Jazz in Japan: A History of Tradition and Modernity

Osaka, the “Japanese jazz Mecca”

At first sight, one would almost wonder why one would put the words “jazz” and “Japan” in the same sentence. And yet, the inter-wars period – and more specifically the 1920s – was the golden age of jazz in the Land of the Rising Sun. The first jazz café opened in 1933 in Osaka. In a context of progressive openness towards the West, this musical genre infiltrated big cities. Today, Japan has the largest jazz community in the world.

Identifying the exact origin of the emergence of jazz in Japan is difficult, but it is clear that the increasing number of Japanese citizens traveling to the United States had its role to play. Their travels exposed them to this new style, a musical mix of African and American cultures. Back to their home country and in possession of recordings, they started sharing the music on a large scale; some Japanese groups even went as far as covering some of the songs. Make no mistake, however: Japanese artists did cover American songs, but they did so while adapting them to their own language and culture. Jazz at that time was not just a tool of expression and entertainment: it embodied the growing influence of the United States.

Culture is a main component of a country’s capacity to influence others, that is to say a component of a country’s “soft power”. “The post-war Occupation (ten years) provided Japanese their initial heavy firsthand exposure to the music”, says Yozo Iwanami, a major Japanese music critic.[1] American military presence allowed jazz to grow and prosper in cities such as Tokyo, Nagoya, Kobe, but also Osaka. Osaka’s entertainment district, Dōtonbori, had already been at the heart of jazz celebrations in the 1920s thanks to numerous dance halls; it had even been nicknamed the “Japanese jazz mecca” by Ryōichi Hattori, one of the biggest jazz artists of the post-World War II period.[2]

This was an opportunity for Japanese artists such as pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi to develop their passion for this musical genre and be professionally recognized. At that time, jazz was perceived as an alienation of all things American: Japanese musicians had to adapt it progressively, “Japanese style”, by using traditional instruments such as the Tsuzumi, Japanese court music melodies, or aesthetics inspired by Zen Buddhism. Nevertheless, no fusion occurred between traditional Japanese music and jazz, as had been the case with Afro-Cuban, Caribbean, Latin, or Brazilian music, amongst others. All these places that had, even if differentiated, African slavery in common. The phenomenon was both musical and cultural, be it in terms of scales, instruments, and social relations to music, to the extent that Japanese jazz has established itself as a unique and original style.

Nowadays, Japanese jazz has freed itself from American influence and constitutes a genre in its own right thanks to the various jazz schools that have been founded since the late 1960s. The first one, the Yamaha Institute of Popular Music, was opened in 1965 by saxophonist Sadao Watanabe after his return from the Berklee School of Music (Boston, USA) where he had studied.

The city of Osaka is still at the heart of the movement. In this spirit, the city organized a jazz competition – the Asian Dream Jazz Competition, of which Thelonious Monk Jr. was a member of the jury – last year, and boasts various jazz clubs.

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