News / Asia

Digital Age Survivors, Japan’s Jazz Cafés Still Attract Fans

Multimedia

Audio

Since the late 1920s, Japanese coffee shops catering to jazz music fans have been a fixture in cities across the country. For decades, they disseminated cutting-edge Western culture and later, the counter-culture to students, intellectuals and music aficionados. Although the number of venues are dwindling, they have survived the digital age.



It was never about the coffee. Long before customers had a choice of a double espresso or soy latte, Japanese flocked to coffee shops serving just a couple of kinds of beans, but an endless variety of bee-bop, swing and avant-garde.  They are known as jazz kissa - short for kissaten - tea or coffee shops.

"Tea for Two" sung by Anita O'Day accompanied by two Japanese jazz orchestras during a live 1963 telecast in Tokyo can be heard in one cafe. The original performance was a rare opportunity for Japanese to see and hear a famous American jazz star in their own country. It was also an era when an imported jazz album cost about one-tenth of the average professional’s monthly salary.

Times and moods have changed.



One of the few surviving jazz kissa in Tokyo is Eagle, in the city’s Yotsuya district, near Sophia University. These days it mainly attracts businessmen and office workers on their lunch hour, who pay the equivalent of nine dollars to sip a cup of ordinary coffee.

Eagle was started in 1967 by jazz fan Yohei Goto, the son of a bar owner, when he was a college sophomore.

Goto says he understands that to foreigners a jazz kissa can seem like a strange place.  He explains it is a library of music. You are not allowed to talk. Unlike in United States, he says, where people listen to jazz for pleasure, in Japan it is a kind of art appreciation. Goto says Japanese people seriously study jazz as a component of African-American culture.

Jazz historian, pianist and Hitotsubashi University professor Michael Molasky says, by the time Eagle opened, the genre in Japan had come to play a more significant role in Japanese society than it did in its country of origin.

“It acquired something of a cultural cachet among bohemian types, intellectuals and writers. So that, if you wanted to be considered cool, you basically had to have some familiarity with jazz, at the time. It was kind of a rite of passage. To gain familiarity you needed to listen and the only place you could listen to this stuff were these jazz kissa,” Molasky said.

Protesters against the U.S.-Japan security treaty would take refuge from pursuing riot police in the coffee shops, listening - ironically - to jazz music from America.

At some jazz listening spots these days, cocktails, in addition to coffee and tea, are on the menu.

One of them is New Dug, in Tokyo’s Shinjuku shopping district. It opened as a jazz kissa named Dig in 1961.

New Dug’s owner, Hozumi Nakadaira, recalls the days when the clientele, mostly university students, would spend hours absorbed in the music.

Nakadaira says they could stay as long as three hours if they ordered one cup of coffee. He recalls it was okay to remain as long as five hours if a customer bought a second cup.

Professor Molasky, whose latest book in Japanese is a study of the history of the country’s jazz cafés, explains another compelling aspect is their elaborate and expensive sound systems. For generations of Japanese relegated to cramped apartments with paper thin walls, the jazz kissa were an audiophile’s heaven.

“Some of the jazz magazines, around the 70s, would advertise not only the number of records - and sometimes they had like 5,000, 10,000 LP’s [albums] in their collection - but they would advertise exactly the woofers and tweeters and the speaker system.  And, some places went so far as to advertise what needle they used in the cartridge for the phonograph,” Molasky said.

Despite that acoustic niche, at Eagle, which has been spinning jazz discs for 45 years, owner Goto has no illusions that the specialty music cafés will survive for even another five years.  He says, proudly, they are victims of their own success.

Goto explains the kissa had a big role to play in the 1960s and 70s, but now, they have completed their job of introducing American jazz to the Japanese public and witnessing it permeate the mainstream.

The love for the voices of Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday has also created a cottage industry of jazz vocalists in Japan.

You can hear Grace Mahya singing “Skylark,” on her new album. The tune is a 1942 jazz standard by Johnny Mercer and Hogy Carmichael. Mayha trained as a classical pianist but switched to jazz about six years ago.

Nakadaira estimates there are 500 singers, mostly Japanese women, trying to make a living belting out jazz in English.

Nakadaira says most of the audiences probably cannot understand the lyrics, yet they prefer standards sung in English.  He contends that Japanese lyrics just are not considered cool or interesting to Japanese fans.

