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, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America Asia correspondent.

You May Like

Conflicts Engulf Christians in Mideast

Research finds an increase in faith-based hostilities, and Christians are facing persecution in a growing number of countries in the region More

Chinese Americans: Don’t Call Us 'Model Minority'

Label points to collective achievement, but some say it triggers resentment, unrealistic expectations More

Iran Bolsters Phone, Internet Surveillance

Does increased monitoring suggest the government is nervous? 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.
West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015i
X
Carol Pearson
August 30, 2014 7:14 PM
A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015

A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video Survivors Commemorate 70th Anniversary of Nazi Liquidation of Polish Ghetto

When the Nazi army moved into the Polish city of Lodz in 1939, it marked the beginning of a long nightmare for the Jewish community that once made up one third of the population. Roughly 200,000 people were forced into the Lodz Ghetto. Less than 7,000 survived. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, some survivors gathered in Chicago on the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto to remember those who suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime.
Video

Video Cost to Raise Child in US Continues to Rise

The cost of raising a child in the United States continues to rise. In its latest annual report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says middle income families with a child born in 2013 can expect to spend more than $240,000 before that child turns 18. And sending that child to college more than doubles that amount. VOA’s Deborah Block visited with a couple with one child in Alexandria, Virginia, to learn if the report reflects their lifestyle.
Video

Video Chaotic Afghan Vote Recount Threatens Nation’s Future

Afghanistan’s troubled presidential election continues to be rocked by turmoil as an audit of the ballots drags on. The U.N. says the recount will not be completed before September 10. Observers say repeated disputes and delays are threatening the orderly transfer of power and could have dangerous consequences. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Ukraine Battles Pro-Russia Rebel Assault

After NATO concluded an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis in eastern Ukraine, the country is struggling to contain heavy fighting near the strategic port of Mariupol, on the Azov Sea. Separatist rebels are trying to capture the city, allegedly with Russian military help, and Ukraine's defense forces are digging in. VOA's Daniel Schearf spoke with analysts about what lies ahead for Ukraine.
Video

Video Growing Business Offers Paint with a Twist of Wine

Two New Orleans area women started a small business seven years ago with one thing in mind: to help their neighbors relieve the stress of coping with a hurricane's aftermath. Today their business, which pairs painting and a little bit of wine, has become one of the fastest growing franchises across the U.S. VOA’s June Soh met the entrepreneurs at their newest franchise location in the Washington suburbs.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials To Begin Next Week

The National Institutes of Health says it is launching early stage trials of a vaccine to prevent the Ebola virus, which has infected or killed thousands of people across West Africa. The World Health Organization says Ebola could infect more than 20,000 people across the region by the time the outbreak is over. The epidemic has health experts and governments scrambling to prevent more people from becoming infected. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Asian Bacteria Threatens Florida Orange Trees

Florida's citrus fruit industry is facing a serious threat from a bacteria carried by the Asian insect called psyllid. The widespread infestation again highlights the danger of transferring non-native species to American soil. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Aging Will Reduce Economic Growth Worldwide in Coming Decades

The world is getting older, fast. And as more people retire each year, fewer working-age people will be there to replace them. Bond rating agency Moody’s says that will lead to a decline in household savings; reducing global investments - which in turn, will lead to slower economic growth around the world. But experts say it’s not too late to mitigate the economic impact of the world’s aging populations. Mil Arcega has more.
Video

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

The United States along with European and Mideast allies are considering a broader assault against Islamic State fighters who have spread from Syria into Iraq and risk further destabilizing an already troubled region. But as VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, confronting those militants could end up helping the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Video

Video Made in America Socks Get Toehold in Online Fashion Market

Three young entrepreneurs are hoping to revolutionize the high-end sock industry by introducing all-American creations of their own. And they’re doing most of it the old-fashioned way. VOA’s Julie Taboh recently caught up with them to learn what goes into making their one-of-a-kind socks.
Video

Video Americans, Ex-Pats Send Relief Supplies to West Africa

Health organizations from around the world are sending supplies and specialists to the West African countries that are dealing with the worst Ebola outbreak in history. On a smaller scale, ordinary Americans and African expatriates living in the United States are doing the same. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.

AppleAndroid