Where have all The Tokyo Flower Children gone?

“Relative deprivation” is a concept in sociology, which refers to the common phenomenon of people’s dissatisfaction not being correlated to the reality of oppression, but instead to perceived oppression.
This means human nature is such that people are most dissatisfied when they think they should be getting better treatment.
And that could be when things are getting better _ not necessarily worse as might be expected _ because it’s all about perceptions.
The plight of Japanese youngsters isn’t all that bad compared to their counterparts in many other nations.
But their sense of relative deprivation is quite intense because social pressures for them to conform and to do good are quite high.
Many outside of Japan would be proud of having landed an assembly-line job.
If you are Japanese, it is less than perfect.
Being shut out of a white-collar lifetime employment job after completing a degree from a prestigious college is often an embarrassment not only for the youngster but the entire family.
“Freeter” is a label assigned to the despised when many Americans would be happy _ and proud _ to just have a job, any job, even a “keiyaku” or “haken” (i.e., not lifetime employment) job!
Imagine the stigma in Japan for being unemployed.
And the jobless rate is at a record high 5.7 percent (which wouldn’t be a record at all in places like the U.S.)
Relative deprivation is seething in Japan.
Random crime to vent out frustrations is on the rise.
The existence of random crime may not be all that surprising in other big cities of the world.
Not so for Japan, which has long boasted a reputation for being crime-free (not that any nation is truly crime-free).
So no one is prepared for a stabbing spree in a commuter train station or a beating at night in a park.
In the U.S., if a nut goes berserk in public, he/she would be dead quite quickly.
The police would shoot him/her.
In Japan, we read reports of police who have been unable to track down the perpetrator, let alone arrest him/her.
In the U.S., homes have several locks. In Japan, people go out leaving their doors unlocked.
In the U.S., some citizens are armed, take self-defense lessons, carry mace or at least avoid walking alone in dark streets.
In Japan, hardly anyone does.
It is a rather dangerous situation, even if the numbers of the relatively deprived youngsters who end up turning to crime are still few.
Japan simply isn’t prepared.
There is a sense of hostility in the air.
There is a sense the best times for Japan are over.
The Tokyo Flower Children may be wilting _ remnants of the good old times _ just as the American hippies were of the 1960s.
More on the Tokyo Flower Children.
(video above: Jounetsu wo Torimodosou by Teruyuki Kawabata of CigaretteSheWas translation by Yuri Kageyama, who reads with Haruna Shimizu, and additional music by Winchester Nii Tete, Keiji Kubo, Yumi Miyagishima and Carl Freire in the TOKYO FLOWER CHILDREN performance of Multicultural Poetry and Music at the Pink Cow, Tokyo, June 8, 2008.)

