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The story of jazz in Japan is one of cultural osmosis, arriving on Japanese shores through the interchange of globalisation. Technological innovation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries led to a steep rise in the transportation of people and goods, enabling cultural products and practices to be exchanged internationally through trade and tourism industries.

From the  1800s through the early 1900s, Japan and America enjoyed a relatively untroubled relationship. Even despite the former’s Sakoku period between 1639 and 1853, in which trade and relations with Japan were severely capped, force-backed diplomatic missions led by American captains, James Glynn and Matthew C. Perry, had established the first successful negotiations with the Tokugawa shogunate. This allowed for trade to continue at a restricted rate. However, it also gave Japan a glimpse at how behind they were in terms of technological advancement.  

Commodore Matthew C. Perry lands in Japan, 1854. Public Domain

Seeing these great hulking battleships wash up on their beaches, the Japanese would eventually scrap the Sakoku policy in 1868 so that Japan could play catch up with modernity. Figures such as Shimazu Nariakira, a feudal lord of the Edo era, concluded that “if we take the initiative, we can dominate; if we do not, we will be dominated.” Thus, the nation threw open its doors to welcome Western powers in an effort to combine modern advances with eastern values. This would lead to an increase in cultural exchange, with western products and entertainment making their way to Japan via these newly relaxed relations. 

The SS Adriatic 1907 via/WikiCommons

The loosening of foreign policy allowed for many rich Americans and Japanese to travel across the Pacific, boarding luxury liners which would travel to and fro, visiting places like Shanghai and Manila. Jazz was already popular in America in the early 1900s, and many of these liners would hire bands to entertain their guests for the duration of the cruise.

Jazz dance club in 1933 from Mainichi Shinbun in “Blue Nippon: Authenticating Jazz in Japan” by E. Taylor Atkins

This led to a cultural exchange with American musicians visiting Asian cities and transposing their jazz learnings in bars and clubs, while Asian musicians would visit places like San Francisco and Seattle, buying records and sheet music of whatever was popular at the time, and playing them in hotel lobby orchestras back home. The stress here on the term Asians, as it wasn’t simply the Japanese injecting the nation with foxtrot and ragtime. In fact, the biggest contributor to the spread of jazz in Japan came from the Philippines.

The Pinoy Effect

Occupied by the USA from 1898 until 1946, and later by Japan, the Philippines was a melting pot of American culture. Filipino musicians were being taught jazz, playing in ocean liners and hotel lobby orchestras in places like Kobe and Osaka and Shanghai. Due to their Americanized education, these musicians would perfect the art of jazz and bring these teachings to Japanese shores. Despite their traditionally conservative trading and immigration rules, Japan acknowledged the American occupation, allowing for trading activities and immigration with the Philippines to grow enormously, resulting in an exchange of musical cultural.

The Dave Apollon ensemble. His “Manila Orchestra,” 1920s

One of these musicians was the famous Filipino jazz pianist, Luis Borromeo, who was sent from his native island to the USA to study jazz. Finding success after an impromptu performance at the San Francisco Pan-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, he went on to sign a multi-year contract with the Orpheum Theatre chain, touring with a vaudeville-style stage show until eventually moving back to the Philippines to start his own company. Later coined the “King of Jazz” in his home country, Borromeo, who would later be billed as “Borromeo Lou”, is but one of many Filipino musicians who would inadvertently nurture the spread of jazz in Japan and East Asia as a whole. 

Cover art for Jazzy Jazzy Sound in All Chinatown, 1920

Political Chops

There is also the case that many Japanese scholars made frequent contact with African American communities in the early 20th Century, leading to a greater imparting of jazz culture. Figures such as Yasuichi Hikida, who was educated in the U.S. in the 1920s and 30s, were a key component in the transposal of genre, fostering relationships with many prominent African-Americans of the Jazz Age. Hikida made friends with activists such as W.E.B. Du Bois, leader of the Harlem Renaissance, who would provide a window into the world of American jazz: artists such as Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. 

W.E.B. Du Bois by James E. Purdy, 1907

Incidentally, it was later uncovered that Hikida was a point man planted by the Japanese government in an operation to exacerbate racial tensions in the United States. Intending to gather information pertaining to African Americans and their struggles in America, the so-called “Negro Propaganda Operations” were initiated to feed on the racial discrimination Black Americans faced, and to incite revolution. 

