Tokyo Damage Report

J-punk vs. Western: is it just fashion, or what???

I’m not a huge fan of ‘political punk’ or the ‘good ol days’ of MRR, back when MDC got called out on the front cover of the magazine for (gasp!) taking a plane instead of a bus to one show. "Sell-outs!" That shit was never my deal.


But I think Western punks take it for granted that “fight the fuckin’ system, maaan” is kind of the foundation of hard-core.

I don’t think that is the case with Japanese punk, however. I think most of these Japanese guys never had any fundamental beliefs like SxE, vegan, anti-war, anti-corporation, etc.

First thing is you have to understand about  Japan and "punks-vs-society is" 転向 (tenkou). Tenkou literally means an abrupt 180-degree turn; an about-face. In contemporary society it means when you turn 22 or 23 you stop being a subculture person and turn into a housewife or full-time working man. This is true whether you are blue-collar or white-collar. In other words, society tolerates oddly-dressed young people with the implicit understanding that they’ll stop that nonsense when they turn 23. This tenkou system is breaking down a bit since the life-time employment system is ALSO  breaking down, but tenkou is still a real thing.

I can’t speak for scenes in Nagoya, Osaka, Sapporo, etc. but in Tokyo basically the difference between a real and fake punk occurs when they get to that age. if they keep being a freak after 23 then they basically are saying, "OK, I’ll work construction for the rest of my life."

and that sacrifice = being a real punk.
The sacrifice to one’s career prospects, being forever barred from mainstream society takes the place of the ideas and philosophies (i.e. straight edge, anti-globalization, anarchy, etc) that are the foundation of  western punk.  Which necessarily leads to a kohai / senpai system (seniors over juniors): the only way you can have credibility is by refusing to tenkou, getting kicked out of society, and that takes time.
This ‘tattoos instead of ideas’ system is really,really good for weeding out those twin bogeymen of the scene: posers and sell-outs. (because society won’t LET you be anything else than a ditch-digging scumbag if you burned your bridges by refusing to tenkou.).
But it’s not good for booking the best bands at a show, antagonizing the squares,  producing new styles of music, or – more important – attracting the energy , impertenance, and balls-out chimpanzee anarchy OF THE KIDZZZ. Serious , Try finding teens at shows here. Everyone is 30 or up. AT ALL AGES SHOWS.
I say this without anger : the scene is totally irrelevant to anything
The punks here sequester themselves in their own little corner and basically scede from society rather than challenging it. . There are no politics in the western sense.  Your politics is basically "Fuck society, I’d rather push a shovel forever than submit to your rules."  This sort of passive-aggression is – well – very typically, traditionally Japanese.
So, that’s why you got these expensive limited edition records (because only them and their friends was SUPPOSED to have the records) , no photos allowed (because only their friends are SUPPOSED to take pictures) , and shutting out most newer bands instead of supporting them, because “They aren’t real.”
I’m not saying that those western beliefs (sXe, anti-corporation, vegan, anti-homophobia, anti-rock-star etc.) are all cool, or even interesting. I’m just saying that in a scene where older bands have goals of changing society, the older bands will be more inclusive towards newer, younger bands, and try to include new people in ‘the scene’, if only to try to spread the word about the beliefs. And that never happened over here.  No incentive! Back in the day, if a punk band guy didn’t mingle with fans, he would (rightly or wrongly) be called a rock star. But Tokyo’s scene is more like rap than punk: As Ice Cube said, If you don’t know me, “get off my dick and tell your bitch to come here.”
At best shows are an expression of brotherhood, like "I love you, man! You guys are the reason my decision was worth it." At worst, it’s a bunch of angry grand-dads who literally are not allowed to go anywhere else on a Saturday, silently slogging through another long boring  crossed-arms evening.

So, in short, don’t think about it like "fashion" versus "real politics."  Only a Westerner would make that the particular line in the sand.

