Hosono Haruomi’s debut solo record is all about being at home. So much so that he called it “Hosono House”. It was recorded shortly after he returned from a West Coast Tour of the United States, a country which was as much his spiritual home as the one listed in his passport.
Indeed, his home in Japan at the time, barely qualified as being really in Japan. He was in the “American Village” of the suburban Sayama area, about an hour’s drive north west of Tokyo. American Village, is the remnants of the Johnson Air Base, established by the U.S. occupation after the war, on the site of an earlier Japanese air base from the 1930s. The Johnson Town – American Village is a chunk of America plonked down in the far East. I guess you could say it’s a more militarised version of the Disneylands that you can find utterly unchanged, uncustomized and unrepentantly celebrating The Tales of Tom Sawyer and the Wild West from Hong Kong to Shanghai, except with with more of an emphasis on aerial bombardment than nighttime “Celebrate Imagination” firework displays. It’s a case of soft toys for soft power and hard toys for hard power.
The America that American Village celebrates is that of the suburbs. It consists of white weatherboard homes, replete with porches, lawns and picket fences, that huddle along a single bitumen road. You can almost see the American officers lingering around the hot dog stands as they return to their abodes after a long day coordinating fire-raids of Pyongyang in the Korean War. The American Village of Sayama is a glob of burger cheese that has dripped out and stuck to the Kimono sleeve of Tokyo.
It might seem strange that a young, long haired, social drop-out hippy like Haruomi would choose to settle down in such a historic seat of military activity. But it was cheap. After all, which self respecting Japanese would want to live in such strange abodes, devoid of Tatami mats, sliding doors and genkans. There wasn’t even a space to remove your footwear. The previous residents hadn’t bothered with taking their shoes off. So the area attracted the bohemian types, and a little community of artsy weirdos came to occupy the surreal mickey-meets-military, mini-homesteads on Tokyo’s fringe.
It suited Haruomi. He had spent most of his life obsessing over American music in a way that those around him found unhealthy. His band Happy End had become the progenitor of a rock that was able to fully meld the rhythms of American beats and the Japanese language for the first time. In many ways, he too was a piece of American cheese gunk sullying up Tokyo’s svelte look.
Retreating to the Sayama hills, by a patch of idyllic greenery that the Americans had, without a touch of self awareness, referred to as Hyde Park, made sense to Haruomi. He was retreating in more ways than one. The band he led, Happy End, not able to sustain the upbeat promise of its name, was breaking up. He said at the time that he felt like the captain of a ship that had weathered a great storm, but was now stranded in a windless ocean. Listening to anything with a rock beat set him on edge.
In his troubled state, he found solace in the soothing sounds of the country revival taking hold in early 70s U.S.A. In his recent tour of the motherland, he had sat in with some production sessions with Van Dyke Parks. He could almost see the musicians sitting on the porches when he put on records by Tom Rush, Gordon Lightfoot, John Hartford. Most of all, he was impressed by the big down-home sounds of The Band on Music From The Big Pink.
So what is a wounded hippie rocker to do with a broken dream and a crate full of country? Head to the hills in search of the Yamato Appalachia.
At the same time, recording technology was getting smaller. Well, still huge really, but small enough that you could, with the help of a few stout buddies, put it in the back of a light truck. This opened up possibilities. The possibility to get away from the pay-by-the hour pressures of a commercial studio. The possibility to record somewhere where you can spend the afternoon getting the right sound, then sit down to a meal with your bandmates, maybe play some cards. The possibility to combine art-life and home-life.
So that’s what Hosono and his buddies did (he even gave them band a name “Caramel Mama”, so the album is perhaps not strictly a “solo album” at all). On the 15th of February 1973, they set up in the bedroom of Hosono’s house, because the living room was too boomy. They recorded from roughly 1-6pm, three days on, two days off for the period of around a month, celebrating the end of the process with a party on the 12th of March 1973.
The music sounds warm and real, with an immediately recognisable similarity to Music From The Big Pink. In the mix down, they had to struggle with bringing the sound of the vibrating floor under control. The drums were in the bass mic, so if you tried to turn up the bass, you turned up the snare, toms and cymbals too. You could hear the room. It was as if the strange old American air force officer’s dwelling had become an instrument.
The tracks themselves, though very much in the American-country folk style of the time, and exulting in the domestic, also already hint at some of the vagabond eclecticism of his later work, both solo and with legendary electronic-pop-prog band Yellow Magic Orchestra. There are elements of exoticism, adventure, strange references thrown in here and there.
Haruomi has said it takes a lot of effort to be devoted to a genre. It’s like being an athlete. You work away at one discipline, a certain movement, a certain routine, over and over until you achieve tiny incremental gains that put you ahead of the competition.
Haruomi has no stomach for it. He’s not an athlete. He’s a tourist. In the years since Hosono House, his wanderlust has taken him to the kingdoms of rock, country, exotica, electro-pop, ambient and, most recently, pre-rock boogie woogie. He would rather ride his bike through the countryside than grind it out on the cycle-machine. Life is like a box set of Hosono albums, you never know what you’re going to get.
