An American in Osaka: How Traveling in Japan Helped Me Fall in Love with Jazz Again

Amongst the chaos of its busy cities, Japan has been quietly preserving and perpetuating a loyal jazz culture for decades. For an American, it makes visiting feel like going home.

Haruki Murakami says jazz is a lot like writing. He penned the first sentences of his career in a jazz club he owned and operated, called Peter Cat, in Tokyo’s Sendagaya neighborhood. Now that he is regarded as one of the best novelists of our time, he insists that his style “is as deeply influenced by Charlie Parker’s repeated freewheeling riffs, say, as by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s elegantly flowing prose.”

Even after Murakami found literary success and sold Peter Cat—it now appears as an unassuming cement building, with little reference to its past—he still maintains a sizable record collection. Jazz music is a recurrent theme through his work. Murakami’s first best-selling novel, Norwegian Wood, centers on young Toru Watanabe, who works at a record store and takes a liking to Bill Evans. In South of the Border, West of the Sun, the main character visits a jazz bar where a pianist plays Duke Ellington’s “Star-Crossed Lovers.” Murakami quotes Ellington to set the tone of his 2008 autobiographical book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

When I visited Japan in November of last year, Murakami’s storytelling immediately reappeared in my memory, as if a card had been pulled from the great filing cabinet of books I’ve read. Of course, Murakami’s work is only a very small segment of Japanese literature, and culture as a whole. But as I travelled, it became apparent to me that much of Murakami’s home country has fallen in love with jazz music as well.

My first encounter with jazz in Japan was in the minuscule ramen shop, Koba & More, in downtown Himeji. I was jet-lagged and developing a nasty cold, but the narrow shop offered the perfect reprieve from a busy pedestrian street. Koba, the owner and primary chef, was exuberant and talkative as he stirred a huge cauldron of steaming broth.

I noticed a number of record sleeves taped to the wall: Louis Armstrong’s closed eyes and shiny trumpet, accompanied by Evans, Monk, Coltrane. Koba’s vast record and CD collection boasted all the jazz greats, both American and Japanese. I complimented his taste in music and he proudly ushered me to the back room, where a towering, complex speaker system sat. “Imported,” Koba said, smiling.

The purpose of spending time at a jazu kissa wasn’t to talk, but to listen.

In Kobe, a few days later, I stumbled across a true jazu kissa, or jazz cafe. I wondered if it looked similar to the one Murakami operated in his twenties. The particular one I visited, called Jam Jams, offered an impressive selection of beverages and snacks, but the obvious draw was the music. As my eyes adjusted to the low, warm light, I noticed at the front of the room was an enormous hi-fi speaker system—not so different from Koba’s at the ramen shop—that played a selection of jazz records on repeat.

Men, dressed in full business suits, slouched over in their chairs, having been lulled to sleep by the music. Coffees went cold as cafe-goers were absorbed by the intricacies of the song playing. The chatter typically heard in a coffee shop was absent—the purpose of spending time at Jam Jams, or any jazz cafe for that matter, wasn’t to talk, but to listen.

***

Osaka, the second largest city in Japan and next stop on my journey, has been deemed the unofficial jazz capital of Japan. It checks out, too—while I wandered the streets plastered with neon billboards and flashing advertisements, I noticed crowded little jazz bars dotting the city. There’s even a multi-story jazz building of sorts, featuring two classic jazu kissas and a live music venue.

Encountering a jazu kissa as a disoriented tourist is a surreal experience. As soon as you step inside, you feel as if you have been transported decades into the past. The claustrophobic, buzzing noise of Japanese urban centers—Jam Jams, for example, is located in Motomachi near Sannomiya, one of the busiest districts in Kobe—has been replaced by gentle instrumentation: synchronizing saxophone and trumpet, a tapping drum, and a nimble piano riff.

I found the cafes charming and relaxing, but I was left wondering: How did a musical style originating in Black America become so popular in Japan? How has it been so seamlessly incorporated into Japanese culture?

Unsurprisingly, the history of jazz in Japan is long and complex, the result of globalization and the movement of people who came along with their sounds and instruments. And this history is particularly intriguing given Japan and the United States’ tenuous relationship through the twentieth century.

In the early 1910s, cruise ships would transverse the Pacific, back and forth from San Francisco and Seattle to big port towns such as Kobe, Osaka, and Shanghai. Oftentimes, the on-board entertainment was a band. These musicians would explore the local record shops and share sheet music.

When World War II brought both countries into conflict, jazz was often seen as taboo in Japan. During that time, many jazz bars closed down, yet the music continued to flourish. The post-war era produced some of the greatest jazz players, including pianist and composer Toshiko Akiyoshi and saxophonist Sadao Watanabe.

Many Japanese continue to love jazz today, even though the genre isn’t as popular as it once was globally. There’s a certain nostalgia to their jazz culture: the display of vinyl on huge, sagging bookshelves, the DJ delicately placing the record player needle into the inky grooves of John Coltrane’s Blue Train. This multi-generational adoration is steadily maintained by the jazu kissa and devoted listeners like Koba. It’s carried on by contemporary artists like Takuya Kuroda, who began his musical career in Ashiya, a community nestled between Kobe and Osaka.

As an American travelling in a country that was completely unfamiliar to me, the potent jazz custom was a thought-provoking mesh of two cultures: One I was familiar with, and one that was new and exciting for me to experience. And during travel, it’s those types of surprises that leave the greatest—and often most positive—impact. Back halfway around the world, my memories of Japan will always be soundtracked by an American’s mournful saxophone. FL

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