You may know Kyoto for its golden pavilion, its temple balconies overlooking verdant glades of Momiji maple, rock gardens that look like oceans. But do you know its central role in the history of Japan’s folk music culture? The music from this time and region went on to be called “Angura Folk”, short for “Underground Folk”, or simply “Kansai Folk”, after the Western Japanese region it is associated with.
Across two days in 1967, the venerable, ancient capital played host to a rabble of rag-tag hippies for the first of four seminal “Folk Camps”. The camps took place between 1967 and 1969. They introduced a swathe of singers that would either become full-blown musical stars, or respected cult music figures, throughout the Japanese nation. It is fair to say that these shows are the closest Japanese equivalent to the famous Newport Folk Festivals that happened in America in the early to mid-1960s which helped to launch the careers of the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter Paul & Mary and others.
The corresponding names to appear at Folk Camp are perhaps as well known in their native land as the ones mentioned above are in the Western World. They include The Folk Crusaders, Wataru Takada, Itsutsu No Akai Fusen, and the so-called “King of Folk”, Nobuyasu Okabayashi.
Where the Newport Folk Festival happened on the site of what was previously a military fort, the first Folk Camp happened in a temple, Jingoji, nestled in Kyoto's North Western, Takao hills. Perhaps there isn’t too much we should read into the American event being held in a military complex and the Japanese in a religious one, but it does provide for an interesting contrast.
Let’s take a look at 5 Kansai Folk artists and their songs that had a huge impact in Japan.
Nobuyasu Okabayashi 岡林信康
Nobuyasu Okabayashi (Img: Peter Head, Japanoscope)
Kusokurae Bushi クソくらえ節
Nobuyasu is often called the “God of Folk” in Japan, so it makes sense to start here. As crass as it is to draw direct comparisons between artists in different regions, if you had to choose a “Japanese Dylan”, from a fairly thick field of candidates, Okabayashi would be him. The Dylan influence is overt in many of Okabayashi’s 60s recordings, with arrangements and vocal deliveries that clearly hark back to the Nobel-Prize winning folk crooner God of the West.
But, as with many Japanese singers clearly influenced by western counterparts, it would be a waste not to see past these obvious similarities to the singularities that lie beyond. Songs like Sanya Blues are clearly influenced by Enka, Minyo and Japanese pentatonic modalities. The singing style, though sometimes clearly mimicking the nasal drawl of Dylan, also veers into distinctly non-western-sounding tones and timbres for certain songs and phrases. And, of course, what they are singing about is distinct to their own circumstances.
Much of Okabayashi’s early music was very much protest orientated and was censored or blocked from release in Japan.
The most striking example of a Okabayashi song that the Japanese government attempted to erase from the history of Japanese pop music was his song Kusokurae Bushi, which translates as “The Eat s**t song”.
Let me translate a few lines from the song here so you get a sense of what the song is about:
“One day a teacher
was preaching to the class
Saying if you want to be a great person
You’ve gotta get the perfect marks
Eat s**t and die!
Eat s**t and die!
If you want to know who’s the smartest guy in the room
It’s the electronic calculator, that’s who”
Any song with a refrain of “Eat s**t and die!” is going to raise eyebrows. But it’s all the more shocking when you consider that Okabayashi was the son of a Christian Minister who had built his own church amid the rice fields of rural Kansai. Indeed, references to “preaching” come up regularly in Okabayashi’s protest songs of the period.
Perhaps the confrontational rhetoric in Okabayashi’s songs reflects the level of social, or hierarchal oppression young Japanese were feeling at the time. Whicher way you look at it, “Eat s**t and die”, exhibits a whole new level of vehemence when compared to Dylan’s “don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall”.
Tomoya Takaishi 高石ともや
Ogiyoshisan, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Jyuken-Sei Blues 受験生ブルース
Tomoya Takaishi holds something of a father figure within the Angura Folk scene of the time. He acted not just as a singer himself, but also as a promoter. He set up a management and production company bearing his own name. He helped bring foreign artists to Japan, and also fostered local talent, including the aforementioned Okabayashi. Three of the other artists listed here (Takada Wataru, Itsutsu No Akai Fusen) are also from the Takaishi stable. If you wanted to be “in” in the late 60s, early 70s folk crowd, hooking up with Takaishi was a good place to start.
One of the other most well-known protest songs of the time is Takaishi’s “Jukensei Blues”, or “Exam Student Blues”. We usually think of protest songs as protesting, well, the big things, like war, or social injustice. Here we see the plight of Japanese students as they protest against the extreme pressures of study, homework, and cram schools. In a country where expectations to study longer and harder are put on the level of a sacred duty, you can see how this would become a fertile area for push back in the questioning era of the late 60s. The song elevates the fight against the strictures and restraints of the Japanese educational “ladder” to the level of social struggle. Different countries, different battles.
Takada Wataru 高田渡
Jieitai Ni Hairo 衛隊に入ろう
To complete the trio of three Japanese protest songs, we have Takada Wataru’s ironically titled Jieitai ni Hairo, or “Why don’t you join the Self Defence Force”. The song is perhaps closer to what we would classically recognise as a war protest song.
Born in Gifu, Wataru’s mother died at 8. His father took him to Tokyo without a plan. They lived in a series of unstable situations, including charity housing. His father died by the time he was in middle school. He was introduced to American folk music in the mid-60s and drifted in and out of Kyoto to be part of the scene that was blossoming there.
