On Being a Teenage Punk in Japan

I never really had a normal idea of what punk was. Neither does Japan.
The Scene
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 This Japanese Life):
On Listening to The Strokes in Japan
J-Cin Sundays: Linda Linda Linda 

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)

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19 Responses to On Being a Teenage Punk in Japan

  1. jobugman says:

    Good stuff man, I guess teens aren’t the same everywhere.

  2. When I first came back to Japan, I’m pretty sure I spoke like a punk but never acted like one. This post kind of made me wish I had though :)

  3. Pingback: On Being Cute in Japan | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

  4. Jeffrey says:

    “Punk, after all, is a pretty American idea.”

    I think you are conflating punk with rebellion as there never were really been any HS aged American punks, other than the “Get the hell off my lawn, you punks” kind of punks. Particularly not 16-year old punks.

    Political punk was always an English thing.

    Finally, punk’s been dead for about 25 years in the U.S. and close to 30 in the U.K. It’s all just a bad imitation of a style and music that was very much of a time and place. No even Tokyo was such a place at that time.

    • Elisha Folks says:

      thats not necessarily true. for one, punk is not dead, you want examples? me. i go with the biker jacket short dyed hair dc. martens,,,the whole shebang. i am as punk as we get. an i do agree with what you are saying about the imitation of style. i am seeing most of the few kids who claim to be punk just liking the style, an even getting it very wrong. what realy makes me punk is not about cusing or smoking or even rebelling, its your out look on life. from my experience it is about having fun an doing what YOU want to do with out caring about what others think about you. an all the TRUE punks that i know agree…its a sad thing..things like “emo” have leaked there way into main streem an incorrectly dragged punk along. people ask me if i personally am emo, an this is insulting. they are the exact opposite! i tell them i am just a teenage girl doing what i feel like doing. forgive me for rambling but i give this topic alot of thought. an its very true the sterio typical punk rebellion was realy only in the UK. now a days evry ones so full of themselves its almost embarrassing to say im a teenager from the US. self esteem is great, an i have loads, but being an ass whole is entirely different. anyway, this was a great article. from what i had been understanding japan had alot of “scene” anime sort of fashion going on, but that doesn’t seem to be the case…thanks for sharing!

    • Megan says:

      Kind of short-sighted. There is much political punk in the US. Look to Bad Religion, Anti-Flag, Nofx, Rise Against, Against Me, Rancid, … all great examples of contemporary punk with political leanings. As far as punk being dead, well, you can look at all of those bands to see thriving scenes, whether you deem them “punk enough” or not.

  5. hiroshi says:

    You obviously don’t know anything about Japanese punk. look up G.I.S.M., Gauze, Zyanose, Framtid, and several other punk bands from Japan who are notorious around the punk scenes of the world. You don’t know the first thing about Japanese punk. You also seem like all of your knowledge of the American punk scene comes from cliche’d movies like SLC Punk or Suburbia. Look up videos called “All Crusties Spending Loud Night 2002” and just take in very slowly just how wrong you are about real punk in Japan.

    • owwls says:

      You obviously don’t know anything about reading comprehension. I specifically say that I’m talking about pop-punk’s equivalent in Japan, and specifically acknowledge the existence of other, more vital scenes in Japan. As for the rest, I’m not going to look it up because you’re rude.

  6. Nice Defiance, Ohio reference.

  7. Joeb says:

    this is a ridiculously uninformed and ignorant article/post whatever. and i do understand reading comprehension, i read between the lines in your artcile and its grossly negligent and pretty offensive/border line racist.

    you have obviously no idea of the thriving Japanese punk scene that has been going on since punk was discovered in the UK and US. Bands like The Stalin, Confuse, GISM, and Deathside all had global impacts in the ’80s. to make broad, generalized statements about punk in Japan is offensive but also dangerously uninformed, as you are acting like an authority or someone who has any idea what you are talking about. Currently there is a HUGELY interesting and diverse underground punk scene in Japan. Currently there is Framtid, Life, and a slew of bands in Japan that might not fit into your narrow definition of what punk is, but they are very anti-war, anti-nuclear, pro-peace etc. I could go into it more but dont really have the energy to write or properly punctuate this response. Only want to say you really need to do more research, or perhaps amend your article.

