was symbolic of Japan at last taking her place alongside its democratic and industrialised Western peers.

Membership of Japan's Socialist Party rapidly dwindled as the LOP (Liberal Democratic Party) became the voice of Japanese business. With their desire for closer ties with the Communist nations and programs that encouraged a more generous Welfare State, the Socialist Party could obtain no hold over a Japanese people who suddenly found themselves earning enough to pay for private health care, private insurance and their own private vehicle. For the post-war Japanese, the so-called American Dream had been shown to be a living and breathing miracle that was to be embraced, embellished and served back to the West in Japanese form in the coming years.

Car Shows, Song Contests & Televised. Pro-Wrestling - Japan in 1954

Following the dramatic economic turnaround of 1953, events throughout 1954 soon proved to make this a pivotal year for the Japanese culture and self-perception. In February '54, Japan Airlines made its first scheduled international flight to San Francisco, with further scheduled flights to Brazil and the Philippines beginning later the same year. In Tokyo's Hibuya Park, over half-a-million visitors gathered at Japan's first ever International Motor Show, while the Japanese movie industry caused international tidal waves with the release of Ishiro Honda's classic monster movie Godzilla and Akiro Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, which won the Silver Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival.

To celebrate New Year 1954, NHK-TV had decided to broadcast the Kohaku Utagassen (Red & White Music) festival as their first ever TV spectacular. NHK's radio version had been broadcast at the beginning of each of the three previous years, but as the festival took the form of a song contest between two large and highly colorful teams of twenty-five singers each, 1954's festival inspired nearly half of the Japanese population to view this outrageous gala event. Like Britain, Japan would prove small enough for such TV events to take on extraordinary national meaning, and many Japanese preferred to watch the festival outside on 'street TVs', set up specially by NHK for those unable to afford their own set. The televised festival was such a hit that it became an instant Japanese tradition, one that has continued to the present day. [6] The following month NHK-TV chose to transmit a professional tag-wrestling bout between America's world champions the Sharpe Brothers, Ben and Iron Mike, and Japan's Masahiko Brothers, Rikdozan and Kimura. This international grudge match was fought over the three consecutive evenings of 17th, 18th and 19th February, each successive bout dragging in more intrigued viewers. And when the Masahiko Brothers finally defeated the world champions, the result gained them instant legend status and overnight stardom across Japan. NHK-TV was not slow to recognise that the age of the TV star was here.

Rock'n'roll Flies in on the Wings of the TV Idoru

Overnight stardom is a peculiar enough phenomenon in any country suddenly thrown into the TV age. For, via chat shows, game shows, news broadcasts and debates, it shines a spotlight on people who appear to have walked in off the street. Show business was formerly the sole domain of those who had worked long and hard at a specialist talent, often developing it for many years before they were even considered good enough to appear before a small audience. Suddenly, the TV age ushered in a culture of outrageous possibilities. A harassed businessman walking anonymously down New York's Madison Avenue could, by the 1950s, suddenly find himself the victim of some spectacular ruse watched by the entire population of America's Eastern Seaboard, as a disingenuous narrator chirruped, 'Smile, you're on Candid Camera!' It was precisely that kind of outrageous scenario that the newly TV-ised Japanese of the mid-1950s fell in love with, as Tokyo's entrepreneurs scoured the city's coffee shops, shopping malls and jazz cafes for anyone with the kind of je ne sais quoi that could - when thrust under the glare of television's lights - make them appeal to millions up and down the country. A decent singing voice, a face full of character, a unique style or way of speaking; anything could be a hit in the new world of TV.

The Japanese gave their new TV stars a Japanglish name: idoru, literally 'idols'. And it was in this atmosphere of 'anything goes' that rock'n'roll first got its break. For, unlike classic entertainment forms such as comedy and traditional popular music, rock'n'roll was from the beginning a barbarian art-form whose genius lay in its sheer novelty. Hell, even the worst singer in the world could 'have a go' at singing rock'n'roll. By the late '50s, disparagers of rock'n'roll would attempt to disarm the music of its power by writing it off first as 'children's music' [7] and then, once its appeal was enough to genuinely alarm good Christian citizens, as the 'Devil's music'. But here in good old 1955, rock'n'roll arrived in the seemingly trustworthy hands of Bill Haley, and appeared to be nothing more than a sanitised version of black R&B with a little boogie-woogie thrown in.

