Perfect Sound Forever

Singing Doctors and Friendly Time Bombs

3 A.M. listening party at EnBan- photo by Nigel Staley

A Salute To Japan's Independent Record Shops
By Thomas Bey William Bailey
(December 2008)

Many moons ago, I worked as a record store clerk in the Tower superstore in Chicago. It wasn't a bad job as far as low-paying jobs went, and my fellow clerks were a colorful potpourri of drunks, walking jazz encyclopedias, disco divas, paranoiac/conspiratorial LSD dealers and everything in between. The queasy, clashing red-and-yellow color scheme of the store is indelibly etched onto my brain, as are all the routine, mechanical actions that normally accompany such grunt work. A steady procession of local music stars and sad has-beens chewed up by that same star system kept the monotony from setting in, though: it's not every retail outlet in which you get to see Ray Manzarek of the Doors beet-faced with rage (over an unannounced and, more importantly, unattended book signing), then get to see a blasting rock band endangering the lives of hundreds of shoppers the next day (said band was breathing fire from the makeshift Tower music stage, the flames licking what would have been the floorboards of tenants in the posh Lincoln Park living quarters above us).

I thought my collected experiences here would be enough to pad a good book or two-that is, until I first experienced the Japanese record store scene in all its majesty. After just a few incursions into music epicenters like Tokyo's Shinjuku area and Osaka's Ame-Mura [America Village], I realized exactly how tame my experiences were. Sure, I'd rubbed shoulders with sneering glitterati from all over the pop-cultural map, and even had a great vicarious thrill when the late Wesley Willis (Chicago's noted schizophrenic troubador and street artist) urinated on the tacky Christmas tree in the public square in front of the store-expressing my disdain for the consumerist holiday season better than I would have been willing to do myself. This was all fine and good, but had I ever gone to a record store-sponsored event called "Baby's Playroom," in which the audience and 'performers' were all infants? Or, had I gone to an all-night marathon of singing doctors entitled "Secret Laboratory" at this same shop? Had I gone there and had so many glasses of rice wine at the bar that I walked out of the store with an embarrassing sack full of 7" singles meant for enhancing aerobics sessions? The answer to all three of these questions, even in light of my Tower misadventures, was a resounding 'NO.'

There was obviously a gap in my music-related experiences that needed filling, and that was easily filled by a single "multi-purpose" record store, bar, and event space called EnBan, just next to the Japan Rail train tracks in Tokyo's lively Koenji district.

Satoru Higashiseto, a calm and personable gentleman who has worked at Osaka's 'Time Bomb' shop since 1983, written for the popular Bananafish magazine (and who probably attended untold thousands of concerts) also has praise for EnBan: "Enban is a good idea," he says. "Taguchi, the owner, told me that his CD sales are better during midnight than in the daytime, because of the customers who drink a lot of sake at the bar."1

Yet EnBan is more than just an idiosyncratic combination of different elements: it represents a more experimental attitude towards making music available, which should, in a perfect world, go hand-in-hand with an experimental attitude towards creating music. EnBan enjoys an almost daily series of live events- these have involved everyone from the 'secret singing doctors' to Tokyo's 'mistress of the sine wave' Sachiko M., and even the author of this piece on one occasion.

Yet EnBan must distinguish itself from the teeming number of urban Japanese record stores to survive (there are at least forty of them just southeast of EnBan, in the Shinjuku district). They do this mainly with a communicative, and paradoxically non-consumerist philosophy. As Mr. Taguchi states in the first issue of the audio culture magazine Nu, "even if people come into my store with an attitude of 'What the hell is this place?' it's still great for me."2

This attitude is shared by a small coterie of "self-taught" shop owners with a passion for constant musical diversification, no matter how trivial or confusing some of their musical juxtapositions might seem to the uninitiated. Los Apson, a tiny shop off the beaten path from the throbbing bee colony known as Shinjuku station, is like a sister shop to EnBan, synthesizing the transcendental and the silly like few other record stores on the planet. Los Apson boss Keiji Yamabe recalls the willful eclecticism that led him to start his shop: "[Before Los Apson], I was working at Roppongi 'Wave'... I was assigned to be the man in charge of U.S. indie releases. This was before stuff like Nirvana became a hot topic and started selling like crazy. After that happened, almost anybody could lay claim to some knowledge of 'U.S. indies', so I decided to start an 'avant garde' corner in my store. But in addition to avant garde, I wanted to have 'low rider' and 'Pon-Chak' music [a cheaply produced, frenetic dance music favored by Korean taxi drivers]... I didn't think that was possible at a major record supermarket, so I started Los Apson."3

