October 17, 2012

Japanese Punk


JAPANESE PUNK: A Brief History

By Greg McWhorter

Trying to trace the musical history of any area is tough enough, but cracking the history of Japanese punk rock has been especially hard for someone like me that cannot read or speak the language. Although language is a barrier, music is universal. I first became enamored with Japanese punk in 1984 when I bought the excellent compilation put out by Maximum Rock’n’Roll Magazine titled Maximum Rock’n’Roll Presents Welcome to 1984, a worldwide compilation. This compilation featured amazing sounding bands from all over the globe, but one that struck a particular chord with me was a band from Japan called The Stalin. They were simply amazing! From their chainsaw guitars and their screaming vocals; to the photo of the band playing a large show while spraying people with a fire extinguisher; was just too good to believe. I had to know more.

blotty-womanOver the years since 1984 I was able to acquire a few Japanese records here and there, but thanks to the internet and eBay and tape traders, I have been able to piece together a clearer picture of the punk scene in Japan. This article is by no means supposed to be complete. I’m sure that I’m missing lots of great bands from around Japan so I am mostly focusing on the bands of the Tokyo scene and mostly the ones that revolved around the premier punk club in Japan, the Shinjuku Loft. Last year, the Shinjuku loft celebrated its 35th anniversary. The Shinjuku Loft, or simply “The Loft,” as regulars refer to it, opened its doors on October 1st, 1976. Since that time, it has moved from its humble beginnings in a tiny space in the red light district of Tokyo’s worst suburb, to a larger venue that holds over 500 people with two main stages that take up an entire basement floor in the Kabuki-cho area of Tokyo.

Please understand that much of the information that I have found has been second-hand, or through delving deep into the catacombs of the Internet. Some time during 1976, a few friends got together and decided to start an alternative club space. The guys who started the Shinjuku-Loft were originally fans of David Bowie and glam rock. They were hoping to attract others who liked the same type of music while offering a space for artists and musicians to hang out. A Bohemian Disneyland of drugs, prostitution, and new sounds was emerging here. Shinjuku was in the middle of what was then the red light district and a suburb of Tokyo. This was the perfect place for an emerging punk scene to take hold and grow — much like the Masque in Los Angeles or CBGB’s in New York.

From 1976 to 1977 mostly glam bands played at The Loft, but starting around 1978, new wave and punk bands that had been inspired by groups like the Ramones, Sex Pistols, The Clash, Dead Boys, and others were starting to call the club their home base.

The first bands to gain notoriety were new wave acts that bordered on commercial appeal. Bands with names like Sex, Pain, 8 ½, Speed, and Bolshie, were some of the first to gain followings. It was within the same year the scene factionalized into two camps; the new wavers and the rockers. Punk groups with names like Friction, Mr. Kite, Lizard!, Mirrors, S-Ken, and SS made up the latter group. All of these bands were causing such a vibe that college students and media were taking notice of their very own punk scene. The Japanese media had been quick to pick up on punk rock as it was happening worldwide, and now they had their own scene to focus on. Other live venues were also starting to spring up like the S-Ken Studio that opened on May 1978 in Roppongi to cater to the wilder acts.

On January 21st, 1979 some of the first wave of bands that had been regulars of The Loft recorded a live album. The album Tokyo New Wave ’79 was recorded for the Japanese branch of Victor Records. The album was not recorded at The Loft, but at a more controlled environment at a place called Raihi-Kan-Moleno. Besides Sex, Pain, 8 ½, and the Bolshie, who were on the LP, Speed, Lizard!, and the Mirrors also played this live event. Sex had already being defunct, but regrouped for this recording and later turned into Size. Pain broke up the day of the recording and became Fresh. Supposedly the harder punk acts saw this recording as an attempt to further commercialize the less controversial bands known as “Gyokai (commercial) New Wave.”

The wilder punk bands decided to record for another album. On March 11, 1979 these bands played at the Shinjuku Loft and recorded the live album that became known as Tokyo Rockers. The bands on this LP were Friction, Mirrors, S-Ken, and Mr. Kite. A Japanese proto-hardcore group called SS also played this show, but did not make the LP. Luckily, the backers of the Tokyo Rockers LP, who were CBS/Sony, also funded a film student to document the event on a film also titled Tokyo Rockers which includes the blistering performance by SS. Both of these LPs together make a fascinating document of the odd and blistering sounds coming out of Japan at the time.

