By Greg Beck (Hiroshima–ken, 2006-11) for JQ magazine. Greg is a writer, producer, home brewer, and Social Coordinator for JETAA Southern California and Arizona. A former news producer for Tokyo Broadcasting System in New York, he currently works freelance in Los Angeles. For more cinema reviews, follow him on Twitter at @CIRBECK #MovieReview.
Regardless of your placement on JET, music is a constant part of the experience. Whether it is karaoke parties with friends, music festivals like Fuji Rock, “live house” local performances, or simply singing Beatles and Carpenters with your students (over and over), all of us take something musical with us from our time on JET. But what about musicians who join JET? JQ reached out to two alumni from small islands off the coast of Kyushu, who have gone on to release their own albums, and hear from them how these unique records reflect that experience.
Eli Cohen (Kagoshima-ken, 2009-2010) runs the International Admissions department at one of the City University of New York’s institutions. He is also a DJ who started a record label, Alliance Upholstery. His new album, Tokyo Nights: Female J-Pop Boogie Funk —1981 to 1988, is a collection of music that fits into this genre.
If that sounds obscure, we thought so, too. Cohen explains: “In high school I was really into Japanese punk (Teengenerate, Guitar Wolf). This is where my interest in Japan started. As I grew older, I became very interested in Japanese music from the ’80s, as well as fashion and art from the era. Japanese people refer to this style as ‘City Pop.’ Outside of Japan, the term is a little vague and people often call this Japanese Boogie. The sound reflects the attitude and excitement of the bubble, bright and full of optimism,” adding that his favorite artist is Toshiki Kadomatsu.
Many JETs can probably relate to Cohen’s experience as a JET placed on a rural, island, both in the difficulties adjusting, and the unexpected opportunities. Having spent several years before JET living in Osaka and Tokyo, Cohen was placed in Minamitane, below the southernmost tip of Kyushu, which he describes as “a tiny town of about 8,000 people on the island of Tanegashima.” Before that, he says, “I had felt very little culture shock when I first moved to Japan as I had only lived in major cities. Tanegashima was my first taste of inaka life and a very unique and challenging experience.” While he admits, “The students were great but I prefer city life and was eager to return to Tokyo,” he also shared the following: “JAXA, the Japanese space program, is based in Minamitane. There was a bar in town appropriately titled Moon Bar. I would DJ there on occasion and tried to incorporate space themes into the sets.”
“Living in Japan exposes you to music you would not have heard otherwise,” he continues. “I owe most of my knowledge to availability of 100 yen records all over the country and the friendly record store employees that were eager to teach me about Japanese music.” Cohen hopes to share his passion for the music he discovered, to “draw attention to a somewhat forgotten sound that few people outside of Japan have ever heard.” His favorite track from this compilation is “Mystical Composer” by Kikuchi Momoko, which he says “uses some of my favorite sounds and instruments of the time. It can work really well on the dancefloor while creating both vibrant and melancholy emotions.”
Returning from JET this summer, Luke Fisher (Nagasaki-ken, 2016-17) is a musician and museum exhibit designer for a science center in Seattle. Fisher learned about the JET Programme at the tender age of 12—from his local video store clerk! “At that point,” he says, “I could barely believe that people could actually go to Japan, let alone live and work there. From that point on I always thought, ‘I’d like to do the JET Programme one day,'” and so he did. After studying abroad in Osaka during his time in art school, he returned on JET to what he describes as a “very tiny island called Goto in Nagasaki Prefecture.”
Luke took his rural placement as an opportunity to look inward, saying “JET gave me time to be with myself. JET gave me time to think, time to reflect and understand things about myself. Every larger work that I make, I view it as a time capsule of my life at that time. I can listen to something, or see something that I made and enjoy it at face value, but I also think about who I knew at that time, what city I was living in, the problems that were plaguing me, and the joy/pain I felt making it.”
He continues, “I feel the same way with JET…you can relate to anyone who has gone through the same experience, but it’s also so incredibly personal that no one could ever truly understand what your experience was like.” With that in mind, it comes as no surprise that he says his new album, Golden Laurels (recorded under the name The Pathetic and Elegant), is for “anyone who has ever felt embarrassed to play their music in a car full of friends or who has ever made a party playlist that people do not get.”
While Golden Laurels does not try to sound Japanese, Luke himself feels strongly influenced by the country artistically, saying, “I can barely remember a time in my life where I wasn’t into something Japan-related art-wise. I’d say leading up the making of the album I was obsessed with YMO. They might be the greatest band of all time when I think about it. They’re more important than The Beatles. Not only are they an amazing band, but each member’s solo career is a creative force to be reckoned with. I love Akiko Yano, Boredoms, Shinsei Kamattechan, Shugo Tokumaru, etc., and that’s just musicians who I like. I love Japanese film, art, design…there’s so much.”
Regarding his own music, favorite tracks are “Who’s First When You’re Next?” and “Out of Mercy,” with Fisher calling the former “a reminder: sometimes in life, day-to-day things can really obscure your thoughts and you aren’t thinking about things logically or appreciating what you have. I think there’s a certain clarity that a pop song can have that can cut through all of the clutter of life and put you in the right head space,” while the latter is “funky, poppy, fun, sad, makes you (me) want to dance…”
The first track on the album, “Blood Worth Bottling,” reminds him most of his experience in JET and Japan. He recalls, “I went on a trip to Taipei by myself and I just remember feeling so free and powerful and proud of myself that I was going after the things that I cared about in life. I got into the JET Programme, I wasn’t afraid of going to a foreign country whose language I didn’t speak by myself, I had met so many great people, and I had grown so much as a person. I was walking around singing and making up the lyrics as I walked around night markets and strange back alleys just feeling great. Even though that story takes place in Taiwan, I feel like the morals of that song could be applied to the entirety of my Japan experience.”
As both artists reflected, while each person has a unique experience, we can all share and relate to this time in our life. In that sense, the JET Programme itself is something shared and personal, just like music. Check out and support both of these artists and their albums at the links below.
Tokyo Nights at Cultures of Soul Records
Golden Laurels at Spellabee Space
“Who‘s First When You‘re Next?” music video