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The Guide to Getting into Haruomi Hosono, Japan's Vibrant Pop Shape-Shifter

In his groundbreaking bands and in his solo work, the Japanese experimenter changed the shape of pop music, avant-garde electronics, and more. Here's where to start with his vast catalog

by Rob Arcand
Oct 10 2018, 3:45pm

In 1972, producers Lowell George and Van Dyke Parks found themselves in the studio with four shaggy-haired musicians offering a pearl and a briefcase full of cash to record their album. The musicians, known in their native Japan as Happy End, had set out for Los Angeles in search of the “California sound,” the one that they associated with acts like Moby Grape, Buffalo Springfield, and other American folk-rock acts just barely accessible in their home country.

“We were in the control room, and it was out of control,” Parks said in a 2013 interview. “Lowell walked over to the briefcase, fondling it tenderly, and announced, ‘...I think we can make music out of this!’”

The collaborators quickly got to work on what would become “Sayonara America,” a defining song and number one hit for Happy End in Japan, where co-founder Haruomi Hosono would establish a career spanning over four decades as one of the country’s biggest and most influential artists. Bassist for Happy End, multi-instrumentalist with world-famous synthpop trio Yellow Magic Orchestra, and conceptual stylist behind countless collaborative records, Hosono has defied near-every assumption about what it takes to make a lasting cultural impact, vaulting through styles, genres, and national identities to cement his status as one of the country’s first truly global musicians.

The grandson of the only Japanese survivor onboard the Titanic, Hosono got his start in the late 1960s with bands like Apryl Fool, Happy End, and the fluid musicians’ collective known as Tin Pan Alley. One of the first acts to extend the popular fōku style (itself inspired by the American folk revival) into a full-fledged recreation of ‘60s West Coast psychedelia, Happy End gained recognition in the early ‘70s for their unparalleled commitment to the specific recording techniques of American pop, with their 1973 Van Dyke Parks-produced self-titled album an almost eerie Japanese equivalent of The Byrds or Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.

While still playing bass with Happy End in the early ‘70s, Hosono began working on a number of solo albums under his own name, frequently anglicized as “Harry” Hosono in the style of Japanese comedians like Frankie Sakai or Tani Kei. Heavily influenced by the so-called “jungle sound” of “exotica” lounge musicians Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman, Hosono saw himself as a new kind of artist-prankster, flipping this strange imperialist kitsch (what Edward Said might call Orientalism) into his own blend of dizzying post-colonial critique. “I was sort of playing a role of comedian,” he told Red Bull Music Academy in 2014. “Exotica musicians appreciated something far away, and something different. I was trying to become that exotic world.”

In 1978, Hosono joined forces with future Yellow Magic Orchestra members Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi on Paraiso, an album of slinky, funk-inflected rock music that continued Hosono’s fascination with transpacific difference. Released under the name “Harry Hosono and the Yellow Magic Band,” the album featured early synthesizers like the ARP Odyssey that would become an integral part of the YMO sound in years to come, as well as songs like “Asadoya Yunta” (a traditional Okinawan folk song) that would later be recorded as solo works by Sakamoto and others.

In 2018, the American archival imprint Light In The Attic Records reissued five of Hosono’s solo albums, making the highly coveted, long out-of-print releases finally available outside of Japan for the first time. Though they still haven’t been uploaded to Spotify, Apple Music, or Tidal, the albums can still for now be heard on YouTube, where they’ve circulated amongst super-fans for the last few years.

A key influence on City Pop, Shibuya-kei, and an entire generation of increasingly international styles, Hosono’s music tells the story of globalization itself, charting the ebb and flow of countless trends across social, linguistic, and technological boundaries. Whether you’re already interested in Yellow Magic Orchestra or a casual fan diving in for the first time, there’s a side of Haruomi Hosono that’s right for you.

So you want to get into: Psych-Folk Haruomi Hosono?

Born in Tokyo in 1947, Haruomi Hosono grew up obsessed with American imports. The Far East Network of U.S. military radio stations was still widely popular in the decades after the second World War, and while American occupants throughout the Pacific Islands continued to enjoy a small glimpse of cultural life back home, the broadcasts opened up an entire world of new music to Hosono and other Tokyo youngsters. English-language talk radio blared alongside California psychedelic groups like The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, who each paid tribute to the rock and R&B traditions of America in a way that inspired Hosono to question his own relationship with the musical heritage of Japan.

