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70s Folk, Rock with a New Face

January 27, 1999

A young street musician gets back to basics in Tokyo's Shinjuku district. (Kyodo)

Recent years have seen the emergence of many young Japanese musicians who play music reminiscent of the 1970s. Their songs--sometimes accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, with lyrics that spill over into the next line--remind people in their thirties and forties of what they grew up listening to. But a closer listen reveals that the familiar strains are more than just imitations; they are refreshingly original attempts to convey a more personal message through the medium of popular music.

Yuzu: Not Just a Revival
One duo that has become the darling of teenage girls is Yuzu, formed by two men in their early twenties. With an acoustic guitar, harmonica, and tambourine as their basic accompaniment, they sing about their experiences and feelings with striking frankness. Their popularity is such that their single CD released in June 1998 has sold more than 250,000 copies and their album released the following month over 550,000 copies.

A radio director says of Yuzu's music, "The lyrics come first; the songs are written so that you can hear every word." Although their sound is unmistakably folk, the editor of one music magazine feels that Yuzu has little in common with Japan's earlier generation of folk musicians. "Their music is appealing not because it's a revival," he says, "but because it represents a return to basics."

Antidote to Flamboyance
Many of Japan's rock groups are also looking to the 1970s for inspiration. Freebo, a band that debuted in 1997, draws heavily on 1970s American rock. But this is not just because the band members are fond of that sound; it happened to be the perfect vehicle, they explain, for highlighting their Japanese lyrics. Another group whose lyrics and sound have a strong 1970s flavor is Kururi, a trio of full-time college students that made its debut in fall 1998. One member says he likes the directness of 1970s music, which is not overproduced like most popular music these days. "It's just meat and bones," he says. "There's no fat."

As for why there has been such a surge of artists who emulate the 1970s sound, critics think that people have begun to tire of flamboyant acts that focus on making a visual, rather than emotional, impact. "Twenty-five years since their boom, folk and rock music from the 1970s seem fresh once again." Whatever the reason, it is not surprising that artists who place great importance on lyrics have chosen a simpler sound as their medium of expression.

Lyrics Before the Melody
For years lyrics were written mostly to accompany a melody more than for their own sake, but today the emphasis on words is spreading among not only emerging musicians but older artists as well. "There was a time when we were trying to act bigger than life, thinking we had to be like the Rolling Stones," confesses Koji Miyamoto, lead vocalist for popular rock band Elephant Kashimashi. "But in the past couple of years, we've come to think that all we have to do is express ourselves honestly. So more and more of our newer songs have lyrics that sound true to life."

Many recent hits in Japan may resemble the folk and rock music of the 1970s, but the similarity cloaks an entirely new sensibility that is firmly grounded in the 1990s. They are the sound of youths making a serious attempt to put their feelings into words and say something meaningful to their audience. Veteran lyricist Yu Aku has been mourning for many years that "there aren't any real songs anymore; there's music, certainly, but there's nothing worth singing." Recently, though, he says that young people are finally starting to write songs whose lyrics reach his heart.

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Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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