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The Legacy of Shibuya-Kei Part Four

The End of Shibuya-kei

Identifying the exact moment when Shibuya-kei “ended” is a difficult task, but I tend to see the 2001 release of Cornelius‘s point as the beginning of a new era. If Fantasma was the Shibuya hipster-pastiche sound taken to its logical extreme, Point was that sound’s reduction into its most universal parts. There are faint traces of The Beach Boys and bossa nova and dance music, but the joy of reference is eschewed for electro-acoustic audiophile bliss. Oyamada Keigo quit being a historian and started being a scientist. Kahimi Karie‘s albums Trapeziste and Montage took her in a similar experimental direction. If this sound was “Nakame-kei” (from the hipster relocation to Nakameguro in the early Aughts), then the most influential work was 3-D studio’s house producer Tomoki Kanda‘s landscape of smallers music.

Escalator Records meanwhile moved towards NYC-Berlin Electropunk. Konishi and Co. at Readymade are doing the same thing they did five years ago, just in a more “adult” way. Fantastic Plastic Machine dropped the lounge shtick and became a full-out house DJ on Avex. Ozawa Kenji is secretly located somewhere in New York.

And sometime in the last two years, the Japanese public stopped wearing border shirts.

We Are Not Shibuya-Kei

Why the race to get away from the title “Shibuya-kei”? Lately, all of these musicians have hit their mid-30s and most likely want a change in direction, but there is a distinct distancing of the cultural elite away from the particular wording of that now unspeakable epithet. In the early 2000s, the ultra-hipster Bonjour Records in Daikanyama curated their selection with a S******-kei-esque discerning eye to international cool but specifically avoided all references to anything seeming too S******-kei (for example, they would not carry Beikoku Ongaku, even though the good people at BO are also trying to get away from being too S******-kei!)

The problem stems from the fact that the Shibuya-kei sound has been completely codified and categorized, and many an entrepreneur have sold manual-type reference guides and specialty books to help younger fans decode all the influences, inside jokes, and connections. In other words, the whole game of “I have this sample/reference and you will only know where it came from if you’re in-the-know” is over: All the crates have been dug into and the instructions for this brand of hipsterism are spelled out in a large font. Magazines like Relax sold this elite cultural mix of Shibuya-kei and Ura-Harajuku to a mainstream audience, and chain stores like Village Vanguard have become like Shibuya-kei-curated junk shops.

The recent café boom took its template less from Europe itself and more from the Shibuya-kei fantasy of Europe — bossa nova, Jane Birkin, and café au lait. Places like Café Apres Midi release their own CD collections of obscure bossa nova jazz, and even chain coffee stores like Excelsior Coffee use an all-Astrid Gilberto soundtrack. The culture that Konishi and Oyamada worked so hard to discover and present to the world has now become a standard set of accepted cool. No one has to actually search for anything themselves anymore — they can just get all the info from books and mainstream publications. Free information has been the death knell of rarity-based consumer subcultures around the world, and Shibuya-kei is no exception.

Some of the original Shibuya-kei folk are breaking new ground, some are cashing in on past success, some are finding safer niches to conquer, and some have completely given up making music. But it is safe to say that Shibuya-kei as a movement is over, and we can now start to think about what it meant in the next installment.

Continued in Part Five

W. David MARX
November 19, 2004

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

19 Responses

  1. antonin tha subliminal digital k+d Says:

    “some have completely given up making music”

    yeah right !

    Great posts as usual :)

  2. trevor Says:

    i am glad you mentioned the tomoki kanda album.
    i think the he is the most overlooked person, and overlooked album around. to me that album is! the foundation of what might have been “nakame-kei”. [was that just a marketing ploy? or is that just me?]
    both cornelius later work [point and beyond] and kahimi’s have leaned heavenly on that record. though, maybe not so much kahimi, as tomoki is still writting and producing songs for her.
    so it can’t be leaning, when that person is actualy holding you up. with “nana” being the best colaberation between them to date. and really, imo, the stand out jpop[?] single of the year. next to the yukari rotten single.. witch is a much better thing, then the version that showed up on the album. but! here i am all talking about this year and “now”! when we’re still looking back. i always do that.. oops..

  3. Momus Says:

    Free information has been the death knell of rarity-based consumer subcultures around the world, and Shibuya-kei is no exception.