“We were disconnected from our own roots. Traditional Japanese music, like Shamisen and Shakuhachi, I knew nothing about it,” he said at a Red Bull Music Academy lecture in 2014. “Though I learned the importance of roots from West Coast groups, the direct influence was from Japanese literature, especially poetry. That’s my background.”

Hosono saw music as a vehicle, an expressive means into the respective histories of American and Japanese culture alike. With Happy End, the bassist crafted near-identical replicas of classics from Randy Newman and The Band on albums like 1971’s Kazemachi Roman. But on his first solo album, 1973’s Hosono House, the musician stripped down the fluffy opulence of earlier big-budget studio efforts to create an album largely built around sparse, acoustic melodies. With a twang of fingerpicked, bossa nova-esque guitar, album-opener “Rock-A-Bye My Baby” set the tone for an LP of jazz progressions and folky instrumentation with ‘60s surf-pop songwriting at its core. Songs like “Fuyu Goe” and “Jusho Futei Mushoku Tei Shunyu” represent his richest efforts sonically, while softer tracks like “Koi Wa Momoiro” feel like the Japanese equivalent of a tears-in-your-beer Gram Parsons song.

While mostly hangover from his earliest full-band efforts, solo albums like Hosono House, Tropical Dandy, and Pariso show the beginnings of a musician eager to experiment with new forms. Over a steady soul progression, Paraiso’s “Shimendoka” finds future YMO keyboardist Ryuichi Sakamoto testing exactly the sort of twittering synth chirps he’d go on to flesh out with the Orchestra, and songs like “Silk Road” thread Hosono’s interest in mid-century piano ballads through the vibes-inflected “exotica” he was also increasingly interested in at the time.

Playlist: “Rock-A-Bye My Baby” from Hosono House / “Fuyu Goe” from Hosono House / “Shimendoka” from Paraiso / “Worry Beads” from Paraiso / “Paraiso” from Paraiso / “Silk Road” from Tropical Dandy / “Chattanooga Choo Choo” from Tropical Dandy

So you want to get into: “Exotica” Haruomi Hosono?

On June 1, 1959, Quiet Village: The Exotic Sounds of Martin Denny hit No. 4 on the Billboard pop charts. With a heady blend of marimba tones, bongo flourishes, bird calls, and even monkey screeches, the album felt like the furthest thing from the American living room, far beyond the craftsman homes, General Motors, and middlebrow taste native to most of the record-buying public. Yet something about it struck a chord with American suburbanites, partly in its ability to finally make good on exactly the sort of out-of-body experiences promised by hi-fi stereo manufacturers, but also as part of a broader trend signaled by floral shirts, rum-infused mixed drinks, and some strange, white-washed approximation of Polynesian cuisine.

By 1959, “exotica” was in full-swing, both within the continental United States and across the airwaves of the country’s military radio stations, where songs like “Firecracker”—Denny’s hamfisted attempt at Asian “oriental” music—garnered at least some degree of international attention. Such a galling, tone-deaf attempt to capitalize on Japanese cultural identity must have stood out to Haruomi Hosono, who was known to cover the song in concert with Tin Pan Alley as far back as 1976. While this “Firecracker” cover would go on to become one of his biggest hits with YMO, Hosono’s solo material would continue to take inspiration from this specific tension exemplified by Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, and others. “The thing was to take these western ideas of the exotic, but to subvert them," Hosono told The Guardian in 2008. "With Martin Denny, the exotica is kind of fake. But I am real! I am the target of that western exotica. So what I wanted to make was exotica from an oriental perspective."

Photo courtesy of the Masashi Kuwamoto Archives via Light in the Attic

Albums like Paraiso, Bon Voyage Co., and Cochin Moon find Hosono straying from his beginnings as a jazz musician, venturing toward more experimental terrain both in sound and concept. With its marimba intro and alternating vocal lines, Paraiso’s “Asatoya Yunta” refracts a Japanese folk classic through the lens of American “exotica,” now with the same sort of parallel fourth piano stabs used to convey “Asianness” in Hollywood for decades. Others like "Sayonara The Japanese Farewell Song” lean more heavily on the jazz progressions of Hosono’s earlier material, with tropical percussive lines designed to emphasize the textural aspects of cultural difference.

For Cochin Moon, Hosono’s collaborated with graphic designer and visual artist Tadanori Yokoo to create the soundtrack to a fictional Bollywood film in the wake of their travels through India. More caustic and grating than anything ever-before released by the musician, the album represents Hosono’s earliest solo material on the synthesizer, a trend that would continue both in his work with YMO and on solo albums like Philharmony and S-F-X.

