Are Japan's music festivals just sterile, fun-free cash cows?
When Japan was emerging from its lost decade of the 1990s, many music fans hoped that Japan’s adoption of Western-style outdoor rock festivals would lead to more freedom and openness in society.
The idea was that Japanese people, who have a tradition of exuberant local festivals, would naturally follow the path of Europeans and North Americans, who created their own alternative culture at liberating festivals such as Woodstock, Lollapalooza and Glastonbury.
As U.S. funk godfather George Clinton told his audience at the Fuji Rock Festival in 2002, “Free the butt, and the mind will follow.”
More than a decade later, a plethora of successful Japanese rock festivals, which continue to attract enormous crowds despite a shrinking population and sluggish economy, are indeed developing a culture of their own.
That subculture, however, is too often defined by many fans saying they have to endure harsh conditions, excessive commercialism and a crowd-control mentality that continues to dominate mainstream Japanese society.
This year’s Summer Sonic, a festival that sold out despite a nuclear meltdown just 250 kilometers away, is perhaps the most obvious example of how many Japanese festivals -- renowned for their organization -- are possibly too efficient for their own good.
On stage, the world’s leading social rebels, from Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Jamaican reggae scion Ziggy Marley, called out for freedom and justice to overcome the ills of what Rastafarians call “Babylon,” a system driven by TV, advertising and mindless materialism.
But that English-language message, preached by many foreign musicians who love playing in Japan, is not reaching most Japanese, who say they are more influenced by the music and hype than the content of lyrics in another language.
Joining the hordes at Summer Sonic, one has a feeling of actually losing -- not gaining -- freedom and power.
Scalpers at work
Arriving by train at Kaihin Makuhari Station in the Tokyo suburb of Chiba, fans have to pass scalpers -- in full view of police -- who buy up tickets and sell them at exorbitant prices to music lovers who couldn’t order sold-out tickets beforehand.
Inside the concrete caverns of the Makuhari Messe convention center, megaphones blare out warnings and directions designed to create a Confucian order, not an uplifting vibe.
This relentless cattle-prodding seems unnecessary for Japanese crowds who have won global admiration for their self-discipline and harmonious coexistence at train stations and tsunami shelters alike.
And, at ¥15,800 and ¥29,000 for a one- or two-day pass, customers are in effect paying to become marketing targets fleeced by corporate sponsors who charge two or three times store prices for water, beer and other basic items.
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Unlike at sporting events which last a few hours, festival-goers have little choice but to pay these prices for two or three days, meaning a windfall for sponsors.
Instead of “breaking stuff,” as Limp Bizkit fans did to express their outrage over the crass commercialization of Woodstock in 1999, Japanese endure it with a “shoganai” mentality, meaning they feel powerless to change it and are desperate to see their favorite bands anyway.
The Tokyo-based organizing company, Creativeman, which also runs Loud Park, Punk Spring and other profitable festivals, has worked hard to decorate vapid spaces with paintings and lanterns.
But calling partitioned concert halls Mountain, Island and Rainbow stages isn’t enough to overcome muffling acoustics, oppressive heat and the soul-killing sensation of being surrounded by concrete.
Sleeping or eating on the concrete floor, many fans look cowed and exhausted. Ariel Zheng, vocalist from Taiwan’s Go Chic, even swore at fatigued Japanese sitting down during her dance rock set.
“That came out of desperation,” she later joked. “Probably after that I was going to cry.”
Last year, CNNGo contributor Dan Grunebaum asked Robert Levon Been of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club if he found Japanese festivals “overly sterile.”
“Festivals are about corralling people into an area so they can do their debauchery on the weekend,” Been replied. “And then they go back to their regular jobs. It makes sense for the government to let that happen.”
In many Western countries, people fed up with the commercialization of rebellion are flocking to an increasing number of smaller, fuzzier festivals to smoke and chill out with friends while bands egg on more licentious behavior.
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While you’re enjoying bands at Summer Sonic, however, there’s an army of employees telling you “dame, dame, dame” -- don’t do that -- accompanied by a gesture of two hands crossed like samurai swords.
Signs say no professional cameras are allowed, and even journalists aren’t permitted to shoot the most photogenic artists in the world -- only a hired company can do that -- in order to maximize the control over imagery.
During a Saturday night performance by former Oasis front man Liam Gallagher, who led charity efforts in London to support Japan disaster victims, staff swooped down on hundreds of paying customers who dared to shoot souvenir photos of a band 100 meters away in low light.
Many Japanese fans, of course, privately say they are sick of being told “dame, dame, dame” at every turn, but as Tokyo engineer Soh Nakamura explained, many also admire the stamina of staff who keep things under control during gigs by bands such as Panic! At The Disco.
After the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ show Sunday night, the staff safely ushered out a crowd of 30,000, thanks to a clever system of sectioning off areas into manageable units.
But after Korn’s heavy metal set on the Mountain stage Saturday night, many in the overheated crowd of more than 10,000 had to squeeze through a single set of stairs just five-people wide to exit the complex.
Though well-behaved Japanese are unlikely to stampede or riot, the March 11 tsunami disaster showed what happens when authorities get over-confident about evacuation strategies.
Organizers also don’t do enough to provide lockers, cloakrooms and places for customers to sleep on the grounds overnight.
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Nakamura said he felt like a “refugee” wandering among hundreds of contorted bodies on benches, walkways and even the grass outside Marine Stadium.
A guard at the Seaside Village camping area told him, at 5 a.m., “Sorry, you can’t come in. There’s nobody on duty now.”
Will to change?
Organizers could solve this by charging a small “lifeguard” fee to sleep on sand near the Beach stage. But one wonders if they feel much impetus to improve, since they are selling out tickets and getting a free ride from the local media.
One official, who lost his cool on a sweltering Saturday night, berated a reporter for not doing enough to “promote the festival in advance,” as if journalists were his marketing department.
While organizers deserve praise for bringing the best bands to Japan, they should listen to constructive criticism from fans and media alike, and make a more human-friendly festival that we can proudly support.
On the bright side, the Beach stage offers a way for future organizers to create the positive communal vibe at Fuji Rock, Rising Sun and the Earth Celebration.
Dancing barefoot on the sand beside rolling waves on Saturday night, many Japanese could experience the raw magic of the freewheeling festivals of Brazil and Jamaica.
Still, after starting 15 minutes late, Ziggy Marley’s band had to cut short their consciousness-raising set, as organizers flashed them the “dame” sign yet again.
At a festival in Japan, even the son of Bob Marley has to obey orders and follow the rules.
Tokyo-based journalist Christopher Johnson, who worked on platinum-selling albums with his Austin, Texas-based brother Gordie Johnson of bands Grady, Big Sugar, and Wide Mouth Mason, experienced the event alongside other paying customers.