It might be hard to imagine, but there was a time when there was not a Japanese restaurant in every city neighborhood and suburban strip mall. It was a time when most Americans thought the idea of eating raw fish was like, “never!” instead of a staple now available fresh adjacent to the seafood counters of many supermarkets. Once, there were only a few Japanese restaurants in in New York. Now TripAdvisor lists the top 30 Japanese restaurants in Wichita, Kansas.
Even as recently as the mid-1970s, it was not that way. There were a few Japanese restaurants in Manhattan, including the venerable Fuji (now known, of course, as Fuji Sushi) on West 56th Street. It didn’t specialize in sushi, though it did offer sashimi as an appetizer to go along with main courses such as sukiyaki, and negimaki, cooked thin sliced beef rolls now available in every Japanese restaurant’s bento box or cooked food selection. The sushi boom didn’t take hold until the 1980s, when Japanese business and products from automobile manufacturing to Wall Street drove the global economy.
One area Japan did not excel was in pop music, where American and British imperialism ruled the international stage, and had broad and deep influence on the Japanese market. “Sukiyaki,” by Kyu Sakamoto, was the one Japanese language song to top of the Billboard singles chart, which it did for three weeks in spring 1963.
I had a first row seat to Japanese pop and rock music and music journalism throughout the 1970s. On a trip to the west coast around 1974, two friends of mine, Ed Ward and John Morthland, who were recent refugees from Rolling Stone, introduced me to a woman who named herself Haruko Minakami. This was a pen name she chose in tribute to the great Japanese writer Haruki Murikami; I did not learn her real name was Akiko until the Facebook era. She was looking for writers: Haruko and I hit it off, and I became a regular contributor to a series of Japanese rock magazines she edited over the next eight or ten years, including Plus One, Jam, and Music Life. These magazines covered the Anglo-American acts that were Big in Japan, mostly mainstream rock bands that ruled the British and American charts, including David Bowie, The Who, the Rolling Stones, the solo Beatles, Cheap Trick, Aerosmith, the Allman Brothers, Rod Stewart, and all the rest of the international rock royalty.
But Haruko would occasionally send me heavy boxes of albums, both new and classic, by Japanese rock and pop acts. The album covers, notes, and songs were all in Japanese. She would tape a piece of paper with sentence or two with the name of the artist and the slightest amount of information, leaving it up to me to figure out everything else, to just respond to the music. I would write in English, and she would translate the articles into Japanese. I loved the band names: The most polished rock band of that time was the Sadistic Mika Band, which played its own whimsical blend of pop and prog. There was a band called the Bad Boys, who did note-for-note covers of Beatles songs on their album, Meet the Bad Boys.
My favorite group was a lumbering power trio irresistibly named Speed, Glue, and Shinki, whose lack of adeptness added to their allure. On the opposite end, the competent, musically accomplished end, was an album by Haruomi Hosono, the exceptional Hosono House. A quality breakthrough for easygoing Japanese language rock, Hosono’s 1973 solo debut album has had an influential cult following ever since.
But I don’t recall Haruko ever writing to me about, or sending me any of the records, that are included in the new anthology Pacific Breeze 2: Japanese City Pop, AOR and Boogie 1972 – 1986. This is the second such collection by the dedicated enthusiasts and crate-diggers at Light in the Attic Records, who have been behind the rediscovery or emergence of artists as diverse as Rodriguez, Lee Hazlewood, Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, and ghost artists like Jim Sullivan and Jim Ford.
The album’s subtitle doesn’t really capture what the music here is like. AOR (album oriented rock) is really a 1970s radio format created by network programmers, who replaced the freeform FM of the 1960s with tightly limited playlists. And the term “boogie” I usually associate with more or less adequate blues rock bands, such as Canned Heat and Foghat, or better than adequate ones like ZZ Top. There is nothing like what we call AOR or boogie on this collection at all.
But City Pop – I like that phrase, mundane and exotic, and it does define the urbane ambitions on this collection, that blends funk, disco, fusion, smooth jazz, lounge, the precursors of what you could call “chill.” The closing cut, “Bay/Sky Provincetown 1977” by Yuji Toriyama, is so chill it might as well be a watercolor, and that is meant as a compliment.
