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Cuts Like a Knife: Zen, Ginsus, and Japanese Rock 'n Roll in America

The adoption of punk by the culture industry has made Americans look to other countries for new forms of rock'n'roll to help reconstruct a now meaningless and spent counter-cultural tradition.
Joel Schalit

Issue #13, April 1994

'Domo Arigato Mister Roboto'
— Styx, 1980

A Brief Recent History

The adoption of punk by the culture industry has made Americans look to other countries for new forms of rock'n'roll to help reconstruct a now meaningless and spent counter-cultural tradition. Nirvana dispelled a lot of illusions about the political autonomy of punk by pointing out that the distinction between major and independent labels was a symptom of the increased alienation of the record buying public after eleven years of Republican hyper-capitalism.

The independent versus major label dichotomy, demystified, was shown to conceal behind itself the fetishization of record-buying, a new form of ideology used to compensate for the fact that one has little or no choices at all when it comes to buying things. What is the point of acquiring a Jawbreaker album from an independent label when you can get a much more exciting Sonic Youth reissue from David Geffen?

Independent labels promote an ideology which professes that they provide more aesthetic freedom and room for experimentation than major labels do. When indies put out music that is aesthetically and politically equivalent to music issued by major labels, distinctions between majors and indies become irrelevant, and the issue of freedom of choice becomes a type of false consciousness for independent record buyers in the same way that it always has been for major label consumers.

Unconsciously demonstrating awareness of this problem, the American punk community started looking to Japan for new sources of inspiration. Even though K records released a Shonen Knife LP as early as 1982, no one except Pusmort and RRR Records paid attention to Japanese punk until Shimmy Disc put out the first Boredoms and Ruins LPs, and the Boredoms' Yamatsuka Eye appeared as the singer on John Zorn's second Torture Gardenalbum in 1990. Since then specialty labels like Public Bath and Charnel House have sprung up that put out Japanese punk almost exclusively.

Several already established independent labels have jumped on the bandwagon as well. Alternative Tentacles recently issued a Zeni Geva album, Desire For Agony, and Subterranean Records has been busy distributing CDs by groups like Hijokaidan, Dissecting Table, and Angels In Heavy Syrup. Last summer The Boredoms issued their second American release on Reprise, Pop Tatari, and guitar wiz Keiji Haino had his first domestic vinyl issued after nearly fifteen years of performing and recording in Japan.

This display of affection for Japanese culture is not without precedent. Americans have been particularly diligent in selectively appropriating it since the end of the Second World War. After interning persons of Japanese descent in concentration camps, dropping nuclear bombs on their cities, and playing an active role in creating their post-war political institutions, the Beat generation imported Zen during the fifties, Ronco force fed us woks and Ginsu knives in the sixties and seventies, young Republicans popularized Sushi during the eighties, and singles bars forced us to listen to sexually frustrated, stupid people singing along to Karaoke machines in the nineties.

The difference between the recent importation of Japanese punk, and the post-war appropriation of Japanese culture is primarily an economic one. When Gary Snyder brought home Dogen's Mountains and Rivers Sutra after living in a Buddhist monastery, he was symbolically returning with the ideological loot of a vanquished and conquered foe. John Zorn and Sonic Youth recording albums with Yamatsuka Eye takes place in a context where Japanese capitalism has achieved a similar form of colonial hegemony in our own country, albeit without the use of concentration camps, nuclear weapons, or legal experts re-writing our Constitution.

Even though this is not entirely obvious to the casual political observer, one can look at recent rumblings about a trade war with Japan by the Clinton administration as being indicative of a politically conservative response to this hegemony. Japanese businesses exert a profound influence on everyday American life, providing us with many of our electrical appliances such as stereos, televisions, computers and fax machines to the cars we drive to work in, and the factories and corporations that employ us. Perhaps the underlying reason why we have chosen to appropriate punk as opposed to other less threatening aspects of Japanese culture is because of the critique of capitalism that it embodies, however nebulous and abstract that critique may be.

