Japanese Innovators: Pioneers in Experimental Sounds

Tokyo-based journalist Ian F Martin looks back through the decades to see who was responsible for the genre-defining music emerging from the Japanese underground scenes over the past 40 years.

Artwork: Aleesha Nandhra

Artwork: Aleesha Nandhra

Despite J-Pop’s almost subliminal infiltration into the international pop cultural consciousness over recent years, and despite the occasional novelty hit or surge of viral attention, the West’s exposure to Japanese music over the years has for the most part been with various incarnations of its underground.

The story of Japanese underground music, however, is not a linear narrative so much as an endlessly intersecting garden of forking paths.

The post-war music laboratory of the 1950s and ’60s

One of its beginnings lies in the fading days of the U.S. post-war occupation and the subsequent period of ambiguous, semi-colonised democracy, when experimental artists from a variety of disciplines began exploring their newfound cocktail of freedom and American cultural influence.

Formed in 1951, the Jikken Kobo artists’s workshop positioned themselves as a distinct break from the Japanese artistic tradition, with a self-taught, exploratory approach that drew influences from contemporary and pre-war European and American art.

Credit: Shinchosha Publishing Co, Ltd.

Credit: Shinchosha Publishing Co, Ltd.

Among Jikken Kobo’s fourteen members were a number of musicians, including composer Toru Takemitsu, who made early experiments in musique concréte. Takemitsu was also profoundly influenced by John Cage, upon being introduced to his work by fellow experimental composer Toshi Ichiyanagi, briefly jettisoning musical scores for circular diagrams designed to be interpreted by the performers. More profoundly, Takemitsu was fascinated by Cage’s incorporation of rhythms, timbres and silences influenced by his studies of Zen Buddhism, crediting Cage with reigniting his interest in traditional Japanese music.

Trailer for 'The Woman in the Dunes (Suna No Onna)', 1964 - Toru Takemitsu

Cage’s influence loomed large over the post-war Japanese underground, and his work, along with that of Minimalism and drone pioneer LaMonte Young, is audible in the work of sound art collective, Group Ongaku.

Formed in 1960 by composer Mieko Shiomi, Group Ongaku incorporated elements of musique concréte and the noises of furniture and domestic appliances into their performances, not to mention playing traditional musical instruments in any way they could think of but the conventional one.

One factor linking this generation of musicians is that they functioned in many ways as the Japanese branch of an international scene. Composers like Ichiyanagi and Shiomi spent time studying and making music in America, while the influence of composers like Cage and Young was profound on those who remained in Japan. Thanks in part to the influence of Yoko Ono (who was married to Ichiyanagi for a time), connections between Group Ongaku and the international Fluxus collective flourished, with Shiomi herself becoming a member, along with fellow Group Ongaku members Takehisa Kosugi and Yasunao Tone. And in this way the Japanese 1960s avant-garde generation was able to return the influence, albeit in a less dramatic fashion.

Rock gets dangerous: the origins of the 1970s underground

At the same time John Cage was having such an extraordinary influence on Japanese avant-garde composers, there were big changes happening in Japanese jazz and theatre, alongside the gradual emergence of rock music.

Jazz had been perhaps the key point of contact with American music for Japanese people in the immediate post-war period, and had formed the basis for the development of the pop music industry through the 1950s and early ‘60s. However, as the ‘60s wore on, artists like pianist Yosuke Yamashita embraced free jazz and in the process blew the horizons of Japanese jazz wide open.

Yosuke Yamashita, 'Burning Piano 2008,' March 8, 2008 at Noto Resort Area Masuhogaura, Shika-machi, Ishikawa, Japan

Despite Yamashita’s uncompromising avant-garde approach (he famously performed on a burning piano as part of a 1973 art piece), Yamashita combined international acclaim with a status as a household name in Japan. At the same time, musicians like bassist Motoharu Yoshizawa, guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi and saxophonist Kaoru Abe continued pushing jazz beyond the limits of genre, eventually forming links with the experimental fringes of the emerging Japanese rock scene.

'Musicians continued pushing jazz beyond the limits of genre, forming links with the experimental fringes of the emerging Japanese rock scene...'

