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Tokyo Jazz Joints: Capturing An Old Love Story

Tokyo Jazz Joints: Capturing An Old Love Story

Courtesy Philip Arneill


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It’s fundamentally a project to document these places before they disappear, which is happening. As the project goes on places are closing.
—Philip Arneill
Could you imagine coffee shops in any North American or European city that played jazz non-stop all day, or bars where, variously, as you quenched your thirst, you heard only Blue Note Records, free-jazz or the music of, say, Miles Davis, according to the bar owner's tastes? Could you imagine such places where speaking is not only frowned upon but is actually banned in reverence to the music? Probably not, on both counts.

In Japan, and especially in Tokyo, however, it's a different story. There, in hundreds of cafés and small, dimly-lit basement bars, Japanese jazz aficionados gather to ritually listen to the music—mostly on vinyl—often referred to as America's greatest contribution to the arts. The hidden world of Tokyo's jazz cafés/bars pre-dates World War II, with many of today's jazz joints having existed for decades.

Gradually and inexorably, however, Tokyo's jazz joints are beginning to disappear. Real estate development is encroaching on old buildings, but more significantly, age is catching up with the owners and their loyal clientele alike. Soon, this most underground of Japanese niche traditions is likely to be a thing of the past.

Two expat residents in Japan, American writer and podcaster James Catchpole, and Irish photographer Philip Arneill have set about documenting Tokyo's jazz joints for posterity. In just over two years they have already photographed over a hundred of these jazz cafés and bars. With steely determination they are on a mission to capture images of as many of remaining venues as time allows.

Their visual documentation of this little known part of Japanese culture helps shed some light on the country's enduring love affair with jazz.

It's a love affair almost as old as jazz itself.

Buried Treasure

"Most people think that jazz came to Japan after WWII with American soldiers, but actually it far predates that," says Catchpole. "Jazz first came to Japan in the 1920s when 78 records were being imported and you had Swing halls in the downtown Ginza area of Tokyo, where people would go swing dancing. This was a time in Japanese history when westernization was encouraged and people were embracing all the fashions and trends of the West. Jazz was considered to be modern culture."

One of the oldest jazz joints, Chigusa, opened its doors to jazz vinyl lovers in Yokohama in 1933. Eighty plus years later, Chigusa is still going, although as Arneill explains, its long history hasn't been without trials.

"Japan changed in the war years when Western music was banned and any shops dealing in Western music were closed. The legend about Chigusa goes that when the authorities were cracking down on degenerate Western art the owner took all his 78 records and buried them in his garden, because otherwise they'd have been destroyed. The story may be apocryphal—no-one really knows—but the fact is that the day the war ended he re-opened his shop and he still had his records."

The original owner of the jazz café Chigusa died in the 1980s, after which family members took it over until 2000, when the café closed, seemingly ending almost seventy years of spinning jazz vinyl. As Arneill explains, however, fate was to intervene.

"Some fans got together, formed a sort of collective and re-opened it. It's now slightly down the street from its original site but it still has all the original fittings and the original speakers. And it still has a vinyl menu. The menus are less common these days."

Joining the Dots

The story of the Tokyo Jazz Joints project goes back to when Catchpole—a twenty-year resident of Japan—discovered the city's jazz joints while studying political science.

"I would go to the local day-time jazz café where this guy had an entire wall of jazz magazines dating back to the late 1950s. I could read Japanese a bit, so I'd go there every day instead of going to the University library. I'd just hang out, have a coffee, read and the next thing you know it's night-time and I'm having some beers. I thought I had found the greatest jazz place in the world. What I didn't realize at the time was that there wasn't just one."

Some of the regulars directed Catchpole to another jazz joint in the vicinity and his nose soon led him to one after another.

"I discovered that these places existed all around the Tokyo metro area. The Tokyo metro area is the world's biggest city. There are thirty three million people and it encompasses a whole range of towns including Yokohama where I live, which has three million people. Nobody knows for sure how many jazz cafés and jazz bars there are. I've been to a hundred and thirty five jazz spots and I believe I'm about half way there."