Toshinori Kondo

“Oh, my Buddha!” was what Toshinori Kondo kept saying.
That was back in the 1980s, when he was in his IMA band stage, fresh from his return from New York, where he had built his fame, and now out to forge his own Japanese jazz sound.
Instead of looking to the West (as in “Oh, my God!”), a musician must look to his/her Asian roots (and start saying, “Oh, my Buddha!” instead).
He was one of the most fascinating people I have ever interviewed.
Maybe he felt sorry for me that our interview was about to end, and I could have been in his presence forever.
He began to clown around and disappeared into the narrow crevice between the wall and a soda vending machine.
“Oh, my Buddha!”
I don’t know why, but this was terribly and perfectly charming.
In his recent book “Inochi wa Sokkyo da (Life Is Improvisation),” Kondo says he studied the lives of Buddhist monks and spiritual leaders when he was younger to find out for himself what made Japanese and Japanese thinking great.
Otherwise, he couldn’t feel confident that, as a Japanese artist, he would have something unique or competitive to say in the world of jazz, dominated by Americans.
The Buddhists all led pretty wild and crazy lives, it turns out, fasting, becoming hermits, wandering penniless, chanting in a frenzy.
Best of all, they had a unique view on the meaning of life and spirituality, which remains key to Kondo’s approach to music today.
Kondo wasn’t satisfied with the Japanese music scene, despite his great success, because it was so insular and it wasn’t trying to say anything universal.
He was hectically busy.
But artistically, he felt he was going nowhere fast.
This is when he started living in Amsterdam, partly to get away and collect his thoughts.
In recent years, he began his “Blow the Earth” project, in which he goes to forsaken but gorgeous places like Machu Picchu and Bali and basically plays his heart out.
No one is there to listen.
He feels at one with the Nature around him as though the pulse in the mountain air is beating in time with his blowing, down to the tiniest pulses in every cell of his body.
It is a true high.
This is about getting to the music that is the origin of life.
It is totally divorced from the usual assumptions about music _ how its success is calculated by how many CDs you sell _ about trying to commercially reach hordes.
One time, Kondo travels to Kenya with a Japanese camera crew and wades into a lake filled with flamingos and pelicans.
Be sure to roll the cameras when I start playing, he says. Thousands of birds are going to take flight. And it will be beautiful.
He starts to blow.
But the birds don’t take off.
They just start to dance.
Why are young Japanese so worried? Kondo wonders in his book.
And they aren’t even worried about what might happen decades from now.
They worry about what might happen next year, tomorrow.
They are so privileged yet they are so afraid.
He was never so afraid.
He kept going for half a century and has never turned back and is still going.
My son plays with this very important Japanese musician WED May 13 at a temple near Mount Fuji.

Whence virtuosity

Poet and novelist Ishmael Reed once said he read to an audience two poems _ one by a Nobel laureate and another by one of his students _ and asked for a show of hands to guess which was by whom.
Opinion was 50-50, which goes to show no one can tell on virtuosity.
After all, a toilet seat becomes art supreme if Duchamp puts it in the backdrop of a fancy museum.
Juxtaposing gems from the amateur with stuck up award-winners is a joy.
It challenges status quo definitions of what is and what isn’t _ the basic purpose of art to start with.
The unfortunate thing is: A toilet seat is just that _ a toilet seat, if there is no Duchamp and there is no museum.
That’s why it is so difficult and risky to test such waters in art.
But if and when you can pull it off, you will be able to create something unique, almost by definition, because most of what you see in art is about following what went before you and got the stamp of approval that it is indeed art and not just a toilet seat.
I have written before about the live music scene in Tokyo.
Watching the young musicians, who all have other jobs and boast absolutely no technical virtuosity as we know it in the West, made me wonder why that community existed and what it was about Japan that created that _ as well as what that meant as far as definitions of art.
I called the phenomenon the Tokyo Flower Children.
Virtuosity is obviously important in art.
But I also realized it’s not as important as one may think, especially in this day and age when razzle-dazzle can be packaged, commercialized and bought with money (relatively affordable) like a Cirque de Soleil show (which isn’t really art at all _ at least the old-style circus had the elephants and the clowns).
These peacefully wayward Japanese kids are products of an extremely rigid and conformist society that is rapidly unraveling and no longer promising success for all, even if you follow all the rules to the T and prove you will sacrifice individuality for the good of the team.
They are rejecting the package.
They have chosen to be artists.
And to me, there is no doubt they are really artists.
I must thank them for helping me realize that the most important thing about art is that sincerity.
And they certainly have that.
The choice.
The courage to choose.
The vision to see beyond what is being handed to them.
That is what is being sought among the audience at Tokyo live-houses, who are for the most part just their peers.
Art with a capital “A” is proving incapable of moving beyond the market and the galleries catering to the rich.
Art must reach and be about real people.
But whether this kind of art that throws virtuosity out the window can provide anything more than a psychologically therapeutic outlet for the participants remains to be seen.
Look at me! (for technique) surely isn’t enough.
But will anyone look if there is no virtuosity at all?
Can you prove value beyond delivering slices-of-life samplings of anthropological curiosity?
And isn’t thinking that you can mold virtuous art out of the everyday _ a la Duchamp _ the most arrogant approach to self-expression?
But I don’t think it’s dishonest or incorrect.
And arrogance, or at least confidence in what you believe, goes with the territory.