Playlist: “Asatoya Yunta” from Paraiso / “Fujiyama Mama” from Paraiso / “Fuku Wa Uchi, Oni Wa Soto” from Hosono House / “Hum Ghar Sajan” from Cochin Moon / “Madam Consul General of Madras” from Cochin Moon / "Sayonara The Japanese Farewell Song” from Bon Voyage Co.

So you want to get into: Synth-Pop Haruomi Hosono?

By 1982, digital synthesizers were becoming more and more commonplace in studios, in part thanks to a worldwide boom in electronics manufacturing led by Japanese companies like Akai, Roland, Yamaha, Korg, and other internationally-recognized names. New tools like the Roland TR-808 drum machine and Yamaha DX-7 synthesizer were quickly becoming regular fixtures in the 80s pop culture landscape, in part thanks to the work of Yellow Magic Orchestra, who were allegedly the first to use the 808 in concert.

After five studio albums with YMO, Haruomi Hosono let technology be his guide, enlisting the help of the E-mu Emulator sampler on his 1982 album Philharmony. With its eight-voice polyphony and five-inch floppy drive storage capabilities, the sampler played a foundational role in the aesthetic constraints of the album’s composition, building tracks from the ground up around cued synth lines and clipped vocal samples.

Photo by Mike Nogami, courtesy Light in the Attic

While the album itself probably says more about the affordances of the Emulator than anything about the artist per se, the tool opened up a whole world of expressive possibilities for experimental soundplay and pop songwriting alike. The album’s eighth track, “Sports Men” might just be the single greatest pop song from any of Hosono’s projects, a blissed-out synth jam about streamline swimmers, male eating disorders, and the infinite anxieties of professional athletics. Over stuttered, vocaloid synths, Hosono sings with a deadpan Lou Reed croon, crafting a pop song as perfect as anything from New Order or The Human League.

Other Philharmony tracks like “Luminescent / Hotaru” walk a fascinating line between art-pop and experimental noise, a trend that would continue late into Hosono’s compositional career. Albums like Omni Sight Seeing, Mercuric Dance, and S-F-X show the musician’s increasing eagerness to get away from conventional forms, but sometimes it seems like he just can’t escape a good melody.

Playlist: “Sports Men” from Philharmony / “Living-Dining-Kitchen” from Philharmony / “Laugh-Gas” from Omni Sight Seeing / “Pleocene” from Omni Sight Seeing / “Hepatitis” from Cochin Moon / “Bodysnatchers” from S-F-X / “Strange Love” from S-F-X

So you want to get into: “Experimental” Haruomi Hosono?

In 1983, a small design retailer known as Muji opened its first retail store in the affluent Tokyo neighborhood of Aoyama. Hoping to establish a mindful, design-driven ambience in line with its clean, minimalist goods, the shop commissioned Haruomi Hosono to compose site-specific, in-store music for the retail location, which was later released on a cassette titled Watering a Flower in 1984. The tape, which has become a rarity among collectors in part thanks to its popularity on YouTube, presents Hosono at his most peaceful, with twinkling, child-like tones paired with slow-moving ambient colors across its two 14-minute tracks.

From the softest ambient textures to the loudest industrial noise, Hosono spent much of the 1980s experimenting with the outer limits of recorded audio as a medium for both affective enjoyment and for big ideas. While late-career solo releases like Mercuric Dance, Endless Talking, and The Making of Non-Standard Music might be more adventurous than earlier material, songs like “Air-Condition” and “Birthday Party” show that even as far back as Philharmony, Hosono was looking to drone, free jazz, ambient, and noise music for inspiration. “Air-Condition” sounds like something that could’ve come from Brian Eno’s Music For Airports, while “Ohenro-San” and “Korendor” from Omni Sight Seeing reveal a connection between traditional Japanese folk music and the burgeoning traditions of ambient-house pioneers like The Orb, The KLF, and Orbital.

Playlist: “Malabar Hotel Ground Floor... Triangle Circuit on the Sea-Forest” from Cochin Moon / “Birthday Party” from Philharmony / “Air-Condition” from Philharmony /“Korendor” from Omni Sight Seeing / “Malabar Hotel Roof Garden... Revel Attack” from Cochin Moon / “3 6 9” from Making of Non-Standard Music / “Fossil of Flames” from Mercuric Dance / “To The Air” from Mercuric Dance