January 23rd, 2006


Reggae izakaya

The best food I've eaten this week has been in reggae izakayas. A reggae izakaya is simply a drinking and eating joint where they play reggae. For some reason, the presence of reggae is an excellent indicator of good food. It's also, if you like reggae as much as I do, an indicator of good sounds.

At Sasurai in Sangenjaya last Wednesday the chef wore a dread hat and played a streaming Live365 station (it might have been Right On Scales or Zion Radio), and last last night at Tennoji they were playing a tape of Reggae Timebox, a dancehall compilation put together by Japanese sound crew Mighty Crown.

As an interesting (but not terribly deep) BBC radio documentary on the Japanese dancehall phenomenon explained when it was broadcast in late 2004 (you can listen to it online here), "Japan is going mad crazy about reggae right now".

Sammy T, one of the Mighty Crown DJs (he's Japanese, but of Chinese origin, and has the Jamaican patois down pat) owns Raggachina, a dub plates store in Yokohama Chinatown. Nori, who works there, tries to explain the appeal of reggae in the documentary by linking it to Japan's Shinto festivals: "In Japan we have matsuri festival, with big drums going boom boom," he says. "The sound of that drum is connected to this reggae music."

It isn't the lyrics turning the Japanese on. Like me, they don't understand much of what's being said. It's textural. "The music is very straight, positive... half the people just vibing out to the rhythm," Nori says. One of the few actual Jamaicans in the Japanese reggae scene, Shandy Eye, agrees: "Japanese don't know roots rock reggae message now, just vibration," he says.

"Japan is known for absorbing musical influences and making them its own," explains Dan Greenbaum, music editor of Metropolis magazine. Perhaps that means reading explicitly Japanese meanings into the things they import (as well as stripping out alien metaphysics; are there any actual Japanese Rastafarians amongst the "fashion rastas" you see in every hip youth area?).

The peaceful feel of reggae certainly works with Shinto, as does its natural vibe. And maybe, for an overstressed culture, reggae is the ideal music to unwind with. Hisae tells me she thinks the reggae phenomenon in Japan relates to the Slow Life movement, and I can buy that. Ganja certainly slows you down and makes you feel irie.

Kyoto DJ Rotten Ranks sees another parallel. "Osaka people same like Jamaican, hot people," he says, adding for good measure "Tokyo is like New York City, Kyoto is like Kingston City."

But of course you know the real reason for the Japafarian thing, don't you? I mean, it's obvious, really. In Haile Sellasie the Rastafarians had an emperor they considered divine and immortal, and worshipped as a god in human form. Bingo!