Both of the above mentioned LPs were eagerly snatched up by fans in Japan, but internationally these bands were still fairly obscure. Some of the other punk and new wave bands of the first wave were; Anarchy, Totsuzen, Danball, Gunjogacrayon, Jagatara, and Taco. There was also a small scene called Kansai No Wave (modeled after the New York No Wave scene) that included; Aunt Sally, Phew, Machizo Machida, Hijou Kaidan, and others. Luckily several independent labels sprang up to document these bands onto vinyl like Gozira, 100%, Aspirin, Pass, Telegraph, Junk Connection, City Rocker, and Vanity. By the end of 1979, times were changing and bands were getting faster and harder just like their contemporaries in other countries. Hardcore was coming…

Although SS were playing their unique brand of proto-hardcore, which was like Ramones sped up by ten, by 1979, it is not until 1980 that the band starts up that defines the era of Japanese hardcore to come. In 1980 a 32 year old socialist activist and former Vietnam veteran decides to start a band. His idea is to create the loudest, wildest, most aggressive band in Japan.

Michiro Endo, who is now considered the Iggy Pop-type figure of Japan in legendary status, starts a group called The Stalin. He picks the name The Stalin as the Russian leader was more hated in Japan than Adolf Hitler and figured that name alone should spark some controversy, much the way the Dead Kennedys were doing in the United States. He wanted a band that would interact confrontationally with the audience to inspire thought and action. The Stalin start playing the Shinjuku Loft and are regulars for much of 1980 through 1982 when they held the distinction of being the wildest band in Japan until other hardcore acts like G.I.S.M., Execute, Confuse, Kuro, Ghoul, Cobra, and many others start around 1982.

Michiro Endo was known to get naked on stage and rush the audience, or blast the audience with fire extinguishers and human feces, or throw dead pig or fish heads into groups of his fans, and he was also known to pull hair, spit on, and even beat up audience members all the while singing/yelling into a bullhorn. Through all of this, the band gained huge audiences and enjoy a huge cult following even today. The Stalin started releasing records in 1980, but their first full-length LP Trash, was not released until December 1981.

By the time their second LP Stop Jap, came out in 1982, they were on their way to national success, playing large hall venues and appearing in two films as themselves; Burst City and Carnival In The Night.

From 1982 up until around 1990, Japan had thousands of new wave and punk bands that ran the gamut from small-time to commercially successful. Besides all of the hardcore bands, Japan started to see the emergence of all-female punk bands that were still somewhat of a controversy in their male-dominated culture. The all-girl band Shonen Knife being the prime example that opened the doors for bands like the 5,6,7,8’s and etc.

Another notable band that started in Nagoya in 1977 was The Star Club. The Star Club have had many releases starting with their first in 1978 and still tour today and even have an upcoming show scheduled at The Loft, which is still the main alternative venue in Japan for both local and touring bands even after 35 years! Another band that a whole book could be written about is The Blue Hearts who sold hundreds of thousands of records in the 1990s and made punk openly acceptable for the masses as their controversially political songs funneled into average households via their infectious power-pop punk hooks. Their song “Linda, Linda, Linda” also inspired a film also titled Linda, Linda, Linda. Then there is the infamous Guitar Wolf who started releasing material internationally during the mid-1990s and continues on today. They recently starred in a Japanese Horror-Punk film titled Wild Zero that portrayed them as modern-day anti-heroes living out their rock & roll dreams.

I cannot begin to document the era post-1982 within the confines of an article so I won’t. I feel that I barely have enough salient information for even this article, but I hope that this article creates interest in a scene that is huge and largely untapped by Western punks. Punk is alive and well in Japan today and there are many great bands both past and present that merit a listen. Go dig!


  1. Sirat Buck

    Hi, I really like this article. I’m doing a paper on Asian Punk for one of my classes. The class is an Arts Review class so It can be a little more opinionated. Anyways, I think this article will really help me a lot. Thanks.

  2. I am reading this now
    And like the music
    But Jagatara do not sound Punk
    To me

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *