Narita Keisuke: Keeping Japanese counter culture alive

Narita Keisuke: Keeping Japanese counter culture alive

From a messy little shop hidden among Shinjuku's back alleys one zine maker provides an outlet for Tokyo's alternative creatives
DIY, graphic design, counterculture
Narita has been instrumental in putting together the local scene and the expat zine community.

Japan used to be a hotbed of radical intellectuals and angry students, always ready to beat the Establishment down on its head with both sharpened tongues and long poles.

In the 1970s, though, police repression and economic wealth cooled the protests, and the age of apathy and material gratification began.

Enter Keisuke Narita, 34, a mellow guy who spends most of his days at Irregular Rhythm Asylum (IRA), a tiny radical "info-shop" in Shinjuku. He is the founder. 

DIY, graphic design, countercultureKeisuke Narita, zine maker.

Transmitting messages from underground

Though hardly charismatic at first sight, he is arguably the most visible figure in the still small but steadily growing Japanese angura (underground) scene. 

The projects and events he has organized in the last few years have been instrumental in helping local DIY culture to flourish. His main weapons are a photocopier and a sewing machine.

“You see,” explains Narita with a hint of pride, “I actually graduated from a fashion college. So on Thursdays we have a clothes-making circle. Anything goes in order to let your creativity fly!”

Like many people involved in this community, Narita started from music. “About 20 years ago I was into punk,” says Narita. “I couldn’t play any instruments so I looked for different ways to express my dissent regarding such things as war, politics, and mainstream media.”

Narita created his first zine, Expansion of Life, and developed his own graphic style. Recently his work has been featured in the book "Celebrate People’s History: The Poster Book of Resistance and Revolution

Among other things, Narita has put out -- through his U-Do-Sha self-publishing project -- a tribute to the anarco-punk band CRASS and a couple of photo guides respectively devoted to New York and Berlin.

His latest zine, Tongue Confuzine, is a surreal phrasebook featuring multi-lingual translations of such useful phases as “Help! The police are chasing me!” and “Are you open to new experiences?”

Narita’s next step was to start a distro (a mail order catalog) through which he could trade and distribute his and other people’s zines and music. Finally, through the help of a friend who offered to share a space with him, he opened IRA in 2004.

DIY, graphic design, countercultureNarita’s messy shop is full of little jewels.

Money is not what counts

“The best thing in all this is that IRA has become a meeting place for all those people who for some reason refuse the social and cultural status quo. We are also reaching out to zinesters and other creative types abroad,” says Narita. 

Money always plays a negative role in such projects, and IRA is no exception. “For several years we were in the red. Recently we have reached a point in which the stuff we sell through the shop and distro more or less covers our expenses,“ says Narita.

Narita works as a graphic designer and does not have to worry about making a living through IRA.

“Honestly, I don’t care about money. What I want to support is people’s autonomy and creativity, not the market, and I feel the alternative scene is finally growing in Japan too,” says Narita.

DIY, graphic design, countercultureHere is an entrance to the fascinating world of IRA.

How to reach IRA

IRA (1-30-12-302 Shinjuku, Tel +81 (3) 3352 6916) is open every day (13:00 - 20:00) except Mondays and Wednesdays. It is located a little off the beaten track, so if you find it difficult to navigate the maze of back streets, you can just call the shop. Narita speaks good English and is always eager to help.

Once you reach IRA’s headquarters, you will find CDs (mostly punk), clothes, badges, new and old books (e.g. anarchist literature, indie publishers such as AK 47 Press and Microcosm) and, of course, zines. Most are in Japanese, but there are plenty in English as well.

"But as I said, IRA is first and foremost a meeting point," Narita is eager to add. "You can come here, relax on the sofa, have a nice cup of coffee while chatting with other interesting people, and spend as much time as you want.

“We also organize concerts and movie viewings, both here and in other venues, and -- most importantly -- our Zinester Gatherings where we make and trade our little publications."

Other people have followed IRA’s example: Zine Picnic, for instance, organizes the same kind of events but outdoor, usually in Yoyogi Park in Tokyo.

Information about these and other DIY events, both local and international, can be found at Narita’s blog (in Japanese).