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Purist's Point of View: A graveyard for the Musical Legacy of the West (PART 2)


It was General MacArthur who taught us the merits of democracy and pacifism and guided us with kindness along this bright path. As if pleased with his own children growing up, he took pleasure in the Japanese people, yesterday's enemy, walking step by step toward democracy.
- from the Asahi Shimbun daily, April 1951. (English translation by Ian Buruma.)

If the Anglo-Saxon was, say, 45 years of age in his development, in the sciences, the arts, divinity, culture, the Germans were quite as mature. The Japanese, however, in spite of antiquity measured by time, were in a tuitionary condition. Measured by the standards of modern civilization, they would be like a boy of twelve as compared with our development of 45 years.
- from Douglas MacArthur's testimony at a joint committee of the senate on May 5, 1951.

One of my sons is the leader of a nonprofessional jazz band. Unlike his father and paternal grandfather, this guy is a people person from tip to toe. The only criterion he uses when selecting pieces for the next concert is what his men want to do and what his friends expect him to do. That leaves him no room to comply with his dad's request for "pure" jazz or heed his advice about the articulation and phrasing particular to it.

I would find his attitude toward music more or less acceptable if ever my son were a mercenarily-motivated professional musician. But that is not what he is.

He is not alone; the Japanese, in general, do music in order to bring themselves together, while in a civilized society, the priority is diagonally different; people come together for the purpose of doing music, and not the other way around.

You can see the same inversion of the ends and the means everywhere.

Take sports for example. To them win or lose does not really matter because it's not what sports are all about.

This all stems from their forced immersion in the Wakon Yosai potpourri which has made their behavior toward state policy ambivalent and noncommittal. Over time, people have developed a weird habit of responding to messages from above, or even from peers, without mental engagement. There is no sense of commitment; there is only a sense of obligation.

Against this backdrop, Japanese rulers have found out that the most effective way to prod their subjects into swallowing the cause they can't really relate to is to condition them the same way Ivan Pavlov did his dogs. Now they know it's a breeze to get their messages through in the total absence of common values if they use musical tones in place of verbal messages.

This way the Japanese have become accustomed to reflexively reacting to particular musical pieces artificially associated with particular messages as if they still owe allegiance to the failed regime.

One small example is the street concert given by the garbage truck practically every morning. Over and over we hear the familiar Scottish tune Comin' Through the Rye in between taped messages from the city hall and the local police station. Especially in recent months, this message is repeated over and over again: "Don't remit your money to the designated bank account just because someone you can't positively identify tells over the phone you owe him something; it can be a scam."

I have nothing against the idea of using music for practical purposes. Basically it does no harm to deal with music that way because musical art, or any other art form for that matter, is not consumable. But it's a different story when it comes to the Japanese way of constantly subordinating musical values to something else. They go way over the top in that respect. As is the case with my own son, the younger generations now refuse to receive what little cultural heritage we have to pass on to posterity.

National Anthem

Like any other country, Japan has a statutory anthem which is titled Kimigayo, or His Majesty's Reign. But if you listen to this song, you will notice there are fundamental differences between Kimigayo and other national anthems.

For one thing, the Japanese anthem does not represent any value inherent to the regime in the way La Marseillaise is a manifestation of liberty, equality and fraternity. It is still widely believed that the reign of His Majesty dates back to 660 B.C. when the son of the sun goddess created this country. Kimigayo represents an absurd myth, not values.

Small wonder its lyrics never touch your heart strings. Actually, no Japanese understands, or wants to understand, what these enigmatic words want to say.

To make the lyrics even more incomprehensible, the tune does not fit into the drawling words in terms of articulation and intonation. It is said an obscure German composer by the name of Franz Eckert wrote the melody with the help of two Japanese. He should have known that it was next to impossible to make his tune, which is more or less in line with the Western scale, go with the Japanese words, which are as flat as the Great Plains.

All this has made Kimigayo the world's most yawnful (disgustingly so) national anthem. Yet Japanese have never thought about abandoning it, because to them a national anthem does not have to bear any musical value, let alone represent such values as liberty and equality.

Deep inside, however, they wish they could sing a more singable song with straightforward lyrics, such as Das Deutschlandlied (The Song of Germany) composed by Joseph Haydn.

That is evident from the fact that in the late-1940s NHK virtually selected Beethoven's 9th Symphony, often referred to as Daiku (or No. 9) here, as Japan's second national anthem.

In this country there are thirty professional orchestras including the one owned by NHK. If you include semiprofessional and nonprofessional ones, there are thousands of them. And believe it or not, especially in December, practically every one of them takes up this particular symphony for its regular concert.

Once again, the selection was nothing but arbitrary; the substitute anthem didn't necessarily have to be Daiku. Any other musical piece would have been considered to serve the purposes as long as it comes from the West, and sounds grandiose.

