3 Days of Punk Culture in Shinjuku, Tokyo
From October 11th to 13th, I’ll be visiting Tokyo to see a huge punk rock music festival, Kappunk, in Shinjuku. With its signature kappa (a Japanese mythological monster) mascot, Kappunk festival hosts dozens of punk rock bands from all over the world for 3 full days of hardcore rock festivities. It sparked a thought for me, how does Japanese punk culture compare to that of the UK or America?
In 1970s Japan, punk emerged in Japan inspired by the movement in the West. The music in the Kanto area (Tokyo and Saitama) was much like it’s UK and American big brothers and appeared in anti-establishment social protests of the time. Now while in America, a little rebellion is profitable and you could be a bit racy and still get a record label, in Japan with its more conservative culture, bands faced a lot more censorship and blockage. Punk culture all over the world is known for “do it yourself” style, but especially in Japan, bands at this time became masters of self-promotion.
One might think, if Japan is more conservative, does that mean punk bands were more conservative too? The answer is a resounding “nope!” Even in Japan in the late 70s, one could expect outlandish and grotesquely titillating displays by bands like The Stalin and Zuno Keisatsu (Brain Police). And these displays were even in the “normal” punk scene of Tokyo. A trip out west to the “weird” side of punk in Osaka brought you to the birthplace of “noise rock,” with much more deconstructed musical stylings. Still, punk has never been one thing, no matter where you are in the world. The 80s brought a more melodic, poppy sound to punk with bands like The Blue Hearts who are still beloved to this day. Influenced by the glam-rockers of the era, the beginnings of “visual kei” were also formed during this time.
In further preparation for this article, I talked a bit with PNX News Japan host, Kenny DaSilva, a Japanese American who lived through the punk scene in LA in the 1980s. He described a similar phenomenon in the West with punk culture inspiring other subcultures like goth and reggae, then called “funky punk.”
To him, punk is rebellion. It was born from nothing, from the underground and local garages. The people in the culture would all band together as a chosen family of misfits who set out to shock the world into change, to be individuals. No matter where you were in the world, or what time period you were in, that aspect endured. So I asked him how Japan compared and he said that after leaving the old school LA scene and coming to Japan, he lived in Roppongi and quickly befriended people in a small punk shop in Shibuya called HELLO.
Unfettered by his hardcore style, they became fast friends and took him to some underground gigs. He was surprised by how safe it was there, even how polite people were! Sasuga, Japan. No violence, no spit fights. He also noted just how hardworking Japanese punks were. While Western punk could be more raw, untrained, in Japan, any music is still art and art is still a craft to be mastered. Still, it’s simply a different style of punk. Just like he’ll never get the same LA punk he grew up with, Japanese punk is just different. Like everything, punk evolves, he says. I think it always will.
I also talked a bit with Derek Baker of the UK’s Drongo’s for Europe, who I’m looking forward to seeing play at Kappunk on October 13th. He had stories from playing all over the world and they all shared the same themes I mentioned before. For instance, Derek recounted playing in Tijuana, Mexico where after talking with some Mexican punk bands, he realized the venues were trying to scam them out of some money, thinking they were easy targets. So he teamed up and the bands arranged to perform right across the street at a local restaurant.
Now imagine, this is just a restaurant. Not only was it a last minute gig, they didn’t even have a stage. And yet the place became packed and the gig was a huge success. A bit rowdy and messy, to be sure, but nevertheless a testament to their passion and comfort with each other as a chosen family. Regardless of geography, punks are family.
After hearing about the fast and lasting friendships all over the world from Derek and Kenny, I’m beyond excited to see what Tokyo has to offer at this music festival. For anyone else who wants to see what punk has evolved into in Japan and overseas, tickets are now on sale for Kappunk in Tokyo, Japan! Click here for the home page and a full set list for venues all over Shinjuku.