Yamabe's shop can become difficult to navigate if there are more than just three people inside- something not uncommon for the so-called 'select shops' in Tokyo. But whereas some people would be deterred by these size constraints, shopkeepers like Yamabe use the restraining factors to force a more creative approach, and to form a consistent pattern of taste-making. Everything in Los Apson, be it uncredited, neo-Dadaist pamphlets of unknown origin, a section of otherwise unclassifiable CD's labeled "brain damages", or vintage magazines on Mexican pro wrestling (one of Yamabe's pet topics), invites further curiosity: Taguchi's aforementioned "what the hell?" factor is certainly in play here, too. The store bursts with home-mixed minidisks, eye- popping optical art t-shirt designs, and shelves of books celebrating the more untamed aspects of Japanese, European, and American counter-culture. Oh, and there are plenty of proper CD releases as well. As Noriyasu Nogai, the owner of yet another eccentric select shop, Kurara Audio Arts, says: "Los Apson is more than just a 'place'... it has the feeling of a separate universe."4

Even more than this, Los Apson is an alternative to superstores like the Shibuya Tower Records branch and other independent shops which tend to sell records from only one genre. In a culture which normally favors intense specialization, with one store for every imaginable micro-sized theme (be it Beatles bootlegs, grindcore releases with quasi-snuff album covers, or confectionery French chansons), EnBan and Los Apson are decidedly more radical in their approach. Yamabe seems to relish the unconventional, talkative customers he gets, who treat him like more of a bartender or personal fashion advisor than a mere record store clerk. While he isn't equipped with a full bar, as EnBan is, he states that "we don't serve alcohol... but it always feels like a bar in here."5

Los Apson ally Kurara Audio Arts is another calculated attack on specialization. Unlike the rampant freakout psychedelicism of Los Apson, Nogai's shop leans more towards traditional avant-gardism and recorded objets d'art, such as Die Tödliche Doris' famed box of 2" records (Chöre & Soli) intended for play in the voicebox of a talking doll. A special interest in art brut complements the well- arranged avant garde shelves of Kurara, with LP's by 'children's noise' acts such as Dragibus being among Nogai's personal favorites. A good selection of heavyweight art books, posters and films rounds out the selection. Not only does Kurara avoid the strict genre-based approach of other independent shops, but it also (according to Nogai) avoids being part of the music fans' "boys club":

"The type of customers here has really changed," Nogai tells the Japanese webzine Web-Across. "Up until now, we've had mostly artistes and people who make music themselves. But, recently, it wouldn't be unusual for a younger schoolgirl to come here by herself."6

As you might expect, the 'socialization factor' in Japanese select record shops is inversely proportional to their miniscule size. As the stores get smaller, the relationship with the shopkeepers becomes more personal and enduring. If you go to a larger Japanese chain store such as Disc Union, you will immediately notice the spectacle of determined vinyl-hunters flipping their way through record racks at an astonishing, inhuman speed that accompanies their thorough knowledge of their chosen musical genres. Then they will disappear from the store just as quickly and wordlessly. The 'select shop' crowd is wired in a completely different way than the aforemnetioned people, who always seem to be on some kind of urgent 'Special Forces' mission. Frequenters of select shops will dally for hours, commenting on what they hear over the store speakers, and might just disclose all the essential details of their personal lives as they do it-but, more importantly, they will leave their homes in search of a real surprise. There is a palpable desire from these patrons to learn something new, and not to succumb to a list of 'must have' music dictated to them by a higher-up in the music consumer hierarchy.

To this end, a favorite spot of mine in Osaka used to be the Alchemy music store, which was manned occasionally by Masonna's lithe lord of psych violence, Maso Yamazaki. Maso would sit nested behind a high counter in deep thought; chain smoking and burning incense sticks as some magnum opus of freak folklore, like Father Yod's "God and Hair," tore up the store speaker system. If a customer broke his reverie though, he was anything but hostile-even if they were local salarymen or other people who appeared to be the polar opposite of people involved with "the scene." It goes without saying, watching a clone businessman in a starched white shirt getting advice on Italian power electronics from long-haired and electrified noise guru Maso Yamazaki is a 'Kodak moment'-and yet, select shop bosses are wise enough not to dismiss any customer for not 'looking the part.' The exclusivity in music selection does not extend, as it might in the U.S., to a 'private party' mentality: there are no Japanese indie shops where an archly ironic clerk will mock musical neophytes into submission, gloating over their hard-won mastery of the obscure fringes of pop culture knowledge.

Rather, Japanese select shops reward the patience that it takes to actually find them (even with maps handy, this is not always a cut-and-dry task). The select shops realize that they have kindred spirits in other areas of cultural production, and collaborate with them accordingly. For example, the long-running and venerated underground comics magazine Garo once devoted an issue to the theme of 'sound fetishism' and did a glowing feature on Nogai's Kurara shop. Garo has come full circle from advertising independent music, as they now sell it in their own arts boutique called 'Tacoche.'

