Is “Japanoise” a Real Genre?

If you’re interested in harsh noise at all, there’s a pretty good chance the first artist you heard was Japanese. Mine was. Merzbow, the act easily most synonymous the with genre, is Japanese. Other seminal figures like Hijokaidan, Incapacitants, and Masonna all hail from the country.

Masami Akita performing as Merzbow
(via Creative Commons

Japanese artists also tend to generate the most buzz in the scene even outside of the musical aspects.

Acts like The Gerogerigegege routinely incorporated onstage masturbation into their performances during the late 1980s and 90ss. And of course, no mention of Japanese noise performances would be complete without at least a passing mention of Hanatarash. The outfit’s infamous live shows involved the use of dead cats, machetes, Molotov cocktails, and even a backhoe bulldozer.

Hanatarash performing August 4, 1985
(via Gin Satoh)

Along with countless others, these artists are often grouped together as “Japanoise.” But besides originating from the same archipelago, they really don’t have much in common.

The genre did not develop in Japan, so the categorization of “Japanoise” does not serve as an archival nomenclature. Sure, some seeds of styles related to harsh noise were planted in Japan during the early 1960s well before Lou Reed’s infamous 1975 “Metal Machine Music” was released, but harsh noise was essentially first proposed in 1913 with Luigi Russolo’s  manifesto, “The Art of Noises”.

Luigi Russolo, ca. 1916
(via public domain)

Noise is generally a pretty self-contained genre. Because it’s based heavily in breaking conventions, there has never been a standard method of producing the music. The lack of formal customs certainly doesn’t make the case for the existence of “Japanoise” as a genre.

The only way to clearly determine the national origin of a noise album from listening is if it has discernable vocals. It’s often the case that a Japanese artist could release something that sounds far more like that of a Canadian or American noise artist than a fellow Japanese act simply due to the myriad ways harsh noise can be produced.

In “Japanoise” there is no consistency with a preference for digital or analog equipment, the use or lack of vocals, drums, instruments, or really anything else.

Quite a few supposed “Japanoise” artists have voiced their discontent over the term being used as a way to lump together so many acts who are doing wildly different things merely because they come from the same country. Toshiji Mikawa of Hijokaidan has expressed particular distate, stating in an interview that he doesn’t not even know most of the artists in the so-called genre, or how they create their noise.

Hijokaidan performing in 2005
(via Bryony McIntyre)

If “Japanoise” does exist in any capacity, it’s as a movement and not a genre. As previously stated, noise has roots in America and western Europe far more than Japan. It was in Japan, however, where noise really took off.

It’s easy to look at noise before the 1980s as more of a series of isolated incidents than a genre. Russolo’s first performances in the 1910s were met with disapprobation. In the 1940s, 50s, and 60s noise artists like Antonin Artuad and John Cage certainly garnered some recognition, but they were generally confined to underground experimental music scenes.

Since the late 1970s, “Japanoise” exploded. The sheer amount of Japanese releases in the noise style from the 1970s to the 90s, as varied as they were, is what catapulted the genre into a relative mainstream.

Maybe it’s just chance that a few of these thousands of talented noise artists would garner international fame, but the impact of Japanese artists on music should not be ignored.

The heavy rock bands of the 1960s certainly paved the way for louder and more visceral groups to develop, but the truly envelope-pushing ones payed attention to harsh noise.

Even beyond direct collaborations with jazz and metal artists, Japanese harsh noise have influenced and lead to the creation of entire genres. From glitch pop to dark ambient to noise rock, Japan’s impact on all things noisy is paramount.

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