Features I by I 14.01.18

Another Green World: How Japanese ambient music found a new audience

Over the last few years, obscure Japanese ambient classics like Hiroshi Yoshimura’s Green and Midori Takada’s Through The Looking Glass have surged in popularity. Lewis Gordon investigates the phenomenon, talking to the record collectors and vendors in the US, UK and Japan that helped inform a new wave of interest.

In 1980s Japan, a group of artists were quietly producing what, in 2018, we might recognize as ambient or new age music. Cast your thoughts away from the easily risible and rampantly commercialized records of whale noises and lapping waves or the airbrushed indigenous instrumentation of healing music. Hiroshi Yoshimura, Midori Takada, Satoshi Ashikawa and their peers were crafting perfectly poised, minimal landmarks – records that are only now gaining wider appreciation. While the likes of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Haruomi Hosono of Yellow Magic Orchestra found a degree of success outside of their native Japan, these artists didn’t. Their work would gain a small, dedicated following during the ‘80s and ‘90s but little else. Set against a backdrop of unprecedented economic growth in Japan, the music that emerged from the country during this period would benefit from this burgeoning wealth while also rallying against some of its consequences.

The relative obscurity of these artists is now in flux. Racking up millions of plays on YouTube prior to its reissue on Palto Flats, Midori Takada’s 1983 album, Through The Looking Glass, has transitioned from collector-curio to newfound classic of the algorithmic age. Light in the Attic is currently developing an archival series of Japanese music, including an anthology dedicated to the new age and ambient music of ’80s Japan. It was curated by Visible Cloaks’ Spencer Doran who, through a series of acclaimed mixes for Root Strata, has done plenty to expand the audience for Japanese ambient music. Now, Doran has teamed up with Root Strata’s Maxwell August Croy to reissue select works by Hiroshi Yoshimura on their label, Empire of Signs, beginning with Yoshimura’s first record, Music For Nine Post Cards.

Yoshimura’s landmark beatless album, Green, released in 1986 on Air Records, sits at the center of both ’80s Japanese ambient music and its recent resurgence. Like Takada’s Through The Looking Glass, Green has undergone a resurgence in popularity thanks to a rip of its CD version hosted on YouTube. Recorded amidst the hustle and bustle of a rapidly changing Tokyo, the record’s pristine stillness offered respite to the noise of heavy duty vehicles, pneumatic drills and clanging metal-work which would have dominated the city’s natural soundscape at the time. Its Japanese artwork — a beautifully photographed schlumbergera house plant — conveys the purity of Green’s sound while making its prolonged obscurity all the more incomprehensible. The record’s poise, meanwhile, is a far cry from Yoshimura’s earlier work as part of the Tokyo Fluxus scene and seminal improvisational group, Taj Mahal Travellers, although their preference for performing outdoors would find resonance with the sonic themes of Yoshimura’s later solo work.

People like Chee Shimizu slowly started to rediscover records such as Green from this era. Following a recession in Japan around 10 years ago, Shimizu lost his primary source of income in graphic design work. Heeding the advice of his wife, he decided to set up his own online record shop, Organic Music, digging up records that might help him earn some cash as well as flesh out his own DJ sets. “Nobody was interested when I started to play new age and ambient in my DJ sets at that time, but the situation changed six or seven years ago,” Shimizu writes via email. “Some of my good friends in Europe were also interested in those kinds of music and helped introduce this stuff to the world.” Shimizu says the Amsterdam-based store Red Light Records and the Music From Memory label as being key organizations that helped galvanize interest in these records.

Norio Sato, owner of the Osaka-based record shop Rare Groove, says Music From Memory’s Jamie Tiller hit him up directly before interest spread: “After that, some European DJs and collectors sent me their want list for Japanese new age and ambient music but there were so many records I didn’t know. They told me about some amazing Japanese records.” Dubby, a former colleague of Shimizu’s at Organic Music and now the owner of Ondas record shop, shares a similar story of escalating interest in Japanese ambient music around six or seven years ago.

