Alex Hoban 

Turning Japanese: Nine dodgy Japanese shout-outs

Egghead cultural commentators generally agree that the only true way to understand a place is to listen to its music, so here's our list of the best shout-outs to Japan in popular song
  
  

What's the best way to learn about Japanese culture? Historians, artists and egghead cultural commentators generally agree that the only true way to understand the place is to listen to the songs of Daphne & Celeste. Ok, so I might have got that wrong, but just in case, here's my list of the best shout-outs to Japan in popular song.

Air – Alone In Tokyo
This is the soundtrack to Scarlett Johansson skipping daintily across a lily pool's stepping stones in Lost in Translation and the reason why every year thousands of twenty-somethings hop on a plane to Japan to become English teachers. When they arrive, of course, Bill Murray's nowhere to be seen and they're sent off to live in a rural village 40 hours away from the city, instantly killing their dreams. The lesson? Don't let important life decisions be dictated to you by your latest Blockbuster rental.

Weezer – Across the Sea
True Story! Rivers Cuomo married one of his Japanese fans, which is kind of like (ie not at all like) a doctor marrying one of his patients, a judge marrying a defendant or a school teacher marrying a naughty student for not finishing their homework. Across the Sea is the tale of Cuomo's blossoming trans-Pacific romance set to the tune of pleasingly hip indie-pop music. Hooray!

Daphane & Celeste – I Love Your Sushi
Daphane & Celeste's contribution to the post-Orientalism academic landscape was this well-mannered and succinctly argued critical tract. In response to Edward Said's assertion that western thought has historically mis-represented the East through centuries of colonial activity, D&C raise the valid point that although sumo wrestlers claim to be warrior fighters they still wear diapers, and that Japanese futon beds are very hard on your back so therefore totally rubbish. Oh well, you can't please everyone. At least the teriyaki makes them happy.

Tokio Hotel – Monsoon
Bill Kaulitz, singer of German tween-pop rockers Tokio Hotel, looks like a cross between Mr Mistoffelees and a cute emo-goth girl like the ones that hang out at Osaka's Dotonbori Square. This is the only feasible reason why so many people on the continent continue to listen to their truly awful music.

Belle & Sebastian – I'm a Cuckoo
So, Stuart Murdoch would rather be in Tokyo, listening to Thin Lizzy than he would be jogging round Glasgow on a cold morning in his skimpy sports shorts (as he finds himself doing in this video). And as for the "Sunday gang in Harajuku"? He makes it sound so innocent – those girls can be a right bunch of moody terrors. Far more suited to his fragile disposition would be Japan's own take on Belle & Sebastian, produced some 20 years before.

Japan – Ghosts
"A hotbed of inter-continental avant-garde musical experimentation" is probably not the phrase that springs to mind when someone mentions Lewisham, but from the mid-70s to the early-80s it certainly was, with local oddballs Japan exploring their grand, oriental-influenced sonic calling, which culminated in their much underrated 1981 album Tin Drum. Climbing to No 5 in the charts, its single Ghosts was and still is a minimal masterpiece – made even more amazing by its spectacular seduction of the mainstream audience.

Alphaville – Big In Japan
Having found himself unwittingly cast as a hovering fly in the televisual equivalent of a slowly decomposing turd, it's easy to forget that once upon a time Simon Amstell was a beacon of homoerotic, futuristically-charged 80s synth pop. Not really, although you'd be forgiven for thinking so after seeing doppleganger Marion Gold swing his leather-clad limbs in time to choreographed sex faces in the glam-camp video for Alphaville's biggest hit, Big In Japan.

Beastie Boys – Intergalactic
The video for Beastie Boys' Intergalactic pays tribute to Japan's love of kaiju movies – grown men in daft monster suits fighting against tacky, perspective-warping city backdrops, while the Brooklyn trio run about Shinjuku metro stations dressed as construction workers. Other niche Japanese activities we'd like to see them re-enact: Beastie Boys do Soapland, Beastie Boys do Cos-play, Beastie Boys do tentacle porn. Just the thought of it alone is enough to ruin your lunch.

The Vapors – Turning Japanese
The Chelsea Dagger of 1980, the idiotically catchy Turning Japanese marked the Vapors' briefest of forays into the public consciousness with a song that no one quite seemed to understand. Sadly, the "turning Japanese" refrain didn't refer to singer David Fenton studying the ancient Kanji writing system, adopting Buddhism or indeed mastering a revered martial art. No, these lads were believed to be invoking the squalid moment of their auto-erotic climax, causing them to pull a funny face making them - oh dear - tighten their eyes and "turn Japanese". Wanking and racism to a funky rock beat - maybe they should take some lessons in cross-cultural sensitivity from Daphne & Celeste.

 

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