Japanese teens: not necessarily rocking to American rhythms

What are young Japanese listening to these days? And what does it say about their values?

Because of Michael Jackson's triumphal tour of Japan, most of us will be surprised to know that Japanese youth have turned largely to their own tradition of popular and folk songs to create contemporary pop music.

Though American rock rhythms have permeated the globe, the big chart climbers in Japan are not the latest songs by stars such as Madonna, Billy Idol, or Lionel Richie.

Instead, Japanese names like Yoko Oginome, Misato Watanabe, and the Onyanko Club are at the top of the list.

Why is Japanese youth less interested in American pop music than, say, the Europeans are?

``In the '70s, young people copied American pop. They couldn't read music much then, but now young people are more musically active. They compose their own songs and start their own kind of music, too,'' says Hiroshi Isaka, a record producer and concert promoter, who has worked with Philips and JVC records and has produced pop, jazz, and classical music.

Another interesting wrinkle in the Japanese pop music world is the existence of companies that ``create'' pop music stars.

There are about 50 of these organizations in Japan. They recruit young teenagers with an eye to molding them into a certain image - the cute, innocent boy or girl next door - that captures young pop music audiences.

Those chosen go through rigorous training and a series of further auditions to see how they are progressing. If they don't match up, they're out. Sometimes a young ``star'' becomes a has-been at age 16 or 17.

Yasuo Arakawa is a bass player and arranger, who has worked as a professional musician in Japan most of his life. He studied music at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Mr. Arakawa points out that TV is a major factor in influencing the musical tastes of young people:

``The singers and talent on TV are very young. The music is mostly Japanese pop, not really rock, but rock-type music. The young people love enka, a mixture of Japanese folk songs and Japanese pop - old pop songs with a rock-type rhythm.

``The melodic line is very simple and sad, not happy songs. The Japanese people like them. They fit with the Japanese people's feelings more than American pop does.''

Sadao Watanabe, a popular alto saxophonist, has been around long enough to get a good overview of the music scene in Japan. His music is a blend of jazz and pop, and appeals to a wide audience.

He agrees with Arakawa that ``Japanese music fans mostly are very young, under 20. Most people who buy albums are the young generation.

``They start listening to Japanese pop, and then move on to American and other foreign music.''

So what about jazz?

Judging by the way the Japanese flock into American jazz clubs when they visit the United States, one would think that jazz is still superpopular in Japan.

Not so, says Kitaro, Japan's leading proponent of ``New Age'' music.

``Jazz has lost popularity in Japan, definitely.''

``In my youth,'' adds Mr. Isaka, ``jazz was our favorite music, but now young people are looking for something different.''

He feels that Japanese youth's loss of interest in jazz is partly the fault of the music itself:

``[Jazz musicians] went to the avant-garde side. People want to follow, but cannot follow. So they give up and say, `I cannot understand jazz.'''

Watanabe points out that most of the musicians who play in Japanese festivals are foreigners, especially Americans.

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