Making the choice to drop out, live a life of poverty, get tattoos and be exiled from most places is a real serious decision with real consequences. But – get this –  to get inked up and say "fuck tenkou!" is seen as deeply deeply personal, and so the idea of music changing other peoples’ points of view is considered totally irrelevant! 
I have never seen punks at marches or union events.  People don’t do the ole’ “This is a song about. . . .” intros,  nor do they hand out flyers for protests or call out politicians by name. They are still really fucking angry, though! But the battle is mostly internal – the fight to stay strong! to myself! for freedom! Fight everyday! Never give up! (as if a 30 year old dry-waller had Establishment types beating down his door trying to tempt him with offers of BMWs and cushy legal jobs –  But whatever)
On one hand, I kind of get it: if Mr. So-and-So grew up in a poor family and was raised on The Streetz, running with gangs and shit, it makes sense he’d try to find the hardest ,heaviest music that he could, and go crazy at shows. But on the other hand, if there’s no revolutionary beliefs or goals behind the music, then how is Mr. So-and-So different from his dad, who also grew up in the ‘hood? And if he’s basically his dad, what’s he doing playing this crazy punk rock music? Why not play dad music? That is why I never liked Boston Hardcore, but that’s another story.
I guess that’s it: I’m not mad because I can’t become this big-shot scene guy, I’m just mad because I’ll never know how everyone is different from his dad.


22 comments Tags: ,

22 Comments so far

  1. Rob January 23rd, 2010 5:38 pm

    Do you think there’s a bit of extra resentment from Mr. So-and-So’s dad since, presumably, Mr. So-and-So’s dad had to “suck it up,” get over living in the streets, and get a real job? Like maybe Mr. S&S’s dad feels like Mr. S&S totally took the easy way out by choosing to be all into punk music instead of ganbare-ing in order to get that cushy legal job. I guess it would be kind of like if some guy had the opportunity to get a free ride to a god-tier college but had to pass on it to get a job to support his mom who was dying of cancer; then the guy grows up, has a son, gets cancer, and the son chooses to take advantage of his own free ride to a god-tier college and now the dad is stuck on his own while his son gets to live the life he had to forgo. Maybe every adult in Japan feels this way.

  2. szaszha January 23rd, 2010 11:24 pm

    i never really liked the way bands here bitch about specific issues. im cool with the whole “fuck the system” generalization, but it always turned me off when motherfuckers call out politicians and bitch about the inhumane slaughter of animals, or proselytize how cool it is to not do drugs. i’m not holding rage against the machine up as an example of everything that is wrong with this, but i really started to hate that band (more so than i did anyway) when i started hearing some of that jackass singer’s song intros. long, rambling blather about native americans and the neocons and shit. i’m just like, “well, what the fuck are you going to do besides wear che shirts and piss and moan all the time? you are making absolutely no difference concerning your pet issues!” activism is a joke, and the “system” is going to grind everyone under its bootheel no matter how many songs you write or bumper stickers are on your jalopy. the futility of it all bums me out, so i tune those guys out.

    thanks for introducing the tenkou concept to us. i really never thought of it that way. is it the same way in the visual kei scenes? that’s why you cant take pictures of them at their shows, even in the states? and do the drag queens who milli vanilli their guitar playing over pre recorded tracks also embrace (or reject i guess?) tenkou? if so, what industry to they wind up slogging away at? i dont think i could see the guys from versailles or dir en gray skimcoating a ceiling or tearing shingles off a roof. although, that would make for some awesome liner art for their albums. a bunch of guys in dresses with cigarettes dangling from their lips, working hard at building a concrete form or putting up vinyl siding. that would be fucking hilarious!

  3. fzgig January 24th, 2010 3:51 am

    I think you’re right. The only Japanese punk band I can think of that was remotely political was the Stalin, and still… I suspect they were more about shock value than anything else.

  4. S January 24th, 2010 9:18 am

    There were some other “political” Japanese bands from around that time. A-Musik and GISM are two examples. Most modern punk bands from this country though seem to be either the fuzzed out retro Discharge/Confuse/Amebix clones(which I personally find shitty and laughable) or the more slickly produced Motorhead/NWoBHM-ish “Burning Spirits” stuff…some of which is quite good…but meh.

  5. Deen January 24th, 2010 2:58 pm

    Your observations are really interesting. I guess because there are “punk” scenes both in Japan, in US and in many European countries, it would probably be offputting or unusual for a member of one of those scenes to experience the same same scene but in a different culture, only to find much of what their scene stood for can be really different in that other country despite sharing the same name.
    I can imagine a Western punk, keen on politics etc and meeting Japanese punks to find that punk there can be very different.
    I guess it’s because of the culture being very different, it is only natural for its sub-cultures to also be different along with the reasons being part of them.

