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Finding The Meaning Of Success, Deep Within Tokyo's Musical Underground

Through the process of translating his book about Japan's robust independent music scene into the country's native language, an author finds himself reckoning with where he's really at.
Ms. Machine. Source: Ian Martin

It was a sweltering hot summer in Tokyo. I was sitting in my study, which doubles as a disorganized storage closet for unsold CDs, zines and tapes. An office worker, taking a cigarette break on the fire escape of the building opposite, was watching me through the window with an expression of disdain, wondering what I was still doing in my dressing gown at 4:00 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon.

At that exact moment, what I was doing was reading an email from the Japanese translator of a book I wrote about the underground music scene in my adopted country. In it, she was laughing about an ironic reference the book makes about the influence that Mark E. Smith and The Fall had on mid-'90s Japanese chart pop, but was unsure how to translate it. In a country and linguistic environment where Smith's defiantly Anglo-Saxon punk poetry never really found purchase, the reference is little more than an Easter egg for a select few. To translate the joke meaningfully would be to explain it, which would be to kill it.

Sitting there in my dressing gown, surrounded by unsold CDs from bands no one cares about, I didn't really understand the problem. The only people in Japan who were going to be interested in my book were exactly the kinds of people who were going to get jokes about semi-cult Manchester post-punk bands. It was all about knowing your audience.


Six months later, in a small, suburban bookshop near my house, I see it. A gaudy splash of yellow and blue leaping out from amongst the books on kabuki, war photography and Norwegian loft renovation. It's the book I wrote, sitting in an ordinary Japanese store, acting like it deserves to be there.

Released in English a year earlier under the title Quit Your Band! Musical Notes from the Japanese Underground, I'd always hoped that the book would be read by both English- and Japanese-speaking audiences, but had always assumed its audience would be confined to the same indie bubble all my other activities occupied. Seeing it in such an ordinary, mainstream setting made my stomach lurch with fear. Something I'd been able to keep personal, and in a lot of ways private — even during the year the English edition had had been on sale — was now acquiring meanings I had never anticipated, from an audience I had never expected.


, anticipating a relatively short stay. Getting suckedabout the music I was discovering, first on a blog and then in the pages of and other outlets. In parallel to that work, I dove into the thankless, financially draining world of event organizing and running a record label, Call And Response, specializing in obscure contemporary Japanese post-punk.

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