    Also I dont think I’m being rude, or Hiroshi’s response was rude. What’s rude is your article that claims “punk is american”, acts as though Japanese youth are unable to question authority, and is all together problematic in an offensive way.

    • owwls says:

      Sorry, you dont know how to read. I specifically state that i am limiting my descriptions to the mall scene and pop-punk kids in japan. Maybe you wish i wrote an article about the other punk bands, but i didnt, and i never claimed to be. So yes, you don’t know how to read. That has no room for me to cover what i also acknowledged was a very thriving underground punk scene in the urban centers (though you’d be surprised how few high school kids in japan listen to them). The global impact of those bands is far greater than any impact ive seen on the general pop-punk population of Japan. “dangerously uninformed” ?!? You have a very warped perspective of what “danger” is.

      Secondly, punk being a very American idea is true. It was invented in the UK, yes, but the ethos of punk and the ethos of American “be whoever you want to be and fuck authority” matches quite closely to American libertarianism. Thats unpopular among those drinking the punk rock kool aid, I know, but the POP PUNK SCENE (again, specifically the scene im talking about, since that needs to be spelled out even more clearly for you) is hardly anarchist, anti-capitalist, or effectual in any capacity aside from identifying itself with the empty signifiers of the actual scene. So yeah: Learn how to read. And learn how to understand what an author is writing about instead of pretending its about something else.

      • owwls says:

        Also please point out the “racism”

      • owwls says:

        I would even venture that many of the “punks” who seem to pretend Japan has nothing unique about its culture, and instead pretend Japanese people behave exactly like all Americans do, have absolutely no understanding of what culture is, how it works, or how it influences people and their relationship to power (and therefore, rebellion). That’s probably because you don’t know how to read, so how could anyone expect you to actually be critical of the role culture plays in your individual “choices.” Saying so is not racist, it’s the first step toward an actual critique of power and ideology, and helps anyone who actually cares about people to arrive at a real understanding of what rebellion and freedom means. That transcends listening to 30-year-old punk bands. But congrats on your hipster points.

      • aswood says:

        Do us and yourself a favour in the future and write what you know about. You really have a minimal at best understanding of the history of the broader punk scene and your attempt at reduction for as broad a church as it is, it’s history and various ethos just makes you look silly and hurts my eyes. Also if you have a specific subject in mind it’s a good idea to indicate that in the heading or sub heading and not wait till the twelfth paragraph to make that plain.
        Your generalisations about the youth of both nations there are something you should either avoid or preface with something because lines like “But American kids don’t have any sense of responsibility toward Family, School, Work, Police, or Government” don’t work on any level.
        I’d also add that I don’t think I’ve seen the phrase ‘being punk’ used since reading tabloid articles in the late 70’s. Really? Being punk… you have a definition for all that word encompasses do you and know people who fit that? If you do then it’s a new one on me but then I’ve only been involved in the scenes for 38 years or so.

  8. Klinika says:

    As a punk girl who lives in a 3rd world country…this upsets me. Like…what’s the point of doing this for fashion? It’s not true that japanese teens (or even adults) have nothing to rebel against. It sounds wierd because it’s not a poor country at all, but the brain-wash system is strong there. Things like: youl always have to be polite, say sorry even if you didn’t do it, and basically neve talking about your problems with enyone, ’cause they have their problems too, oh, and the “work, work, work!” part? Don’t get me wrong, I understan that the article is about pop-punk (and it’s well written), but still can’t get how the people can live like this? To be a good student, to learn bullshit (most of the time), to go to college, to work, work, work…I’m not against Japan, nor against your article, just…I can’t finde the propper words…
    P. S.:Sorry that my comment is so long, and sorry for grammer mistakes, I’m not a native speaker. :)

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