The Who and Japanese pop culture

Brian Cady brianinatlanta2001 at
Thu Nov 27 19:00:45 PST 2008

>From the Daily Yomiuri:

SOFT POWER, HARD TRUTHS / Pop progenitors from real worlds
Roland Kelts / Special to The Daily Yomiuri

"Pity it took The Who 40 years to come to Japan," said the seminal British band's guitarist and chief songwriter, Pete Townshend, from the stage of Tokyo's Budokan last week. "This is a wonderful country."

Townshend and the band's other surviving original member, singer Roger Daltrey, were visiting Japan for only the second time in The Who's 40-year-plus history. Their virgin visit occurred in 2004, when the band performed short sets in Yokohama and Osaka as part of a summer rock festival. Last week's appearances in Osaka, Yokohama, Saitama and Tokyo marked their first ever full-scale tour of Japan.

Tickets for all five shows sold briskly, and Japanese fans were rabid. At each concert, standing, dancing, jumping and singing in unison throughout the two-hour-plus sets was de rigueur. One member of the band's staff told me the amount of merchandise they sold during one week in Japan was double the amount sold over the previous three weeks in the United States.

Yet one of the central motivators for The Who's tour of Japan was...Japanese pop culture. Backstage one night, Townshend told me that his teenage son's passion for Japan was the reason he had agreed to the tour--with its brutal itinerary, jet lag and yawning distances. (Sadly, Townshend's son couldn't make it to Japan this time, though he was on the phone with his dad minutes before I entered the dressing room.)

The day The Who left the Japanese archipelago to return to their own island nation, Japan's animation maestro, Hayao Miyazaki, gave a press conference at Tokyo's Foreign Correspondent's Club. The club has sent invitations to Miyazaki for seven years. Suddenly, there he was.

Subverting his reputation as a first-rate curmudgeon, Miyazaki last week was all charm. For over two hours, he entertained questions, signed autographs and posed for photos. His brief introduction addressed his concern that younger Japanese are being weakened by the virtual worlds (cell phones, video games, the Internet and, yes, anime and manga) surrounding them, becoming pessimistic beyond reason, and failing to appreciate the wonders of existence.

"We should be teaching children how to kindle and extinguish fire," he said, "or how to climb a tree, how to knot a rope, how to use a knife and thread and needle."

Miyazaki candidly acknowledged that as an anime director, he contributes to the virtual environment enveloping and enervating today's youth. But, he said, "If I can create one film that children will remember for the rest of their lives, that is my goal."

Miyazaki is 67. Townshend is 63, Daltrey 64. Born during World War II, they each became part of the postwar generation of artists that was among the first to create what we now call "popular culture," an ill-understood amalgamation of artistry, entertainment, marketing and industry.

Those actually born postwar, in the procreative fizz of long-awaited peace, are referred to as "baby boomers," often derisively. I spent several days with one of them, author Haruki Murakami, 59, during his appearances in California last month. And last week I interviewed novelist, director and youth culture commentator Ryu Murakami, 56, for National Public Radio.

With all five artists, none of whom are American, I was startled by their foundations of strength and optimism, the very quality Miyazaki says young Japanese lack. You can chalk some of that up to sheer longevity, of course. Once you've lived long enough, maybe you learn to trust that you will endure the vagaries of existence.

But it also seems that the oft-criticized boomers have earned their stripes. They learned how to create magic out of the vacuum of the postwar years (especially in Japan and Britain, which both suffered severe destruction). They learned to survive the global vicissitudes of the latter half of the 20th century without flinching, and without compromising their goals, however bleak the outlook.

And perhaps most importantly: While they did not have the Internet when they were kids, or cell phones, video games and YouTube, they probably all learned how to climb a tree.

Kelts is a Tokyo University lecturer who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of "Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S." (, now available in an updated paperback edition. His column appears twice a month. (Nov. 28, 2008)

 -Brian in Atlanta
The Who This Month!


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