Some aficionados will study translations of the lyrics. But for Japanese jazz fans, as Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald put it:

“It don't mean a thing if ain't got that swing. ...”


Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

You May Like

Brutality Eroding IS Financial Support

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says IS's penchant for publicizing beheadings, other brutal forms of punishment hurts group’s bottom line More

Studies: Climate Change a Factor in Disasters in Syria, California

The studies point to the possibility of clear and present dangers from a threat often considered to be far in the future More

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials and human rights organizations assert that Pakistani authorities are using deadly attack at school in Peshawar as pretext to push out Afghan refugees More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Kerry Seeks Assurances of Russian Non-Interference in Ukrainei
X
March 03, 2015 3:11 AM
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that his country could face further consequences to what he called its “already strained economy” if Moscow does not fully comply with a cease-fire in Ukraine. The two met, on Monday, on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, where Kerry outlined human rights violations in Russian-annexed Crimea and eastern Ukraine. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports from Geneva.
Video

Video Kerry Seeks Assurances of Russian Non-Interference in Ukraine

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that his country could face further consequences to what he called its “already strained economy” if Moscow does not fully comply with a cease-fire in Ukraine. The two met, on Monday, on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, where Kerry outlined human rights violations in Russian-annexed Crimea and eastern Ukraine. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports from Geneva.
Video

Video Smartphones May Help in Diagnosing HIV

Diagnosing infections such as HIV requires expensive clinical tests, making the procedure too costly for many poor patients or those living in remote areas. But a new technology called lab-on-a-chip may make the tests more accessible to many. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials have expressed concern over reports of a crackdown on Afghan refugees in Pakistan following the Peshawar school attack in December. Reports of mass arrests and police harassment coupled with fear of an uncertain future are making life difficult for a population that fled its homeland to escape war. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports from Islamabad.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Prepare to Defend Mariupol

Despite the ongoing ceasefire in Ukraine, soldiers in the city of Mariupol fear that pro-Russian separatists may be getting ready to attack. The separatists must take or encircle the city if they wish to gain land access to Crimea, which was annexed by Russia early last year. But Ukrainian forces, many of them volunteers, say they are determined to defend it. Patrick Wells reports from Mariupol.
Video

Video Moscow Restaurants Suffer in Bad Economy, Look for Opportunity

As low oil prices and Western sanctions force Russia's economy into recession, thousands of Moscow restaurants are expected to close their doors. Restaurant owners face rents tied to foreign currency, while rising food prices mean Russians are spending less when they dine out. One entrepreneur in Moscow has started a dinner kit delivery service for those who want to cook at home to save money but not skimp on quality. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video US, Cuba Report Progress in Latest Talks to Restore Ties

The United States and Cuba say they have made progress in the second round of talks on restoring diplomatic relations more than 50 years after breaking off ties. Delegations from both sides met in Washington on Friday to work on opening embassies in Havana and Washington and iron out key obstacles to historic change. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas reports from the State Department.
Video

Video Presidential Hopefuls Battle for Conservative Hearts and Minds

One after another, presumptive Republican presidential contenders auditioned for conservative support this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference held outside Washington. The rhetoric was tough as a large field of potential candidates tried to woo conservative support with red-meat attacks on President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress. VOA Political Columnist Jim Malone takes a look.
Video

Video NYC's Restaurant Week: An Economic Boom in Fine Dining

New Yorkers take pride in setting world trends — in fashion, the arts and fine dining. The city’s famous biannual Restaurant Week plays a significant role in a booming tourism industry that sustains 359,000 jobs and generates $61 billion in yearly revenue. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports.
Video

Video Brookhaven at Cutting Edge of US Energy Research

Issues like the Keystone XL pipeline, fracking and instability in the Middle East are driving debate in the U.S. about making America energy independent. Recently, the American Energy Innovation Council urged Congress and the White House to make expanded energy research a priority. One beneficiary of increased energy spending would be the Brookhaven National Lab, where clean, renewable, efficient energy is the goal. VOA's Bernard Shusman reports.
Video

Video Southern US Cities Preserve Civil Rights Heritage to Boost Tourism

There has been a surge of interest in the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, thanks in part to the Hollywood motion picture "Selma." Five decades later, communities in the South are embracing the dark chapters of their past with hopes of luring tourism dollars. VOA's Chris Simkins reports.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More