Notes on ‘Real Scenes: Tokyo’

Resident Advisor has just published its ‘Real Scenes’ documentary on Tokyo. It is impossible to tell a full story in such a short space of time and overall I think they did a good job with it. I was glad they dealt with the difficult challenge of Japan’s ageing population, and they focused on the inspirational work of Ukawa-san with Dommune. I know everyone involved in the project put a lot of effort into it, and I commend them for their good work.

Saying all of that, I do think too much emphasis was placed on the “no dancing” laws. I can understand why they did this – it is a good hook for the film, and it is an issue that has sparked interest internationally. As a result, however, the impression the movie provides is that these laws are having a much greater impact on the Tokyo scene than has actually been the case to date. I explained my perspective on the laws and the way they have been covered during my interview, but unfortunately none of this made it into the documentary, presumably because it didn’t match with their narrative. So I wanted to provide it here:

I go out to clubs in Tokyo on a very regular basis. I have never been at an event that was shut down by police. I have heard about it happening a few times, but it is not yet common in Tokyo, and often it seems like there were reasons for it happening (a party openly promoting / linking itself to drug use, another club had been subject to noise complaints, in other cases connected to criminal violence). But for those of us into techno , it is certainly not at the forefront of our minds when we go out or organize events. It has been a real issue in Osaka, but it is yet to translate into problems for Tokyo. This may change in the future, and anything that can be done to overturn the law is certainly worth supporting and pursuing. But I simply do not think it is the massive issue that it is often presented to be, and it problematic to overplay how significant it is.

Ultimately the biggest challenges Tokyo faces are much more mundane and similar to those elsewhere: finding a way to build a healthy, interesting scene without selling out or losing shitloads of money. This doesn’t make for the best hook for a documentary, but it is much closer to the truth.

Most of my interview didn’t make it into the final cut because much of what I said didn’t fit in with the way the documentary was constructed. That’s fine, I am not sure I gave a very good interview anyway! But I do think some of the issues I raised were important and might be of interest, so I am sharing them here. Below are some notes and answers I gave to some questions I was asked during the pre-production stage of the documentary, which I later revised slightly.

Thanks to RA, especially their Japan team, for inviting me to contribute. It was interesting, and also a good chance to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the Tokyo scene.

What are your views on the electronic music scene in Tokyo?

  • The scene is struggling much more than people realise. Outside artists tend to have a very Orientalised / superficial view of the scene here – they come here for a few days, get treated well, eat sushi, live out their Blade Runner fantasies and decide this place is amazing without really knowing shit about how things really operate
  • One of the biggest problems is that the economics don’t work (more below)
  • Another major issue is connecting in with developments in scenes elsewhere. Major lag in sounds and artists hitting in Japan. Musically it can be pretty conservative
  • There are some disconnects – the experimental scene *very* removed from techno / house / club scene, you don’t have that ‘in between’ zone you have in Europe, the kind of sound Boomkat pushes, and you see at festivals like Unsound, CTM etc.
  • But despite the difficulties it faces, the Tokyo scene still has some real strengths:
    • you can have amazingly open, trusting crowds
    • standard of clubs are pretty good
    • artists love to play here, they generally bring their A game
    • there are some really excellent people involved in the scene here
    • there are some good younger promoters who are committed to keeping the scene alive and are trying to build something interesting

What are the challenges?

  • The economics don’t work
    • Misperception by artists and agents overseas that there is still lots of money in Japan. This is not the case. It is not even possible to pay the same fees as Europe, let alone the crazy money people would get in the 90s
    • Airfares are expensive, club rental is *very* expensive, yen is getting weak, all this means a comparatively high door price (around $30-40).
    • And then you sometimes have Japanese bookers intervening and taking a cut on top of the standard booking agent fee, which only adds to the costs of putting on a party
    • Plus wages are low in Japan, which means it is hard for people to afford to go out. And hard for smaller promoters to get the money to risk putting on parties
    • One consequence of all of this is a reliance on the discount list system, where people can get on a cheaper list if they know one of the DJs. So DJs get booked not on whether they are the best choice, but if they’ll bring a big discount list or not. This also means side rooms (and often main rooms) have their timetables packed with DJs in order to increase the amount of people that might come. And this all impacts on the quality of the event, because choices are not based on what makes most sense in terms of the party itself
  • Japan is getting old… Less young people and the older generation of clubbers are not being replaced. This raises difficult questions about the longer term viability of the scene (I was happy to see that this issue is covered in the documentary)
  • The ‘no dancing’ laws are an issue BUT it is not as big as foreign media likes to report. It is more complicated than it is often portrayed to be. It has had a big impact on Osaka but hasn’t directly affected Tokyo much.

What is good about Tokyo?

  • There are some excellent clubs – Unit and Liquid Room the best big spaces, there are also some really nice smaller bars
  • Dommune is a very unique and special place
    • Ukawa pushing things in a big way
    • Dommune is definitely my favourite club in Tokyo
  • There are still some good record shops and people still buy music
  • There is a good gender balance at most parties and clubs are a very safe non-threatening environment
  • There are still possibilities to try some different things –> like with our Sound Garden chill out parties
  • When the stars and moon align and everything falls into place, a party here can be better than anything I have experienced anywhere else in the world. Most of my best experiences with techno have been in Tokyo or Japan

Ultimately the techno scene here is a microcosm of Japan as a whole, for good and bad. And Japan is in decline – the population is shrinking and aging, it is moving into a post-growth society. The techno scene will likely keep on shrinking. It’s glory days are behind it. There is not much you can do to change any of that. And so the big challenge is: how can we hold on to what is unique and valuable about parties here? There are some very special elements to the scene here, and internationally Tokyo plays an important role. It is one of the key cities that is part of techno’s psyche – Detroit, Berlin, New York, London, Tokyo – these cities really matter for techno as a whole.  So we just have to keep pushing, keep trying things, and we can’t keep on doing the same old shit, and do our best to preserve and develop what makes Tokyo a special place to experience electronic music.

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5 comments
  1. Jerome said:

    Great comment, thanks

  2. Jia Wang said:

    Hey Jerome, I’m from the Island of Guam, a U.S. territory out in the Pacific-Asia region which is a major tourist destination for Japanese people as well as other Asian Countries. This particular documentary really intrigued me and I think my team may have come up with a solution to some of their political as well as humanitarian issues utilizing the tropical island as their get-away and perhaps add an extra show for flight share etc. If you like to discuss more on this issue and the potential of Guam pls email me. Great insight to this seriously, good work!

  3. Eden said:

    Hello, My name is Eden and I am from Sydney, Australia. I love music and collecting vinyl and was wondering if anyone could give me advice on what to do in Tokyo? I am there form june 30 until july 13 🙂

  4. j said:

    i know this is pretty late but thanks for providing this. i watched RA’s coverage on tokyo before and after visiting japan recently and while i didnt delve too deep into the scene there, i really didnt sense what RA was pushing in their video. though it does make for a more compelling story, it seems pretty easy to enjoy the club scene without too much police interference.

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