Flying Lotus-approved musician Seiho Hayakawa has come a long way since spontaneously picking up a Squarepusher album as a high school student, putting him on a path towards making twisted electronic music of his own. His new album Collapse jolts between abstract jazz, glitching beats and neon-lit club heat, but its release comes in the wake of a war on Japan’s nightlife, with local musicians facing police crackdowns on top of the cultural barriers that have long kept the country isolated from the global music scene. Laurent Fintoni hears how it all came together.

Japan has long been a destination for hardcore fans looking to plunder its crates of limited editions and special releases. In the decades after the second world war, Japan exported itself to the world through technological feats — VHS, Flash memory, DVD — and cultural products like video games and anime, which resonate with youth culture to this day. At the same time the country imported musical subcultures from abroad, creating a healthy market and dedicated audiences for everything from jazz to jungle, house to IDM, grime to dancehall. Decades later, the result resembles the Japanese archipelago itself, with music scenes outside the pop-dominated mainstream floating like so many islands in a sea of fandom.

While the internet and cheaper travel have helped break down many of the physical barriers that once isolated Japan, the way the music industry operates remains difficult to understand from afar. Many facets of the industry taken for granted in the west — electronic music as part of a wider club culture, decreasing gaps between independent and mainstream acts, growing digital markets, access to PR — still don’t apply in Japan.

Seiho

“You need to have your own individuality. You need to be able to say, ‘This is my own colour’” Seiho Hayakawa

In recent years, the controversy surrounding the so-called Japanese no-dancing law offered a new example of the gaps between Japanese and western musical mores. Despite this, Japanese music currently benefits from perhaps its widest global audience ever, something the government is catching up to with its “Cool Japan” campaign to promote its cultural industries abroad. Some acts have found traction abroad, from the kawaii absurdity of the idol-like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu to the dub-rooted dance music of Goth-Trad and the avant-garde metal of Boris.

Yet the acts that make it through the invisible barriers of Japan’s musical world are the exception. Osaka native Seiho Hayakawa, who produces and performs a unique blend of dance music under his first name, is one of these exceptions. His rise in recent years from local artist to national talent with a growing international presence is proof that the struggles and challenges facing Japanese artists aren’t insurmountable, though they require a self-belief too often lacking in a culture that prioritises the group over the individual.

I first met Hayakawa in March 2013 at a show in Osaka’s Club STOMP, a small basement venue in the Shinsaibashi district, which boasts subwoofers beneath the floor and a cosy atmosphere typical of the country’s best live venues. That night, Hayakawa, clad in a red frilly shirt, was DJing with Keita Kawakami, a local DJ who has embraced Chicago juke and footwork. Standing at the bar in the early hours of the morning I watched the pair keep a small dancefloor buzzing with a hyper-energetic set of juke, footwork, and disco classics pitched up to 160bpm. As it turns out, ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ sounds great at that speed – either that or the shochu I was drinking lied to me.

Tall and slender with jet black long hair, Hayakawa has an androgynous air accentuated by an acute fashion sense. Seeming distant in person, he is most expressive during performances when he screams and gyrates to the music with a smile on his face. Raised on jazz and fusion – he names 1970s American fusion combo Stuff as the reason he wanted to make music – Hayakawa picked up the guitar and trombone as a kid before discovering electronic music through computers, a Daft Punk and Aphex Twin performance at Osaka’s Summer Sonic festival during high school, and a Squarepusher album bought on a whim. “I took one listen and was blown away,” he says over email, via a translator. “I started going to live electronic music events and became familiar with artists like [local electronic musicians] Aoki Takamasa, Rei Harakami, and OORUTAICHI. I learned there was a way of playing electronic music live.”

Seiho - Club Stomp

“There is a paywall to enter the wider music world that many labels in Japan can’t afford” Erik Luebs

With an international airport of its own, over the years Osaka has become one of the main tourist destinations in Japan. While Tokyo still gets most of the foreign attention, the southern city has gained a reputation as a lively party town, more raucous and less inhibited than the capital. At the time of our meeting three years ago, Hayakawa had begun to emerge from the Osaka underground as one of the central figures in a rejuvenated local electronic scene centred in part around the INNIT parties he co-founded in late 2010. INNIT was born of a meeting between Hayakawa, Masayuki Kubo, who records as And Vice Versa, and Masaki Konagai, aka MFP. Taking cues from London’s CD-R parties, where musicians brought music to play on the legendary Plastic People sound system, and from Low End Theory’s Beat Invitational, where producers battle with their best beats, INNIT invited artists to bring their own tracks to the party. The audience would vote on their favourites and the most popular would be invited to perform.