Rock music, meanwhile, had finally begun to emerge as a distinct and powerful creative force after about a decade or more of successive faddish obsessions with first rockabilly, then Ventures-influenced instrumental surf guitar music, and finally the Beatlemania-driven ‘Group Sounds’ movement. The swirling, Doors-y psychedelic balladry of The Jacks foreshadowed the emergence of a new generation of loud, dirty, heavy and mysterious rock music influenced by Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and the emerging Western progressive rock movement.

Perhaps the most influential figure in this ‘New Rock’ scene was high school dropout, Yuya Uchida, who had ridden each successive Western rock’n’roll wave in search of his sound before retreating into an impresario role behind the legendary Flower Travellin’ Band. Buoyed by Uchida’s overseas connections, most notably his friendship with John Lennon, Flower Travellin’ Band were able to tour internationally to some degree of acclaim, and recorded their 1971 masterpiece album, Satori in Canada.

Album cover for Flower Travellin' Band's 'Satori' (1971)

Album cover for Flower Travellin' Band's 'Satori' (1971)

Parallel with the birth of free jazz and rock in Japan was the growing intersection of music and theatre. Playwright and film director Shuji Terayama worked closely with musicians in both his stage and filmed works, with composer and frequent Terayama collaborator J. A. Seazer (real name Takaaki Terahara) combining psychedelia with Japanese folk and traditional theatre music on many of Terayama’s soundtracks – most notably on Sho o Suteyo Machi e Deyō (‘Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets’) and Den’en ni Shisu (‘Death in the Country’).

J. A. Seazer - Kodomo Bosatsu (from 'Den’en ni Shisu)

Consciously or not, what nearly all these artists were engaged in was an attempt to fuse foreign influences into a distinctively Japanese kind of new music, and in the process they helped lay foundations that would endure for decades to come. However, the distinctly anti-establishment or countercultural nature of many of the artists also helped ensure that, while internationally or academically respected artists like Yosuke Yamashita or Toshi Ichiyanagi could rake in awards and acclaim domestically for their experimentation with musical form, a lot of the most forward-looking music of the ’70s was locked out of polite discourse and ghettoised as ‘underground’ music.

While Yuya Uchida and Flower Travellin’ Band were courting overseas attention, back in Japan more sonically out-there bands like former Fluxus/Group Ongaku member Takehisa Kosugi’s drone rock collective Taj Mahal Travellers and noise-rock pioneers Hadaka no Rallizes (Les Rallizes Dénudés) emerged from out of the late ‘60s/early ’70s commune scene.

Despite rarely addressing politics directly, Rallizes in particular were dogged by associations with radical left organisations such as the Red Army Faction and its successor groups – a source of much public anxiety and police attention after a series of high profile terrorist incidents such as the Asama-Sanso hostage incident.

Les Rallizes Denudes - 'Night of the Assassin'

Partly as a consequence of this, and perhaps partly as a simple result of sole consistent member Takashi Mizutani’s reclusive personality, Les Rallizes Dénudés developed a reputation as a band shrouded in mystery and secrecy, their releases initially confined to ultra-lo-fi live bootlegs, soaked in banshee wails of feedback.

More broadly, mainstream suspicion towards underground music in the 1970s may have contributed to an environment where progressive rock was never able to reach the pomp and sonic excess of its British contemporaries. Instead, a distinctive Japanese underground musical tradition was formed where artists who emerged from the psychedelic rock scene like Lost Aaraaf vocalist Keiji Haino could collaborate freely with artists from diverse backgrounds such as folk singer (and occasional Shuji Terayama associate) Kan Mikami and improvisational jazz bassist Motoharu Yoshizawa.

'All these artists were engaged in an attempt to fuse foreign influences into a distinctively Japanese kind of new music...'

Creative listening: the influence of punk and new-wave

The underground nature of much of the experimental music from 1970s Japan also perhaps explains why there is no clear cut-off dividing 1970s rock from punk in the way there was in the UK.

Bassist Reck and sax player Chico Hige of ’70s underground band 3/3 were among the key players who helped kick off Japanese punk after a period living in New York, where they played with and absorbed the influence of no-wave pioneers Lydia Lunch and James Chance. Returning to Japan, they renamed themselves Friction and helped produce the Tokyo Rockers compilation, which was a critical album in defining the first generation of Japanese punk.