To the American student's surprise, none of the jazz cafés or jazz bars had a website. "There's a website for everything in Japan. Every random foreigner has a website documenting shopping, or ramen noodles, or tea ceremonies, but nobody was doing a website in English devoted to these jazz joints. I decided to make one," he explains.

Catchpole's initial goal was to share these venues with foreign jazz fans for whom it was a hidden world. "If you don't read Japanese you can't even understand a map how to get there and some of these places are incredibly hard to find. It can be bewildering; the visual aspect of Tokyo can be really overwhelming. I spent a lot of time hunting out these places."

At first, Catchpole's website was little more than a blog or directory, recording each jazz joint as he discovered it, giving directions on how to get there and the type of jazz it played. The current expanded website project and international photographic exhibition that is Tokyo Jazz Joints really took off when Catchpole met Arneill at one of the photographer's exhibitions.

Arneill had previously documented Japanese rockabillies and, in a series of spectacular photographs, the jazz dance scene in Tokyo. It was at a major exhibition of the latter that the two met. Arneill offered to accompany Catchpole to take photographs of Tokyo's jazz joints and offer a visual dimension to Catchpole's existing website, an offer that Catchpole leapt upon.

"I had been waiting for someone to say that for eight years so I was very excited to have someone like Philip with a proper camera and the proper skills."

For Arneill, the motivation was simple. "It's fundamentally a project to document these places before they disappear, which is happening. As the project goes on places are closing."

Tea with your Coltrane?

For those who haven't experienced one of Tokyo/Japan's jazz joints they can be difficult to visualize. "Most people's image of a jazz club is a rather ritzy place where you get suited up, drink wine and listen to people in suits playing—the kind of thing you see in the movies," says Catchpole.

"In Japan it's very different. You do have those clubs but by far the majority of places that people listen to jazz in are tiny cafes called kissaten, which means tea-house in Japanese language."

Kissaten originated in the latter half of the nineteenth century and quickly became popular throughout the country. Their popularity soared in the early twentieth century with the advent of vinyl records and peaked in the 1950s and 1960s. There were two reasons for their growth, as Catchpole explains.

"After World War II most Japanese people couldn't afford a record player and they certainly couldn't afford imported albums from the United States. So, if you wanted to hear the new Miles Davis record or the new John Coltrane record you would go to the café and the owner would put it on."

As Catchpole points out, this was a custom that didn't exist in the United States where people owned their own hi-fi systems, bought records and listened to them at home. Of course, juke boxes were ubiquitous in bars and cafés throughout the United States from the 1940s on, where swing could be heard alongside classical, rock 'n' roll, country and pop music, but jazz then, as now, was niche music.

The second reason for the popularity of kissaten as places to go specifically to listen to records was due to more aesthetic considerations.

"If you've been to Japan you'd know that you can't play loud music in your house when the wall between your apartment and the next apartment is about one inch thick," says Catchpole. "Putting on a really loud Charles Mingus record is just not going to work out—that's if you even had a stereo," he adds.

Effectively, the kissaten enabled young Japanese jazz fans not only to learn about the music but also to hear it played on quality stereo systems, which in most cases were hand-built by the café owners.

"Even today when I go to a café the owners will spend a lot of time talking to me about how they put together their audio system, how they built their speakers, what kind of amp they're using," Catchpole relates. "They're quite proud of it and the sound is amazing in most of these places.

Let Freedom Ring!

In the radicalized 1960s, the jazz cafés were also places where Japanese students could gather to talk about politics.

"Japan was a very different country then than it is today," Catchpole expands. "People were very politically active and there was a lot of opposition to the government. These cafés, which were very left wing, were places where they would gather and plan out the next riot against the police, while they were listening to the new Coltrane record. That aspect doesn't exist anymore."

Many of those radicalized students of the 1960s still frequent the jazz joints. "These people, who are now veterans in their sixties and seventies maintain their loyalty to the same café or bar they prefer. I'll chat to some of the regulars and they'll say, 'Oh, I've been coming here for forty years,' which is really cool, but the problem is that these people are slowly dying and it's hard to build a new customer base, especially with the places that are very old and run down."