“INNIT parties spread by word of mouth, and as the event grew larger we discovered many talented, local young musicians,” says Hayakawa. Looking to legendary Osaka label Vanity Records, a home for experimental rock in the late 1970s, and Los Angeles’ Leaving Records, where ambient, beats, and electronic co-exist, Hayakawa began to understand the need for “music as a product” alongside a live element. In 2012, he founded Day Tripper records, which released albums from INNIT-associated acts — hip-hop beats from Ogiyy, floating electronics from Madegg – and a joint compilation with New York’s Astro Nautico. The label is on hiatus, but Hayakawa says it will return later this year.

From there, Hayakawa progressed at a fast pace. By 2014, he was touring America (he has returned twice since), playing the Summer Sonic festival, and opening for Disclosure in Tokyo. The following year his duo with fellow Osaka producer Avec Avec, Sugar’s Campaign, a blistering take on the “city pop” sound pioneered by Yellow Magic Orchestra, was picked up by Victor Entertainment, the music arm of the JVC Kenwood corporation — the Japanese equivalent to entering the world of major labels.

This spring, following the Sugar’s Campaign debut album, production for revered Japanese pop singer Akiko Yano, remixes for LuckyMe, and appearances at SXSW, Hayakawa released his third album as Seiho, Collapse, through Leaving Records. The label’s founder, Matthew McQueen, met Hayakawa in 2012 during a tour of Japan. “Seiho is a hybrid and all-encompassing artist,” says McQueen. “He’s futuristic and progressive – we share a similar vision for the future of electronic music culture.”

Hayakawa’s earlier productions were focused on the sweet spot between electronic dance music and hip-hop epitomised by the worldwide beat scene. By 2013, when I saw him perform in Osaka and again at the Tokyo edition of Barcelona’s Sónar festival, his music had taken on a more lurid and intense polish. His second album, Abstraktsex, released that year, smashed together hip-hop and house club tropes with the kinds of sonic rushes PC Music has become known for.

Looking back on the fast pace of his progression, Hayakawa admits he felt “hampered” after 2013 by a sense that anything was possible. While continuing to produce high-octane music as part of Sugar’s Campaign, Hayakawa retreated inwards for his solo work. “I made music for myself, my own pleasure,” he admits. “With previous albums I first came up with a theme or picture of what the album would be and wrote songs to suit that. But Collapse is more a collection of music I wrote for myself. These were like the pages of a diary and I gathered the most similar ones together.”

Past the easy generalisation of Japan’s cultural homogeneity, the country is marked by stark contradictions that run as deep as the volcanic fault lines beneath its ground. Sometimes these contradictions are the result of a culture in which independent thinking and behaviour aren’t typically celebrated. In the music world, this plays out in different ways. “What has become very noticeable over time is the widening gap between big and small venues,” says Matt Lyne, an English producer, promoter, and co-founder of the Diskotopia label, who first moved to Osaka in 2005 and now lives in Tokyo. “The nightlife today is split between tiny bar-like spaces and big sponsored nights in large clubs. A lot of medium-sized clubs in Tokyo have closed down in the last few years. As a result, scenes have become more split and local artists have to fall either side.”

One of the main challenges facing independent musicians in Japan is a unique cultural glass ceiling. To be a full-time artist remains frowned upon as a career path, while an often uncrossable gap exists between what we understand as the mainstream and the underground, with manufactured stars on one side and dedicated but struggling artists on the other. Erik Luebs is a California native who moved to Japan in 2011 and became part of the INNIT collective early on under his artist name Magical Mistakes. He was responsible for the tours that brought Hayakawa together with McQueen as well as LuckyMe’s Obey City in 2013. Today he continues to release music, primarily on foreign labels, and promote shows locally as Perfect Touch.

“For underground artists [in Japan] it’s difficult to make enough money to live off music,” Luebs says. That situation isn’t unique to the country, but it is compounded by specific factors: smaller fees, with locals often short-changed to accommodate international headliners; smaller crowds; and a lack of interaction between domestic acts and labels and the global music community. “Many career opportunities are missed,” Luebs continues. “There is a paywall to enter the wider music world that many labels in Japan can’t afford, and the language barrier means journalists and others don’t actively seek out non-Western music.”

Hayakawa has proved to be a rare exception, crossing over from Japan’s indie electronic scene to higher profile shows while remaining attached to his roots — in 2014, for example, he played as part of Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder showcase in Tokyo’s sprawling Ageha complex. He sees his growing international reputation as proof of music’s universal qualities. “The fascinating thing about music is that I can listen to music from a different country, from a different time, and still like it without knowing where or when it was made,” he says. Through his travels he has also come to see how this unifying character remains tied to distinct differences. “As my music spreads it reaches beyond generations and cultures, but as these gaps lessen, my nationality and my age seem to become more important.”

Hayakawa and his friends emerged from Osaka at a time when the city was ground zero in a war against nightclubs which shook the already weak foundations of Japan’s club culture. In late 2010, tensions between residents and the nightlife industry in Osaka’s Amemura neighbourhood reached boiling point after the death of a clubber in a fight. Spurred on by a local committee, police dusted off an antiquated law implemented in 1948 to regulate the sex industry, known as fueiho, which over the years had also come to control other businesses that operate at night, including clubs.

