Features I by I 24.11.14

War ina Tokyo: the curious world of Japan’s reggae scene

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Totto Helix

The Japanese fascination with reggae and dancehall has been well documented.

The country currently boasts over 300 active sound systems, of which the award-winning Mighty Crown is the most famous, and the 2002 crowning of Dancehall Queen Junko Kudo in Montego Bay opened the contest to overseas contenders. Of course, Japan’s obsession with Jamaican music dates back considerably earlier: Bob Marley’s ground-breaking 1979 concerts sparked an initial interest, as did screenings of The Harder They Come and Rockers, but Sugar Minott’s Black Roots sound system events, staged in Japan in 1985 with Sister Carol and Frankie Paul, probably did more than anything else to kick-start the country’s enduring dancehall craze.

I’ve had a longstanding interest in Japan’s reggae fascination, since Japanese reggae heads kept turning up in unexpected places. For instance, during the late 1990s, when I was researching People Funny Boy, my biography of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, I found that a Japanese record dealer had been a lodger with Lee Perry’s daughter for an extended period, and at sound system dances in the heart of the Kingston ghettos, I often found Japanese fans. Over the years, I’d met a steady stream of aspiring Japanese selectors who had spent a year or more in Kingston in an effort to immerse themselves in Jamaican culture first-hand; some had undertaken ‘apprenticeship’ periods in London or New York, but several went straight to the deep-end, arriving in Jamaica with little or no spoken English. One of these selectors helped to arrange for Japanese language editions of the Perry biography and my second book, Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae, which paved the way for me to make my first two visits to the country, in 2013 and 2014. Based on this prior information, and since I was being brought to the country to spin discs at select nightspots, I knew that I was bound to encounter local reggae fans. However, the diverse ways in which Jamaican music and culture have taken hold, and the overwhelming devotion of the people to all things Jamaican, became evident in many unexpected ways. What follows are some impressions of my maiden Japanese voyages, flavoured by their many reggae shades.

After a 12-hour journey from London, arrival in Tokyo the first time yielded instant racial profiling: immigration staff could not understand why a white baldhead like me would be travelling with a dreadlocked black woman, leading to 20 questions and an extended bag search, with a baton-wielding officer at the ready; customs had no interest in my vintage 45s, so it was obvious that contraband was their concern.

The gentleman who brought me to Japan was none other than Masaya Hayashi of Drum And Bass Records, Osaka’s most devoted reggae head. Very much a likeable rogue with at least one beer or spliff perpetually to hand, Masa has been to Jamaica over 150 times and learned to speak English there, making his language a very odd mix of Japanese-accented patois. Masa helped me navigate Central Honshu, and gave all kinds of insights into the local reggae scenes of mainland Japan’s bigger cities.


My first glimpse of reggae’s powerful hold on Tokyo came at the Jingumae HQ of Overheat Records, the premier Japanese reggae label founded by former Mute Beat manager, Shizuo Ishii, who also runs a magazine called Riddim from the same premises. Over revitalising green tea served by his gracious wife, Ishii regaled me with tales of working with Gladdy Anderson, Lynn Taitt, Carlton and the Shoes, Dean Fraser and the Roots Radics, and stunned me with his autographed King Tubby dub plates. He also produced a great film called Ruffn’ Tuff: Founders of the Immortal Riddim (which in many ways anticipated Rock Steady The Roots Of Reggae), though it is difficult to come by, outside of Japan. Less active now than during his 1980s and 1990s heyday, Ishii continues to issue collaborative work between Jamaican and Japanese musicians on Overheat, and keeps Riddim alive both online and in print.

On our way back from Overheat, while passing through bustling Harajuku, a little sign on an anonymous doorway caught my eye: what was JamRock café, claiming to be ‘Authentic Jamaican cooking’ and a ‘home away from home’ doing here? After a slow elevator ride to the fourth floor of a non-descript office block, our nostrils filled with the heady smell of spices; steamed fish was not on the menu, but when we asked for it, we got it, along with ground provisions…proper food cooked the real Jamaican way. Our gregarious host, Yvonne Goldson, an original Jamaican country gal, said she’d lived in Tokyo for 17 years, following a long spell in Los Angeles. She had links to Tony Johnson of Sunsplash fame, was good friends with Marley aficionado Roger Steffens, and did not limit herself to the food business: her book Let’s Speak Jamaican, a tri-lingual dictionary moving between Jamaican patois, standard English and Japanese, was published in 1998. Apparently the Jamaican food scene is well established in Tokyo; rival spot Aalawi is run by a Japanese gent that lived in Jamaica, and the Yaad Food truck is a Jamaican cookshop on wheels, often seen at outdoor festivals. So ‘ital is vital’ here too!