    That’s the viewpoint of ‘we’ pioneers and hipsters, yes. As soon as something goes mainstream, it’s dead for us. But seen from another angle, going mainstream is also the true birth of a movement. It leaves the lab and goes into production. It becomes part of the lives of millions of people. This shouldn’t be scoffed at, and shouldn’t be dismissed just because it happens a few years after ‘we’ enjoyed the style. You might be surprised to know that in cities like Bangkok, Taipei and Hong Kong there are music scenes which resemble 90s Japanese Shibuya-kei quite a bit. Who are we to tell them it’s dead?

  4. marxy Says:

    Momus, I agree, but these subcultures use their group of references and preferences as a mark of distinction from mainstream culture or lower status individuals. Once they have been adopted by everyone under them, the elite have to move on.

    I am not saying it’s that Shibuya-kei is “dead” because it’s not “cool” anymore. I am saying that it is dead because the Japanese “underground” musicians who believed themselves to be “Shibuya-kei” no longer can use that style as a way to distinguish themselves from other musicians in Japan.

  5. Momus Says:

    Okay. Is your analysis based on Bourdieu’s ‘Distinction’?

  6. marxy Says:

    Now that you’ve caught my reference, I have to go and find even more obscure academic works to brandish.

    My general mode of analysis is part-Bourdieu, part-Simmel.

  7. Les Says:

    Beginning of the end starts with the naming of the movement.

    I look forward to your social/cultural dissections. Well done.


  8. Graham Says:

    I think free information (and I think we’re talking about hyperactive media, i.e. the Internet) haven’t been the death of rarity-based consumer subcultures. They’ve just changed the definition of rarity, and the level of obscurity required to acheive membership or “cred” in such a subculture. Where it used to be that you had to know the right record stores and the right people to be in on a musical movement, now you basically need to know the right Web sites and the right search terms. I can’t speculate as to whether this enlarges or shrinks audiences, but it does diffuse them geographically. So, maybe the hipsters are living in Naka-Meguro, but people anywhere (so long as they can read the right Web sites) can be in on their consumer products. That is, as long as they’re well-funded.

  9. Momus Says:

    I think it would be a mistake to say that Shibuya-kei fans in the 90s were super-educated or super-hip. It was always a rather accessible movement.

    Over the last two weeks I’ve been using a time machine — a suitcase containing a Video 8 camera and some tapes recorded in the mid-90s in Tokyo by a schoolgirl who later became my flatmate — to go back to Shibuya-kei and get an inside glimpse of what it felt like from a consumer’s point of view. And it’s been really fascinating.

    These tapes are brilliant documents of adolescence. The girl’s bedroom is covered in photos of Kahimi Karie and Maki Nomiya. She spins P5 records and films them as they turn. She tapes TV appearances. She sings along with Shibuya-kei songs, reading the booklets and giving the camera flirtatious looks. She makes her own copies of the outfits Maki Nomiya is wearing and models them for the camera.

    There’s a clear desire to be ‘elegant’ and ‘grown-up’ and ‘cosmopolitan’. It syncs easily with an interest in fashion and make-up and a love of consumer culture. It’s a rite de passage that any teenager would recognise. Perhaps the only thing that distinguishes it from similar teen stages in the west is that there’s a complete absence of trash-destroy-aggression, of anti-social elements. There’s none of that gothy drugs and nihilism we’d probably see in an American teen’s tapes (imagery which is really just the flipside of Christianity, its dark side). The Shibuya-kei fan is self-constructive rather than self-destructive, aspirational, elegant and social rather than vulgar, trashy and individualistic.

    It’s also interesting how the icons of Shibuya-kei are mostly feminine, and how it provides an image of female social power. And Shibuya-kei is all about the plastic and the artificial. It’s anti-rockist in this sense. It hybridises international cultural forms and contains no authenticity dogma — it’s a ‘fantastic plastic world machine’: the mirror image of globalist consumer culture itself.

  10. marxy Says:

    Graham: You are right, but even so, there is a huge difference between now and even ten years ago. When I wanted to get more information on Dinosaur Jr. as a 14 year-old kid in the early 90s, I essentially had to rely on other people “in the know.” Now, if some kid heard a social better drop a band name, he could just search for that name on Google and follow the links. Website are getting clique-y, but they are open to anyone who finds them. And aren’t that hard to find.

    Momus: I better finish my analysis chapter before you spill all the beans.

  11. marxy Says:

    One more point, Momus.

    The most average case of teenage rebellion in Japan is almost identical to that of America. Less drugs, but plenty of bad, emotive music, smoking, and illicit sex. (Although in Japan, the girls actually profit monetarily from their deviant behavior.)

