The Birth of Noise in Japan

October 14, 2014

At a certain point, even in New York and London, the seemingly immortal juggernaut of punk had become a zombie, shambling amid the lingering scent of big business and a heap of rotten imitators. Though the movement was thought to have drawn a clear line in history, that line had been eroded by time, along with a vague sense that the world was no longer so small.

The Sex Pistols broke up in 1978, the year the punk movement came to life in Japan. It was centered in Tokyo with the Rockers scene and in Osaka with the Kansai No Wave movement, which incorporated bands from Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto, and elsewhere in the Kansai region. I’ll spare you the details, but it is important that several of the founders of the Japanese noise scene started off as punks, notably Hide and Jojo Hiroshige, who evolved into Ultra Bide.

Idiot said, “This isn’t a spiral staircase. It’s an emergency staircase.”

Ultra Bide had a style that could be called freeform punk, which set the course for the Kansai scene, but what’s crucial here is Hiroshige’s other band, Rasenkaidan (Spiral Staircase). Hiroshige played keyboards in this project, but one day he was hit with the idea that having a pair of guitars could give these improvised performances a truly explosive sound. Hiroshige invited Naoki Zushi to the studio; Zushi’s friend Idiot tagged along, and grabbed a pair of drumsticks. The three played a jagged session together, during which Idiot said, “This isn’t a spiral staircase. It’s an emergency staircase.” And that’s the story of how Hijokaidan (Emergency Staircase) was born and the seeds of Japanese noise sprouted.

The lineup would not last long. In the fall of 1979, Hijokaidan were to perform their first concert at a venue called Drug Store in Senbon-Nakadachiuri, Kyoto, which had been a habitual hangout for years. Idiot never showed up after the first rehearsal, so Hijokaidan was back to the original plan of Hiroshige and Zushi as a stripped-down dual-guitar combo, improvising with a ferocity different from that of hard rock or punk, and a chaos unlike that of free jazz. It was completely void of melody, harmony, and rhythm, to the extent that it seemed as though the pair had disconnected themselves from any symbolic context. What they brought to the stage could only be called pure noise. Less than ten days after the Drug Store, they played again at Doshisha University, and Zushi quit the band immediately after the performance. A guitarist to the core, he could not really accept the unmusical nature of this noise, or perhaps he understood the vastness of this unbounded new territory better than anyone else.

“In the end, I felt I didn’t have as much of a capacity to play nothing but noise like Hiroshige,” said Zushi in Hijokaidan: A Story of the King of Noise, a book that looks back at 30 years of the band. “You have to have a tough ear as well as a tough spirit. For better or worse, I’m a guitarist. So when a guitar is in my hands, I end up playing it, and concentrating on the sounds it makes.” The toughness that Zushi talks about lies in the capacity to take on all sounds that lie outside of music, but within the audible range. Hiroshige would later call this “human power.” It is a matter of embodying the spirit of this enormous, abstract sound – a sound that could never be contained within sheet music – and becoming deeply intimate with it. This rather mystical way of thinking about sound is almost Zen-like, and influenced the unique development of noise in Japan for the next 30 years.

The performances of Hijokaidan reached a true extreme, with venue lights smashed, fire extinguishers emptied, garbage and raw fish strewn about.

The original Hijokaidan broke up. Jojo Hiroshige left Ultra Bide and Rasenkaidan to form Corroded Mary with Zuke (Nakajima Katsuhiro), Oka Toshiyuki, Mikawa Toshiji, and Mako (Shigesugi Masako); Ichiguchi Akira joined soon after. The group wanted to play psychedelic space rock in the vein of Hawkwind but, because none of them knew how to play their instruments, they couldn’t do anything but improvise. In June 1980, Kudo Tori — who played at a concert house called Minor in Kichijoji, Tokyo and frequently hung out at the aforementioned Drug Store – invited Hiroshige to perform at an event called Tengoku Chusha no Yoru (Heavenly Injection Night), held at Shinjuku’s ACB Hall. The band was mistakenly billed as Hijokaidan rather than Corroded Mary, but the group didn’t care. And so, Corroded Mary became Hijokaidan.

