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How did Jazz Become Popular in Japan?

Updated: May 10, 2022

In case you don’t already know, Japan is Asia’s jazz capital. Japanese love jazz music and you can find jazz clubs and live performances in the land of the rising Sun. Japan’s love affair with jazz began for as long as the genre existed. The first jazz scenes emerged in Japan in the early 1920s in Osaka and Kobe, just years after the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recorded their first jazz album, “Livery Stable Blues” in 1917. But how did jazz become popular in Japan?

Luxury Liners

In the 1910s, there was an increasing number of luxury liners going across the Pacific. Americans and Japanese alike were crisscrossing the West Coast, Japan, Shanghai, and Manila. Musicians on these liners would stop at San Francisco or Seattle to get music sheets to perform on these ships. Naturally, they learnt to play the popular music of that time.

These musicians, besides playing in ocean liners, also worked in hotel lobby orchestras. The first musicians were probably playing foxtrot or jazz for the audience, although jazz during the 1910s to 1920s hardly had much improvisation.

These musicians were mostly Filipinos and the Philippines then was an American colony. They played in hotel and ocean-liner orchestras in Kobe, Osaka, and Shanghai.

Cross-cultural influences

In the 1920s, one of the first big records “My Blue Heaven” and “The Sheik of Araby” were made into Japanese versions with translated lyrics. The word “jazz” entered Japanese culture in a song attached to a movie called “Tokyo March”. The lyrics refer to jazz. The word jazz was associated with dance halls and modernity.

Also, Columbia and Victor both had subsidiary companies opened in Japan that issued a lot of jazz recordings - either the ones made in the U.S. and imported, or ones that feature Japanese artists.

After the War

After World War II, American soldiers stationed in Japan wanted live music because they wanted to be entertained. There were musicians among these soldiers but there were not enough of them to fill up a dance-hall orchestra or club. So, Japanese musicians were hired.

During the years of American occupation, it was hard to get employment, but Japanese musicians did quite well thanks to the gigs. Army trucks would ride to places where Japanese musicians hang out and gather a few who could play the clarinet, trombone, and drums. There were also officers’ clubs where there might be a stable music band playing on a regular basis. The American troops taught Japanese musicians to play jazz.

Jazz in Japan today

Japanese caught onto jazz as being hip and sophisticated. There are varying degrees of engagement with the music where some engage it as a hobby and others collect recordings and listen to them deeply. Then there are those who like to play jazz in the background.

Many people learn about jazz in Japan in the 1960s during college days though it’s not the case now. But most Japanese who are enthusiastic about jazz form friendships and jazz fans are usually very knowledgeable. They will go to great lengths to expose others to the music.

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