  6. kegO'beer January 24th, 2010 3:49 pm

    yet there are not any homeless punks(in tokyo)i was there homeless for 3 years and most “punks” had jobs and lived in aprtments alone not together to save money or shit.the ones i know worked at porno dvd places or deliever alchoal for liquar stores etc.they get payed enough to live and get drunk.the most strange thing is everyone in bands PAY to go to there friends was i said i was homeless so i sould never pay.i could get into earthdom for free anytime i wanted but other than that i was lucky if i could see shows.sometimes i would be sitting outide and a band that was playing would give me money to get in,not let me in for free.the guys from cps always did that.i was stealing food everyday and stealing chu hi everynight.i met many guys who let me stay there house.but i always only stayed one night.i am wondering if in 30 years there will be big homeless punk population.just hanging out in shin koiwa sleeping in the alley and drinking?i am deported for 9 more years but then i will be there living and drinking in the streets again.

  7. ttt January 24th, 2010 10:37 pm

    As mentioned by someone above, there was once a very strong extreme political statement once being expressed, but it certainly wasn’t coming from the Stalin. A-Musik was within the center of the movement and was associated with the East Asia Anti-Japanese Armed Front (東アジア反日武装戦線) who were responsible for distributing 腹腹時計 which was basically the Anarchist Cookbook of the time. The people involved in the group organized concerts ( // // and had a lot of international help; Fred Frith and Tom Cora were often over here and at the time John Duncan was also here hijacking NHK signals and operating pirate radio stations.

    A-Musik and those associated weren’t only about being anti-Japan (or at-the-time current policy) but also organized a lot of benefits for the homeless and other people in need. They occasionally still play and it is often in relation to some sort of charity association.

    If anyone doubts political expression in Japan, look no further than A-Musik’s 反日ラップ (Anti-Jap Rap):

  8. Filip F. January 25th, 2010 7:31 am

    Another interesting article, I love this side!

    I would just like to correct some facts about Japanese punx not interested in politics… I know positively that atleast BATTLE OF DISARM were (are?) quite active in animal rights stuff promoting veganism, doing activities against whale hunting etc. But the fact is, they were not very popular among other Japanese crusties and almost nobody in Japan gives a fuck about them anymore… Another band which springs to my mind are VOCO PROTESTA, I remember meeting their guitar-player (now singer) in anarchist infoshop near Shinjuku and I believe they f.e. also take a part in some marches… But well, you are right this is only minority of the Japanese punk scene…

  9. AnokPanda January 25th, 2010 10:43 am

    What’s funny to me about political message punk at a show is that they give the little in between speeches because they know that unless you have the lyric sheet you are only going to understand a tenth of the lyrics. but at plenty of shows the sound sucks so bad, and the singer is hoarse and mumbley and the band is making random noise in preparation for the next song, that you often can’t understand the in between speeches either. they should carry more stenciled banners, so we know what we’re excited and rowdy about.

  10. admin January 25th, 2010 10:01 pm

    Thanks for comments, and for reading!
    I’m sorry that I could not communicate my point properly in that little rant of mine.
    I was trying to say that the whole “fashion vs. politics” thing is a Western thing, it doesn’t apply here.

    Maybe it helps to think of tokyo punk as like NYC hardcore – everyone is living in the shadow of these “from the streetz” guys that formed the scene 20 years ago. Newer bands copy the style but everyone wishes it was the “bad old days” or whatever. There are upsides to this and downsides. One of the downsides is that punk is not relevant. No one wants to change society or even to destroy society – mostly they hide from it in their own little community.

  11. ttt January 26th, 2010 1:15 am

    Actually I forgot to mention that I do agree with and appreciate the observation. I have thought about it a lot, too, but have never really been able to articulate the phenomenon(?).

    I also have a great respect for those who manage to balance society with their personal action on whatever level. Whether they leave their office job at 10PM to play live then wake up at 5AM the next morning to repeat, or have just grown into being a presentable sort on the surface but have never left their youthful rebellion. I am sure you know from going to lives and talking to people here, that some of the most historically deep/underground people end up being the most normal looking.

