Exploring Japan’s ‘jazz kissa’ cafe culture: Tokyo Jazz Joints documents these vibrant vinyl listening spaces – trending worldwide – in a photo project, podcast and new coffee table book
When was the last time you listened to music? We don’t mean piping lo-fi “focus beats” through your Bluetooth speaker, or jabbing at those misbehaving earbuds while swiping between windows on your morning commute – but really, actively listening?
In response to the digital commodification of music, there’s a growing global trend of dedicated communal events and listening spaces, fuelled in part by the hipster-driven vinyl revival. But there’s truly nothing novel about gathering for reverent absorption of a spinning black disc. This fresh breed of audio fetishism is often directly – and always indirectly – inspired by Japanese jazz kissa culture, a rich tradition of audio nerdery with a 100-year history. Today there are still several hundred dedicated jazz cafes in Japan and they’re attracting growing buzz and kudos, notably in the new Tokyo Jazz Joints coffee table book documenting the dying subculture.
So what’s it all about, and why are jazz kissa back in the spotlight?
What is a jazz kissa, anyway?
One thing a jazz kissa is not is a live music bar or club – it’s all about listening to records. Or occasionally CDs. “Kissa” is an abbreviation of the Japanese word kissaten, which literally translates to “tea drinking shop” but is used as vernacular shorthand for coffee shop.
Jazz kissa have existed in Japan since at least the 1920s, but rose to ubiquity amid the post-war embrace of Western culture, until around the 1960s and 70s as jazz reached its own commercial peak and sudden decline. In this era, American jazz was a sign of sophistication, but records were expensive and apartment walls were thin. A jazz kissa was somewhere an enthusiast could sit and listen to the latest Thelonious Monk or John Coltrane LP at a conversation-killing volume on a top-notch stereo they might never afford – all for the price of a cup of coffee.
“Jazz kissa grew out of economic necessity, where you could pay a relatively small amount of money to listen to the latest jazz on a decent sound system,” says Philip Arneill, the photographer behind Tokyo Jazz Joints.
Arneill has shot nearly 200 such venues up and down the country, and distils their essence to six core, recurring tenets: jazz kissa are almost always small, moodily lit and quiet; and they boast great audio equipment, a big music collection, most often on vinyl – and a proud owner eager to enjoy it. Some take requests, sporting a lengthy, often handwritten “menu” diligently cataloguing the hundreds of records visitors can ask to hear. In others, you might be lucky to distract the owner from their own jazz appreciation for long enough to score a drink. “There are some places where you feel like customers are seen as a bit on an inconvenience,” laughs Arneill. So much for Japanese service culture, then.
Serving coffee, alcohol and sometimes snacks, jazz kissa typically open around noon and close late, but today more nocturnal establishments are frequently grouped under the loose term. But the main thing that defines a kissa is a sense – projected by the packed walls of memorabilia and studious clientele alike – of it all being about the music. “You walk in and you just know … a jazz kissa just has that vibe – it’s intimidating and welcoming at the same time,” adds Arneill. “It’s an amazing place to sit and focus and just listen to the music – and the music is normally too loud to talk even if you wanted to.”
Exploring Tokyo Jazz Joints
The Tokyo Jazz Joints project began in early 2015 when, as Arneill, a now-49-year-old from Northern Ireland, was sitting in Hello Dolly, a poky jazz kissa in Kyoto, and realised he had found his next documentary photography project. So he called up James Catchpole, the American expat behind the Tokyo Jazz Site listings portal. The pair were “not even remotely tight” at the time. But Catchpole was at the opening of Arneill’s exhibition on Tokyo’s UK jazz dance scene, and clearly knew his stuff.
Beginning his own explorations long before, Catchpole claims to have visited 272 kissas and counting. “What started as a bit of fun very quickly became an obsession,” he writes in the book’s introduction essay. “Some people wander the country to see Buddhist temples, some to eat regional ramen, some to hike Japan’s endless mountains. I visit jazz joints.”
The fateful blind date almost didn’t happen. The first joint on their hit list – a legendary out-the-way spot in southeastern Tokyo called Chokuritsu Enjin, or Pithecanthropus Erectus, after a Charles Mingus album – was closed on arrival. However, the unlikely unfamiliar pair, two Western expats with a shared passion for improvising on the edge, chose to hang around and wait. And a project – and bromance – was born. “[Pithecanthropus Erectus] didn’t disappoint,” says Arneill’s own introduction. “It had all the features we’d experience again and again over the months and years ahead: an impossibly narrow staircase, a cramped space yellowed from years of cigarette smoke, unimaginable memorabilia, a treasure trove of vinyl, priceless high-end audio equipment, and kind and generous owners.”