Besides the jazz cafés are the jazz bars, and there is some overlap between the two.

"All the jazz cafés will have alcohol, which is a big part of Japanese culture," notes Arneill. "Practically everywhere you go you can order beer and whiskey. The main difference is that the jazz cafés operate in the day time and also serve coffee. They'll always have the latest jazz magazines, the latest books about jazz, even imported ones in English. You can sit there and read, chill for a couple of hours, sip a coffee, smoke a few cigarettes, have a nap."

In years gone by the majority of jazz cafés operated a strictly no-talking policy during the day. "It was a place to listen to the music at very high volume without disturbing other customers," says Catchpole. "Now, that trend has kind of passed. There are only two places I know of that have that rule during the day. On the door of one of them there's a sign in Japanese that says 'From 12 to 6 no talking.' It's a very Japanese way. When Japanese create a space it tends to be very functional."

Up In smoke

Functional, and accordingly, compact. "Virtually all of the jazz joints put on live gigs," says Catchpole, "so you think they're going to be a big places, but they're incredibly small. They just take one table away and have three musicians in the corner playing."

Catchpole exaggerates not. The Hot House jazz bar, in the Takadanobaba district of Tokyo, for example, can accommodate only eight people on a bench set against the back wall, with the drums in the centre of the floor. To enter or leave the musicians have to move from in front of the door. "It's an amazing atmosphere," says Catchpole.

The owner of Hot House is an elderly lady called Okaasan, who serves drinks from a bar in one corner. Women owners of jazz joints are commonplace.

"A lot of the bars are run by women," says Arneill, "easily a third if not more. Many of them are wives whose husbands have passed on but they've kept the places going. However, there's a definite sense that the days of Tokyo's jazz joints are numbered."

Creaking Joints

Naturally, the main functions of a Tokyo jazz bar, other than listening to the music, is to drink and smoke. This is the daily diet for both owners and their clientele. Mr Okuma-san, owner of Jazz Pepe in the Shinjuku neighbourhood of Tokyo, is a case in point.

"Mr Okuma-san was seventy seven years old when we visited him," relates Catchpole. "He's been running his bar for forty eight years in a basement. He said he only takes a day off when he's hung over. I asked 'Do you still get hung over?' He said 'Once or twice a week.'

"Forty eight years drinking behind a bar, chain smoking those short, Japanese old-man cigarettes in a dank basement with no ventilation. It's an incredibly unhealthy lifestyle and yet he's made it to seventy seven. Sadly the building is old and its owner has decided to tear it down. It's a very valuable spot near the station."

Ageing and the pressures of real estate are the two main enemies of Tokyo's jazz joints, but the 'old man's bar' image, combined with the clouds of tobacco smoke is also keeping younger generations at a distance.

"Times have changed," says Arneill. "People want Wi-Fi and they don't want to be surrounded by smoke. Most of these places are traditionally men only, young, single women wouldn't feel comfortable going there, so the new breed of jazz cafés have become a little slicker."


Cramped though the majority of jazz joints tend to be, there seems to be no shortage of space for vinyl. Take JBS, one of the newer jazz cafes: "The owner has twelve thousand vinyl," says Catchpole.

That figure is fairly typical of Japan's jazz joints, and not surprisingly, the owners that have been running their jazz joints for decades can boast a broad grasp of jazz history, or perhaps a degree of niche expertise that is uncommon to say the least. "Their knowledge of the music is astounding," says Arneill.

The owners can become quite incredulous if Catchpole and Arneill fail to recognize, what is for the owners at least, a lesser known figure from jazz's past.

"They can get quite angry sometimes," says Catchpole. "One eighty-six year old owner, who's retired now, had a bar that sat only seven people. He has five thousand soul-jazz and hard bop records. He used to trade with American soldiers, mostly black American soldiers, after WWII, who would bring him these hard bop records. So his collection is entirely originals. He said: 'Don't you know Willis "Gator" Jackson? You're American!'" recounts Catchpole laughing.