The rebirth of Hijokaidan was a punk assault – it may have started late, but its invasion could not be brushed aside. Throughout 1980 and into the next year, the band’s performances reached a true extreme, with venue lights smashed, fire extinguishers emptied, garbage and raw fish strewn about, and female member Semimaru urinating on stage. Hijokaidan frequently appeared in gossip rags due to their “scandalous performances” (not their music). It seemed their very existence was excessive noise.

Each Hijokaidan performance upped the ante, becoming wilder and wilder, but wildness has its limits. An end was approaching, but before it did Jojo Hiroshige wanted to produce a record. Hijokaidan’s first album featured art from Hideshi Hino’s horror manga Zouroku no Kibyo (Zouroku’s Strange Disease), and was quickly known by the same name. Zouroku no Kibyo was a compilation of Hijokaidan’s best live recordings, revealing the power of their performances and a writhing, raw, and unpredictable sound that was shockingly fresh.

Hijokaidan - Sozo Dojo

Technically, this wasn’t the first time Hijokaidan’s sound was heard on a record. In 1980, Hiroshige released Shumatsu Shorijo (Sewage Treatment Plant), which included a live recording from the Tengoku Chusha no Yoru concert. It was reviewed in Fool’s Mate magazine – a zine with a focus on Euro-rock and avant-garde music – by Masami Akita, who would soon be known as Merzbow. “Around that time, I wanted to write something about industrial music for the magazine,” recalled Akita in a collaborative interview. “I considered Hijokaidan to be the most heinous band from Kansai.”

Merzbow was a project Akita had started in his bedroom, drawing inspiration from German Dadaist Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau architectural works, where elaborately sculpted interiors destroyed the buildings that contained them. Although he was well aware of historical and philosophical context of noise, he tried to deliberately separate himself from Dada and surrealism, musique concrete and Fluxus, or from any sounds gleaned from listening heavily to ’70s artists like Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. In 1992, Akita released a book called Noise War, in which he shared his insight into bands such as Throbbing Gristle, SPK, Whitehouse, The Hafler Trio, The New Blockaders, Organum, MB, P16D4, and also looked at William Burroughs, Aleister Crowley, and László Moholy-Nagy in the context of noise. The book reveals the interconnected nature of Japanese subcultures in the ’80s and ’90s, which gave birth to acts like Violent Onsen Geisha later on.

I considered Hijokaidan to be the most heinous band from Kansai.


Hijokaidan and Merzbow, who made two very different types of noise, appeared in Japan around the same time, and their influence on cultural development in Japan cannot be disputed. If they were the first generation of Japanese noise, bands like Hanatarash (who released a record on Hiroshige’s Alchemy label) and KK Null (who did a split with Merzbow in 1983) are the second. KK Null was the project of Kazuyuki Kishino, who started playing improvised guitar in the early ’80s and founded the label Nux Organization in 1985. It was a way to distribute his own works, as well as a variety of Japanese alternative music, to overseas audiences. Around the same time, he also produced the first of a series of compilations of Japanese No Wave and alternative music for the German label Dossier. Dead Tech I included KK Null, Ruins, High Rise, Hijokaidan (marking the first time their music made its way outside of Japan), and even an early appearance from Yamatsuka Eye and Taketani Ikuo’s as Boredoms, a year before the release of their 1986 debut Anal by Anal.

These songs sound like they were recorded through a cloud of smoke and they have the crude lo-fi feel of punk 7-inches. The feeling that something important was stirring in the Japanese underground still comes through. This noise said that Japan was not just about the Yellow Magic Orchestra or the psych rock sounds of Flower Travellin’ Band, Shinki Chen, Far East Family Band, and the other acts Julian Cope had championed on his Japrocksampler. This was something far louder, sharper, and more complex.