Now even a plumber can sing along to the famous theme of its 4th movement. Of course they don't have the slightest idea about what Friedrich Schiller's lyrics say. To them, the more incomprehensible the words, the more profound they sound, as is true with the sutra chanted by the Buddhist monk at the funeral.

Rajio Tiaso, or Calisthenics on Radio and TV

If you have visited a Japanese company, or foreign company owned by the Japanese, first thing in the morning, it is likely that you have seen the employees doing an exotic exercise at the company yard or in the office to a boring tune on the radio. You thought they were warming up for the day's work, or just trying to physically keep in shape. But you were wrong. Rajio Taiso is not aerobics or Tai Chi.

Actually it's yet another invention in the wartime NHK should be given credit for.

In those days, the broadcaster repeated a slogan that went: "A hundred million hearts should burn like a fireball (一億火の玉となって)" to fight back barbarians from the West. The broadcaster thought a gymnastic exercise was needed to spark that fireball.

Hitlerjugend (the Hitler Youth) was doing a similar thing, but it was primarily intended to develop physical strength and agility. Besides, the Germans never thought they could train adults that way.

It's interesting to know that the "new NHK" thought it was necessary to revive the same Rajio Taiso format even under the war-renouncing Constitution. Once again it was intended to nourish a sense of oneness among people and loyalty to organizations to which they belong. Even today the Japanese are doing the standard exercise to the supposedly airy tunes (there are two sets of routines) at home, in the workplace and school yards. This ensures harmony and unity among the 127 million people by mentally, or even spiritually warming them up every morning. .

Is There Japanese Equivalent of the Phrase "Captive Audience"?

Actually there is none simply because they don't need such an expression. Around the clock the Japanese are in captivity wherever they go.

I have already talked about the street concert by the garbage truck. Since the walls of my apartment are not really sound-proof, it's as though I am sitting in the front row of the concert hall.

I remain in captivity wherever I go. Even when I go out for my meal, the musical noise never sets me free. I sometimes think I might as well wear earplugs all the time. It's almost as though the articles of incorporation of every Japanese restaurant prescribe that music should be the integral part of its customer Saabisu.

One of my American friends living in this neighborhood once said: "I have been impressed to know the Japanese are avid music lovers without exception. They seem to appreciate all kinds of music all the time." I said: "No, that's not what they are. On the contrary, they disdain music as if it were rubbish. These apes just can't see the difference between Bach and Hippu Hoppu."

When eating out at an eatery you haven't visited before, you've got to be prepared for the annoyance caused by a very unlikely combination of food and music.

If you already have the knowledge about the particular combination, the piped-in music won't bother you too much, though. For instance, I know at a Udon shop I frequent, I hear smooth jazz played by the likes of Chet Baker, Stan Getz, and Bill Evans although it sometimes includes the East Coast stuff which is not too smooth. I am an avowed jazz fan. So I don't have any problem swallowing the Japanese noodle while listening to jazz. I sometimes wonder how other customers, who don't look to appreciate jazz, can easily digest Udon in the roaring sound of the American music. But that's none of my business.

On the other hand when you are not sure about the type of music the restaurant owner is partial to, it can be a disaster. You never know what it feels to have Japanese breakfast of Natto (fermented soybeans) and Miso-Shiru (soybean paste soup) when the entire place is filled with the solemn sounds of Johann Sebastian Bach's Christmas Oratorio. (This happens especially in the holiday season.)

The other day I was having American breakfast at a restaurant in a small hotel in this neighborhood. The music for the grand finale of Swan Lake was going on in an earsplitting volume. Tchaikovsky's hyperbole really drove me crazy. I motioned a waiter over. He was a punk with a loony face. I said, "I don't want to eat my fried eggs at the Bolshoi Theater." My message didn't get through to the idiot until I pointed at the outlet of the intercom with a frowning face.

By comparison, catering establishments run by Chinese are a little more tolerable because these restauranteurs are more civilized than their Japanese counterparts. They know when sitting at the table, the normal human being concentrates on food, and some other personal tasks such as witty conversation, reading and writing - except at a dinner show.

At times you may hear those wavy, whining tunes in their places. But you will never suffer motion sickness because these Chinese songs are only faintly audible.

Future Perspective

Every morning I feel I really need to get purified of the salad that awfully stinks.

It is true that the Japanese have constantly been Westernized, at least on the surface, although they have remained essentially unchanged. But it is also true that Westerners, in turn, are getting increasingly Japanized.

It is against this background that Wynton Marsalis is often misunderstood or criticized by fellow musicians and musical critics. Some go as far as to say the Artistic Director at Lincoln Center is just a mediocre trumpeter who pontificates on jazz.

To say the least, his purism is not very popular even in his home country.

