‘Society was volatile. That spirit was in our music’: how Japan created its own jazz

Postwar Japan embraced the music of its former enemy – and, powered by anti-establishment feeling, remade it. As they find a new global audience, the country’s jazz innovators explain what drove them

The story of Japanese jazz is about music and a movement, but also a nation’s state of mind – a daring vision of a better future after the second world war, sounded out on piano, drums and brass. Jazz is a distinctly American art form – the US’s greatest cultural achievement, in fact, along with hip-hop – and a healthy scene had formed in the 1920s and 30s as American players toured the clubs of Tokyo, Kobe and Osaka. But Japan had historically been an insular nation – its policy of sakoku, which for more than two centuries severely limited contact with the outside world, had only ended in the 1850s – and an increasingly nationalist government, feeling jazz diluted Japanese culture, began to crack down. By the second world war, “the music of the enemy” was outlawed.

After the country’s surrender, occupying forces oversaw sweeping reforms. American troops brought jazz records with them; Japanese musicians picked up work entertaining the troops. There was a proliferation of jazz kissa (cafes), a distinctly Japanese phenomenon where locals could sit and listen to records for as long as they wanted. For some, jazz was the sound of modernity.

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