Heavy metal was happy to take up the ‘mysterious’ angle. W.A.S.P. in ‘Tokyo’s On Fire‘ spoke of ‘Big mondo fun, the land of the rising sun, A monster rising in my eyes’ going for obvious imagery and Godzilla shtick, while Saxon ‘had a dream about the mighty Shogun…Faded visions of the Samurai’ in ‘Walking Through Tokyo‘. At the end of the song ‘the Geisha gives on dying pleasure’ too, so they get the girl as well as the mystic past. In ‘Woman From Tokyo‘, Deep Purple got hooked on that which got Saxon. The singer ‘Talk(s) about her like a Queen, Dancing in an Eastern Dream’.
Bryan Ferry’s ‘Tokyo Joe‘ was bitten by the same bug – ‘My girl friday she no square, she like Lotus blossom in her hair…Geisha girl show you she adore you, Two oriental eyes implore you’. Judging by the rest of the song, if he made it out there at all, it doesn’t look like he got much further than Roppongi. The Bee Gees might not have even made it out of the hotel in their ‘Tokyo Nights‘ – ‘Well she took me away by saving life, I was down in the rising sun…Well I came for the moment and stayed till the end.’
Female artists have been just as overawed, even by Tokyo women, but of course in different ways to the boy rockers. In ‘Tokyo Girl‘, Ace Of Base (a band I could never have imagined ever finding a reason to write about when I began this blog, although the same comment could equally apply for Saxon) thought their subject ‘had got the moves to rule the world, that cute inscrutability’ which went on to rhyme ‘Tokyo Girl, you’re a mystery’. Gwen Stefani was ‘fascinated by the Japanese fashion scene’ and ‘just an American girl in the Tokyo streets’ in ‘Harajuku Girls‘. Although it’s not clear that she had a fling herself, Donna Summer in ‘Tokyo‘ ‘met this stranger there, so…was feeling somewhat scared…but all the ladies there were nice, the gentlemen politely out of line’.
Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn managed to resist the temptations that seemed to sway the other male writers that passed though, but was still pretty freaked out by the place, particularly after witnessing a car being pulled from a river. Stefani might have captured the flavour of Harajuku pretty well, but Cockburn got the urban sprawl feeling, mentioning ‘Pachinko jingle and space torpedo beams, Comic book violence and escaping steam’. He put ‘Tokyo‘ out in 1979, so he would have had a taste of things before the extravagances of the Bubble era. Elvis Costello barely mentions anything to do with Japan in ‘Tokyo Storm Warning‘. He could have been in a Tokyo hotel in the first verse, but then wanders off to talk about dead Italian tourists and the ‘Costa Del Malvinas’.
I might not have had a musical career comparable to any of the above artists, but I probably got to know Japan’s capital rather better.
To me, the city that ended up feeling more like home than any other place I’ve lived (Brighton aside) was a very finely tuned machine that functioned so well and smoothly largely because its residents consented so willingly to the part they played in the whole picture – a form of ‘consensual citizenship’ missing from most Western cities. I’ve tried to convey a sense of that in this song.
The first verse ticks off some of the sights of the cityscape. The second one refers to the devotion that many workers (mostly male) have to their companies, particularly the globe straddling electronics giants like Sony and Toshiba. After the destruction of the city during the Second World War, it was the army-like discipline of these workers that provided the workforce that enabled Japan’s ‘economic miracle’ during the 80’s and 90’s. ‘Salaryman‘ is equivalent to ‘breadwinner’ in English, but is obviously more gender specific.
Even in the less prestigious jobs, many people at least give the impression of being dedicated to their work. When McDonalds opened their first branches in Japan, new staff apparently proudly talked about how they were ‘working for an American company’, and thus perhaps looked a little more internationalised than the generation of their more inward looking parents. Hostess bars appear to the outsider to be little more than gaudy, neon clad brothels, when most of them are actually rather different. Although sexual activity may be part of them, they are more like a modern equivalent of the old geisha tea houses, where beautiful young women are essentially on hand to flatter visiting male luminaries and the like. Many of Japan’s businessmen are more conversationally open with the ‘hostesses’ they visit than their own wives, as many of them feel unable to talk about the strains of work at home.
The fourth verse refers to the blend of deeply traditional and hyper modern that one finds in Tokyo. Japanese houses are still measured in terms of the number of tatami mats that can be fitted on the floor. On the street, one can find an ancient looking wooden shrine with a deep attention to aesthetics right next to some vast concrete tower block with all the wires on the outside.
The bridge (‘From the top of the mountain, to the waters of the ocean’) is a reference to the scale of the city, which feels like it stretches from Mount Fuji far off in the distance right down to Tokyo Bay. There is actually a significant amount of countryside between Fuji and the outer limits of the city’s edges, but it remains a totemic presence over the skyline on a clear day, visible from many of Tokyo’s higher vantage points. Fuji makes for a calming and commanding sight beyond the visual clutter of the cityscape.
‘Commuters pouring in through arteries’ is about the complex network of train lines, jam packed to fill even the smallest bit of breathing space in the early morning, that all feed into the centre of the city. To me, those office workers were the blood that kept the heart beating and the train lines the veins that delivered them. ‘Robots bow’, even in cartoon form on train station ticket machines, as automated apologies to an imaginary inconvenience. The volume of advertising is so much higher than anywhere else I’ve been, and all they seem to depict beautiful people and perfect lives – a kind of futuristic Asian version of 50’s picket fence America – thus ‘pretty faces tease’.
‘Lose myself in my headphone world’ – across the city, it seems like most people have a set of headphones in their ears. On those cramped trains, personal space is at a premium, so immersing oneself in an iPod or similar gadget is a way of creating distance between yourself and the person breathing down your neck.
‘Hold my breath for the quake thunder’ – having once been devastated by earthquake and living in region with the highest amount of seismic activity on the planet, it is very common to hear talk of ‘the next Big One’ – the next quake that will destroy the city yet again. Living with earthquakes does take quite some getting used to, but seeing that the Japanese don’t tend to panic during one, you learn to live with it after a while.
I’ve not written a great deal of ballads in my time, but it seemed to me that Tokyo was deserving of one. The song appeared on the Shelf Life album ‘Best Before End’ and can be heard on our MySpace page and purchased from .