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Big in Japan, Part 2: Osaka & the Eri Yamamoto Connection

Karl Ackermann By

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I try to write tunes that capture a moment, whether an experience of nature or a busy city street or based on an experience on my travels. —Eri Yamamoto
Part 1 | Part 2

In Part 1 of Big in Japan we looked at the early history of jazz music in that country -a history that dates back to the same time frame as the Jazz Age in the United States. The influence of American dance music was indisputable but it came to Japan through second-hand means. Sheet music and early recordings were enhanced by live performances—not from American musicians—but from Filipinos who learned from the occupying forces of the U.S. Life in Japan, between the two World Wars, was in a state of flux as the country's attempt to assimilate its economy with the West coincided with weakening economies in Western Europe and the U.S. The result was not only trade barriers on Japanese products but also wide-spread anti-Asian immigration laws in the 1920s.

The internal clash of ideals was palpable: a government with growing resentment toward the West, and a populace of whom a significant segment saw the U.S. as the ideal of modern thinking. The dance music of the 1920s was emblematic of a largely mythological society that embraced individual freedom; even one that had thrown caution to the wind; it was a concept that simultaneously frightened and tempted. When it came to jazz, curiosity was winning out as dancehalls dotted some cities and thrived in others. Importantly, jazz in Japan followed the same identity strictures as in the U.S. in that the early era of music referred to as "jazz," would not technically qualify as the same jazz that later developed. From the time that jazz came to Japan, through the bebop era, the fundamental elements of the genre have run parallel to the U.S.

Osaka

Tokyo was the dominant city of the two major cultural centers in Japan at the beginning of the Jazz Age. There would have been dance band performances scheduled in many of the city's music halls and theaters on the night of Saturday, September 1, 1923. Just before noon an 8.3-magnitude earthquake—the Great Kwanto Earthquake—and the subsequent Great Tokyo Fire destroyed almost fifty-percent of the city. Hundreds of aftershocks, tornados of fire, landslides, and multiple tsunamis would claim more than one-hundred-forty-thousand lives and typhoid fever and diseases from unsanitary conditions added to a toll that was unprecedented in the records of natural disasters in Japan. International relief quickly poured in, spearheaded by the U.S. and the Red Cross, bolstering relations between the often-antagonistic world powers. Demagoguery and accusations on both sides quickly put the affiliation back in hostile territory. The process of physically rebuilding Tokyo would be years in the making. Despite the acrimony between East and West, Americanization-by-jazz not only survived but flourished, and Japan's second great cultural center—Osaka—was destined to become the country's jazz capital.

Three-hundred miles to the southwest of Tokyo lies what was once called the "City of Smoke." In the late nineteenth century, Osaka lagged behind Tokyo as a commercial force in Japan and to compete with the capital, it shifted its dwindling trade-based economy for one of manufacturing. The factory smokestacks that dominated the skyline were emblematic of the city's growing workforce. As the population grew so to did slums and crime. The Yakuza, one of the largest, most persuasive and prosperous organized crime families in the world, originated in Osaka (and in Tokyo) and in the Jazz Age controlled the sale of stolen goods and the gambling business. Like their mafia counterparts in the U.S., they had strong ties to local governments and were often the money behind Osaka's jazz venues. By 1924 the city had almost two-dozen dance halls and native musicians were beginning to replace the Filipinos who had introduced live jazz performance to the country. The Dōtonbori district, the one-time dance hall center of the city was referred to as the "Japanese jazz mecca." The first stage of the Osaka jazz phenomena was short-lived. In 1927 the city's conservative ruling class—in a backlash to Americanism—delivered a decree forcing the dance halls to close. This too was a relatively brief imposition and in 1933, Chigusa, Japan's first jazz café opened.

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