Another equally plausible way of explaining the increasing popularity of Japanese punk is to look at how culture arises out of economic structures. Once established, new modes and relations of production give rise to new forms of cultural expression in order to legitimate themselves as dominant. Unlike their conservative counterparts in Congress, American musicians and music critics may have found a way to respond to the inevitable experience of Japanese culture by looking to its political rock music as a means by which to both understand and criticize it.

Even in its most unsophisticated and thoughtless moments, Japanese punk embodies a sharp critique of consumer culture that is lacking in most English-language pop music. Shonen Knife's campy melodies and cheap plastic outfits are reminiscent of Freedom of Choice-era Devo in its faux-simplicity. Shonen Knife's music emphasizes the most banal and stupid aspects of Western pop music, while at the same time pointing out how its primary purpose is to divert attention from everyday life through remythologizing heterosexual expressions of love for people, children and threatened species such as bison.

Zeni Geva's aping of big, ugly, American punk brings out the threatening aspects of metal and grunge espoused, but never fully articulated by The Melvins and early Swans. When KK Null hollers at you on 'Dead Sun Rising,' you get the impression that popular music can have a disciplinary function in a way that an American group could never communicate. The sheer brutality of Zeni Geva's work externalizes the way in which adherence to social norms is similarly promulgated by American punk, because their manner of presentation, akin to Norman Schwarzkopf issuing orders to his officers during the Gulf War, illustrates how the new American punk is designed to enforce adherence to convention, through simulating in an exaggerated manner how one hears the dictation of commands at home, in the work place and in the concert hall.


It is very difficult to qualify Japanese punk as a coherent tradition when it is not one. On the one hand there are groups like Shonen Knife, The 5678s, Supersnazz, Gauze and The Stalin, who specialize in appropriating American underground music such as nouveau sixties pop, surf punk, garage and political hardcore. On the other hand there are groups like Hijokaidan, Merzbow, Hanatarash, The Incapacitants and CCCC which specialize in completely dissonant, earth shattering noise and fury, with almost no regard for pleasing melodies, traditional rock'n'roll song structures or petite-bourgeois sentiment. Frequently grouped under the heading 'Japanoise,' these unhappy groups are exerting the greatest influence upon post-Nirvana American political music culture.

The primary characteristic of Japanese noise is it's overpowering anger, expressed in noisy arrangements that rely heavily on multiple guitars, creating compositions entirely out of feedback. Oftentimes, as in the case of Hijokaidan's Zouroku No Kibyo (Alchemy, 1982) and Hanatarash's third LP (RRR, 1992) guitars, drums, and occasionally horrifying screams express misery and alienation in a manner unparalleled in European and American rock'n'roll. On 'Noise God Noise,' Hanatarash raise the guitar racket to a melancholy, terrifyingly loud representation of what it must sound like for a hairdryer to be in mourning.

No other record best represents the confrontational aspect of this genre better than The Incapacitants' Feedback of NMS (Alchemy, 1993). Consisting of only three tracks of feedback run through a sea of distortion, the CD risks burning a hole in your speakers even at the lowest volume. The danger one risks in turning it up any louder is that the noise will not only destroy your stereo, but it will also kill you and inflict permanent hearing damage upon anything within a mile of it.

When juxtaposed with the black and white cover photo of Japanese troops loading a howitzer during World War Two, cartoon drawings of people made up of sperm in the insert, and a photograph of Hiroshima after the bomb on the inner sleeve, The Incapacitants' intention is clear: They want to recast music as a form of ideology criticism by focusing on its ability to raise consciousness to the point where it is possible to experience pain again after one has already learned to ignore it.

That is why the political meaning of noise is made possible through grounding it within a specific socio-historical context which the Incapacitants clearly provide for us. Otherwise their work would be utterly meaningless, except insofar as one could distinguish it from easy listening music. Teaching about warfare, genocide and reproduction using noise is a good place to begin making such distinctions.

Joel Schalit recently received his MA in philosophy after studying too much Adorno. He is currently worrying about the religious inclinations of the New French Right, and is a member of the Christian radio talk show crank call & devotional muzak group The Christal Methodists, formerly the National Hardwood Floors Association. For tapes, posters & hymnals write Goy Division, Bay Area Women's Church Auxiliary, 2144 B California St., Berkeley CA 94703.

Copyright © 1994 by Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.