Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Chin-don’

Can’t get enough of that chin-don

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, November 11, 2012

IT’S been entirely too long since the last chin-don report, and the objective of this post is to rectify that shortcoming immediately.

For those unfortunates who have yet to be exposed to the glorious goofiness that is chin-don, it is — among other things — Japan’s unintentional contribution to urban street/world music. The form arose more than a century ago with the creation of bands that mixed Western and Japanese instruments (mostly percussion in the latter case) to play anything and everything from the Western and Japanese musical repertoire as they marched through town in outlandish costumes and makeup to advertise local commercial establishments in any way they could figure out to attract attention. That involves clever repartee, unicycle riding, and kitchen sink juggling in addition to the music.

There’s been a grassroots popular revival of the style in the past few years, though it never went entirely away. A national contest for chin-don bands has been held in Toyama for more than half a century, but many of those bands are professional. (The truly far gone do it for a living.) Every year in early November, there’s a national contest for amateurs only in Maebashi, Gunma. This year’s jamboree was the 10th, and it began on Saturday.

Ten teams from Gunma, Tokyo, Saitama, Tochigi, Iwate, Aichi, Nagano, and Toyama participated, and the team from Iwate was crowned the champion.

The entertainment on the second day — today — was a grand parade through the commercial district of Maebashi.

Here’s a taste of what it looked and sounded like yesterday. One of the groups consists of high school students. Anyone who still thinks the Japanese are a nation of straight arrow conformists should hit the chin-don tag below for previous posts and see how quickly those preconceptions shatter!

Posted in Music, Popular culture, Traditions | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

We love chin-don too!

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, October 23, 2011

CHEESE and crackers, Laurel and Hardy, strawberry ice cream and tempura — felicitous combinations all, but none are so fine as the pairing of high school girls and chin-don!

We Love Chin-Don Girls

As long-time friends know, chin-don is that whacked-out Japanese urban street music presented by musical jesters decked out in Edo High Camp, armed with Western and Japanese and instruments, and performing a repertoire from the Western and Japanese Hit Parades stretching as far back as the turn of the century — the 20th Century, that is. Now I ask you: Could anything be sweeter than these young sweeties getting down to century-old East Asian funk in a style that makes Weird Al Yankovic and Spike Jones look as straitlaced as a Salvation Army marching band?

Those lucky enough to be at the Lunar Park amusement park in Maebashi, Gunma, last Sunday would have seen six female high school seniors from the Tatebayashi Commercial and Technical High School in Gunma’s Meiwa-machi working out in a group called We Love Chin-don.

They aren’t the only Gunma girls with a chin-don jones. Their formation was inspired by the Chin-don Girls, another group of students from the same high school who were graduated this spring. They were the first to perform at Lunar Park last year.

The new group was started by senior Kawasaki Ayumi, who saw last year’s band up close and personal and thought they were too cool for school. She rustled up five of her friends to continue the new tradition. They were tutored by the Umaya Bashi Chin-don Club of Maebashi, an amateur group who won a national championship in April at the national chin-don competition in Toyama. They also picked up tips by watching videos of the Chin-don Girls in action.

We Love Chin-don began performing in local festivals and senior citizen homes in July, and their Lunar Park performance was a joint appearance with their mentors. Said Kitahara Yuichiro, the big chikuwa of the Umaya Bashi Chin-don Club:

“Today they performed with a lot of guts, and all their practice resulted in a big success.”

Said the big chikuwa-ette Miss Kawasaki:

“The great part about chin-don is that we get excited by coming in contact with other people. We want to pass chin-don on to the younger girls in school.”

This time we’re in luck! We Love Chin-don will next appear at the 9th National Amateur Chin-don Competition in Maebashi on 5-6 November. That gives us two weeks to get ready.

Now if only they had seen fit to put videos of their performances, or those of their models in the Chin-don Girls, on YouTube or a similar site. They haven’t — yet — so we’ll just have to make do with this brief clip of their teachers in the Umaya Bashi Chin-don Club.