Spencer Doran was reliant on Japanese natives like Shimizu, Norio and Dubby finding these records and sending them over to the States. The first Yoshimura record he heard was AIR, an album produced for the makeup and skincare company Shiseido. It was sprayed on the record and sealed in a bag, the music designed to capture the essence of one of Shiseido’s fragrances. “It was just a classic dollar bin record for years,” Doran says. “It just blew my mind and there was this guy that no one had ever really heard of, at least no one in the US, so I just told my friend, ‘If you ever see any of this guy’s records just buy them up and trade them to me.’” Within the year Doran was sent Green, Surround and Music For Nine Postcards, records that make up the highpoint of Yoshimura’s ’80s creative output.

Brian Eno’s beatless work from the mid ’70s is an obvious touchstone for Western audiences, but the work of these Japanese artists differs in crucial ways. Yoshimura identified his work as “environmental music”, the Japanese translation of “ambient” but one that framed it in a new context. Where Eno would create ambient music for an imagined environment on Music For Airports, Yoshimura and his contemporaries were creating music for specific, tangible locations.

Yoshimura’s 1986 album, Surround, was borne from the corporate benefice of the Misawa Home corporation, designed to be played in their model homes. His first record, meanwhile — Music For Nine Postcards — was composed as a response to the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art. In the liner notes for the CD, Yoshimura wonders: “How would this album sound if it were played here?” In a tragic twist of fate, the last piece of music he composed was for another institution, the Museum of Modern Art at Kamakura & Hayama, before he died from cancer in 2003. Like Eno, Yoshimura rooted his approach in Erik Satie’s concept of furniture music. Eno would reference the French composer directly on Discreet Music while Satsuki Shibano’s 1983 record, Erik Satie (France 1866-1925), would make the connection explicit in Japan.

Both Shibano’s record as well as Yoshimura’s first album were part of the Wave Notation series released on Sound Process, a label established by Satoshi Ashikawa. Initially set up to put out Music For Nine Postcards, the operation quickly grew into a sound-design consulting firm. In 1982 it released Ashikawa’s own album Still Way a record of chilly, beautiful stillness. Its liner notes, written by Ashikawa himself, read like a manifesto for his and Yoshimura’s vision of environmental music. Drawing on the work of Canadian sound environmentalist Murray Schafer Ashikawa writes: “Background music, which is supposed to create ‘atmosphere’, is far too excessive. In our present condition, we find that within certain areas and spaces, aspects of visual design are well attended to, but sound design is completely ignored. It is necessary to treat sound and music with the same level of daily need as we treat architecture, interior design, food, or the air we breathe.” Sound Process would go on to release a book on the Eno collaborator and pianist Harold Budd, further consolidating the link between the burgeoning Western ambient music and its Japanese counterparts.

While these records were designed for particular spaces, they were also deeply evocative of place, bringing them back into line with Eno’s work. In an Arena documentary profiling the ambient pioneer he remarked, “A piece of music becomes real for me when it seems to become a place, when I can sort of feel what the temperature and light and colors would be.” Green, alive with rich vegetation and heavy moisture, hits on this sense perfectly. Norio says, “These tracks are simple: just clear synthesizers and beautiful melodies, but they convey a magnificent image.” You can see the influence of Eno across other records, too. Inoyama Land’s 1983 record, Danzindan-Pojidon, features similar cartographical cover-art to Music For Airports and The Plateaux Of Mirror, while sharing sonic similarities with Eno’s 1975 album, Another Green World, its weightless synths and gently plucked guitars conjuring an idyllic image.

Many of these Japanese records exude a keen sympathy to the elements, a quality that further sets them apart from their European counterparts. Yoshimura’s Music For Nine Postcards tapped into the potential of air with tracks such as ‘Clouds’. Recorded on a keyboard and Fender Rhodes, Yoshimura weaved gossamer-light melodies amongst a gently shimmering bed of synths. Water is another recurrent theme throughout his work, most notably on the albums PierLoft and Surround. He wasn’t alone in exploring this elementalism throughout his output. Haruomi Hosono released Mercuric Dance in 1985, a record that suffused with metallic timbers. Like Yoshimura, Hosono wasn’t content to meditate on one element: throughout the course of Mercuric Dance, the metal gives way to water before finally becoming enveloped by the wind and air. Composer and percussionist Yas-Kaz released Jomon-Sho in 1985, another album alive with the interplay of the elements albeit with a stronger emphasis on Japanese folklore.

