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Japan's Jazz Coffeeshops

Japan's Jazz Coffeeshops

Michael Molasky of the University of Minnesota discusses the surprising communities fostered by jazz coffeeshops in 20th-century Japan.

Lorena Olvera Email LorenaOlvera

The association of jazz with oppressed African Americans "allowed for an identification with American culture that ideologically [the Japanese] would have otherwise had a hard time pursuing."

Michael Molasky, jazz pianist and history professor at the University of Minnesota, spent a year traveling up and down the islands of Japan seeking out the proprietors of jazz coffeeshops. He recounted his discoveries to a UCLA audience at a colloquium sponsored by the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center on Oct. 27, 2008.

Japan's first jazz coffeeshop appeared in 1929 when the Blackbird opened across the street from Tokyo University and played "jazz"- which in Japan applied to many genres of western music- for its customers. These ongaku kissa, or music cafes, were designed to introduce Japanese customers to foreign music and continued to play a range of music until the late 1950s, when perceptions of jazz changed. 

It was then that an influx of French nouveau films, which used modern jazz as a soundtrack, set the genre apart from popular music. The "modern" jazz coffeeshop appeared, attracting an intellectual crowd that was more underground than mainstream. In 1961, American jazz drummer Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers toured Japan with their album The Freedom Rider. Molasky said it was the first time many Japanese had seen an African American and "after seven years of occupation and massive influx of American culture, in the Japanese imagination, the face of jazz turns black." Intellectuals in Japan followed the American Civil Rights Movement that began in the 1950s. The association of jazz with oppressed African Americans "allowed for an identification with American culture that ideologically [the Japanese] would have otherwise had a hard time pursuing." 

The number of jazz coffeeshops reached approximately 500 by 1976. Cities like Tokyo and Kyoto became hubs where jazz was tied to the political and artistic happenings of the time. The music was a source of inspiration for students, activists, artists and writers such as Nobel prize winner Oe Kensaburo. Writer Haruki Murakami ran the jazz coffeeshop "Peter Cat" in Tokyo before penning his popular novels. Those involved with the Japanese Student Movement of the 1960s would leave their IDs at cafes for safe keeping before protesting.

While Molasky admits that some coffeeshops were more trendy than political, he focuses on what he calls the hard core: shops owning large record collections of more than 500 LPs that would play records back to back without comment from the time the shop opened until closing. Customers were primarily men who showed up alone, sat with their heads bowed and their eyes closed and heeded no-talking rules while they listened. Some shops were located in seedy neighborhoods and were viewed as dirty and dangerous. Molasky examines what sort of community was formed when these single men quietly came together.   

"There is a difference between the political heroic gestures linked to jazz and the high degree of conformity imposed on the listening behavior of its customers," said Molasky.

The jazz coffee shop's popularity was partly due to the lack of high-quality performances available at the time. No libraries were offering music, no radio stations were broadcasting jazz, and few people could afford imported records or audio systems. The next best thing was to venture into a coffeeshop, despite the proprietor's strict rules, to hear the music.

During Molasky's interviews one proprietor joked that jazz cafes were the start of  'otaku' culture. The otaku, or geek, is typically a male who pursues an interest such as video games, anime, or computers with singular devotion. Before any of these hobbies became available, Molasky hints, the first otaku pursued jazz. Hard-core coffeeshops prized audio fidelity to the extent that no-talking rules were created and at least one proprietor began assembling his own audio systems.

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