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Tea Time salon, Tokyo

Friday night found us in residence at Club Open in Tokyo’s bustling Shinjuku district. It’s a super-friendly basement dive with a great sound system, presenting reggae to the public every night of the week for the last 16 years (why don’t we get that kind of schedule in London? And it closes at 5AM on weekends too). Presided over by a very likable Japanese dread, known as Big H [see photo below left] (a drummer who has worked with Dennis Bovell), the focus here tends to be on roots, dub and vinyl classics, with local DJs such as Thunder Killa and Akahachi presenting vintage sounds on other occasions, as well as live performances from bands like Seabird. In contrast, the nearby Garam club hosts nights such as ‘Batty Rider Gyal’ with various ragga/hip-hop crews in residence, along with acrobatic dancers like Hiro from the Grine Pixy crew; rival establishments Cactus, Shifty and Crocodile sometimes have reggae happenings too, with Jamaican band Black Blood (featuring longstanding Japanese resident Ian ‘Bassheart’ Knight) holding their album launch at the latter. In fact, Tokyo has at least a dozen reggae bars, including One Love, Club Jamaica, Kingstone Café, Club Zion, One Blood, Cool Dread and Old Jamaica.

If the crowd at Open wasn’t too huge the first time I played, what was lacking in size was made up for by enthusiasm, with the assembled patrons going nuts for Black Ark music, remaining in attendance all the way til sunrise. A few hours later, it was time for the Bullet Train to whisk us to Nagoya, where we were met by members of Roots Vibes sound system and taken to Club Zoo, an industrial bunker on the edge of an anonymous commuter town. Heavily inspired by Jah Shaka, Roots Vibes’ resident sound system is absolutely gigantic, and they played it very much in the manner of Shaka himself, facing the set, with their backs to the audience; the dance floor was large, and there were intimate corners on its perimeter, as well as food being served. British singer Kenny Knots was coming soon, and along with late ‘70s roots, what really moved this audience were dub-step remixes of tracks like ‘Chase The Devil’, or anything with a ‘UK Steppers’ vibe. The friendly and lovely local lover’s rock singer, Machaco, turned up early and was kind enough to hand over her latest single (produced by Rory Stone Love on one side, and Curtis Lynch on the other, the latter making use of an old Gussie Clarke rhythm), along with a ska record by her friends, The Roommates. Could it really be true that on the same night, there was a rival sound system playing roots reggae in some nearby hills, and a ska night at a different club in the locality? London’s reggae scene rarely gets that busy…

David Katz - Big H

In the morning, back on the Bullet Train to Osaka—another vibrant, thriving Japanese city—where Masa’s Night Wax club, with its attached Drum And Bass Records shop and reissue label, is something of a local institution; he often hosts all-night sessions there with the likes of Ras Digby of Sir Jessus and Elroy from Black Slate, as well as local wizards like Bionic Skank and Dubliberation Yoshida, and his regular Friday night dancehall session is highly popular. The first time I played there, the regulars were extremely friendly; ska, rock steady, and deep roots had them skanking, though the late-1960s ‘skinhead’ sound left them cold. I bowed out gracefully before sunrise, but Masa told me the session finished at 8AM—and this on a Sunday night?! Reggae Bar-I and Xaymaca are other Osaka spots in which to take in the sounds and cuisine of JA.

Kyoto has the reputation of being one of Japan’s most culturally rich cities, and with a few days to spare, I made my way there to experience the delights of the Gion Matsuri, an ancient festival sparked by a medieval outbreak of bubonic plague. Kyoto was indeed awe-inspiring, with dozens of ancient temples scattered throughout, some of which have hosted reggae sound system events. There is even a Buddhist monk, Ejima Kodo, whose sound system is based in a monastery on the city’s outskirts. Ras Kush, of Brooklyn’s Black Redemption sound system, has been living in the city for a number of years, since his wife Yumi [see photo below right], a Kyoto native, decided to move back there. She runs a fantastic vegan restaurant, close to the university, while Kush continues his musical mission, recording with local artists such as Ras Takashi and Mighty Massa, as well as Jamaican veterans like Albert Malawi and Tony Tuff, when overseas.


