As our beloved streaming services, and their ‘curated’ playlists, continue to herd us further and further into the path of the evermore banal and lucrative, many have begun to lament the truly weird and explorative internet culture of ‘the blog era’ – a scene encased in a coffin riven with metaphorical nails. Sadly, this does appear to be at least broadly correct.
One ray of sunlight penetrating this decidedly gloomy climate is the relative explosion of 1980’s Japanese ambient, or environmental, music (although, the word “relative” is doing a lot of heavy lifting here), sitting among the more esoteric sects of, mainly American, musical hipster-dom. Over the past five to ten years there has been an exponential growth in the level of interest around this ethereal and mediative music. More so, the story of the genre’s historical development is a fascinating insight into Japanese contemporary culture and history.
A Muddled History
Ambient music has a quite confused history, originating in both Jamaican and British dub music, as well as in Japan. At least in the West, what we do know is that Brian Eno was the first to release music deliberately labelled as ‘ambient’ with his sixth studio album, Ambient 1: Music for Airports, in 1978. The West and their hipsters were indeed shielded from the delights of Japan’s musical culture during this New Age period. Japanese artists like Hiroshi Yoshimura, Takashi Kokubo and the Mkwaju Ensemble, to name a few, took the genre in new and exciting directions during the 1980s. Despite never achieving much mainstream success, either at home or abroad, these artists carved out a scene of their very own making.
Ambient music does not lend itself to description. Its ability to thread the needle between intrusion and stimulation, or in the words of Brian Eno, to be “as ignorable as it is interesting”, can only really be experienced first-hand.
A Japanese Western-style Consumerism?
One of most curious aspects of this music’s history is that much of it was initially created to meet a demand from expanding Japanese companies like Seiko, Muji and Sanyo. These companies wanted music they could play in their stores and over adverts. Some have referred to this phenomenon as an example of “hyper-capitalism” – a term with no real meaning. Which begs the question as to whether we, in the West, are living under a “tempered capitalism”? Aside from that, what they probably meant to say was that Japan in the 80’s was, for really the first time in its history, experiencing a Western style of consumerism.
A Revival of the New Age
As time has progressed, the genre, quite predictably, has fallen even further into the depths of obscurity. Since then, ambient music has been experiencing a period of revival after being discovered by a previously ignorant Western audience. In contrast to the earlier ‘lack’ of mainstream success, Kankyō Ongaku’s Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-90, a compilation of some of the genre’s greatest works, was released to international critical acclaim and some popular success in 2019.
Consumerism, Nature and Zen
You can make an equally plausible case that the historical, pre-capitalist, culture of Japan, as well as the country’s beautiful landscape, was just as responsible for ambient music as the rampant consumerism of the 1980’s. Japanese Zen and its emphasis on achieving mindfulness and equanimity through meditation, or dhyana, has long been a part of the country’s culture. This has without doubt played a role in crafting this naturally mediative music. Only out of these two seemingly discordant and culturally unique sets of influences did this distinct and beautiful sound emerge.