Already in 1988, the principled horn player, who is also acclaimed as a first-rate trumpeter in classical music, lamented: "I recently completed a tour of jazz festivals in Europe in which only two out of 10 bands were jazz bands."

But actually his purism, and mine as well, have nothing to do with the inflexible, and sometimes rigoristic, way of thinking that puts a certain kind of music before anything else.

Duke Ellington is often quoted as having said: "There are only two kinds of music: good music and bad one." And to us two, purism is just a pure love of good music of any genre - no more, no less. Needless to say, good music brings together good folks who have artistic spontaneity and the ability to derive "serious fun" from doing what they want to do.

I often think of Leonardo da Vinci and some of his contemporaries. They were real Renaissance men, literally and figuratively. Without them, the Italian Renaissance would not have flourished the way it did.

That is why I believe versatility is the key to a cultural restoration. (I don't want to call "generalists" versatile people, though.) Paradoxical though it may seem, versatility is the only mighty weapon to fight relativism.

Although so many surface-scratching analysts and pundits discuss the constant waning of America's political supremacy, none of them can tell the reason behind it. But to me, it is evident that the erosion of the American culture underlies the political decline of the country. Changing presidents back and force between a Democrat and a Republican won't make a bit of difference.

If we can still be hopeful about an American Renaissance, people to watch are multitalented individuals. They are an endangered species, but a small number of them are still there.

Here's an example:

This woman didn't do a good job as a U.S. Secretary of State if her successor Hillary Clinton is even lousier. Even so Condoleezza Rice by far outshines Clinton in other areas of expertise. In music, she also eclipses Clinton's husband who claims to be an amateur saxophonist.

Here's another:

Jack Wiegman, my good friend living in Montana, uploaded this video a couple of weeks ago. Jack is a retired radio journalist. Yet, he is still quite active in many areas ranging from music to aviation, to writing, even to various community activities. My YouTube partner, who is an organ teacher, said that although she didn't know why, she shed tears watching the sequence in which Jack plays What a Wonderful World in his signature laid-back style. I think the organ teacher cried presumably because she thought she had a glimpse of a new cultural recipe she is struggling for - to no avail thus far.

When it comes to Japan, nothing will make me change my mind that the country is sunk simply because its culture is dead. Many Westerners, who are helplessly ignorant about music or any other art form, maintain that Japan still shows some vital signs. But this is just a delusion.

They say Douglas MacArthur was a racist. No doubt about it. Even so, the retired general was damn right when he likened the Japanese to 12-year-old kids. He was better off than anyone else to tell the truth about these people.

If they were not that neotenized, still it would be practically impossible for them to reverse the entire process of cultural saladization, as well as political mummification with so many twists and turns involved there.

It is true that I can name some gifted artists who are technically made in Japan, such as Seiji Ozawa, Makoto Ozone and Kanon Matsuda. But they are all re-imports from the West. Unless once exported to America or Russia, they would never have come into full bloom.

Japan will remain a graveyard, or junkyard, for the cultural heritage of mankind. Musicians of the country are quite prolific but what they produce is all fake. It's a total waste of time to discuss the future of their musical art.

All in all the future perspective is not so bright. I just want to have the last days of my life filled with good music and to be surrounded by good friends. If decent food is also available at times at affordable prices, who could ask for anything more? ·

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Purist's Point of View: A graveyard for the Musical Legacy of the West (PART 2)
Authored by: samwidge on Saturday, September 18 2010 @ 08:58 PM JST

I have never seen, " inversion of the ends and the means" stated so well. It is a powerful truism.

You mention the "garbage truck street concert." I am completely unfamiliar with the concept but it sure rings a bell! Not long ago a citizen could go for days without seeing or hearing advertising of any kind. Now, unfortunately, there is nowhere you can go, even for minutes, to be away from advertising and admonitions to do something.

In this I think you are in an unique position to tell us where the world is headed. Your idea of, "subordinating musical values to something else" is exactly right. We are conditioned, supremely conditioned.

It goes to little things. Modern dentists suggest that there is no need for toothpaste but none of us could give it up.

It goes to big things. We voted for Barack Obama.

Your idea of Kimigayo as "the world's most yawnful ... national anthem" makes sense. If I understand correctly, it is not possible for a martial melody to be written in the 17-note scale. Likewise, a martial melody written in the European 12-note scale is impossible without accents. You pointed out elsewhere that the Japanese people find it extremely difficult to understand the concept of accents in words and music.

You keep bringing up things that are startlingly revealing. You said, " They say Douglas MacArthur was a racist." Now that I think of it, he had to be a racist. It was those strong feelings that made it possible for us to win the war. They are not reasonable feelings. They are the feelings that unite people and win wars. I presume that the Japanese leaders were the same way?

In the end, only a few things really matter. "If good food is also available at affordable prices, who can ask for anything more?"