In Tokyo, singer Peggy Hayama obviously felt similarly when she released her own version of Bill Haley's 'Mambo Rock' in October '55, little knowing that her recording would go down in history as the first ever Japanese rock'n'roll release. At the time, Peggy was probably too busy lamenting the death of James Dean to be much bothered. For Dean's fatal accident on 30th September snuffed out one of the most potent symbols of youth rebellion. Just one month after Peggy Hayama, actress Eri Chieri released her own version of 'Rock around the Clock', again quite unaware that she was committing the Devil's music to tape. By 1955, Chieri was already five long years into her singing career, and quite past worrying about such things. She had introduced other American songs to the Japanese, including such demonic fare as Rosemary Clooney's 'Come on-a My House'. With hindsight, perhaps Chieri's seemingly innocent 1951 hit version of Les Paul & Mary Ford's 'Tennessee Waltz' contains backward messages still awaiting discovery.

However, if rock'n'roll had entered Japan by the back door, 1956 saw that door really taking a good kicking with the release of Kosaka Kazura's version of 'Heartbreak Hotel'. Known to the media as the 'Japanese Presley', 21-year-old Kosaka Kazura was a hard-knock Country & Western singer who'd formed his own backing band Wagonmasters back in 1953, then acted in macho movies with titles such as Hoshizora no Machi (Town with a Starry Sky) and Jogoku Misaki no Fukushu (The Revenge of Cape Hell). But it was Kazura's TV performances that electrified Japanese audiences and opened the door for other wild new rock singers like Keijiro Yamashita, Hiroshi Kamayatsu and Takashi Fujiki, all of whom displayed brashness and a sneering sexuality that drove fear into the hearts of Japanese parents everywhere. It was one thing to see a gaijin act this way, but quite another to view it in one of our own. The torture continued throughout the following years, with the arrival of singers Yuya Utchida and the Anglo-Japanese Mickey Curtis, finally hitting the buffers in June '58 with Hirao Masaaki & His All Stars Wagon's incomparable version of Little Richard's 'Lucille'. But all was not right in the wider world of rock'n'roll, for that previous 13th October, just five dates into a two-week tour of Australia, Hirao Masaaki's hero Little Richard had been struck down by... religion. Cough, spew, splutter, what the?

Death Rattle & Roll

Okay, you heard right. In October 1957, Little Richard got religion. Then, in March 1958, Elvis was drafted and sent to West Germany. In May '58, the world discovered through an interview with the English media that Jerry Lee Lewis was bigamously married to his thirteen-year-old cousin Myra, causing his fee to drop overnight from $10,000 to $500 per show. Somebody had stuck a knife into rock'n'roll, and it was not a well-behaved patient. Perhaps that someone was the beautiful actress Izumi Yukimura. Already five years into her singing career with hit songs like 'Till I Waltz Again with You', 'Jingle Bells Mambo', 'Que Sera Sera' and 'Love & Marriage', Ms Yukimura decided to twist the knife a little deeper into Jerry Lee with 'Hi No Tama Rock', a Japanese-language big-band version of the Killer's 'Great Balls of Fire', No, that's too harsh, Historically, Ms Yukimura's bowdlerised version was just following a tradition in rock'n'roll that went back to Bill Haley himself, whose incomplete version of Big Joe Turner's 'Shake Rattle & Roll' had transformed it from a drunken back-alley knee-trembler to a teenage cop-a-feel. We must remember that while everyone was slagging Pat Boone for his choir-boy renditions of Little Richard songs, the composer himself was inviting Boone on stage with the announcement: 'Here's the man who made me a millionaire'. Moreover, despite her overt Doris Day tendencies, Ms Yukimura was to prove her dedication to the rock during the '60s with a version of Gene Vincenfs 'Be Bap A Lula'. But I digress.