    Shibuya-kei was the affluent, educated kid’s way to detach himself from standard Jpop culture. Lower class kids dropping out of high school weren’t dressing up like Nomiya Maki.

  12. shane Says:

    haha…You really nailed American adolescence there Momus. I felt embarrassed, and thank Christ (not really, but you know) I didn’t record any tapes from that period of my lifetime.

    Thanks for the education Marxy

  13. Momus Says:

    By the way, could I point out one small factual error… perhaps not so small, as it’s the marker you’re using to date a whole era:

    I tend to see the 2000 release of Cornelius’s Point as the beginning of a new era.

    When I visited Cornelius in the studio in May 2001 he was still working on ‘Point’. It was released in Japan in November 2001 (Trattoria) and in the US in January 2002 (Matador).

  14. Momus Says:

    That URL for the ‘Point’ studio visit didn’t seem to work, here it is:


  15. Alastair Says:

    This just in:”Upon entering college, Takako developed an affinity for French music. She and a friend soon formed a group called Lolita. Her real live debut however, was in1990, as a member of the group Fancy Face Groovy Name, a band in which she shared membership with the now-popular Kahimi Karie. She was also in a band called L R for a while. For a period of time after that, she went from band to band, playing a small role in each, until she released her solo debut Chat Chat, a cute album compromised mainly of cover songs (including the Beatle’s “Drive My Car”), in 1994.

  16. Chris_B Says:

    Marxy: This series has been educational. Not liking Bossa Nova, I never picked up on any Shibuya-kei stuff beyond whatever P5 I got exposed to in the US. Nice to have a reference to the stuff if I ever need it.

    Momus: You really want to say that the birth of a movement is when it becomes available to the unwashed masses? The way I figure it, if ura-hara kids can buy an off the shelf pre-studded, pre-logo’d motorcycle jacket complete with a patch that says, “Punks Not Dead”, I figure punk has long since died, decomposed and become a rather stinky fertilizer. Same thing goes for any kind of sub-culture which has an associated style manual.

  17. Momus Says:

    I’m making two points here. One is that Shibuya-kei was never all that hip or exclusive. It started with teen band Flipper’s Guitar, and sales were always substantial. Playing to Kahimi Karie fans in the 90s, I saw a sea of girls aged about 22, who’d bought her records about cats and monkeys in high school and stood there going ‘Kawai!’ This is not exactly hipsterdom. My second point is that it’s consequently a bit silly to say that a movement that was never particularly exclusive in the first place ‘died’ when it went mainstream. As Marxy points out, Shibuya-kei style is very much alive in a certain cafe culture, for instance. There’s also a Shibuya-kei revival going on, featuring some of the same folks who were around back in the day — Konishi etc. So to say it ever went away is somewhat inaccurate, especially if it’s just based on a couple of people rather jokily calling themselves ‘Nakame-kei’ and refusing the Shibuya-kei label. After all, artists always refuse their labels and try to make themselves look ‘timeless’. It doesn’t mean we should accept their ahistoricism at face value.

  18. marxy Says:

    Momus, you are generally right. The artists themselves were elite and the fans probably felt superior to regular Jpop fans, but there wasn’t widespread snobbery. That doesn’t exist much in Japan to start with.

    I do think, however, that Shibuya-kei was at least something that the artists themselves wanted to get away from when Cornelius and the 3-D crowd started to make go more experimental. By that time, the term itself was a decade old. I am sure that Mr. Oyamada does not want to be identified with all the stuff he liked as a 20 year-old kid. I certainly would not either.

    Shibuya-kei culture still exists, as I will discuss in my next installment, but I do not think it possess the cachet it may have even five years ago.

  19. sparkligbeatnic Says:

    I’d like to second Momus’ observation that Shibuya-kei was a positive, constructive rite of passage. My girlfriend was in junior high when Flipper’s Guitar were active, and Shibuya music helped her develop her interest in Latin music, Gainsbourg, 60’s movies and fashions, swingle-style skat singing. She’s long since graduated from Shibuya-kei, it’s years since we’ve listened to any P5, but she did end up starting her own amateur Bossa Nova group two or three years ago and composes her own music sometimes.

    I watched some of the bands at the Kyodai gakuensai today and also thought – yeah these kids are enjoying playing and the strong adolescent emotions in the music are there, but it’s so nice that the hard drug abuse and negative attitudes are missing. None of the band members seem to be really stuck up or have serious personality problems. Some of the bands seemed to have a mature distance and moderate irony to their playing, though it didn’t interfere with their fun. One of the bands seemed to be playing a kind of deconstructed rock.