For Allen Wooton, aka Deadboy, it’s Green’s evocation of the natural world that resonates most, despite the fact that Yoshimura used the Yamaha DX7 to produce the album, a synthesizer more commonly recognized for its artificiality. “The DX7 is not a natural sounding instrumental at all, it’s very digital. The way he can make something sound so much like it comes from nature with that instrument is amazing,” he says. “It sounds like someone who’s studied the natural world and has been able to replicate the aesthetic of it somehow.” Wooton, unlike Doran, came across the record around three years ago via Sounds of the Dawn, an influential blog dedicated to spotlighting new age and ambient music. Discovering Green was part of an increasing interest in ambient music, one that would spur Wooton into establishing New Atlantis, a Sunday afternoon event dedicated to calmer music than the club-inflected pieces he produces as Deadboy.

The naturalism that Wooton points to on Green, as well as the elementalism of other records from the era, grew partly as a reaction against the “miracle” real estate bubble of the mid to late ’80s. Rapid development and urbanization occurred across the country although Tokyo, home of the growing financial services, experienced much of the boom. Iconic buildings such as the NEC Super Tower and Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building shot up in the capital. Spiral, another totemic building of the era, was commissioned by Wacoal, a lingerie manufacturer, but was primarily an arts space designed for public use, another instance of the corporate patronage Yoshimura experienced himself. “A big current within Japanese music of that era is that it’s sort of this escape from the city,” says Doran. “Japanese culture has this big connection with the natural world and it’s something that really gets lost in contemporary city life. Tokyo is a city that’s very stressful, claustrophobic and overbearing. There’s this need for a respite from the situation and I think that’s a reason why a lot of this music existed at the time — it was necessary to modern life.”

In Japan, popular environmentalism evolved against the development boom, although the government appeared sympathetic to such concerns. Following an industrial pollution crisis in the 1960s and two oil crises in the 1970s, the Japanese government were forced to confront these issues head-on, albeit with arguable success, establishing the Environmental Agency in 1971. The Nature Conservation Law was then passed in 1972, promoting the wellbeing of Japan’s natural environment. Set against the concrete and mortar of the ’80s, Yoshimura’s Green emerges as a product of unfettered naturalism. It might also be considered the aural equivalent to shinrin-yoku or forest-bathing —  taking short walks in a forest for health benefits — an initiative spawned by government officials at the Forest Agency of Japan in 1982. Green chimes with this, as well as the environmentalism that preceded it, offering something verging on optimism, even utopianism, capable of transcending the dust of contemporary Tokyo.

“It definitely has this very futuristic feeling to it,” says Doran. “It’s almost an idealized version of what that kind of music could be. And it’s just enacted with such precision but grace at the same time.” For Wooton, the album conjures a potent image of an imagined Japan. “It’s very simple, stripped down — there’s nothing unnecessary. It just reminds me of bamboo fields or what I imagine them to look like having never seen one.” This might go some way to explaining why the record is resonating with so many listeners now. Stumble across it on YouTube and you are transported, Green offering a moment of absolute, organic stillness. As urban development continues mostly unchecked and the distance between us and nature widens, Green resonates with a primordial urge, allowing us to envelop ourselves within a pristine wilderness.

There might be a nagging suspicion that western audiences fetishize or exoticize Japanese ambient music. Wooton says Green puts him in “very much a peaceful state,” while Doran says, “It has this undiluted, melodic interplay going on. It’s very pure.” But these views ring true with many from Japan itself. Dubby says that, at least to his ears and understanding, Green channels a specific aspect of Japanese life: “Traditional culture is extremely important to us, particularly the idea of Wabi-Sabi and its idea of beauty.” It’s a concept that focuses on the aesthetics of impermanence and transience. Yoshimura, described by some as “cloudman” — his work floating throughout the environment — might just capture that fleeting beauty. “His music is part of the atmosphere,” Dubby concludes. It might be Norio, though, who puts it best when he says simply, “Green gives me healing, peace and infinite possibilities.”

Lewis Gordon is a freelance writer. Find him on Twitter.

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