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It can be surprising how culture affects style, creativity, and action altogether. The post-World War II period revealed a profound impact on the art and entertainment life of different countries. For Japan, it was the boom of Rokabiri (rockabilly) music that made quite a difference in the lives of many teenagers during the 1950s. This song genre not only paved the way for a newfound passion for music and the rise of phenomenal artists, it also proved how music can shape minds and a significant part of the music industry. Get to know the story behind this classic rock ‘n roll making its way to Japanese hearts, and eventually becoming part of Japan’s pop music history.

The Emergence of ‘Rokabiri’

Image Credit: The Wagon Masters

The Rockabilly genre is a combination of elements from rhythm and blues and hillbilly (country) music originating from the United States from 1952-1954. Japanese groups that were heavily influenced by this music came together near the end of the American occupation and embraced this identity inspired by the the military’s after-hours entertainment in bars and dancehalls. During these times, performing music in front of an audience was considered both as a livelihood and as a hobby, and without a doubt associated to American military bases settled in the country. Performers took on the challenge to sing the songs in English and even enunciate the lyrics with a rural southern white accent as most of their audience members were GIs. 

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As the economy of Japan slowly returned to its pre-war level, record companies Nippon Columbia and the Japan Victor Company (JVC) started to think about developing a musical entertainment industry that was not closely related to the American troops’ after-hour enjoyment. It was Ihara Takatada who formed the first cowboy or Western group called ‘The Wagon Boys’. Later on, they emerged into a more professional group called ‘Wagon Masters’ who was known to be the first Western group in Japan that had an audience outside military bases. Takatada signed the group to Nippon Columbia and envisioned releasing such kind of songs that could connect to the younger generation. The Wagon Masters performed songs in English led by their vocalist Kazuya Kosaka, and began to sing Japanese translations of western songs. Kosaka and the group’s successful cover of Elvis Presley’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ in 1956 became the spark that kicked off the Rokabiri craze in Japan.

Reminiscing the 1950’s Western Carnival and its Fans

Image Credit: The Atlantic

By 1953, different Western groups began to hold concerts in movie theater in Yurakucho, Tokyo. Hori, Takeo, and Kusano Hoichi of the Wagon Masters organized these performances and called it the ‘Western Carnival’. Its growth led the event to move to a much larger venue at the Nichigeki Theater (Nihon Gekijyou) situated in the Chiyoda district of Tokyo. Thanks to the ‘Rokabiri Madam’ Watanabe Misa and the Watanabe Production Company, more concert events at the Nichgeki Western Carnival were sought after by crowds who adored this new face of Japanese pop music. The carnival was able to accommodate the raucous dancing and excitable behavior among fans getting into the styles of rockabilly performances.

The trio acts of Hirao Masaaki, Yamashita Takeshi, and Micky Curtis were a delight to the popular press and the Japanese youth. Hirao became a part of the All Star Wagon, an offshoot group of the Wagon Masters. He followed the steps of Kosaka Kayuza as Japan’s Elvis Presley, and went on to have a fruitful career as a songwriter. During the week, over 45,000 fans would flock the carnival and watch the group perform. The rokabirizoku (rockabilly tribes), many of which are students, became subject to backlash from police and media as these teenagers would leave classes to get performance tickets to the carnival. Boys in their pounding energy would drag the performers from the stage, while girls on their hula shirts and black slacks would fling stolen toilet paper rolls to the stage and attempt to kiss artists after their performances.

Links to Youth Socio-Political Movements and Juvenile Delinquency

Image Credit: The Atlantic

Rokabiri and its artists faced opposition from local authorities and preceded the great decline of the rokabirizoku in the years 1959-60. Glenn Altschuler, an American rock n’ roll historian, perceived the cause to be the connection between rock n’ roll and the civil rights movement for racial integration and other socio-political changes. Glenn also noted the influence of rock n’ roll over unsettling mainstream values that allowed teenagers to distinguish themselves from the ways of the older generation. 

Several accounts from interviews with rokabiri artists uncovered possible reasons behind the aggressive restraint of city and national authorities against rokabiri along the streets of Tokyo. There was an increasing trend in juvenile crime which reached a peak in 1958. This concerned the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) under the leadership of Kishi Nobusuke. Aside from a proposed educational reform for students, the clampdown against rokabiri increased as the LDP and Tokyo police feared that student radical movements against the party coincided with attendees joining the Western Carnival concerts. Parents and school officials were also concerned that the fans of the music mirrored their American counterparts with alleged open sexuality and outlandish behaviour. However, even with a close pattern of socio-political movements and concert schedules happening, it cannot be proved that student radicals and rokabiri are a single entity that serves as a threat to the LDP.

Switching to ‘Light Pop’

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In the face of a new political setup, rokabiri faced the harsh reality of having crucial conflicts in the conflation of pop culture with political protest. The continued backlash that it received made the organizers of the Western Carnival and record companies think that the music would not survive for long. The rokabiri bumu (rockabilly boom) was on the brink of its end. To safekeep this newfound music and its large fan base, producers and executives made the decision to switch into a softer and sweeter sound of male artists – in contrast to rockabilly’s loud and rash nature – to attract their female consumers.

The shift to a pop-oriented and family-friendly style became an easy transition, especially with the rapid economic growth happening at the same time. A change in the political establishment also saw a significant decline in opposition, such as student radicalism and rebellious teenage behaviour. Moving forward, rokabiri stars such as Hirao Masaaki started to sing new pop songs instead of making covers of American music. Artists were also groomed to be unthreatening and ‘kawaii’ (cute) singers. Since then, original Japanese pop hits as ‘light pop’ rather than rock sold thousands and millions of copies that reshaped the Japanses music industry that we know today.