It’s a Friday night on the streets of Tokyo. An izakaya in the more obscure areas of Shinjuku is vibrant with customers, all who are staying out drinking because they missed the last train. A group of about a dozen sit on the floor in the corner, crowded around long rectangular tables, chitter-chattering loudly and cracking jokes. One of the younger ones takes a large beer bottle from the table and begins pouring it into a glass to an older man sitting next to him. Bobbing his head slightly up and down as if he’s bowing, he carefully fills the glass up, taking note of the ratio of foam and actual beer, being sure to make it as beautiful and good-tasting as possible. Of course, what he’s really worried about is that he doesn’t pour it in any sort of offending, disrespectful way.
A typical end of the week for Tokyo salarymen? Yes, but these aren’t salarymen. Then what are they? College “circle” kids? Nope.
These people, who were out at a livehouse playing loud punk music just hours earlier, are enjoying their “uchiage” a sort of after-party (more literally: “a release” – an uchiage implies that some sort of strenuous activity was being performed prior).
It’s not uncommon in Tokyo to find this sort of scenery. A seemingly crazy girl may be screaming “die” or “I’ll kill you” on stage (or even on the floor) at the top of her lungs during a gig, only to find herself bowing politely to her senpais (seniors) for “taking the time out of their busy lives to come watch their insignificant band” afterwards. Some of the more opinionated senpai may take this opportunity to give their thoughts or tips about the band, as if it was a sort of master-apprentice relationship.
This hierarchy based on seniority is found everywhere in Japanese society, and people are usually first exposed to it during middle school when they begin their extracurricular “bukatsu” club activities at school. Stories of poor first year students in tennis clubs, cleaning and picking up balls, while the third years get to play in the tournaments and receive all the glory, will sound familiar to most Japanese people. This continues on well throughout university, and finally into the “real world”, where in many traditional Japanese companies, how old you are is proportionate to the amount you get paid (although this is becoming less common, the thinking behind it is still apparent). The entertainment industry is notoriously strict in this sector – particularly owarai comedians and idols – seniority is a big part of the gig, and in more socially structured music scenes (visual kei and idol music), it is a de facto practice.
And then we have the alternative/punk music scene in Tokyo. While not as rigorously structured in this top-down form as some other scenes, it’s there, especially in university rock band “circles” (clubs), which the scene is ever so closely associated with.
The university circle community is an interesting one, as it allows students of some of the most prestigious schools in Japan a way into the indie music scene – a part of Japanese culture that is relegated to the backwaters and underground clubs – as an acceptable form of extracurricular activity. I like to think – to a certain extent – that the Japanese seniority hierarchy system was modified and molded to fit indie music, not the other way around – social norms and traditions found in society and “bukatsu” activities were placed upon alternative music in order to create a structure that would allow people to participate without going full-on “delinquent”, “rebel”, or what have you. Typical senpai-kohai relationships found in Japanese extracurricular activities can be seen in these band circles. An average band circle bill will usually have the younger bands playing first, and bands with members of the oldest year will play later on. Talent or technique isn’t usually a factor in these line-ups, so what happens is a strange ordering of bands that is a mish-mash of quality.
To be fair, most people in university band circles only play music as a hobby, and most go on after school to work in companies and leave music behind (this depends on the type of circle as well, as you have groups which only player covers, to other circles which are more serious about music and have more ties to the actual music scene). Letting seniors play last is sort of like letting retiring players go on a last-hoorah. There are a few select number of people however who do decide to continue pursuing music. It’s at this point when the line between a university circle and the indie music scene is seemingly blurred, and the values get crossed-over.
Ian Martin of the Japan Times also wrote a similar article, about seniority in the music scene, where he mentioned that these values stem from the university circles, but I think the circles merely amplify something that’s already inherently there; anyone who has go through the Japanese educational system/society has encountered the senpai-kohai relationship, and will most likely expect a form of it to be in every thing they do. Seniority is a part of the scene, university circle or no, but the relationship of circles and the scene has really brought it to the fore.