"He pulled out twenty six original Willis Jackson records—all in pristine condition. I'd never heard of Willis Jackson. I had to explain to him that jazz in America is not popular and that the majority of the population knows nothing about it. You hear more jazz in Japan."

The care that the jazz joint owners take with their precious vinyl mesmerizes Catchpole. "Watching a Japanese jazz joint owner hold his vinyl is like watching a diamond merchant; the way they put the gloves on, the care they take wiping it clean. You don't want to touch because you feel like you'll scratch the records. They treat it with such care. "

Jazz Joint Owners

Hayashi-san, a woman in her mid-sixties, is the owner of Candy jazz joint in a suburb of Tokyo. She became a jazz fan in the early 1960s when she had a part-time job as a teenager in an electronics shop where the owner played jazz radio. She was seduced by the music of John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk and has been collecting jazz records for fifty years. "Candy is so distant from the centre that a lot of people don't know about it," says Catchpole. "The vinyl collection in Hayashi-san's café goes from floor to ceiling. What's amazing is that she's been able to communicate with a lot of European free-jazz musicians and they come over and play in her café, particularly at the weekends. A lot of musicians from Holland and Scandinavia come and play, also with local Japanese musicians. Her café can maybe seat fifteen people."

A former jazz joint owner is the Nobel prize-winning author Haruki Murakami. Together with his wife, the now world-famous author ran a coffee house/jazz bar, The Peter Cat, from 1974 to 1981. A few years earlier, while still a student, Murakami had worked in a basement jazz bar in Shinzu called The Old Lying Cat, a venue which draws still draws his fans to this day. "It seats about fifteen to twenty people, hasn't seen fresh air in about fifty years and it seems like everybody in there is chain-smoking," says Arneill.

Shadows and Light

When it comes to seeking permission to photograph the jazz joints, Catchpole and Arneill have met very few obstacles so far.

"The majority of the owners have been very open to the project and to being photographed, which was not necessarily what we expected," admits Arneill, "because although Japan is camera-friendly people are shy, and this is, in some ways, a very closed, hidden world. It is an underground world. I think all the owners seem to get a bit of a kick out of these two mad foreigners turning up to photograph and document these places."

Almost without exception, however, the owners request that any photos should be taken during the day so as not to disturb the customers.

Arneill, who uses a Canon digital SLR and a standard kit lens, adopts a simple approach. "I don't really like using flash and for this project I don't think it would reflect the places—it would make them something else. I just use a really slow exposure to capture what little light there is."

The lack of light is only one of the challenges for the photographer to overcome. "Some of the places are so cramped that it's really difficult to capture any sense of the space. Physically, you can only go so far in the room."

Blues For The Tokyo Jazz Joints

Catchpole and Arneill hold out little hope for the long-term survival of Tokyo's Jazz Joints once the veteran owners pass on, or are forced to close. "These people have left mainstream society and they don't have someone to take over," says Catchpole. "If they have kids they've gone into straight jobs and they don't want to know about running a jazz bar. In the last year I know of four places that have closed."

Despite the gloomy prognosis, the two expats are full of admiration for the owners of Tokyo's jazz joints. "They've been able to keep these little bars and cafes running for forty plus years, making very little money and leading a very unhealthy lifestyle. These people have so much spirit," says Arneill.

So too Catchpole and Arneill, whose labour of love has been rewarded with international exhibitions in Penang, Malaysia—at the Penang Island Jazz Festival—in New York State and in California, with further exhibitions forthcoming.

"We're hoping to take it elsewhere," says Arneill. "When we wrap up the project we'll have the final, very large exhibition in Tokyo and we'll get the Japanese jazz press to cover it. Then maybe we'll give the prints to a gallery or an archive and hopefully at that point we'll publish a book."

There is however, still work to be done. "There are over four hundred and fifty jazz joints all around the country," estimates Catchpole. "If we have the means we will do the rest of Japan. We want to share this with the rest of the world."

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