Book review: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is about anti-nuclear music in Japan
In July 2012, famed Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto spoke at a rally in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park organised by the anti-nuclear organisation Sayonara Genpatsu. When the Academy Award-winning composer expressed his sorrow at the re-opening of Oi Nuclear Power Plant, which had taken place two weeks earlier, his words caught the imagination of his fellow campaigners: “Why is it necessary to expose life to danger, just for the sake of electricity?” he wondered to loud applause.
As Noriko Manabe underlines, Sakamoto obviously wasn’t demonising electricity; rather he was flagging up the dangers of using nuclear fission to produce it in the light of the specific nature of Japan’s infrastructure as exposed at Fukushima. Nonetheless, Japan’s pro-nuclear Twitter users erupted, wondering how Sakamoto’s techno-pop group The Yellow Magic Orchestra would have faired unplugged, and circulating photos of him mid-speech, his microphone and iPhone circled in red.
Soon, national newspaper the Sankei Shimbun, daily circulation 1.6 million, had a pop at Sakamoto, too: “Having become popular by using lots of electricity, you live in a high-end condominium in New York”, it foamed. As with Sakamoto’s Twitter-based critics, the inference was that to use electricity and be anti nuclear-power was inherently hypocritical, inconsistent.
In The Revolution Will Not be Televised, Manabe explores how musicians post-Fukushima have protested against nuclear power despite censorship of their work and against powerful social mores. These include koe o dasanai, which translates as the built-in Japanese reluctance to speak up, and kuki, the prevailing atmosphere of compliance that tends to characterise wider Japanese society.
If the book’s title name-checks the 1970 poem and song by Gil Scott-Heron, it’s also appropriate shorthand for the Japanese media’s general reluctance to report on the activities of the anti-nuclear movement. But as Manabe explains, “the government doesn’t explicitly censor the media. The industry imposes it upon itself in deference to its advertisers, and the nuclear industry is among the biggest.”
Manabe is a professor of music at Princeton University with a doctorate in ethnomusicology and music theory, so naturally this is an academic book. Its musicology-imbued chapter on Japanese protest music at demonstrations won’t be for everyone, but for all its recherché infographics and specialisms, The Revolution Will Not be Televised is clearly and engagingly written.
It’s somewhat strange, the author argues, that the country that suffered the horrific atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remained so accepting of nuclear power. It was only after March 11, 2011 – when the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami caused a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant – that public sentiment began to turn and many of the country’s 48 reactors were shut down.
Public opinion polls had reflected a clear surge in anti-nuclear feeling, with about 70 per cent of the population favouring a phase-out of nuclear power. But in August, Japan restarted its reactor at the Sendai Plant in Kyushu, and operators of some 25 other reactors have reportedly applied for restart permits.
Japan is the world’s second-largest market for pop music, and given the genre’s traditional alliance with protest of all kinds, one might expect the country’s anti-nuclear musicians to be highly visible and transparently vocal. But Manabe’s book shows that things aren’t that simple – and for many reasons. For one, the lyrics of all commercial recordings have to be cleared by the Recording Industry Ethics Regulatory Commission, aka Recorin. Established in 1952, Manabe calls it a group mindful of music’s “powerful influence on the psychological state, spirit and behaviour of the nation’s people”.
An even more taxing hurdle, Manabe explains, is the National Association of Commercial Broadcasters, a body that prohibits attempts – or perceived attempts – “to disgrace the authority of the government or its agencies”.
Unsurprisingly, any commercial recordings with an anti-nuclear sentiment have had to be codified to slip through the censor’s net. The concept album 2012, by Osaka’s Acid Black Cherry, for example, is an original fairy tale about the Fukushima accident. Even beyond “official” censorship, artists have sometimes been rapped on the knuckles by their record companies. Manabe records how, back in 1988, Kiyoshiro Imawano, leader of rock band RC Succession, wove some blatantly anti-nuclear lyrics into his versions of Elvis Presley’s Love Me Tender and Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues.
When the then-director of Japanese music at Toshiba EMI demanded the Imawano drop the songs from his forthcoming album Covers, Imawano refused. Toshiba EMI pulled the album, and later placed a notice in Japan’s three biggest newspapers stating that the record had been “too wonderful” to release.
Manabe’s book also has a fascinating chapter on how Japanese anti-nuclear music/protest functions in cyberspace. For campaigning musicians both professional and amateur, the internet’s attractions are manifold. The lack of censorship and the anonymity offered are key, but as the author explains, cyberspace also allows protesting musicians to collaborate freely, and to mobilise and sometimes even educate like-minded followers. She also notes that the Web has become “a repository of [protest] music that the recording industry would not normally release”.
It was via YouTube, in April 2011, for example, that pop star Kazuyoshi Saito chose to launch It Was Always A Lie, one of the Japanese anti-nuclear movements key anthems. The song panned the Japanese media’s claims that nuclear power was safe, and when Kazuyoshi sang it online, his face obscured by a cowboy hat and dark glasses, it went viral.
Kazuyoshi’s representatives eventually conceded that he was behind the song, but his record company declined to release the track commercially, arguing that “considerations for related companies”, and “the existence of many different opinions on nuclear power” had to be taken into account.
The Revolution Will Not be Televised also explores anti-nuclear demonstrations at music festivals, and via music-fuelled street protests, and one of the key points Manabe makes is that brushes with the law can be far more damaging and stigmatising for the individual than in the West. Protesters arrested in Japan can be held for up to 23 days while the police decide whether to indict them, and there is no bail. “If you’re held for several days, you’ll lose your job,” notes Hajime Matsumoto, leader of the band Shiroto no Ran.
James McNair writes for Mojo magazine and The Independent.
Updated: January 7, 2016 04:00 AM