After the Storm

the man who raped Miu got arrested
he was following women from the convenience store
his face was there on the security camera
she told her story over and over
until the policewoman cried

Teru and Haruna got married
she wore a red kimono and a giant wig
he got sick and shaved after he lost his job
they are thinking the Grand Canyon for their honeymoon
he has another job now

Mary, executive vice president, has never been married
her mother, who taught her men weren’t to be trusted,
died last year of cancer and she met Joe,
a college professor, who holds her hand
they are getting a dog

after the storm
pine needles carpet a silent earth
broken wounds of a ruthless wind
forgetful, still, and all is well
like the ending of a movie

Photos by Kabe Chushin 12

From left to right
Winchester Nii Tete, Haruna Shimizu, Carl Freire, Teruyuki Kawabata, Yumi Miyagishima playing Kawabata’s “Jounetsu wo Torimodosou.”

Story of Miu 10

Story of Miu 9
List of links to previous Miu entries
Story of Miu 10
The Moon Stomp in Koenji is smaller than most American kitchens, and it really does have a kitchen, where sweet-smelling pizza and hot spicy curry are getting cooked up, but what’s really cooking is the music.
Miu wanted me to come and hear her play with Yuga’s band.
I’m trying not to expect too much, but I need not have worried.
Descend from the streets into that tiny smoke-filled club, packed with kids in hats and T-shirts, and the music there is so feel-good, giggles-provoking and harmonious Japanese-style it’s like soaking in sudsy lukewarm tub water.
Admission is 2,500 yen for an all-you-can-eat meal-included evening of music.
Merrychan is a trio that performs original Japanese-language versions of Cuban and other Latin music.
Hearing Japanese sung and yelled in Latin fashion is somehow funnier than you’d think. Speak about identity crisis and parodying Japan’s imitative modern music scene!
See how “Gerohaita! (He barfed!)” almost sounds Spanish? It’s that wit in not taking oneself too seriously that makes these musicians rise above their otherwise proficient but pretty hunkydory (I mean, how could a bunch of Japanese kids beat Los Van Van?) musicianship to something unique, and something definitely entertaining.
No wonder the crowd (of about 30, half of them members of the other performing bands) is ecstatic.
Funyakotsu-ting was a geeky looking pudgy guy with glasses and a T-shirt with a picture of a donkey that said in English: “Bad Ass.” He sang, narrated tales and even performed karaoke with a guitar.
A far cry from a demonstration of musical technique or artistic message, the almost-freak-show “otaku” performance still exudes a strange utterly disarming charm.
Several fans sat in the front row with multicolored light-sticks and swayed them in time to the music on one tune like they were at a Budokan rock concert.
Most straight-ahead but just as hippie-spiritied was Cigarette She Was, a folk/pop band led by guitar-strumming singer Teruyuki Kawabata. The groups were selling their CDs for something like 200 yen, the equivalent of $1.50.
Yuga plays kpanlogo in this band, his deep eyes _ those that Miu says look like those of an elephant _ buried in his long black hair as he plays with quiet concentration. He is sometimes so serious his upper lip seems to curl up in a haughty snarl.
Miu is so happy she can barely sit still as she jumps around, shaking a wooden stick covered with jangling bells.
I sit in one of the front seats surrounded by the cuddly noises and the warm smell of food and forget all thoughts.
It’s a numbing feeling of thoughtless and humble satisfaction.
Who would have imagined that just a couple of months later Miu would break up with Yuga?
They are so young maybe it was to be expected.
She says it started with a quarrel about how to play a musical phrase in a rehearsal in their tiny apartment.
But when she shouted back, he slapped her then pushed her down on the tatami mat.
“I almost hit my head on the corner of his desk,” Miu tells me, horrified.
She has to move out immediately, and so I have to go pick her up in our car.
Perhaps hoping to stop her from leaving, Yuga told her that he couldn’t end the painful cycle of violence: He was beaten as a child while he was growing up.
His parent were very strict with him because he was an only child and they had such great hopes for him.
He was the kind of kid who couldn’t even ask for a toy.
The parents would spank him and beat him and kick him and push him out, even in the winter, naked out into the backyard, although he screamed and stamped his little feet and cried as though his little lungs will tear into pieces.
But sometimes, when he feels that rage burn inside him, he is still that kid, and he can’t stop himself when he wants it set things right and he must hit that person in front of him whom he loves so dearly yet who is acting in a way that he despises.
“It’s totally messed up,” Miu says. “He says he can’t forgive his father, but I am not going to forgive him.”
It is a sad end to a totally peaceful, hippie story of young love and brainlessly joyous music.
Or so I thought _ except that wasn’t the end at all.

