This year’s Labyrinth festival featured a few special highlights. On day two, DJ Nobu guided the audience through a typhoon that hit the festival in full force. Nobu’s hypotonic sound perfectly matched the wind, rain and dark skies. Yet my personal highlight came the next day, during Peter Van Hoesen’s set. Early on, the weather cleared and a watery sun broke through, after two days of near non-stop rain. A cart passed by with two little kids, colorfully dressed, who were drawing and painting in paper books.
Children are not a novel sight at Japanese festivals. During ASC’s set at Rural festival last year, four kids, led by their father, waded through the audience in a lighted caravan with glow sticks. Children are a common presence at Rainbow Disco Club, too. Japanese festivals are among the world’s most family-friendly. Each has a special kids’ area, and parents dancing with their kids is a common sight. This shows the inclusivity of the Japanese music scene. But it also illustrates one of the larger problems it faces: ageing.
The people who make up Japan’s music scene are growing older, and the new generation of dancers seems to be staying at home. As Chris SSG said, it might be the notorious dance law that attracts the most attention, yet the ageing population seems to a be larger and more pressing issue. “Japan is getting older,” said Yuko Asanuma, a Japanese journalist based in Berlin. The country is thought to have the highest proportion of elderly citizens in the world. This raises the question of what the future of Japan’s club scene will be. At festivals, parents bring their kids, as most festivals end early in the evening. Yet clubs face a serious problem. As the crowd grows older and older, more and more people will skip the Saturday night for an early Sunday morning brunch.
This hasn’t always been the case. Japan has been a regional center of electronic music for the last two or three decades. DJs from South Korea, Taiwan and China would travel to Tokyo to attend parties, discover new music and go record shopping. When foreign DJs toured Asia their schedule was often Friday in Osaka, Saturday in Tokyo, Sunday in Narita and then home. These days, Osaka and other Japanese cities are often replaced by Taipei, Seoul or another Asian city. And those Taiwanese and South Korean DJs who travelled to Tokyo and Osaka now invite DJs from these cities to their clubs. The regional dynamics have changed, and the musical landscape of East Asia is shifting.
The entry of young people into underground music culture has been complicated in recent years by other factors. The two decades of economic stagnation, also known as the lost decades or lost score, have changed the mood among Japan’s younger generation. Wages have remained stagnant, meaning it’s often too expensive for students to go out. Clubs are also seen as radical, part of alternative society, and remain unknown to most of Japan’s youth. “Being secure is kind of the entire mood covering Japan right now,” Shimpei Kaiho, a promoter behind the Melting Bot parties, told me. “It can be said that Japan is being lost in nostalgia, not seeking radical ideas and new things, because the past was good. This is sadly a disadvantage for underground clubs.”
It is in this conservative zeitgeist (Japan’s conservative party has large support among first generation voters) that a new generation of potential dancers shy away from underground music culture. As Asanuma noted, these days Japanese youth prefer the safety of their homes and engage socially in the digital world through social media, rather than hitting the dance floor—a new version of the famed otaku culture, a term used for people with obsessive interests.
As a result, Japan’s scene has grown smaller, and the median age is somewhere between 30 and 40. It is in this challenging environment those still involved in underground music culture have sought to develop new ideas to counter these issues, increasing the cohesion and sense of community in Tokyo’s music scene. Each of the artists, bookers and promoters I spoke with said they see Tokyo’s music scene as a big family, in which respect, consideration for others and understanding seems to be the norm. The group is committed to reviving the scene. As Masahiro Tsuchiya, organizer of Rainbow Disco Club, said, Tokyo’s club scene is one of “unity.”
Despite this gloomy outlook, the basis to revive Tokyo’s music scene is in place. The ageing problem also means that the scene is now bestowed with decades of experience and quality, which could prove fundamental in reviving scenes in Tokyo and across the country. Japan has among the best soundsystems in the world and some of the best-run clubs. Indeed, from Asanuma to Chris SSG, to DJ Nobu and the Rural organizers, everyone argued that quality is one of the main assets of Japan and Tokyo’s music scene.
To tackle the economic issue, promoters are seeking to give leeway to students and younger people. The organizers of Rural festival have tried to limit ticket prices, offering special student discounts. Contact has developed a policy that those under 23 pay just 50% of the entry fee, albeit with mixed results so far. One of the more successful experiments was a party organized by Chris SSG last summer. Held at a futuristic aquarium, he and Wata Igarashi played ambient sets surrounded by huge, colorful tanks, filled with exotic species of fish. The combination of this setting and the low entrance fee (¥1,000, or roughly $9) meant the party was well-attended.
More prominent is the idea to focus on local artists instead of foreign ones. As DJ Nobu and David Dicembre of Boiler Room told me, Japan generally focuses on foreign artists. It is the big foreign names who attract crowds. Japan has some incredible local acts, but the country’s seniority culture has created a bottleneck that hinders the development of new artists. Nobu was well into his 30s before he became a recognized name. His party, Future Terror, held in his hometown of Chiba, was formed as a movement against this bottleneck. It is a party where “people can pursue their music more openly without a sense of seniority or stereotype,” he said. Future Terror has since become a famous brand, and its parties have exposed a new generation of DJs, such as Haruka.
This year’s Rural festival lineup, while having foreign names, consisted largely of Japanese acts, who delivered some of the best sets of the festival. A similar vibe was found at Tokyo Techno Society. Organized by DJ So, it featured an “all-star” lineup of Tokyo’s techno scene, with So, Nobu, Wata Igarashi, Iori and Haruka all playing. DJ Nobu recently built on the success of Future Terror with a new party called Gong, featuring artists such as Sapphire Slows, Chee Shimizu and Asyl Cahier. Combined with a ticket price 30 to 40% cheaper than other parties with foreign acts, the turnout out of the younger generation was significant. Circus Tokyo is another party promoting local artists. Its booker, Mari Yamanaka, said it’s her job “to find and pick up young DJs.” The thinking is that a generation of new DJs will bring their friends to clubs.
“We’ve entered into the phase of being asked what is originality and authenticity more than ever,” Shimpei Kaiho said. It seems that this focus on local acts could be the thing that Tokyo’s underground music needs to attract a new generation. An increasing openness in the music scene seems present. For a long time, the format, setting and environment of underground parties has remained the same. Yet in a nation in which digital culture is the dominant space for social interaction, the format of underground parties could seem outdated. Indeed, the success of Tokyo’s Boiler Room events with Dommune illustrates this. As Dicembre said, the streaming format, combined with a low entry fee, resonated extremely well with Tokyo’s youth. At the same time, these parties allowed a newer, younger generation of DJs to break through, reaching crowds beyond the physical dance floor.
The music in Tokyo’s scene has also started to shift. Newer styles such as grime, trap and bass music have become increasingly popular. Shimpei’s parties, held in the WWWβ, go beyond the traditional spectrum, booking a wider range of artists. As Nobu argued, in a city where there is so much to choose from, it’s important that Tokyo’s underground club culture broadens its perspective. People in Tokyo’s music scene seem to realize that it’s time to look forward. The scene’s character might have changed over the years but it has remained strong, its values still intact. It’s now essential to attract a new generation to its dance floors.