The Hidden History of Japan’s Folk-Rock Boom

That meant complex wordplay and ambiguities created through deliberate mispronunciation. Most of the band’s lyrics were by its drummer, Takashi Matsumoto, who in 1971 wrote a probing essay about being caught between a “pseudo-West” and a “sham Japan.”

The Japanese language, Mr. Endo said, was essential to capture the details of domestic life — like the kotatsu, a small heated table and blanket where families or lovers huddle.

“There’s absolutely no kotatsu in Dylan’s songs,” he said. “A girl in a miniskirt is not putting her legs inside the kotatsu. And most importantly,” Mr. Endo added, growing agitated, “cats are not sleeping inside the kotatsu in Dylan songs.”

Yet language has also been a barrier keeping this music from reaching the West, said Kunihiko Murai, one of Japan’s most successful music executives. His label, Alfa, released Yellow Magic Orchestra, the techno-pop group that Mr. Hosono founded in 1978 with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi, which found worldwide success singing in English.

“In the ’70s and ’80s, whenever I would play Japanese songs to music publishers outside Japan, they would listen to four bars and say, ‘Nobody will listen to music with Japanese lyrics,’” Mr. Murai said. “That was the reaction in those days.”

To put “Even a Tree Can Shed Tears” together, Light in the Attic spent years trying to convince skeptical Japanese record companies that an American market existed for this material. “We were requesting something that had never been requested,” said Matt Sullivan, the label’s founder.

Light in the Attic won over the Japanese executives by stressing the label’s connoisseur approach and by projecting album sales of 3,000 — a number that astonished them, Mr. Sullivan said.

Glimpses of Japan come through in the album’s liner notes and translated lyrics. The vocal group Akai Tori sings an eerie traditional ballad about the burakumin, an ostracized social group; it was still a taboo subject, so the song was banned from the radio. Hachimitsu Pie’s “Hei No Ue De (On the Fence),” a lament with Claptonesque guitar, is about watching an ex-lover in “seven-centimeter heels” depart Tokyo’s Haneda Airport for London.

The most charming story is that of Ms. Kanenobu. In 1972 she was a 21-year-old songwriter about to release her debut album, “Misora,” when she met the American rock critic Paul Williams. Pregnant, she followed Williams back to the United States and abandoned her musical career. A decade later, Philip K. Dick, who had a long association with Williams, encouraged her to sing again.


Sachiko Williams followed the American rock critic Paul Williams back to the United States in 1972, abandoning her music career. Credit Peter Prato for The New York Times

“I met Paul in the spring of 1972, I left with him in June, and the record came out in September,” said Ms. Kanenobu, who is credited by that name on the compilation but goes by Sachiko Williams. “Now I can laugh at it. I was maybe a little cuckoo. I just followed my heart.”


Ms. Williams holding an original pressing of her 1972 album, “Misora.” Credit Peter Prato for The New York Times

The story that “Even a Tree Can Shed Tears” tells is brief, with the folk-rock scene petering out by the mid-1970s. But by then many of its players were already beginning to transform Japanese music. Mr. Hosono’s studio players became a standard backup band during the period, and later Yellow Magic Orchestra was Japan’s answer to Kraftwerk. Through the ’80s, Mr. Hosono, Mr. Ohtaki and Mr. Suzuki all wrote major pop hits.

Over his nearly 50-year career, Mr. Endo has played acoustic folk, progressive rock, techno, solo piano and sentimental ballads known as enka. And at age 70, he still looks to Mr. Dylan as an inspiration and a rival.

“I’m greater than Dylan,” he said. “The album I’m trying to make in December will be hard punk music. Dylan, can you top that?”

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