An Irishman and an American walk into a (jazz) bar …
Starting with Tokyo and eventually branching out west to Osaka and Kyoto, north to Sapporo and even south to Okinawa, the pair would go on to visit 168 jazz joints in the two and a half years that passed before Arneill left the country, his home of two decades, in 2017. Despite his departure, the project has continued – with not just the book, but also the launch of a lockdown-inspired podcast in 2020 that now numbers more than 50 episodes and 110,000 listeners – a huge amount for a show dedicated to a niche subculture (jazz kissa) of a single nation (Japan) centred on a relatively under-loved musical genre.
“Sometimes you get somewhere after travelling for hours and it’s the most amazing thing ever … and sometimes you find a locked door,” says Arneill, an avowed Coltrane head. “It’s just the love of the places. Part of it is the discovery, this idea that you travel for hours and you arrive exhausted and you go down into these places … and the music washes it all away.”
At times they took inspiration from the map compiled by Katsumasa Kusunose’s own Jazz Kissa project, which has since spawned three photo books shot between 2014 and 2019, and released in 2021 and 2022.
“We’ve been asked so many times why we do this project. Why we spend mountains of cash and oodles of time searching out ever more distant and obscure little jazz spots – the kinds of places where the owners do triple takes as two dishevelled foreigners walk in, explaining that they’ve spent several hours in transit just to visit their special piece of the jazz fan’s world,” writes Catchpole in the book’s intro.
“Japanese jazz joints are so full of love: love of music, audio systems, record collecting, alcohol, social gathering, shared interests and humanity … This is why we’ve spent eight-plus years on this project, to show a side of Japan that too few people know about, a subculture that can astonish and thrill even the most cynical jazz heads around the world,” he says.
Open ears: establishing a global listening room community
Prominent music critic Ted Gioia recently asked his 83,000-plus followers on X (formerly Twitter) for examples of jazz kissa-inspired spaces “not in Japan”. He was quickly inundated with dozens of recommendations from a multitude of locations. “I now know that, if you look hard enough, you can find a jazz kissa almost anywhere in the world,” he wrote in a recent essay.
And this movement is clearly grounded on a growing interest in, understanding and replication of the jazz kissa culture. Now based in Belfast and studying for a photography PhD, Arneill is promoting the project – and jazz kissa culture in general – internationally through exhibitions, in-person listening sessions and articles, including a three-part photo essay in Finland’s We Jazz magazine.
“There is a lot of evidence of a dramatically increased interest in jazz kissa culture around the world. It’s manifesting in various ways and to different degrees,” he says, pointing to known vinyl and listening bars in Sydney, Oakland, London, Mexico City and Buenos Aires. The “most Japanese” example he’s found to date is Berlin’s Rhinoçéros. “It’s a beautiful space and was directly designed with jazz kissa in mind. At the time, Bénédict, the owner, had not actually been to Japan; they discovered the project online and used the Tokyo Jazz Joints photographs as inspiration. We’ve since become friends, and I actually exhibited some images from the project there back in 2019,” he adds.
Keeping Japanese jazz kissa culture alive
Paradoxically, this wave of international homage is doing little to halt the domestic decline of the jazz kissa. Changing tastes, the ready availability of music online and an ageing clientele are all easy to blame for the speed at which jazz kissa are disappearing – Arneill estimates up to 30 of the joints he’s documented so far have shuttered. “A lot of the ones we’ve been to have gone,” he adds. “The owners are getting older and so are the customers. There’s not a lot of money in these places so when they finish up that will be it.”
This naturally lends the work a new urgency – earlier this year he returned to Japan for the first time since the pandemic to shoot another 34 venues, and is already plotting another trip early in 2024.
“It’s important to capture these kinds of things for posterity,” adds Arneill. “There are places you might have photographed and then a week later find out they’ve closed. You have to move quickly.”
As well as the sheer joy and novelty that jazz kissa offer, Arneill is worried about the future of the joints’ epic, irreplaceable collections, and the memories of the owners themselves, many of whom have personal anecdotes about friendships forged with visiting American greats like Count Basie, Sonny Rollins and Elvin Jones.
“When you dig into it you realise how important jazz was in Japan – you can go to the remotest town in the middle of nowhere, and there will always be a jazz kissa,” he adds. “I wonder about the wealth of jazz history and memorabilia – where will it all go? There’s no museum of jazz in Japan. Japan is a country that values the new and the modern. There doesn’t seem to be that sense of heritage at times.
“The jazz kissa idea represents a very unique relationship between Japan and the US – a moment in history when African-Americans are coming on tour to Japan and being treated like gods, and going home to sleep in segregated hotels and ride different buses.”
- Jazz kissa rose to prominence in the 1960s and 70s in Japan, as music aficionados flocked to listen to the latest Thelonious Monk or John Coltrane in a comfortable setting
- Now listening bars are popping up in Sydney, Oakland, London, Mexico City and Buenos Aires, but they’re closing in Japan just as quickly – and Tokyo Jazz Joints’ author hopes to keep the culture alive