Despite the cosmopolitan nature of the university district, Kush seemed somewhat apart from the life of everyday Kyoto, since there are so few black people in the land; I wondered whether their mixed-race children were stigmatised. Nevertheless, Kush explained that Rastafari shared some common ground with Japan’s pre-Buddhist Shinto faith, which perhaps contributes to the widespread appeal of Rastafari among serious Japanese reggae heads. Kush and Yumi pointed me to the Black Ark Records shop, which was full of vintage Jamaican discs at somewhat shocking prices—but then the over-inflated yen makes Japan generally expensive for foreigners. One night we found ourselves in Rub A Dub, ‘Kyoto’s historical reggae bar.’ This basement joint, which serves jerk delights and plenty of rum, was opened in 1986 by a Jamaican woman and her Japanese husband. It’s a likeable space, if a little smoky, with great foundation dancehall pumping on the sound system the night we came. Kyoto’s reggae scene felt smaller, but still thriving; the Black Boxxx club has reggae at least three times a month.

David Katz - NWax2

Bionic Skank at Night Wax, Osaka

When I returned to Tokyo some 14 months after my first trip, the good people of Club Open welcomed me with open arms, a packed house dancing all night with reckless abandon, spurred on by the heady roots vibe. A longer stay gave me the chance to check out some of the city’s many fine record shops as well, the most of impressive of which is easily Dub Store, the vintage vinyl haven and associated reissue label run by Naoki Ienaga in the heart of Shinjuku. The venerable Naoki’s as nice a guy as he is knowledgeable, and there are all kinds of treasures in his comfortable premises; in addition to reissuing work by Bunny Wailer, Family Man, Kiddus I and Federal Records, Naoki plays as a DJ and does concert promotion too, his latest event pairing Johnny Osbourne with Sly and Robbie at the Blue Note. Over in bustling Shibuya is the flagship store of the mighty Disk Union, a distributor that has a chain of shops in and around Tokyo. The Shibuya premises is spread out over several floors (reminiscent of Rasputins in San Francisco), and the reggae vinyl selection is pretty awesome, though you’ve got to dig to find the bargains. The nearby Jammers Records shop, run for the last decade by a talkative Jamaican known as Double H who has lived in Tokyo for over 20 years, has lots of original Jamaican vinyl stock in very good condition, and you can test what he’s got with a turntable in the corner too. Double H is also a record producer in his own right, and he’s got a pretty fascinating tale: working at a hotel in Kingston, he was asked to translate patois to English by a Japanese record distributor, and once in Tokyo, he swiftly became a popular nightclub DJ.

Reggae continually turned up in unexpected places in Tokyo. It wasn’t just the framed Peter Tosh T-shirt on a fashionista street in Harajuku; Tea Time, a friendly neighbourhood hair salon, had staff with Disco Devil aprons and ska 45s on the walls. In fact, reggae surprises cropped up wherever we went: in Kanazawa, near the Sea of Japan coast, guitarist Totto Helix runs the Natty One café bar, a lovely little late-night dive hidden on a backstreet of the main nightlife/red light area of Katamachi. Renowned for his ital curries, Helix spent time in Jamaica recording with his band and has a distinctly Japanese take on Rastafari, even drawing me a diagram at one point to explain interconnected natural phenomena. By the way, one more reason to head to here is the Kanazawa Phonograph Museum, an amazing collection of 540 vintage machines, and 20,000 records to play on them.

My return to Osaka’s Night Wax was another night of joy, with selectors Bionic Skank and High-C joining me on the decks; the latter runs Corner Stone Music, releasing impressive product on the label by new Jamaican roots acts Raging Fyah and Micah Shemaiah, and he’s just opened the Corner Stone reggae bar too. The day after the night before gave me the chance for a leisurely browse through the Drum And Bass shop, which has an incredible array of stock at very reasonable prices.

Since the tranquil hot-spring town of Shimoda only has a population of 23,000 people, I wasn’t expecting much in the way of reggae action, but was pleasantly surprised to stumble on Zion Gate [see photo below], a reggae bar with occasional live music, as well as its own clothing line. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd on my last night in Japan, out near Narita airport, the inviting space of Zion Bar had plenty of patrons, checking out its dancehall videos over reggae-themed cocktails.

Japan is a beguiling place in many ways, and although it may seem contradictory that reggae would be so highly embraced in a nation with so few black people, Japanese devotees obviously take reggae very seriously—perhaps more seriously than any other non-Jamaican audience on earth. Marvin Sterling’s chapter in Carolyn Cooper’s Global Reggae anthology details some of the complexities of reggae’s veneration in Japan, and is recommended for further reading. But overall, the massive amount of reggae culture in the Land of the Rising Sun makes further excursions all the more appealing…

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