Tokyo's Showa Kayo Is a Weird, Nostalgic Corner of Japanese Clubbing

With anti-dancing laws and Japanese economic decline, Showa Kayo Night is Tokyo's answer to "escapist clubbing".

May 1 2014, 2:40pm

It's not easy navigating through any music scene in Tokyo. Thanks in large part to mainstream Japanese media rarely embracing music not associated with major labels, events across the city often feel cliquey. The same people gravitate to the same artists, creating bubbles where certain venues become known for being the "fashion people spot", or "the one all the non-Japanese go to." 

For someone on the outside, it can feel intimidating. The country's anti-dancing laws – which require establishments to have a licence for dancing, and close by either midnight or 1am depending on location – don't help either. Several notable club shut-downs later, many events are forced to finish earlier than usual, with some recent festivals opting to end as early as 8pm. The public, especially older generations, have a very negative view of Tokyo's nightlife because of such busts. "In all honesty, the club scene in Japan is getting worse, we think, because of the strict enforcement of [the anti-dancing] law," producer Seimei Kawai told Thump recently

Despite this, there's one night that seems to exist on a parallel to it all. Tokyo resident Justin Miller says he's proud of the event he's co-founded, Showa Kayo Night at Shibuya's Rhythm Cafe. It bucks the clique-creating tendencies of other parties, and manages to fall outside the scope of the anti-dancing laws. The monthly party brings out an unusually diverse range of people for a Tokyo club and, just as impressively, they've done it with a playlist leaning towards half a century ago; appealing to people's curiosity for the unfamiliar, and to a very Japanese kind of nostalgia. "What we saw right off the bat was that it was a mixture of older and younger people, of foreigners and Japanese", Miller says of the crowd. "There are like German models who come through, and they mix with 50-year-old Japanese ladies who really like listening to this stuff."

Now in its second year, Showa Kayo Night features DJs spinning music solely from the Showa era of Japanese history. As Japanese pop songs from the 1950s-1980s, formed in the mould of contemporary American pop and rock 'n' roll hits, the sound now feels totally out of step with the tightly produced sounds of Japanese pop today; partly due to the fairly awful recording techniques and the greater influences of funk, surf-rock and disco, rather than the current EDM-influences pervasive in J-pop. Nevertheless, there remains a public fascination with Showa era music that's continued for generations - and not just in Japan, either. The most well known Showa era song, Kyu Sakamoto's 'Sukiyaki', sold 13m copies and went to No. 1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 on release in June 1963. 

As a club event devoted to music from a time of Japanese socio-economic stability, Showa Kayo Night has come to offer a subtle kind of escapism from the arguably gloomy state of contemporary Japan. With an economy largely stagnant since the early 90s and a rapidly decreasing birthrate, Japan's crisis of ageing in a time of economic uncertainty has left wider youth culture at a strange standpoint. Duly, as something of a release, the Showa Kayo Night is connected to brighter times in Japanese history; of a booming economy, and a nation on the rise. This nostalgia isn't confined to clubs that play Showa era music either. There are restaurants devoted to recreating its fashions and habits, whilst cartoons from before the economic bubble burst are perpetually in fashion.

With the falling birthrate in particular (25% of the Japanese population is classed as "elderly"), the audience for events such as Showa Kayo Night are of a higher age bracket than other pretty much any club I've experienced before. Showa Kayo Night plays right into what older individuals want and, unlike similar events Miller says happen at other bars, "we play more b-sides and lesser-known jams. It's nice for them to hear those less-played tracks." Also aiding Miller's cause is the club's Thursday night slot (falling outside the rowdier Friday and Saturday nights in Shibuya), and an entry charge of around just $3. It also starts in the early evening, meaning that the greyer clientele to easily catch their last trains home and leave the young to stay on into the night.

It may sound impossibly niche from afar, but it's become a popular weekend option for younger Japanese and non-Japanese alike. It's been featured regularly on television and in the Japanese edition of GQ magazine, and is routinely so packed that attendees spill out onto the street to drink. "At the beginning, when it was getting bigger and bigger, people would say 'Oh, its too crowded, you have to move it to a bigger venue'. Rhythm Café can't even fit 100 people, but it wouldn't be the same if it wasn't at Rhythm Café. It has really become part of Showa Kayo Night".

Miller himself knew nearly nothing about Showa era music before moving to Japan. After growing up in Albany, New York, he decided to move out of the United States after President George W. Bush Jr. was re-elected in 2004. A friend guided him to living in South Korea briefly, and then to Nagoya for three years. It was there he dived into Showa music. "I was at a Hard-Off [a Japanese chain of thrift stores], and I was flipping through some 7" and saw this single by Mayuzumi Jun, 'Black Room'".

From there he built a collection of Showa music, spending no more than 50 yen on a record and gathering a lot of duds along the way ("I have a huge box of truly awful records"). Some of his recommendations include Yuzo Kayama ("like the Japanese Elvis"), who took cues from surf-rockers The Ventures, to girl groups like Pink Lady or The Peanuts. He also makes room for more rock-influenced singles, emerging from Japan's "group sounds" rock-group boom. 

Miller moved to Tokyo in 2011 and was invited to play a small event in Shibuya, "the sort of show where every DJ brings one friend, and that's it." One of those attendees, Ayano Cafebleu, approached Miller and asked if he wanted to start a Showa night at Rhythm Café and, along with Miller's friend Tigmen Visser ("he has a great collection of '60s Japanese rock"), the pair DJed the first edition of Showa Kayo Night, which was "a little slower, but we still got a bunch of people to come out. I invited lots of my friends, and Ayano promoted it in Japanese". The media coverage from GQ and Fuji Television certainly helped. It's rare for Japanese TV to give so much attention to a club scene, let along an event featuring old music. 

"We always bring out guest DJs," Miller says. "Usually, they are Japanese, and that helps bring out a crowd, too." There are traditions for every Showa Kaiyo Night, however. Miller and Ayano always play, as does a Japanese man with the name DJ Brush. "He wears these crazy bell-bottoms, takes requests and always talks into the microphone." Even the owner of Rhythm Café gets involved. "When he likes a song that you play, he'll flick the lights on and off, like a strobe light."

Though a night based on curiosity and a subtle kind of escapism, it's the mixing of people from different age brackets and cultures that makes Showa Kayo Night stand out. For foreigners, it offers a great introduction to a world of older Japanese music mostly ignored in the West, and a chance for older Japanese people to sing along to every familiar track, or break out once-ubiquitous dance moves.  "Sometimes I'll play something and have no idea what it is," Miller says. "I'll put the needle on the record and everyone will start screaming, and I'll know this is a good one."

Patrick St. Michel is an American music writer currently living in Tokyo. You can follow him on Twitter here: @mbmelodies

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