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Rough Guide

Rough Guide To Avant-Garde Japan



Released 29 January 2021

From boundary-pushing koto musicians to experimental jazz virtuosi, Japanese music has long embraced all things avant-garde. This Rough Guide highlights some of today’s key innovators whose individualism challenges the conformist perception of Japan.


It’s something of a paradox that a country with a reputation for conformity and obeying the rules has also produced some of the world’s most radical music, where rules are only there to be broken. The origins of the experimental, avant-garde, improvisation, free jazz and onykokei (reverberation of sound) scenes date back to at least 1951, when the American administration departed Japan. Of course, improvisation is inherent in some Japanese musical traditions. Zen Buddhism and new music emerging from America and Europe had a natural affinity, indeed Zen philosophy had a profound effect on John Cage, Stockhausen and others. Yet these global influences were never fully integrated, rather interpreted by Japanese musicians and their own traditions remained never far from the surface.

Koto players, particularly Tadao and Kazue Sawai began to push the boundaries of koto music in the 1960s and 70s. Michiyo Yagi,a student of the Sawai’s, is one such benefactor of these early trailblazers. Inspired by John Cage, and New York’s John Zorn, she utilises techniques such as bowing, percussive effects, and slide koto on the album opener ‘Rouge’. The album also features the unique singer/songwriter koto player Karin, as well as the koto/guitar duo tsuMGuito (Maya Kimura and Norio Sato) who pay tribute to French composer Pierre Boulez in an experimental composition by Shintaro Imai.

Many technically brilliant saxophonists emerged during the 1970s and 80s, while others took a more experimental route, such as Akira Sakata, Kazutoki Umezu and Yasuaki Shimizu. Masanori Oishi is another recent maverick saxophonist who plays the music of Dutch ‘avant-pop’ composer Jacob TV.

Japan has been at the forefront of electronic music, both in the creation of the instruments (Ace Tone, Korg, Roland) and pioneering artists, from Toru Takemitsu through to Tomita and Yellow Magic Orchestra. From the early 1990s, Yoshihide Otomo developed the experimental, noise and improvisation scenes further, playing guitars, turntables and electronics, firstly with his band Ground Zero. These days he’s well known globally, while at home his soundtracks have made him a household name. The closing track is a previously unreleased live recording from the now legendary Japanorama tour of the UK in 2001. This Japanorama line-up included another pioneering and featured musician, Haco, who beginning with her group After Dinner has gone on to record several groundbreaking albums. 

Vocalists have played their part in developing Japan’s avant-garde scene. EMiKO VOiCE is equally adept at interpreting Toru Takemitsu or Japanese folk tunes as on this track ‘Sanosa’. Likewise, veteran singer Shun Sakai has become increasingly involved in the experimental and avant-garde scenes, as this truly bizarre track with her band the Long Goodbye demonstrates.

While avant-garde, free jazz, improvisation and experimental all remain firmly part of the underground, some artists have built up quite a following both at home and abroad. One such band is Shibusashirazu, who have performed twice at Glastonbury and several times at Fuji Rock, and like many of the featured artists, are trailblazers of a Japanese avant-garde scene which has developed its own distinct flavours, not replicated in any other country. This unique collection gives an insight into its richness and diversity.

For further explorations into Japanese avant-garde, visit www.farsidemusic.com and Paul Fisher’s Far Side Radio show on Resonance 104.4fm.