He was so devoted to the music that he had his English teacher write a letter to Pete Seeger saying he wanted to learn from him. Remarkably, Pete did reply to the young Japanese fan’s letter, giving him a few pointers on how to hone his troubadour chops. When Pete visited Japan the following year, he got Wataru a front-row seat for his concert.
It was through Pete that Wataru became aware of the song Andora, which Wataru’s took the music from and added his own lyrics to make 自衛隊に入ろう Jieitai ni hairo.
The whole song takes the form of an army recruiter urging the listener to sign up for the armed forces. Wataru did such a good job of taking on this parodic recruiter army marketing role that he got a call from a military official asking if the Self Defence Force could use the song as a promo tool. The military are not renowned for their sense of irony.
I’ve done a full translation and background to Takada Wataru’s Jeitai ni Hairo here, but to give you a sense of the lyrics here is my translation of the first verse and chorus
自衛隊に入ろう 入ろう 入ろう
Hello my friends, are there any there amongst you
Who wants to join the army, who want to learn to shoot
If there’s any there amongst you who want to make a name
Well the army is recruiting, come and join today
Why don’t you join the army
The army’s where it’s at
For all of you men’s men
The army is your best bet
Why don’t you join the army
And fall with the blossom
The Folk Crusaders ザ・フォーク・クルセダーズ
If Nobuyasu Okabayashi is the best candidate for Japan’s Dylan, then The Folk Crusaders are clear front runners for Peter, Paul & Mary.
The song Imjin-gawa, or Imjin River, sounds sweet in a plaintive way. But this song, too, was banned by the government of the time.
The Imjin River is the river that runs between North and South Korea, through the ironically named demilitarised zone. A fairly literal translation of the song’s opening goes:
The pristine water of Imjin River
Burbles as it runs
The waterfowl freely flock and flutter to and fro
My motherland lays in the south
My thoughts are far away
The pristine water of Imjin River
Burbles as it runs
The song is about the dividing of the Communist North from the Capitalist South of Korea. The lyric comes at the issue from a personal perspective, however, of someone, perhaps a lover, pining at the border. I have also done a less literal, and more singable, translation of Imjin River from the Japanese as:
The Imjin River flows so clear
It flows so strong, it flows so deep oh yes my dear
And the waterfowl form flocks and fly
To and fro to and fro
My heart lies in the south
My hope lays at the river's mouth
And the Imjin River flows so clear
It flows so strong it flows so deep oh yes my dear
But even this level of personal longing was too political for the Japan of the time, sensitive as it was to the troubling wave of minority communist sympathisers that seemed to be burbling through the country, much as Imjin River burbles through the song Imjin River as sung by the Folk Crusaders
Itsutsu No Akai Fusen 五つの赤い風船
Toi Sekai Ni 遠い世界に
If we’re going to draw parallels between Western folk artists, then Itsutsu no Akai Fusen (5 Red Balloons) are pretty close to Simon & Garfunkel. With their tight vocals harmonies, gentle flatpicking guitar style and angelic autoharp, the group lends a levity to what can otherwise be a brooding genre.
With their ethereal flute and tinkling glockenspiel arrangements, you get the sense that they have more of an eye on the European Alps than the Appalachian Mountains. You can almost smell the parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.
Their debut 1968 single release included “Toi Sekai Ni” or “To a World Far Away” as the B side to the record. The song seemed popular enough for the single to be released the following year as the A-side.
The song offers a message of hope and light in an uncertain world.
To translate a section,
Shall we take a trip to a world far away?
Or should we climb aboard a red balloon
And take a stroll through the clouds
Using the wind to push away the dark fog
From rainbow-bright sky
Perhaps the dark fog was the fight to reform the America-Japan Security Treaty or the riots over the construction of the then-new international airport at Narita. Perhaps the song was born of a similar desire for a message of hope that led George Harrison to write “Here Comes The Sun” while wandering around Eric Clapton’s garden in 1969, the year after the release of Toi Sekai Ni. We’ll never know what George might have thought of Toi Sekai Ni had he heard it, but I like to think his sunshine would have mixed well with the Red Balloons taking flight in Japan.
The Kansai Folk-Legacy
This is just a quick look at a few of the most representative songs from a long list of potential artists that could have been chosen. The influence of the golden era of folk music continues to be felt in Japanese pop today. You can see a clear line of evolution through work of artists such as Haruomi Hosono as he broke out of the folk-rock scene with his band Happy End, and albums like Hosono House, through electronic and progressive music with Yellow Magic Orchestra and his solo work. These threads blended and evolved into genres such as City Pop, recently experiencing a worldwide renaissance due to the rediscovery of songs such as Miki Matsubara’s Mayonaka No Doa (Stay With Me) on Youtube and Tik Tok, and the upbeat future-retro vibes of Shibuya Kei. Indeed the runaway success of the simple acoustic ballad Kosui by Eito in 2020 shows that the spirit of folk, where all you need is an acoustic guitar, a killer song and a heartfelt performance, lives on, even in the internet age. The Angura Folk heroes might be smiling, saying “first Kansai, then the world”. Probably in Japanese, to the tune of “We Shall Overcome”.
Peter Joseph Head
Peter combines songwriting and performing with a love Japanese language and culture. He holds a Masters Degree in musicology from the Kyoto City University of Arts and holds N1 level certificate of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. He has toured through Japan playing music six times, singing in Japanese and English. His music is released in Japan through the Majikick label in Tokyo.
He runs a website focusing on Japanese culture, language and products with a special interest in translations of Japanese songs. He performs the songs on radio RRR in Melbourne and on his Youtube Channel.