But back to Yamatsuka Eye for a second. Before he was the lynchpin of Boredoms, Eye was known for his Hanatarash project, which began in the early ’80s. The group is now enshrined in myth, with tales of a concert hall destroyed by a bulldozer, explosives carried into another venue, and sheets of glass thrown at the audience. Some of this can be heard on an album released by Ukawa Naohiro’s Mom/N/Dad Productions, but sound alone does not give a clear picture of how extreme it really was.

Hanatarash was defined by turning action into noise. It was extremely linear, horizontal, and impulsive to the core, but while the sound was harsh, there were rhythms peeking out here and there and a constant humorous edge. Their ’85 debut album Hanatarashi was musical noise, but by the ’88 follow-up Hanatarash 2, they had become a mass of destructive acoustics and collage. Where Boredoms would be based on a rock format, Hanatarash turned excess and impulse into a stereo image.

Masonna - Live - April 22, 2006

By the end of the ’80s, many more Japanese noise acts were springing up across Japan, mostly from far-from-ideal home-recording environments. Ohno Masahiko’s Solmania, Yamazaki Maso’s Masonna, Kusafuka Kimihide’s K2, Tano Koji’s MSBR, Nakajima Akifumi’s Aube, Gomi Kohei’s Pain Jerk and Masaya Nakahara’s Violent Onsen Geisha worked with homemade instruments on homemade systems, copying their homemade noise onto cassettes. This period saw the most remarkable developments in noise. Each project traveled its own path, establishing methodologies and giving the Japanese noise scene new energy, purity, and variety. This was not entirely unrelated to what was happening in mainstream music.

In 1989, the economic bubble of the ’80s burst and the economy stalled. Even so, Japan’s music industry saw its highest sales in the ’90s. CDs flew off the shelves throughout the decade, and J-pop came into being. What were once called “popular songs” or “new music” got a fresh coat of paint and the information society hit a point of no return. As mainstream music became more entwined with indie and underground, a light was shined on Japanoise. Avant-garde composer John Zorn and noise rock band Sonic Youth, both part of the Downtown New York scene, acted as intermediaries, introducing Japanese trends to the world. Keiji Haino and Masaya Nakahara (Violent Onsen Geisha) performed with Sonic Youth and Osaka’s Masonna was an opening act for Beck. KK Null has catalyzed his hardcore reasoning into a band called Zeni Geva, which was more popular abroad than it was in Japan, and after Boredoms played with In Utero-era Nirvana, many bands declared they had been influenced by the scene.

Ground Zero - The Night Before The Death Of The Sampling Virus

By this point, Japanoise wasn’t purely about intensity for intensity’s sake. Otomo Yoshihide of experimental rock band Ground Zero mixed noise with art and media in works like We Insist? and The Night Before the Death of the Sampling Virus; he used samples and turntables to get his concepts across, more like a noisier Christian Marclay than hip hop. While Merzbow and Incapacitants rejected having any kind of narrative in their noise and emphasised the volume, Otomo’s approach was different – his noise had meaning. The influence of his jazz guitar background and John Cage’s silence was to become more apparent following the meltdown of his band Ground Zero in 1998. Meanwhile, the diverse and prolific Keiji Haino – known as the vocalist in late ’70s psych-rock band Lost Araaf – experimented with broad music styles from the ’90s onward, particularly with his band Fushitsusha. For him, noise is the original sound, something natural, something outside the Western musical system that can’t be denied.

Currently, the noise scenes in Tokyo and Osaka are at once very alike and highly different – the only constant to “Japanoise” is the wide variety it contains. If one group sits hugging their knees listening to a Merzbow concert, a mob in front of the Incapacitants raises their fists; one audience stands with perfect posture intently watching Keiji Haino strum his guitar, another crowd lounges while enjoying the drone and collage of Hair Stylistics (the name Masaya Nakahara has been using since the late ’90s). As for now, I cannot say if the future of Japanese noise is bright or dark. The land as a whole is now blanketed with noise.

On a different note