Select shop owners are often given precedence over music journalists when it comes to keeping magazine readers (and the merely curious public) informed. Time Bomb's Satoru Higashiseto doubles as a culture writer for the Studio Voice culture magazine, for example, and I've also seen him fielding questions for foreign students writing their thesis papers on the Japanese noise underground. After all, magazines-particularly Rock Magazine and Fool's Mate- once kept listeners aware of underground music before the record store infrastructure could be properly formed. While the latter magazine is now, sadly, the house organ for a truly bombastic and goofy genre of rock known as 'Visual Kei,' it was once a 50/50 split between coverage of independent music and the Japanese mainstream. No matter, though, the groundwork has been laid and the pioneering stores such as Fujiyama (Tokyo), Les Disques du Soleil, Time Bomb and Alchemy (all Osaka) are rarely spoken of in negative terms these days.

Another recent development: in live performance situations which require a DJ in between artists' sets, many of the shop owners have been chosen in the place of card-carrying professional DJs. It is, in this writer's humble opinion, a refreshing change just to hear a DJ at a gig who is simply a good song selector, rather than a slick and self-aggrandizing turntable 'virtuouso.' Kurara's Nogai has worked the intermission periods at concerts for artists in the 'New Improvised Music From Japan' series, including Ami Yoshida's bedroom electronics combo The California Dolls. And, of course, Yamabe Keiji may be the first and only person in the world to have live-mixed Merzbow's postindustrial meltdowns with... er... The Baja Men's "Who Let The Dogs Out."

Experiencing the rich variety of Japanese select shops leaves me with a burning question: why, in a stereotypically 'insular' society such as Japan, are there 5 times as many public places to discover new music than in an officially recognized 'metropolis of music' like Chicago? After all, Japan is a country that has been tightening its belt since the collapse of the great 1980's 'bubble' economy and their status as the world's #1 creditor nation. Still, the record retail business there thrives as its Western equivalent ponders various worst- case scenarios and develops a bunker mentality: while chains like Tower Records have long since declared bankruptcy in the U.S., Japanese franchises (like the glistening Tower behemoth in Shibuya) continue to reverberate with the sound of ringing registers, with no end to their operations in sight.

It's also worth mentioning that, combined with its shrinking purses, Japan's Internet privacy laws forbid net servers to disclose personal information about their users-even if they are downloading vast catalogs of music for free. Wouldn't this provide justification for just staying home and saving precious resources of time and money? Satoru Higashiseto doesn't believe so. "I don't think the internet has damaged my store….only the sales policy of CD's/music has changed. However-the real underground scene happens in the small clubs and even out on the street now." Then he adds, with a knowing wink, "it can't be Googled on the Internet."7

One should still be cautiously optimistic about the future of these havens for outré and rugged individualism, though. While their combined reputation has already earned them high-profile foreign proselytizers like the Diskaholics Anonymous Trio (a free-form supergroup composed for the express purpose of making record-buying trips to Japan's major cities-now somewhat less relevant since founding member Jim O'Rourke has 'gone native' in Japan), public enthusiasm for these outlets often has to butt heads with government regulation and the usual grim realities of the 'art' business being one of the more expendable industries in times of economic uncertainty. In 2006, I wrote of a draconian law which gutted the country's market for vintage electric instruments by outlawing their sales after a seemingly unrelated incident, in which a handful of citizens died from the fumes released by some second-hand, 20-year-old Panasonic air conditioning units. Fears that similar strong-arm tactics may be used against record shops turning a profit on second-hand goods (this is the vast majority of the 'select shops') are certainly justified given official orders like this one. Talk also abounds of crippling property taxes on independent stores, another move which could stifle or nullify new ventures into this field (although Mr. Higashiseto assures me that the sales tax on actual records purchased in Japanese shops is a reasonable 5%).

When all is said and done, a sort of 'culture war' may be brewing between the rigid bureaucracy and 'hana yori dango' ethics (an oft-quoted aphorism translating to "dumplings are better than flowers," or basic needs ahead of aesthetic concerns) of an older generation, and the healthy skepticism of a younger generation opting out of the "job for life" commitment to corporatism and their own start-up businesses, among them a plethora of cafes, bars and media outlets.

The more entrenched traditionalist elements in the country, perhaps sensing that ground is being lost to a younger generation seeking to build a new infrastructure around their more pluralistic cultural ideals, is a cornered animal that should not be underestimated-their ability to shut things down in a heartbeat extends even to more significantly 'old school' counter-culture institutions, like Tokyo's Shimo- Kitazawa neighborhood, where the building of a massive freeway now threatens to displace the decades-old hodge-podge of hip boutiques and relaxed automobile-free streets. It is uncertain at this phase who will come out on top of this particular culture war. As it steadily intensifies, it might be a good idea to experience the inspiring eclecticism and resourcefulness of these outlets while they still stand.

Another view inside Enban


1 Interviewed by the author, July 15 2006.
2 Fumihito Taguchi quoted in Nu #1 (August 2004), p. 132. Translation by the author.
3 Ibid. (Keiji Yamabe), p. 71.
4 Ibid. (Noriyasu Nogai.)
5 Ibid. (Keiji Yamabe), p. 72.
6 Noriyasu Nogai quoted at Translation by the author.
7 Interviewed by the author, July 15 2006.

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