The lyrics on Hosono House deal mostly with Haruomi’s immediate surroundings. He wanders through the hills, the houses, the environment, and melds it with the feelings, the hopes and dreams of the time.
By way of illustration, today I’ve done a translation of track two on the album “Boku wa chotto”. The title itself is prosaic, matter-of-fact, maybe almost akin to the “it’s so boring it’s good” aesthetic of late teens Melbourne dole-wave. It means “I’m a little…” or “Maybe, for me…”. It’s equivocal, an unfinished thought. It seems to reflect the uncertainty that Haruomi was feeling in this period in his life, in his art, in his sense of place.
But mostly, Boku wa chotto is an attempt to banish these uncertainties in a sun-drenched ode to the quiet life. The singer is sun-bathing, chatting over tea, going out for strolls, listening to country music, and ultimately deciding to keep quiet. It even has a reference to the white houses of the American Village he was living in at the time.
The only line that jolts us out of this at-home bliss is the refrain, as many good refrains do. The line appears three times and refers to the nation of Japan, another home reference, but this time at much more bird’s eye level. He uses an archaic name for the country 日の出ずる国, “the country where the sun rises”. Our term “Land of the Rising Sun” is a translation of this phrase. The modern Japanese name for Japan is a variation on this theme ”日本”, meaning literally the “The origin of the sun”. At first glance this sounds kind of conceited, like the Japanese had come up with a name for their own country that made it so central that it was where the sun itself originates. But in reality, the name was bestowed by China, who were the ultimate superpower in the region of the time, much as America is now. Japan is roughly East of China, so it made sense to refer to the country as “the place where the sun rises”.
Either way, the sun has a central place in Japanese culture. Their striking flag has a sun on a white background. Their Emperor is meant to be descended from the Amaterasu, the ancient Goddess of the sun. So Haruomi’s numerous references to sunshine, rays of light, glistening and shimmering is rich in deep cultural reverberations.
The other cultural context we can’t ignore is that of the massive riots that raged through the 1960’s Japan, which were only just beginning to quiet down in the early 70s. Amongst the many issues that had brought people onto the streets, the most universally mobilising was that of the Japan-America Security Treaty which placed American army and air bases throughout Japan, in return for protection. Many viewed, and still view, this mafioso-like arrangement as an infringement on Japanese sovereignty and an act of American imperialism. Perhaps the ironic thing about this movement and the security bases themselves, was that the U.S. bases often became places of congregation for radicals, partly because of the anti-war publications that were distributed from US activists themselves.
So, though Boku wa chotto is not an overtly political song, and Haruomi has never shown a particular proclivity towards activism, I think that it is safe to say the songs has references to the political climate of the time and to the dueling urges of nationalism, anti-imperialism, pacifism and the love-hate relationship between the United States and the 日の出ずる国.
That’s a lot to bite off. No wonder the upshot of Haruomi’s domestic, sun-soaked, Japanese-Americana riffing is that he’s going to take a quiet moment.
Maybe you should take a quiet moment too?
僕は一寸 Boku Wa Chotto In Translation
This is rough translation of the song. It’s translated more for rhyme and to capture the general feel than as complete word-for-word translation.
Don’t be shy
We could just sit here in this sunshine
We could put the kettle on
Talk about whatever we want
Shall we talk about
What’s over the horizon
For me and you and everyone
And the land of the rising sun
Why don’t we go
Out, go for a stroll
Climb up over the hill
Just like Jack and Jill
Which path should we go down. we could go left or right, I don’t mind
Or follow that glistening one
On the road to the rising sun
And the mud on the path
Is shining just like glass
As the afternoon keeps quiet
And the sun just keeps on shining
I’m gonna let that time pass
The only plan I’ve got is to laugh
Why don’t we live around here
Mov outta that old place
Listen to the people play their country music, every day
find a house that’s white
Paint it any colour we might like
Maybe we could find one
On the hill beneath the rising sun
Splashes of sunlight
Cover up the trees all dying
The afternoon’s still silent
Maybe we could stay inside
Sometimes it’s alright
To stay quiet
Detailed look at the background of Haruomi Hosono’s album Hosono House.
PonPonPon explained! New English translation with complete Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and composer/producer Yasutaka Nakata background information. Full PonPonPon played in English.
A translation into English of the opening theme song from Midnight Diner Tokyo Stories (Shinya Shokudo) soundtrack, Omoide, by Tsunekichi Suzuki. I give a background on the songwriter, translate the lyrics, present the song in Japanese and English, and give a commentary on the translation.
But first thing’s first…
Japanese Reading Difficulty 4/12 Could be read and understood by 4th grade level student in Japan Themes Partitioning of Korea Text Type Songs In Translation
You probably know something about the anti-war folk music of the United States in the 1960s. But do you know much about the parallel movements in Japan?
Today I’m taking a look at one of the most representative songs of the time, Wataru Takada’s 自衛隊に入ろう Jietai in hairou or, as I’ve translated it, “Why don’t you join the army?”