  12. David Enemy January 26th, 2010 7:02 am

    We get teenage girls at our shows… :)

  13. szaszha January 29th, 2010 4:45 pm


    so do the jonas brothers. are you sure this is a good thing?

  14. Steve January 29th, 2010 8:04 pm

    Do you think this difference is because their system is so defined, while ours (in the US) is ‘loosely’ defined by comparison* (or rather there is a definition, but people are too afraid to spell it out).

    For example, on the surface we believe, ‘OK, go get a white-collar job if you’re middle class, blue-collar if working class’ and so on- but in secret everyone is hoping that one person won’t join the mainstream and become some genius entrepreneur that will save us from economic recession (read: ‘America is a country of innovation/individualism! That’s why we’re different!’)

    While in Japan, it’s the whole ‘ok you’re a grownup now, into the cubicle you go’. Maybe?

  15. Marie March 1st, 2010 6:15 am

    “OK, I’ll work construction for the rest of my life.”


  16. Willem March 17th, 2010 7:45 am

    Interesting and I can agree on most of it. I remember interviewing a band last summer and the singer started to laugh when I asked him about politics. He further said literary the lyrics were about nothing, while the band was inspired by Minutemen and Minor Threat…

    I also agree on the cliques thing in Japan punk, most people are over 30 years, but still are some younger punks as well out there.

    Also last years Bloodsucker released an anti war zine and compilation with Framtid, Slang, and more bands on it..

  17. bobok April 10th, 2010 12:47 am

    Even the average Japanese business man doesn't have an interest in politics – there just aren't enough problems in Japanese society to warrant concern.  You work hard at school and evening school so you can get into a good university where you piss about for 4 years.  Then you enter the company until retirement.  That's it.  If you fall off those rails for any reason, you're a non-entity.  In a system like that, no one will listen to you whatever you say or however you say it.  So I think that's why Japanese punks are how they are.  There's no point in preaching to an audience who are in exactly the same situation as you.

  18. ELSN June 28th, 2010 1:44 am

    I'm late to the post, but I thought you explained it perfectly. I'm always frustrated with any dismissal of over-styled Japanese punks, because if you have the courage to get a circle-A anarchy symbol tatooed on your neck, you are LOCKED OUT of "proper" Japanese society. As you said, that decision by itself is punk.
    And if you're looking for politics, as commenter ttt mentioned, you can still see 東アジア反日武装戦線 written somewhere at shows occasionally.

  19. Octopod July 23rd, 2010 12:35 am

    There are some political bands such as Battle of Disarm but I think that they are in the vast minority, yeah. While I enjoy the music that comes from the US and EU political punk scenes for the most part I do get really tired of the preaching. There really doesn't seem to be as much of it anymore though as there was in the 90's and the first half of the '00's.

  20. MarsHottentot March 19th, 2011 8:31 pm

    Man, thank you.  I had no clue it was like this.  It makes a lot of sense.  All I know is their bands are just the craziest. most awesome, most fun regardless of what subgenre (I prefer the noise punk, but it's all good shit, ultimately).

  21. wedge October 28th, 2011 5:10 pm

    idunno. if destroying your life by actually living "free" in an attempt to say 'Fukk Off' to the mainstream, and being Totally rejected for the rest of your life isnt a semi-political way to express yourself, then all i can say is FUCK YOU. go get a job with your daddy's safe company, or realize that theres an entire scene of people who exist beyond the mainstream, or NOT have any other option of a so-called 'future', then deal with it. believe it or not, theres those of us throughout the world who made this our existence, and some of us are more than open to younger ones being involved. if they dont come across as clueless, spited assholes, like yourself.

  22. Putney Swope October 28th, 2011 6:19 pm

    would you dig a band just because their political aspirations align with yours, even if the sound is just whatevs? prolly not, right? now flip that. ever get into a band that sounded so fucking good while the lyrical content advocates things you could never get behind? happens to me all the time. i couldn't give a fuck about a bands politics or lack thereof. for me its the sound first and lyrical content dead last.

Leave a reply