In late January 1959, Buddy Holly joined Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson AKA the Big Bopper on 'The Winter Dance Party' tour. On 3rd February, however, the plane in which they were travelling crashed in a storm, taking three more of rock's pioneers out of the running. Moreover, their hurried replacements at 'The Winter Dance Party' - Bobby Vee, Jimmy Clanton and Frankie Avalon - were neither frontline nor were they really even rockers, These were Simply teen idols of the kind the Japanese termed idoru. Their connection with rock'n'roll was barely less tenuous than that of Izumi Yukimura, and the undead corpse of rock'n'roll lay in the crypt awaiting burial.

In Japan, later that month, the ultra-commercial television company Fuji-TV unveiled their brand new rock'n'roll show The Hit Parade, the first show of its kind entirely dedicated to youth music. It was a sensational and instant pop success, the show's millions of teenage viewers virtually guaranteeing overnight fame to all who appeared on it. And although the program was hosted by former Elvis wannabe Mickey Curtis, he appeared here on live TV utterly de-fanged and de-clawed, clad in a smart suit with neat swept-back hair, his toothy smile and horn-rimmed spectacles reminiscent of Alex Harvey's demonic 'straight character' still fifteen years in the future. Indeed, The Hit Parade's most regular guests would turn out to be not rockers at all, but the singing twins Emi and Yumi Ita, all-round entertainers and movie stars who went by the professional name the Peanuts. [8] As the conservative dress codes of its presenter signalled, rock'n'roll was over.

When Elvis Lost the Faith

When Elvis returned to civvy street in March 1960, he still looked pretty much the same Elvis. But something had changed and he was a tamer Elvis, a lobotomised Elvis, a puppet Elvis with Prince Charles's sense of rock'n'roll. While stuck in the army in distant Germany, the helpless Elvis Presley had watched as his rock'n'roll brothers-in-arms had been struck down one by one. After little Richard's baptism into the Seventh-day Adventist Church, he himself had succumbed to the draft, followed by Jerry Lee, Buddy, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. All this dying had beaten the King, and he was now the King in name alone. And the evidence? The evidence was there in the material that issued forth from Elvis like a fountain of green bile from the spinning head of Linda Blair. And the evil bunged up the arteries of rock'n'roll's undead corpse so badly that, just one month later, at the end of their British tour, rock'n'roll Gods Eddie Cochran and Sweet Gene Vincent careered off the A4 road outside Chippenham's Greenways Hospital, leaving Eddie dead and Gene for ever limping. It was 17th April 1960 and the authorities were smiling; for the sky was crying as rock'n'roll lay dying. Elvis may not have been hungry any more, but he was scared and he was lonely. In Germany, far from his mother and watching his comrades bow out one by one. Elvis sought solace in such un-rock comforts as the schnitzel and the waltz. Within the year, our man would be back at home in the comfort zone, recording 'Jesus Knows What I Need'. Henceforth, the King would never again dare venture out of that zone.

Unfortunately for the Japanese, with regard to rock'n'roll, whatever was good enough for America was good enough for them. If America was saying rock'n'roll was over, who were the Japanese to say different? However, there were right now in Japan an entirely capable group of experimental and forward-thinking musicians already at work; happy to take any leaps the USA could make, but more than happy to oblige with the fundamental research should it be required. And it is to these pioneering souls that we next turn our attention.

Footnotes: (go back)

  1. Yumi Goto, Those Days in Muramatsu (Publication of the Center for East Asian Studies, University of Kansas).
  2. Hans H. Baerwald, 'Postwar Japan - A Reminiscence' (Japan Policy Research Institute 2002).
  3. Japan was also forced to guarantee that no land, sea or air forces would hereafter be maintained. However, the coming of the Cold War forced the USA to rethink this policy and allow the islands to maintain 'self-defence forces'.
  4. By the 1950s, even this was considered to have been a wasted effort, as the firms reunited as soon as Allied Command left Japan.
  5. Yumi Goto, Those Days in Muramatsu (Publication of the Center for East Asian Studies, University of Kansas).
  6. As Kohaku Utagassen has now been transmitted for over half a century, it has taken on tile kind of king-making quality that the BBC's Top of the Pops once held.
  7. Tom Lehrer, AN EVENING WASTED WITH TOM LEHRER (Decca 1958).
  8. The closest that that the Peanuts would ever gel to real rock'n'roll was on their December 1960 hit 'Dans les Rues de Bahia', which was based on the Champs' instrumental hit 'Too Much Tequila'.