Purity, culture and cross-culture fandom in Japanese jazz and reggae

I know, I know, right after I said that I would start posting again… Well, I have a good reason, at least. This past weekend I was at the annual Association of Asian Studies meeting. It was hectic, and tiring, and I had a blast. There are some things I will do better next time (assuming I get to go again), but overall I’m pleased with who I met, who I heard and how I spent my time.

On Saturday, I was able to go to the “Individual Papers: Gender, Sex, and Self” panel. It was largely about sociolinguistics, which I know next to nothing about, so I wasn’t sure how useful it would be to me. However, I’ve had an interest in (and written a paper on) cross-dressing characters’ use of gendered pronouns in anime, so I thought I’d see what the current thinking of experts in the field was. I got a lot out of that panel, but I wanted to write about one specific paper from it: “Dreadlocks and Dajare: Localization and Globalization in Japanese Reggae/Dancehall” by Princeton’s Noriko Manabe. Certain parts of her paper reminded me of a chapter in Japan Pop called “Can Japanese Sing the Blues?: ‘Japanese Jazz’ and the Problem of Authenticity” by E. Taylor Atkins. I’m going to simplify like mad, and only use certain parts of the two works, so if you’re at all interested I would suggest looking more closely at Manabe’s and Atkins’ work. (I also didn’t take notes at the conference and haven’t read Atkins in over a year. You get what you pay for, folks.)

Both Atkins and Manabe look at Japanese fans of genres of music which are closely associated with a specific race or ethnicity – reggae with Jamaicans and jazz with African-Americans. When I first read Atkins’ chapter I thought it was interesting, if not really up my alley. After listening to Manabe, though, I’m seeing an intriguing pattern. According to them, both reggae and jazz fans in Japan go to great lengths to maintain the purity of the music they listen to. They manage how they listen to music to make the atmosphere more like the atmosphere they believe the originating community to be. They regard Japanese performers of reggae/jazz with skepticism – to the extent that some fans deny that Japanese performers can make “real” jazz or sing deep reggae notes like Jamaican deejays – and the performers in turn go to some lengths to create pure jazz/reggae. For example, Manabe details Japanese performers taking extended trips to Jamaica, learning and using Jamaican patois and buying background rhythms from Jamaican performers. These attempts to become like the original producers have some nasty side effects, including drug addictions among jazz musicians and homophobia among reggae deejays.

Neither Manabe nor Atkins (at least that I remember) tie Japanese assertions of being one nation, one race into their discussions. Using just two papers, both of which are about musical genres, is a bit of a stretch, but I wonder whether the attitudes are not two sides of the same coin. If you grow up believing that your nation and your people are a homogeneous group that outsiders cannot completely enter or understand, then it makes sense that other peoples might similarly be unknowable to you. If that’s true, then the attitude is unhappily close to orientalism, if in reverse (also very arrogant, in an odd way).

One negative impact of this attitude was clearly displayed by Manabe. Apparently, some Japanese fans and performers of reggae have taken up the homophobia that reggae has begun to move beyond, with those performers either excusing homophobic reggae artists or actively spreading homophobia through their own actions. The implication of many of these jazz and reggae fans’ actions seems to be that a member of one racial/ethnic group can only mimic another group’s culture, not actually join it, no matter how hard he tries. But if that belief underlies their actions, these fans are just trying on Jamaican or African-American culture like a coat that can be taken off at will. I wonder if the lack of willingness to play with the culture/music reflects a lack of confidence in themselves and their own culture. After all, if you are confident in yourself then you feel that you have something to bring to the table. If you truly believed that you, as a Japanese person, could not sing deep reggae notes, but you had confidence in yourself, you might play with the effects that higher notes create. (For the record, Manabe quoted a Japanese artist who explained that the high voice effect actually came from differences in how Japanese sound companies process background tracks, or something along those lines.) Instead, a lot of these fans create very tight strictures surrounding the music and try to fit themselves into those boxes.

So, I’ve been thinking about all of this for the past few days. I’m not sure what the fact that we’re only talking about music genres implies. Would it be different if we talked about sports? Do Japanese housewives watch Korean dramas subbed or dubbed? Then, too, I’m taking the few inches these papers provide and stepping out a couple yards here. You could as easily relate these practices to a sort of decentralized iemoto system with members of the originating culture acting as heads of the line. This raises the question of how Japanese fans view producers of these genres who come from other (non-Jamaican/non-African-American) cultures as well. Hopefully someone will do some work on all of these questions…

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