Jounetsu wo Torimodosou

The song lyric version (as opposed to the poetic version)
translated into English
which will be performed at TOKYO FLOWER CHILDREN at the Pink Cow SUN June 8, 2008:

Jounetsu wo Torimodosou/We Remember Soul
By Teruyuki Kawabata of CigaretteSheWas

Without a word, don’t look back,
We are moving on;
Yes, we know these are things
That they will understand.

Get it back in our hearts
Like a sunset in our soul
And tonight, get it back,
dalalalilah, dalalalilah, dalalalilah X4

Forever tucked in my heart,
In this pocket of my soul,
Those days of tears and days of fears,
We’ll let them go untold.

Yes, we know we were young,
We aimed for way too high,
All we did in return
Was make our loved ones cry.

Get it back, let’s get it back,
In this pocket of my soul
We no longer need to cry
Cuz those days are gone away.

dalalalilah, dalalalilah, dalalalilah X4

Take a look, the rain is gone,
We can see the sky,
There’s no need to fit in
Or try too hard to get by.

Get it back, let’s get it back
In this pocket of my soul
We no longer need to cry
Cuz those days are gone away.

We don’t need to cry cuz those days are gone away.
We don’t need to cry cuz those days are gone away.

People Who Know Pain

Recorded with Yumi Miyagishima on violin at Music Man studio in Tokyo, May 24, 2008.
Part of the TOKYO FLOWER CHILDREN poetry readings with music.
Yumi Miyagishima, or Shima, is one of my favorite Tokyo musicians and one of my favorite people.
I wrote this poem inspired by the kind of things she talks about because she is so filled with a free spirit, the sense of justice, the love for music _ and a total disregard for practicality, status, “common sense” and material wealth that makes her really delightful.
It is difficult living in this vicious, greedy and insane world that Tokyo has become _ especially for a Japanese woman.
Tokyo on the surface looks like any big modern city.
You’d think women will get equal treament.
Think again.
Women are being treated like second, third, class citizens, and live and work fighting for their jobs, safety, self-respect, right to be creative as though this is right in the Third World.
It makes it even sadder that all women like Shima want is genuine love.
And they must seek it from men, the very pepetrators, for the most part, of the discrimination, cruelty and degradation that hurt and brutalize women.
Women who want nothing more than the fulfillment of their simple dreams are vulnerable.
But Shima grows stronger day by day, year by year.
Here she is, still playing music in Tokyo, and she even has a nice boyfriend:

People Who Know Pain

The World is divided bet-
Ween two kinds of People
The Winners and the Losers
The Takers and the Givers
The Famous and the Forgotten
The Loved and the Unloved _
Those who don’t care and

People who know Pain
People who know Pain

when your tongue rolls, the
tips of my nipples, piercing
knife of betrayal

Vincent Van Gogh
John Coltrane
Garcia Marquez
Toulouse Lautrec
Billie Holliday
Richard Wright
Kenji Miyazawa

People who know Pain
People who know Pain

baby foxes dance,
leaving paw marks in the snow,
fairy tale of joy

Hermit, victim,
Outcast, untouched,
They travel faceless
Shadows on the subway
Mute, unconnected,
Unknowing of their own Pain

People who know Pain
People who know Pain

bitter memories grow
a cancer pomegranate
bleeding and rotting

I’d rather shelter that Pain alone
A powerless nobody,
Ashamed, shunned,
Stench of insignificance,
Laughing the idiot’s laugh,
Running forgotten errands,
Dying before living like other

People who know Pain
People who know Pain

a zillion light years
the planet pulsates timeless
soundless universe

I’d never be that superior someone who
Conquers, fornicates, lynches,
Deposits paychecks, plans careers,
Forms opinions, writes reviews,
Weighs pros and cons, wins awards,
Attends receptions, discriminates,
Never knowing, shrugging off, how painful

People’s Pain can be
People’s Pain can be

Remembering Soul

One of the pieces we will do in TOKYO FLOWER CHILDREN at Tokyo’s Pink Cow Sunday, June 8, is “Jounetsu wo Torimodosou.”
Teruyuki Kawabata, leader of Tokyo indies band CigaretteSheWas, wrote the lyrics and music for the tune, which is on the soundtrack for a just released movie “Chiisana Koi no Monogatari (A Little Love Story),” from Kurosawa Studios.
I translated the lyrics. It’s harder than you may think because “jounetsu” literally translates as “passion.”
This is what I ended up doing:

Remembering Soul

we leave without saying a word
people will understand

yesterday’s sunset burns in our memory
but tonight we remember soul

forever tucked in that pocket of our soul
we will forget the days of tears and fears

we asked for too much and
made those close to us sad

remember, remember,
in this pocket of our soul
we don’t need to cry

dalalalilah, dalalalilah, dalalalilah

just look at the sun and the sky
we don’t need to fit in

remember, remember
in this pocket of our soul
we don’t need to cry

we don’t need to cry
we don’t need to cry

dalalalilah, dalalalilah, dalalilah


In the way Van Gogh thought he was Japanese and saw Old Edo in southern France, or the way Yayoi Kusama sees polka dots on faces, flowers and everything around her, I see Today’s Tokyo as a flashback to the Hippie Days.
The differences are obvious.
But there are definite parallels between the questioning of the parents’ values that the American LOVE generation did and what the Japanese youngsters are trying to do today.
They are rejecting the dreams for the “straight” life of joining big-name companies with their broken promises for lifelong employment and lifelong social status.
They are becoming “freeters” in more ways than one, looking for a freer lifestyle and a freer way of thinking, to accept not only themselves for who they are and also those around them in Japan _ and Asia and beyond.
The go-go modernization growth days are over _ just as the 1960s and ’70s ended the American Dream.
There is a need for new answers, new values, a new identity, a new way of relating to the World.
The approach is peaceful _ just like Flower Power was so far away and so many years ago.
The Tokyo youngsters playing music, eating pasta and making love in the streets of Koenji, transport us magically to Berkeley and the Haight.
It’s OK to drop out.
It’s OK not to fit in.
It’s OK to be weak.
It’s OK to do something new.
It takes great courage to do this in a rigidly and cruelly conformist society like Japan.
Like flowers, they wilt in the wild.
But they sprout back with new life, carrying on a legacy of music and a frantic search for one-ness that live on through generations.
And so it was natural to call the personal project I began to collaborate with Tokyo musicians in readings of my poetry the TOKYO FLOWER CHILDREN.
We are all children.
No matter how old we grow, and no matter how we struggle to outgrow our childishness, we are all children.
Sure, being a poet is about remembering that eternal child in yourself.
It’s also about remembering all the emotional and physical details of being a mother to your own child _ with all the miraculous joys to celebrate and anguishing sorrows to endure.
But through working with the Tokyo musicians, I learned a new lesson:
It’s about being a poet for the next generation _ being a poet for all the children of the world, and knowing we are all children together.