Return of J Jazz

Dean Van Nguyen “‘Society was volatile. That spirit was in our music’: how Japan created its own jazz”


In the years since, Europe and the US have indulged in a decades-long fascination with Japanese culture that doesn’t appear to be subsiding. The popularity of anime is at an all-time high, while there’s been a new interest in the Japanese city pop genre of the late 1970s and 80s. Now, it’s Japanese jazz that’s ripe for excavation.

“Many of these albums were hardly accessible outside Japan back then,” explains Stephan Armleder of We Release Jazz, but the arrival of the internet “gave us this insane access to a gigantic archival database for music: blogs, message boards, YouTube, Discogs”.


The story of Japanese jazz is about music and a movement, but also a nation’s state of mind – a daring vision of a better future after the second world war, sounded out on piano, drums and brass. Jazz is a distinctly American art form – the US’s greatest cultural achievement, in fact, along with hip-hop – and a healthy scene had formed in the 1920s and 30s as American players toured the clubs of Tokyo, Kobe and Osaka. But Japan had historically been an insular nation – its policy of sakoku, which for more than two centuries severely limited contact with the outside world, had only ended in the 1850s – and an increasingly nationalist government, feeling jazz diluted Japanese culture, began to crack down. By the second world war, “the music of the enemy” was outlawed.

After the country’s surrender, occupying forces oversaw sweeping reforms. American troops brought jazz records with them; Japanese musicians picked up work entertaining the troops. There was a proliferation of jazz kissa (cafes), a distinctly Japanese phenomenon where locals could sit and listen to records for as long as they wanted. For some, jazz was the sound of modernity.

In those early postwar years, Japanese musicians were essentially copying the Americans they admired. “That’s what you do,” says Tony Higgins, co-curator of the J Jazz reissues series. “You start off imitating and then you assimilate and then you innovate.”

Higgins and his fellow curator Mike Peden, both Britons, are longtime collectors who have spent vast quantities of time tracking down records, investigating labels and poring over obi strips (a band of paper wrapped around Japanese LPs). For the past few years, the pair have worked on Japanese jazz reissues for BBE Records, typically drawing from the late-1960s to the mid-80s, a period of fantastic innovation when a generation of musicians found their own voice. These releases have been part of a broader wave of Japanese jazz of the era reissued for western ears on labels such as Light in the Attic, Impex and We Release Jazz.