Book review: Japan’s anti-nuclear protest music after Fukushima

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, by Noriko Manabe, provides plenty of interesting information and insight into Japanese culture and protest songs in general

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 April, 2016, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 May, 2016, 10:57am

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

by Noriko Manabe

Oxford University press

3.5/5 stars

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, by Princeton University professor Noriko Manabe, is a detailed study of protest music in Japan’s anti-nuclear movement. Manabe’s goal is not to explain the growth of these songs in the movement, but rather to use the Japanese case to examine how protest music is performed and how different performance venues – music festivals, protests and cyberspace – can affect how music is interpreted. Thus, Revolution should be read by those interested in deep analysis of protest music on its own terms, rather than those interested in the anti-nuclear movement in general.

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Notwithstanding its more academic focus, Revolution does discuss some of the constraints faced by Japanese musicians. Manabe writes that, despite having “the second-largest music market in the world, with an extensive underground music scene representing a dazzling array of genres”, explicitly political musicians are rare. When Japanese musicians have made overtly political statements, they have often suffered an intense public backlash. The music industry also encourages self-censorship. Japanese record companies are concerned that if songs explicitly mention individual people, they may be liable under libel and slander laws. It is not for nothing that the Recording Industry Association of Japan has an internal board that evaluates whether songs are fit for distribution: the “Recording Industry Ethics Regulatory Commission”, or Recorin.

One likely difference between Japan and other music markets is its relative homogeneity. Japan may be the second-largest music market globally, but it lacks the numerous and varied niches that define, say, the American music market. The United States’ diversity also means that there are few political statements that Americans would universally reject; the same likely cannot be said for Japan’s population.

Manabe also hints that the relationship between the artist and the record company in Japan is tilted towards the studio: Japanese studios seem to have far more power over their artists than in other markets. Western pop artists, even ones that were discovered and developed by record companies, have more ability to “go solo” and create an individual musical identity than their Japanese counterparts.

There is something noticeable about some of the successful protest songs in Revolution: they directly riff off earlier songs. One musician replaces the words to one of his most well-known songs with anti-nuclear lyrics, while another musician uses the “E-I-E-I-O” melody from Old MacDonald Had a Farm as part of the chorus to encourage crowds to sing along.

This is not to denigrate the creativity, work and passion that goes into these songs, but rather to note that they seem like immediate reactions to a specific event. This means that they may resonate little with those that are not aware of or nor particularly invested in a particular movement. Also, the fact that these songs may work well when played to a live audience may limit their appeal – as Manabe notes, only the most devoted tend to attend music festivals.

Songs that protest specific events are written all the time, but the vast majority are not played on a mass scale, nor are they revived decades after composition. The most famous songs are rarely about any explicit protest movement. From Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come to Kendrick Lamar’s Alright, the lack of specific references means that songs can appeal across different groups and movements. The same has been true in Japan. Manabe writes how one major anti-nuclear protest was led by a woman singing a cappella – except the song was a 1915 Japanese educational song praising the countryside.

Most of the famous examples of protest music in the West were written in response to broadly galvanising events that presented an existential crisis to part of a population: the Vietnam war, the Civil Rights Movement, Latin American dictatorships, Thatcherism and, more recently, the Black Lives Matter movement. The song from which Revolution draws its title, a 1971 release by Gil Scott-Heron, was itself recorded at a difficult time in America’s history: during the Vietnam war, with the continuing poor prospects for African-Americans, economic stagnation and street unrest.

It is hard to think of a similarly bleak period in the past 50 years or so of Japan’s history, like the sharp shock of the Vietnam war or the extended period of serious self-evaluation and internal division of Thatcherism. Japan’s more homogeneous society has fewer significant social groups who could have a widely different experience from the mainstream. The Fukushima nuclear disaster revealed serious problems in Japanese governance, but its costs may be too distant to have sparked widespread sentiment. A Western parallel might be the Iraq war: something that many perceive as a costly mistake, but whose remote and distant costs discourage an active mass movement from growing and hence little in the way of durable protest music.

It may be that Japan’s lack of mass protest music, or mass protest movements in general, is due to its good fortune in never having a reason to develop one in the first place.

Asian Review of Books