The one Japanese band to achieve international impact in this period was the innovative electronics-oriented Yellow Magic Orchestra [see Copper’s article in Issue 108], two of whose members, Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi, are both heard on various tracks here. The third member of YMO, Ryuichi Sakamoto, became a composer of film scores and ambient music, including that of The Last Emperor with David Byrne.
Since the 1960s, Hosono has been the great man of Japanese-language music, a ubiquitous presence in every attempt at establishing an indigenous Japanese rock and roll, as solo artist, group member, sideman, producer, and songwriter. (Light in the Attic released a single in 2018 of Mac DeMarco’s adoring cover of Hosono’s 1975 song “Honey Moon” in Japanese.) Hosono House (you can hear the whole album on YouTube stands up as well as any album of its period.
In their strange way, so do many of those highly derivative tracks from Pacific Breeze 2. Some of these tracks feature what was known as Tin Pan Alley, Japan’s answer to Phil Spector’s Wrecking Crew, which featured Hosono on bass, Tatsuo Hayashi on drums, Shigeru Suzuki on guitar, and Masataka Matsutoya and Hiroshi Sato on piano.
To go too deep into the rabbit hole on who plays what on what track is a fool’s errand for this record. In fact, the jumble of factoids at the heart of the lavish packaging (there is a two-disc vinyl set) are the weakest link, since they offer long artist bios, but little or confusing information about the specific songs, musicians, or even basics like local chart positions, on the digital package.
There was a little bit of cross pollination between Japan and Los Angeles. Stevie Wonder’s influence can be heard in the harmonica playing on “Last Summer Whisper” by the singer Anri, and Wonder played keyboards on an album by the brother-sister duo Bread & Butter. It’s not clear from the notes whether Wonder played on “Pink Shadow,” the Bread & Butter track that opens the album, on which you feel the faint touch of “Summer Breeze” and “Grazing in the Grass.”
Most of the tracks feature female lead singers. It is just a guess, but that may be because one of the few places musicians could earn reliable gig money in the 1970s was shows at the United States military bases in Japan, a time and place where USO shows were stacked with pretty girls. This also might have been the preference of Japan’s TV and radio at the time.
Kimiko Kasai, who like many of the women singers here had jazz backgrounds, offers a genteel take on disco and funk on “Vibration (Love Celebration).” On “Kanpoo,” from 1983, Yumi Murata skillfully lets her voice float above the hard funk track that recalls Cameo or the “Brick House” period of the Commodores. The versatile vocalist Eri Ohno’s “Skyfire” gets a boost from a terrific funk guitar and bass track. On the whispier side, Junko Ohashi & Minoya Central Station’s “Rainy Saturday & Coffee Break” is effective mood music, in which the title is all the translation you need.
The notes don’t refer to Steely Dan, although the solos of some of Dan’s frequent studio guitarist Larry Carlton are the model for some of the breaks on Tomoko Aran’s “I’m in Love,” and Piper’s “Hot Sand.” The Steely Dan influence is most pronounced in the defining song, “The Tokyo Taste,” by the Sadistics, former members of the Sadistic Mika Band. They’re like Steely Dan in reverse: Instead of Fagen and Becker using guest musicians on their tracks, the core instrumental quartet of the Sadistics hired guest singers. Rajie, who became a successful solo artist, and Alex Easley, are the singers on “The Tokyo Taste,” my favorite track. It’s a song you can hear in a slightly different version on a City Pop subreddit page (Rajie with a different male singer), that would have been right at home on Fagen’s Sunken Condos solo album.
Blaxploitation film soundtracks were also an influence, but they manifest in a curious way. The tracks “Kindaichi Kosuke Nishi E Iku” by Yu Imai, and “Kindaichi Kosuke No Theme” by the Mystery Kindaichi Band are both from the same “soundtrack” album, both making you feel like the credits are going up on Across 110th Street.
But they are themes from an imaginary movie. The concept album is based on the detective Kosuke mystery novels written by Seishi Yokomizo. In a way, these fantasy tracks bring it all back home, giving a cultural closeness to what, for Japanese viewers, must have been the emotional distance of “Shaft” movies.
Now that one can watch Japanese samurai and yakuza movies seven nights a week on streaming services, now that Japanese anime and manga have become an indelible part of American pop culture, Pacific Breeze 2 may have more appeal now than it did in its time. If I owned a sake bar in Denver or craft cocktail lounge in Brooklyn, I’d have this album on repeat late into the night.