At the time, the Second Sino-Japanese War had just begun, pitting Japan against China, which had allied itself with the West. Tensions were rising between America and Japan and once the prospect of an all-out war became inevitable, the operation was scrapped. Yet, despite these political motivations, instances like this helped propel jazz into Japanese pop culture, with Du Boid even visiting Hikida in Japan, in 1937, to thank him for his efforts in supporting the African American community. Unfortunately, these were the last forays of the genre’s international osmosis until World War Two brought the transmission to a standstill. 

Letter from Du Bois to Hikida in 1937

War-time Break

After finding supreme popularity in Japan, the advent of World War Two prompted an abrupt end to the spread of jazz. It was banned, along with many other aspects of American pop culture, and replaced with traditional Japanese music to benefit the country’s wartime conservatism. This was not the first time that jazz had struggled to find its footing in the country, however. In an interview with NPR, jazz expert, Professor E. Taylor Atkins suggests that during the 1920s, the genre had already faced “hostile reactions” from the music establishment: “People who were published or wrote about music, people who were involved with Western classical music. And when they would object to jazz and say it was inferior.” 

While the wartime ban was put in place to bolster national conservatism, it could be argued that it came out of a reluctance of the ruling classes to adhere to the free-flowing, discordant pleasures of the American genre. Like hip-hop, jazz was embraced by the young, urban class while the governing bodies, the musical elites and purveyors of culture, saw it as a slight on classical Western compositions that had come before; “that’s what they would compare it to. They weren’t comparing it to any Japanese traditions.” The advent of World War Two simply brought that historic rejection back to the surface and gave reason for the government to brandish the genre as “enemy music.” However, by that time, jazz had already become far too popular to be fully extinguished. 

Japanese anti-American propaganda poster depicting President Franklin D. Roosevelt

The Root of Japanese Jazz

Tokyo had acted as the epicentre for Japanese jazz throughout the early 20th century, with dance bands performing in many of the city’s music halls and theatres. Yet, due to the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, many of the city’s musicians and establishments moved to Osaka, Japan’s other major cultural centre. There, jazz would continue to grow and develop, even throughout the war era, with groups performing at two dozen newly-built dance halls in 1924. Even when the city banned the use of dancehalls to try and stem the spread of Americanisms in 1927, the genre continued in smaller venues, prompting the origination of the first “jazz kissaten” (jazz café), Chigusa, in 1933. Situated in the Dōtonbori district, Chigusa gave audiences a place to enjoy the smooth beats of slow-town blues or the frenetic heights of the swing era without fear of being shut down by governments or classical snobs.  

Chigusa “jazz kissaten” in Dōtonbori

According to jazz critic Karl Ackerman for All About Jazz, the Dōtonbori district soon became known as the “Japanese jazz mecca,” a moniker that it would maintain even after a catastrophic bombing run in 1945, by American fighter jets, which burned down Chigusa only for it to be rebuilt in the port city of Yokohama. Later becoming the hangout for future stars such as Akiyoshi and trumpeter, Terumasa Hino, jazz in Osaka survived, “sometimes tucked away in small neighborhoods that came through the war years with their rickety wooden buildings and tea houses intact.” 

Coffee and jazz at Chigusa

Post-World War Two Pickup

After World War Two, the American occupation of Japan saw the genre brought back to popularity. Thousands of American troops were stationed in Japan, bringing their homegrown culture with them. They would hire Japanese musicians off the street to play at their clubs and events, with many officer’s establishments offering stable employment for regular gigs. It actually turned out to be one of the safer ways for Japanese musicians to make money, as Atkins affirms, “the [American] occupation years” saw “a lot of widespread unemployment, and musicians did pretty well because they could get these gigs.” The army would give the musicians stock arrangements, requesting bops and new renditions of big band classics such as Duke Ellington’s “Cotton Tail” or Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.” The lack of musicians in Japan meant it was difficult to curate big band performances, leading to a shift towards smaller groups.  