'Listening sessions of overseas free jazz, experimental music and progressive rock crossed the line into performance'

It was west of Tokyo in the Kansai area, around Kyoto and Osaka, that punk really found its experimental footing though. The ‘free space’ Drugstore in Kyoto provided a creative environment where listening sessions of overseas free jazz, experimental music and progressive rock often crossed the line into performance. Starting out with madcap ideas like creating sounds by adding items to a Japanese-style nabe hotpot, the freeform performances at Drugstore eventually began to coalesce into structured ‘noise’ performances.

Frequenting Drugstore from the ‘70s to the ‘80s were people like Hide ‘Bidé’ Fujiwara and Yoshiyuki ’Jojo’ Hiroshige of early Kyoto punk band Ultra Bidé. Hiroshige went on to form the noise act Hijokaidan and start the Alchemy Records label, which helped document legendary noise acts from the Kansai area and beyond like Masonna, Incapacitants and Merzbow, bringing them to international attention via a small but dedicated mail order tape audience around the globe, and in North America in particular.

Merzbow - 'Woodpecker No.1'

This shift from the ’70s underground into the experimental ’80s wasn’t just confined to the nascent punk generation though: punk’s more cheerfully ironic, synth-bothering cousin new wave also made a similar transition.

Susumu Hirasawa from progressive rock band Mandrake absorbed the influence of The Sex Pistols and proto-electro French punks Métal Urbain and refashioned his band as the Devo-esque P-Model. Meanwhile one-time Tokyo Kid Brothers member Koichi Makigami gradually found his way from theatre into new wave and avant-pop, partly under the oblique influence of overseas encounters with The Ramones and British avant-rock band, Henry Cow.

Merzbow. Photo: James Hadfield

Merzbow. Photo: James Hadfield

Koichi Makigami

Koichi Makigami

Parallel to these roots in the ’70s underground, however, was a thread of influence from more mainstream sources.

One of the most important bands in helping to define Japanese mainstream rock music was folk-rock band Happy End, led by Haruomi Hosono. In 1978, Hosono teamed up with Yukihiro Takahashi of somewhat respectable glam/prog rockers Sadistic Mika Band and producer/composer Ryuichi Sakamoto to embrace electronic and synthesiser-based pop with Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO).

Ryuichi Sakamoto - 'Disintegration'

Despite coming from a thoroughly mainstream background, the members of YMO – in particular Hosono and Sakamoto – would go on to play a key role in the emerging punk and new qave movement, with Sakamoto producing Friction’s first album Atsureki as well as some early material by Osaka experimental musician Phew (real name Hiromi Moritani), formerly of atonal art-punk band, Aunt Sally.

Phew. Photo: James Hadfield

Phew. Photo: James Hadfield

Hosono’s career as a producer, meanwhile, helped forge a new kind of synth-based Japanese avant-pop out of the new wave era. Through her work with Hosono, pop singer Miharu Koshi made a swift transition from inoffensive 1970s-style pop into sparse, icy, synth-led deadpan experimental pop. Hosono also produced Pizzicato Five’s 1985 debut Audrey Hepburn Complex and In Action EPs, which helped bridge the transition from new wave to the next generation of experimental pop, influenced by French pop, British indie-pop and 1960s movie soundtracks, which in the 1990s became known as Shibuya-kei.

Haruomi Hosono. Courtesy of Mike Nogami

Haruomi Hosono. Courtesy of Mike Nogami

Haruomi Hosono. Courtesy of Mike Nogami

Haruomi Hosono. Courtesy of Mike Nogami

'Suddenly pop was a legitimate arena for artists to play with experimental ideas in...'

While Sakamoto in particular gained huge acclaim as an experimental and ambient composer, YMO were never really considered either underground or truly avant-garde. What they did do, however, was open up a space in mainstream Japanese culture for leftfield musical ideas to filter through for the first time since the late ’60s.

Suddenly pop was a legitimate arena for artists to play with experimental ideas in, and the experimentation incubated in the 1970s underground began to manifest in a flood of playful, oddball releases skirting the fringes of pop, by artists such as The Plastics, Chakra, Mariah, Wha Ha Ha, Jun Togawa and more.

Some met with success at the time and others less so, but years later it provided a fertile ground for revival by crate-digging vinyl fanatics.

Musical collisions at high speed: the 1990s onwards

The Japanese experimental music that emerged from the 1970s and ’80s, provides most of the core building blocks for the underground scene of the 1990s and beyond.