Obviously there are some big merits to be found in this arrangement. For one, any one with enough common sense will tell you that people who are older and have been around longer simply have more experience and more knowledge to share. It would be wise for any young aspiring band to listen to those who have already gone down the road and are nice enough to share their thoughts or any tips so that they can achieve similar success, or more become better musicians/artists. Also, it’s comforting to have a structure already laid out in front of you, that’s straightforward and simple to understand. As long as you pay your dues play by the rules, you can move up the ladder rather smoothly and easily.
The problem is when it begins to undermine the music.
Seniority becomes a big road block when putting together events. It’s not uncommon to hear disgruntled senpai bands getting upset because their kohais were playing after them on a bill. Rather than creating a line-up that flows together from one band to the next, it’s considered common sense to place older bands towards the end of the event, with some of the more up-and-coming acts at the beginning. Not only does this create a situation where new bands don’t get enough exposure (people will generally come to gigs late, so the earlier a band is on, the less of a chance people will see them), but it some times just makes the events suffer.
In terms of booking acts, the only things that should essentially prevent a band from playing at one’s event are affordability and availability. If the invited bands are willing to play and the party inviting them can afford the band, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to play together. But any band who attempts to book an older band “above their caliber” is instantly branded as being “namaiki” (cocky). It’s why a lot of events in Tokyo begin to become homogenized after a while, since new bands who started out together will play together, and keep on playing together as they go up the “social ladder” of the indie scene (…exactly like a lifetime-employment company!)
A young, enthusiastic, new band may want one of their local heroes to play at their own events. What starts off as an innocent request for sharing the stage soon turns into a drunken rant about how “young” and “naive” the band are, and how it’s “too early” for them to be asking a band like them to play. This sort of scenario isn’t uncommon. Conversations like this crop up all the time, especially during uchiage, where seniority becomes more obvious and defined. Many times, the age difference between these musicians are only a mere few years, and are hardly based on artistic quality or levels of success, but simply age. It quickly becomes a round of “pick on the young/different ones”, which is strange because, isn’t that the very thing the music is supposed to be against?
Kohai can undermine the music just as much as senpai: when an older musician gets props, are they getting it because the quality of their artistic output is good, or is it simply because they are older? Any musician that knows they’re worth their salt would prefer to be judged by the quality of their work now, and not how many wrinkles they have on their face, or even by any sort of past legacy. It creates an atmosphere where people cannot call out older musicians for not putting out quality work – something that kohai can equally be blamed for, and probably don’t realize. The patronizing nature that kohai display to their senpai is an easy ego boost, and probably also artistic poison.
The relationship also makes it difficult some times to gauge a band’s actual popularity. When a band plays a show to an audience of 300 people, what does it mean when a good majority of that audience are the band’s kohai? Are the kohai really there because they legitimately enjoy the music, or are they there due to some sort of subconscious obligation they feel, that they must support their senpai, or that they must rally behind a band because everyone else is doing so? It’s an interesting question, with issues of authenticity and conformity definitely coming into play. Many times, a kohai may find themselves “star-struck” for a senpai – it happens to everyone. But when placed alongside the pantheons of rock history, where do these senpai really stand?
So what good does the senpai-kohai relationship do for the actual alternative music scene? I would say; almost none. The perks of it – older, more experienced people mentoring young, up-and-coming talent – can be attained through just plain old human decency, not some strange, outdated social hierarchy system that seemingly forces people to do these basic things. At worse, it makes the music scene stale and homogenized, discouraging critical review in the name of respect for seniors.
Perhaps the strangest part of the whole thing is the fact that, regardless of a band’s artistic qualities, those who decide not to take part in the social routine of indie music usually end up getting sidelined and treated as different and strange, which is pretty much the opposite of punk rock and alternative music is all about – celebrating differences. Hell, it’s what the word “alternative” means in the first place. In a society where seniority is found in all of its facets, punk and alternative music would seem like the ideal place to be free from it all. But a lot of times, it’s as rigorously structured as much as any old university sports club, or any other Japanese company.
Just don’t let my senpais read this.