Swing band practice, Heart Mountain, Wyoming, 9 December 1942

Additionally, the nation saw its introduction to bebop due to black soldiers’ clubs preferring the new style to that of the dance hall predecessor. Atkins cites a formative moment in iconic Japanese jazz pianist, Toshiko Akiyoshi’s career, who “was one of a very small handful of artists who insisted on playing bebop only,” performing at these clubs with the likes of American musicians, Hampton Hawes and Ed Thigpen.  

Toshiko Akiyoshi via The Benefits of Cold Coffee: A Music Review

Original or Standard?

Since World War Two, jazz has continued to grow in popularity in Japan yet has suffered from the issue of authenticity. In the 60s especially, Japanese jazz was criticized for its lack of national identity. Being a Western genre, with strong ties to the African American struggle and later by the white-facing Americanisms of freedom and liberty, Japanese musicians had rarely strayed from the styles already entrenched. Many critics suggested that Japanese jazz musicians merely reciprocated what had come before, even if doing it spectacularly, without injecting any sort of uniquely Japanese nuances. Atkins refers to the Swing Journal, the leading Japanese jazz periodical, which would make comparisons, such as, “George Kawaguchi is the Japanese Gene Krupa. They would make these comparisons all the time, trying to make sense of what these musicians were doing.” 

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Adversely, it was also the musicians that were doing this themselves, openly comparing their styles to their Western forebears without shame. They didn’t see the need for adding Japanese instruments simply to imbue a uniquely exotic flair, welcoming the comparisons and seeing it as a necessary part of their development as an artist. As Ackerman points out, “The quality of the musician was judged not on his or her ability to improvise or to build cultural bridges, but on the musician’s aptitude for impersonation.” 

Over the course of the century, things started to change, with Japanese musicians seeing the call for musical mutation and employing it thus. A notable example is when Akiyoshi received a request from Buddhist monks to compose a memorial piece about the near-obliteration of Hiroshima in 1945 by American bombers. Composed of six tracks bookended by loosely related pieces, the 2003 album, Hiroshima: Rising from the Abyss, is meant as an anti-war statement, curating verbal readings from the diaries of Hiroshima survivors positioned throughout. 

Album art for Hiroshima – Rising from the Abyss

Alongside her husband, saxophonist, Lew Tabackin, drummer Kawaguchi, and Won Jang-Hyun on Korean flute, Akiyoshi creates a cycle of musical emotions, taking us, as Ackerman writes, “from the energy of a large, modern city, to the horror of its atomic bombing … to the slowly developing hopefulness of rebuilding structures and lives.” Utilising Hyun’s exotic woodwind inflexions to provide a newly ensconced hybrid of Japanese music with the traditional big band formula, Akiyoshi delves into the nation’s history to deliver an emotional journey that is authentically Japanese. 

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Freedom or Finesse?

Jazz has meant many things over the years. Originating in the slave community in New Orleans, Louisiana in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to connote the struggles of the African diaspora, or later, when it became connected with the idea of America’s national spirit: of opportunity and freedom and the pursuit of the American dream. It has crossed countries, with people in the Soviet Bloc seeing the genre as a representation of something different from the restrictive measures of the Soviet Union.

Jazz is representative of all these things and more, the right to freedom and movement, as well as the pursuit of excellence and ability above all else. And Japan embodies this wholly, producing artists that have pushed the boundaries of the genre and maintained its popularity well after its peak in the 30s and 40s. The 60s and 70s in particular were a grandiose era for Japanese jazz, experiencing a renaissance of the genre with artists experimenting with musical influences from around the world and domestically.  

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Japan has always had a knack for absorbing foreign cultures and replicating them in masterful ways. Coffee in Japan has only existed for about 100 years, and now they’re at the precipice of the culture. Portable music systems such as the cassette player wouldn’t have hit the heights of the iPhone if it were not for the Japanese Sony Walkman released in 1979. This is all part of a process known, somewhat derivatively, as Japanization, in which the nation dominates, influences and assimilates other cultures to make them uniquely Japanese. Only, with jazz, it appears that assimilation is as far as this blues train will go. There is no need for the Japanese to alter jazz in order to make it culturally appropriate for them to play. Jazz is a continually evolving medium, spurred by improv and technique. Atkins goes even so far as to suggest that he doesn’t “think there’s such a thing as Japanese jazz in the sense of something that represents a cultural essential or spirit or something like that. One of the interesting things — some of the people most interested in using Japanese instruments and repertoire are not Japanese themselves.” 


