This month we bring you a recording of an FM radio broadcast of Japan performing at The Budokan, Tokyo in December 1982. The band had already decided to split just as they were beginning to experience commercial success in the UK and abroad, and this concert was the fifth from last show on their final tour.
Japan were formed in London in 1974 by David Sylvian (vocals, guitar, keyboards), Steve Jansen (drums), Richard Barbieri (keyboards) and Mick Karn (bass guitar). They started out as a glam rock-inspired band but developed their sound to incorporate electronic music and art rock influences, eventually becoming an influence on the 1980s New Romantic scene in the UK, although the band themselves were not a part of it.
The first pair of Japan albums - Adolescent Sex and Obscure Alternatives - stirred little in the way of sales, or of press interest in the bands’ native country. However, whether it was by dint of their propitious name, or their striking visual image, in Japan the country, they were feted. They apparently had a fan club of over 30,000 members before they’d even released a record.
By the time of their third album – 1979’s Quiet Life – Japan had a new, more sympathetic producer in the shape of John Punter – and had made a daring stylistic shift, eschewing the clipped rock/ funk for a sleeker, synthesizer-dominant sound that had more of a contemporary feel. That Punter had worked with Roxy Music and the solo Bryan Ferry, as well as art rockers like Doctors of Madness didn’t harm his cachet with Japan.
In 1980, again with Punter at the controls, they released the rather well-received Gentlemen Take Polaroids. The album was also notable insofar as it marked the first collaboration between Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto, then member of Yellow Magic Orchestra, on the track ‘Taking Islands in Africa’ which appears in this set. They had first met when Sakamoto interviewed him for a Japanese magazine. As Sakamoto recalled, “We became like long-time friends in five minutes. David is delicate, patient, deep-thinking, patient and strong.”
It was 1981’s Tin Drum which would catapult Japan into the best-seller’s lists. Installing Steve Nye of Penguin Cafe Orchestra in the production role, Tin Drum marked an artistic high water mark that was also matched by units shifted. With this album the band extended their appeal to slightly older music fans who had clearly warmed to what they were doing. Factor in the whole Bowie/ Roxy Music fan base who were looking for something new, and those fans of Gary Numan and Human League, and you could see things were really happening for Japan. Tin Drum gave Japan a Top 5 hit single "Ghosts" in 1982.
And so to this concert with the Sylvian/ Karn /Barbieri /Jansen core joined by Masami Tsuchiya on guitar. By now nearing the end of what was named the Sons of Pioneers tour, the band is in excellent form. Mick Karn’s bass work is outstanding, driving the likes of ‘Quiet Life’ along, swooping and sawing, with Barbieri’s percolating keyboards maintaining the tension at the heart of the song. Sylvian is his usual cool, detached vocal self, but these aren’t dialled in; he is clearly investing in the songs, and quite obviously enjoying the performance. ‘Ghosts’ is hugely atmospheric, with Barbieri colouring the rendition with suitably eerie synthesizer tonalities. It’s a majestic version, a real culmination of the Japan project, and ‘Tin Drum’ the point at which the collective have finally sloughed off the old skin of being slaves to their influences, and, even at this somewhat valedictory stage, become something original.
An added bonus as this is a Tokyo show, is that the band are joined on some numbers by members of Yellow Magic Orchestra with whom they had become friends – ‘Bamboo Music’ is a duet featuring Akiko Yano, ‘Taking Islands In Africa’ features Yukihiro Takahashi, and Ryuichi Sakamoto also plays on those tracks.
Since Japan split in 1982, Sylvian has pursued a path that has taken him into a more improvisational, more intuitive musical fields. He sang the striking vocal on the song ‘Forbidden Colours’, the theme for the David Bowie starring movie Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto (who also featured in the film), in 1983, and has also recorded collaborative works with the likes of Holger Czukay, Robert Fripp and others, as well as reforming Japan under the name Rain Tree Crow for a one-off project, released in 1991.
Mick Karn sadly passed away in January 2011, from unspecified cancer. His stellar musicianship had earned him kudos and the deep appreciation of his fellow players.
Richard Barbieri has released solo and collaborative ventures, as well as working extensively with the band Porcupine Tree. Sylvian has also collaborated with Richard Barbieri and Steve Jansen on other releases.
Japan continues to have a kind of half-life, sustained through the internet, fan forums, blogs and the odd reissue of their work. They’re still a band that excites wild extremes of opinion; to their fans, they represent a time in their youth when every release, every single picture sleeve or album was pored over and analysed, absorbed, and the music is as vivid and vital as ever.With thanks to Alan Robinson