It was really those ’90s children of the underground and avant-garde who formed the image of Japanese music that came to dominate the West’s imagination.Some artists who emerged from the ’70s underground like Keiji Haino are still active, prolific and evolving, while the ever-shifting line ups of Acid Mothers Temple continue the lineage of heavy Psychedelia pioneered by the likes of Flower Travellin’ Band and Les Rallizes Dénudés.

Keiji Haino. Photo: Kazuyuki Funaki

Keiji Haino. Photo: Kazuyuki Funaki

However, if there is one factor that unifies much of the post-’80s Japanese underground, it is an omnivorous approach to musical styles that in many ways reflects and expands upon the Drugstore mode of creative listening, taking delight in hurling together eclectic sounds or rhythms, whether to dissonant or complementary effect.

Makoto Kawabata (Acid Mothers Temple). Photo: James Hadfield

Makoto Kawabata (Acid Mothers Temple). Photo: James Hadfield

Makoto Kawabata (Acid Mothers Temple). Photo: James Hadfield

Makoto Kawabata (Acid Mothers Temple). Photo: James Hadfield





Beginning his career with the improv band Ground Zero in the early ’90s, Yoshihide Otomo’s career has seen him take on almost every genre imaginable to awe-inspiring and influential effect.

Less well-known in their home country than overseas, Tokyo’s Melt-Banana have roots in punk but augment that with blast beats derived from grindcore acts like Napalm Death and a cosmic array of guitar textures, all within an increasingly electronic compositional framework. Meanwhile, Ruins combine almost Queen-like prog rock operatics with complex, tightly-controlled rhythmical structures.

The Kansai scene in particular became notorious for energetic, wild and musically skittish new acts.

Boredoms emerged out of the blood, sweat and chaos of 1980s Osaka, creating a paranoid, impatient, hyperkinetic mashup of The Ramones, Jimi Hendrix, Captain Beefheart, no wave noise-rock and short stabs of bubblegum that ran from their 1988 debut Osorezan no Stooges Kyo to 1994’s Chocolate Synthesizer, before taking a cosmic turn into blissful, drawn-out cosmic jams, and eventually the ecstatic, tribal multi-drummer excess they later became notorious for.

Boredoms - '111 Boadrum'

Meanwhile, Boredoms drummer Yoshimi’s own project OOIOO refuses to be pinned down to a consistent sound, veering from expansive to minimal, from complex rhythms to ambient soundscapes. Post-millennial acts from the region like Afrirampo have continued this free-roaming, noisy-yet-eclectic approach.Less confrontationally, the distinctly poppy Shibuya-kei scene that Pizzicato Five helped foster combined French pop, British ’80s indie guitar music, sampling influenced by De La Soul, Bossa Nova, and much more. Just as the Drugstore crowd in ’80s Kyoto built noise out of a kind of creative listening in a shared ‘free space’, Shibuya-kei artists like Keigo ‘Cornelius’ Oyamada built a new kind of pop out of a kind of creative listening drawn from crate-digging.

And like the music that grew under the influence of YMO, the Shibuya-kei boom allowed a rare and brief flirtation between avant-garde ideas and the pop culture mainstream.

'They’re there, more than ever, and making a noise...'

Nowadays, experimental music is firmly back in the underground, but nearly all these kinds of music co-exist, overlapping in time and space in tiny live venues, cafés and rehearsal rooms in all major Japanese cities from Sapporo in the northeast to Fukuoka in the southwest.

Artists small in audience, with careers which are more often than not short in lifespan, but they’re there, more than ever, and making a noise.


In a three part mini-series, we take a look into the record collections of three Japanese music enthusiasts, taking a journey of sonic discovery from 1970-2000, exploring the diverse tapestry sounds that have emerged from the country. Featuring interviews with Japan Blues' Howard Williams, Light in the Attic Records’s Yosuke Kitazawa and Ian F Martin.

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Japanese Innovators: Pioneers in Experimental Sounds

20 Jun-30 Sep
A series of gigs featuring artists from Japanese underground scenes responsible for genre-defining music over the past 40 years.
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Listen to our Japanese Innovators playlist on Spotify

About Ian F Martin

Author of Quit Your Band! Musical Notes from the Japanese Underground, Ian F Martin is a Tokyo-based journalist, having relocated there from the UK several years ago. His blog, Clear and Refreshing and his Japan Times column document the local music scene. He also runs the indie/post-punk label, Call and Response Records and promotes gigs and parties throughout Japan.

Illustrations by Aleesha Nandhra