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

Sambisa Forest Stands Between Nigeria, Victory Over Boko Haram

Military takes back nearly all towns, villages in northeast, except for massive expanse of forest that spreads thousands of square kilometers over several states More

Islamic State Recruiting Stokes Fears for Parents in Georgia

Chechens are a notable part of Islamic State's gains in Syria and Iraq, and analysts fear what might happen if those fighters return to the Caucasus More

Yarmouk Camp Becomes Distant Memory for Palestinian Diaspora

Once thriving capital of Palestinian diaspora, after siege by Syrian government forces and Islamic State group, camp becomes 'deepest circle of hell' 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.
Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'i
X
Sharon Behn
April 21, 2015 9:18 PM
A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten. Sharon Behn reports on the politics of the word genocide on the 100th anniversary of the events.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video German Program Helps Migrants Overcome Traumatic Experience at Sea

Migrants fleeing poverty and violence in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia risk life and limb to reach safety in Europe. Those who have made it to European shores are traumatized by the experience. A program in Germany helps survivors overcome the trauma by giving a new perspective to their catastrophic experience. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video Hope, Prayer Enter Fight Against S. Africa Xenophobia

South Africa has been swept by disturbing attacks on foreign nationals. Some blame the attacks on a legacy of colonialism, while others say the economy is to blame. Whatever the cause, ordinary South Africans - and South African residents from around the world - say they're praying for the siege of violence to end. Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.
Video

Video New Test Set to Be Game Changer in Eradicating Malaria

The World Health Organization estimates 3.4 billion people are at risk of malaria, with children under the age of five and pregnant women being the most vulnerable. As World Malaria Day approaches (April 25), mortality rates are falling, and a new test -- well into the last stage of trials -- is having positive results in Kenya. Lenny Ruvaga reports for VOA from Nairobi.
Video

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.
Video

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.

VOA Blogs