Japanese jazz is jazz. Taking the legacy of the genre, the chops and grooves and producing new works that don’t try to authenticate the nation’s position within it, but instead simply to make great fucking music. And there is an abundance of it. Collating various sub-genres and styles, and proving that Japan can absorb technique and history and transpose it into greatness, here are five recordings worth listening to in your quest for the best in Japanese jazz.

Jiro Inagaki & Soul Media – Funky Stuff (1975)

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Born October 3rd 1933, Jiro Inagaki has performed in various bands in various roles. After playing the saxophone and flute for collaborations with some of Japan’s greatest jazz musicians such as Frankie Sakai and Hideo Shiraki, Jirō started his own band, Jiro Inagaki & Soul Media in 1969. With albums that have been reissued countless times, Jiro’s fusion of black funk with jazz-rock is atypical of Japan’s ability to take the musical cues of the genre and create masterworks. Give this a listen for fresh beats and cool grooves. 

Ryo Fukui – Scenery (1976)

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An expert accordionist and self-taught pianist, Ryo Fukui is celebrated as one of Japan’s standout jazz musicians. Born in Sapporo in 1948 and moving to Tokyo in 1976, Fukui performed under the mentorship of saxophonist Hidehiko Matsumoto and later, under the legendary American musician, and exponent of the bebop style, Barry Harris. A musical prodigy who failed to recognise his own success, Fukui’s first album, Scenery, has found continual success over the years, regaining popularity in the early 2010s on streaming platforms such as YouTube and Spotify. All but ignored in America on release, Fukui’s curation of original and repurposed jazz tracks offers a smooth fuse of modal, bop, and cool jazz influences.

Hiroshi Suzuki – Cat (1975)

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Japanese American jazz trombonist, Hiroshi Suzuki is perhaps most well known for playing with influential American drummer Buddy Rich. However, Suzuki’s own works arguably outshine his transpacific collaborations. Born in 1933, Suzuki spent the majority of his playing in Las Vegas, moving to Tokyo in 1975 to record his only studio album, Cat. Offering his own vision of fusion jazz, “characterized less by perfection and more by a fine groove,” the album was released to little acclaim, yet has since found success after being reissued in 2015. It has even been lauded as a pioneer of the lo-fi genre, sampled in endless compilations online.

Masayoshi Takanaka – All Of Me (1979)

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Masayoshi Takanaka is the bee’s knees when it comes to jazz-rock, jazz fusion, pop, rock and everything in between. Born in 1953, and releasing over thirty studio albums since beginning his career in 1971, Takanaka is known for combining the glitz of glam rockstars of the 70s, and bringing his own flair and energy to jazz-rock; his trademark “lagoon-blue” Yamaha SG guitar is perhaps proof of that. Frenetic riffs, long, drawn-out acapella moments, and funky beats characterise Takanaka’s prodigious output, collaborating with several other musical acts, such as Santana and the Sadistic Mika Band. A compilation album of some of his greatest hits, All Of Me is my go-to energy drink when I need a boost while writing these articles.

Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band – Insights (1976)

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Of course, this list would be nothing without the Queen of Japanese jazz herself, Toshiko Akiyoshi, whose achievements in the genre have arguably eclipsed that of any of her forebears, or successors. Born in 1929, in Liaoyang, Manchuria, to Japanese colonists, Akiyoshi was introduced to jazz when a local record collector played her a record of Teddy Wilson’s “Sweet Lorraine.” Inspired by his swing style and unbeatable improv skills, Akiyoshi began to study jazz, moving to the Berkley School of Music in 1956 to become their first Japanese student. Forming the band, the Toshiko Akiyoshi – Lew Tabackin Big Band in 1973, Akiyoshi has scored numerous hits from her 1953 debut album, Toshiko’s Piano, all the way to her aforementioned anti-war piece, Hiroshima – Ring from the Abyss in 2002. 


About Simon Jenner

A writer, screenwriter and interminable procrastinator who explores storytelling through art and culture. Connect with me for articles about film, anime, gaming and more.