I never really had a normal idea of what punk was. Neither does Japan.
After cramming five shows and three venues into a single festival ticket, I feel like I’ve had an Anthro 101 course on 16-year-old Japanese Punks. The thesis paper could be written on a zine folded into an origami swan: They’re way more Japanese than punk.
Japanese kids tend to ask themselves, “Will I pass the test?” when American kids are asking “Why do I have to take this stupid test?” This difference, placed squarely at the common birthplace of all rebellious subcultures (that is, Senior High School), is crucial to understanding the difference between teenage angst in Japan and America.
First, some field reports: In a sea of black T-shirts, I didn’t see a single swastika being thrown into a garbage can. No Greenpeace or Anarchy symbols. Nothing remotely political. You’ll see the names of the band the kids came to see, usually written in a font worn out long ago on snot-themed children’s candy packaging.
The show schedule included 10-minute pauses for sound checks. The kids stood in front of the stage and exited the venue between bands in an orderly fashion based on the schedule. Since the bands took the stage on time, the crowd came back from their cigarettes on time, and the show started and ended on time.
No matter how angsty the music got, the singer was grinning. Every band I’ve seen indulges in a lot of cross-song banter about how delicious the local soup is or how nice everyone has been, and everyone responds by being really nice: Cheering and laughing at every joke while listening politely.
When the music starts, the crowd listens. When the music stops, the crowd claps. Then it silently waits for more music. When the show ends – despite, I’d predict, the “message” of the band – the kids go back to being silent.
I knew a guy in his late 50’s who was a dedicated punk and would still get punched in the face at punk shows because kids are assholes. When he finally hit the ground unconscious at a GG Allin reunion show, he stood up with a face full of blood and, asked if he needed an ambulance, screamed: “F–k you, I’m punk!”
For a lot of reasons, that story isn’t very Japanese.
In Japan, singers wave their arms around and kids start running really fast in a giant circle: A circle-pit, which my punk friends tell me happens at more genteel punk shows in Maine. In Japan the kids just run around really fast until they’re dizzy or out of breath, which looks more fun (and wholesome) than getting punched in the face.
Sometimes someone pumps their fist in the air, and when someone does that everyone in the room does that until someone stops and then everyone stops.
Sometimes there was crowd surfing. This usually happens because the singer asks for it. When you crowd surf in Japan, you can count on the crowd’s support, and to let you down gently when you come to the edge of the swarm (This is the only functional skill acquired during school sports days).
After some crowd-surfing broke out at one show, the singer asked if anyone had dropped anything. The kids passed a shoe, a cell phone and a necklace forward, and band members returned them to their rightful owners.
What I’m talking about is the Green Day version of Punk in Japan: Pop-Punk. But the punk is still there: That the listener and the performer are outside of the mainstream, looking in, and sneering at what they see.
Nobody cares about suburban punks. American culture looks at kids in band T-shirts throwing glass bottles at the walls of abandoned department stores and shakes its head. Nobody thinks it’s cool, because it’s a posture: They’re privileged and trapped by it, so they adopt the language of being oppressed.
Japanese teenagers are in a similar conundrum. The difference is, being an outsider isn’t cool, and being privileged isn’t seen as a trap. It’s seen as a privilege. That changes the kind of posturing involved in being a suburban teenage punk in Japan.
Nobody’s angry about anything.
The Angry Snarl of American Adolescence
The worst stereotype tossed at American Suburban Punks is that they’re first-person scenes of simplified rage, where the middle finger counts as social critique but voting does not. It’s about change, but only expressing the desire for change. You question every act of authority because first you are an individual with rights.
Being a teenager in America means being coddled into resenting first-world luxury without yet being able to articulate why you are so frustrated: Disconnection, alienation, global inequity, apathy and inaction. And you go through a lot of stupid philosophical positions before you figure out what you’re actually angry about. But the good news is, punk – and the engaged punk scene – might eventually get 10% of these kids on the way to making a better world.
The music these kids listen to in their coddled teenager phases, though, is identical to the music being played to throngs of equally confused adolescents in Japan. But Japanese kids are confused about different things. They know their slot. Most of them knew what they’d do as a career when they were in Junior High School. Few of them question it.
The Polite Smile of Japanese Adolescence
The stereotypical Japanese teenager is a first-person plural scene of simplified choices, where working long hours counts as a cultural contribution but criticism does not. It’s about preservation, not of the self but of the various support beams that hold the self up: Family, School, Work, Police, Government. They have no interest in questioning authority because they need authority to get by.
Being a teenager in Japan, you’re so exhausted by first-world demands that you have to work hard to figure out what you’re actually being deprived of.
The music these kids listen to is identical to the music being played to throngs of equally confused adolescents in America. But American kids don’t have any sense of responsibility toward Family, School, Work, Police, or Government. American teenagers have no burdens and no direction. Most of them won’t know what they want to do for a career until they are 30.
For all the superficial posturing, being punk in Japan doesn’t serve any broader political or personal goal; it’s a fashion choice. These kids aren’t angry, and they know it, but it’s fun to let loose and yell and run in circles.
The idea of self-determination, so prevalent in American punk, is only whispered in Japan. Some people “drop out,” and there is a real, vital, kick-ass punk scene in Japan that actually values its outsider status.
It just isn’t what the 16-year-old kids are listening to. They’re listening to pop music with punk distortion. It’s loud, and it’s fun, and it’s mostly empty.
And I Wonder, What Did They Do With The Bodies?
Japanese kids have their doubts, but they aren’t about self-determination; they’re about fitting the role they’ve been assigned. It’s practical. It’s logical. And it’s rooted in the general consensus that if they work hard enough to fit into the proper slot, they’ll be rewarded by a just and fair system.
Americans struggle with figuring out who we are from the moment we’re born. It makes some of us – most of us – into total assholes, and it kills some of us, and it soaks the rest of us in anxious self-doubt.
But there is something beautiful about finding out who we are on our own, even if it means clawing our way through pain, uncertainty, broken glass and stupid mistakes before we finally arrive at ourselves.
Punk, after all, is a pretty American idea.
Further Reading (From Elsewhere):
Unrelated to Japan, but a great essay on Why White People Like Punk.
Crazy Japanese Punk Girl Delights Entire Dorm Floor (The Onion)