Under the law, which was officially eased in June 2015, police could implement fines and ultimately shut down establishments where people danced if the venues did not meet stringent specifications and a 1am curfew. In the spring of 2011, fueiho fines led two well-known Osaka clubs, Triangle and Joule, to cease their nighttime events, while increased police harassment triggered fears among owners who began to turn away or cancel events. Over the following years, the story took on a life of its own in western media, fuelled by local protests for its change and photographs of “Please Don’t Dance” notices in Japanese clubs shared online.

Seiho

“Fueiho and ‘Cool Japan’ mean almost the same. If you get caught by either, you’re done” Seiho Hayakawa

While the “no-dancing law” made an appealing media soundbite, the reality on the ground was quite different. No one ever stopped dancing. As I witnessed during my return to Japan in both 2011 and 2013 (after living there in the late 2000s), little seemed to have changed on the surface. But the public debates over fueiho, and the decisions of venue owners and promoters behind closed doors, nonetheless impacted on the scene.

“Smaller clubs operated in a grey zone, often going past 1am but occasionally having to cancel or reschedule for fear of police crackdown,” Luebs says of the peak years of the law’s implementation in Osaka. Many local venues shifted parties to the afternoon and early evening for a few years, including INNIT’s original home Nuooh. “In Tokyo very few places got shut down because of fueiho,” says Lyne. “However, with Osaka no longer a possibility for flight-share tour legs, promoters found it harder to put up all the costs for an international artist to come in. With a culture of fear in place people began taking fewer risks, compounding an already fairly non-risk-taking approach.”

INNIT began at the same time as Osaka’s crackdown. Hayakawa recalls “police coming in and ordering us to finish the party.” But his generation also had a different perspective. “We all started out having no other place than the internet to play and share our music, so we didn’t pay too much attention to the fueiho law anyway,” he says. “We believed that even without a venue we could still play music. Police did come to turn down the volume, but to tell you the truth, the party afterwards was always the best!” According to Hayakawa, the attention brought to the city by the fueiho repression helped him and others realise how the rest of the country viewed them, “which was as avant-garde, and that was new to us.”

For Luebs, the scene INNIT had strived to create began to disintegrate by 2014 and the party ended early that year. “We were all working to pursue our own music and establish more genre-specific events,” he admits. “I’m not sure if the scene has grown or not since INNIT. Seiho has become something of a celebrity in Japan, while others like Kubo [And Vice Versa] remain underground.”

Echoes of the original impetus behind INNIT can be heard in Collapse, Hayakawa’s new album. Following his dabblings in hip-hop beats and high-energy dance music, Collapse feels more condensed than previous efforts. Rather than specific scenes or genres, the album brings to mind a fine art piece or even performance art. These influences are visible in Hayakawa’s carefully presented appearance — which often plays to his androgynous physical qualities — and live shows combining computer and keyboards with staged elements. A recurring part of his show sees him cue up a stripped-down drum beat with aquatic washes before stepping to the front of the stage to pour milk into a flower-adorned vase (evoking the album cover) and downing it. The audience never fails to cheer after he holds the empty vase aloft, milk dripping from his face as he returns to his instruments.

“His performances are magnetic,” enthuses McQueen. “It’s expressive; he has chops. The way he performs this electronic ‘DJ’ music is very progressive and interactive.” For Lyne, who met Hayakawa early on in his career, Seiho’s image has also been key to helping him transcend the confines of Japan’s electronic music scene. “As with any artist, it has taken him time to find his creative voice but with Collapse he has definitely found it, and it’s very shrewd and well crafted. I think he has matured into an all-round unique artist in the same way you would class Björk as one.”

Hayakawa’s artistic personality reflects many of the contradictions of Japanese culture. Ask any long-term foreign resident and they’ll tell you how trying to resolve these contradictions can be difficult, if not impossible. Hayakawa has bridged the awkward gap between the country’s underground and mainstream scenes with his sweet “city pop” interpretations and intense dance music performances, while continuing to release strikingly abstract compositions which align him more closely with the independent scene. He also remains aware of the obstacles still in his way, whether antiquated legislation or the Japanese government’s “Cool Japan” campaign. “Fueiho and ‘Cool Japan’ mean almost the same,” he says. “If you get caught by either, you’re done.”

Perhaps the secret to Hayakawa’s success is an understanding that by trying to be everything to everyone, we end up being nothing to no one. If we let the group subsume the individual, we lose what can make us attractive. “A person who can become any colour, get along with anyone, would end up not being any colour, would not truly get along with anyone,” he tells me when I ask what lessons he would share with younger artists. “You need to have your own individuality and you need to be able to say, ‘This is my own colour’.”

Laurent Fintoni is on Twitter

Read next: War ina Tokyo – The curious world of Japan’s reggae scene

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