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Posted in Music, Popular culture | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Matsuri da! (115): Rebirth

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, May 29, 2011

LIFESTYLE Luddites sporadically surface with the lament that globalization is holding a knife to the throat of indigenous cultures. Because cultures are less fragile and more resilient than they understand, however, this posture is really just a stalking horse for an unwillingness to allow the people of a particular place access to the same choices that globalization has allowed them. When the folk shed their colorful traditional garb for Western dress and develop a taste for musical styles other than those that rocked the world of their grandparents, it spoils the experience of enjoying them from afar, away from all the flies and the dysentery.

A look at the Japanese and their simultaneous embrace of their own traditions and the latest in global fashionability should be enough to improve anyone’s posture. The urban youth are just as likely as their fellows anywhere else to wear ugly untucked t-shirts, eat gloop, and listen to the unlistenable, but they are also just as likely to time slip without warning several centuries into the past to savor the celebrations of the ancients.

Earlier this month, for example, the Chokaisan Omonoimi Shinto shrine in the Fukura district of Yuza-machi, Yamagata — which dates from 871 at the latest — held its annual festival in supplication for a bountiful harvest. The event has several elements, including parades with three different mikoshi, or portable shrines. One of the mikoshi is for children, and another is in the shape of a ship that the carriers toss about to depict a sea voyage. The primary attraction, however, is the Hanagasa dance, or Fukura dengaku, a pre-planting rite. The dancers don headdresses with red decorations representing rice blossoms that rival anything worn by Carmen Miranda at the peak of her Hollywood career. Suspended from the brim are strips of paper called shide that represent the rain. Instead of castinets they provide clatter with an instrument called a sasara that for some reason is said to symbolize the croaking of frogs. At the end of their performance, the dancers toss the hats into the audience, and snatching one is supposed to guarantee good luck in the coming year. Anyone who’s been in the midst of a crowd in Japan during similar events knows the wisest course of action is to dive right in and grab one of your own. That’s beats being shoved roughly out of the way with an elbow to the ribs by somebody’s grandmother.

Though the festival dates from sometime in the Muromachi period, which ran from 1338 to 1573, and was designated an intangible prefectural cultural treasure in 1993, a look at this YouTube video featuring all the highlights is enough to see this isn’t a museum piece frozen in the aspic of the past.

In October 2007, the Yamagatans went on the road to Seoul to perform with other Japanese and Korean groups in the Japan-South Korea Exchange Festival, which you can see and read about here.

Teramachi Ichiza

Another of the benefits of globalization in Japan is the unexpected delights that result from all the mixing and mingling. One of the earliest manifestations of that was the chin-don bands, in which musicians dress in fanciful clothing to perform as a living jukebox stacked with global pop music on instruments both Japanese and Western, usually to advertise local shops. There are several excellent examples on-site that can be accessed at the tag below, but here’s another — Teramachi Ichiza from Iwate. The group, which usually works the Tohoku area, has won awards at national chin-don competitions for its performances. The members live in the mountainous part of the prefecture away from the coast, so they weren’t affected by the earthquake/tsunami, but they decided to suspend their activities after the disaster anyway in the spirit of self-restraint.

In the spirit of rebirth, however, they resumed performing in the Iwate city of Ofunato in the coastal area known as Goishi Kaigan at an event designed to buck up everyone’s spirits. (Enka megastar Sen Masao, an Iwate native, also sang.) The members of Teramachi Ichiza decided to bring their axes and blow because it had been 49 days after the earthquake. The 49-day Buddhist period of mourning originates in the Tibetan concept of bardo, the transitional period between one’s previous life and the consciousness’s entry into the life to come. Doesn’t that joyful noise contain an echo of the second line parade of brass bands in New Orleans switching from a dirge to jazz once they depart the cemetery after a funeral?

The chin-don band’s performance at Ofunato doesn’t seem to have been recorded, but their performance at the Miyako Horsehair Crab Festival in Iwate this February was.

This is what happened to Miyako one month later:

But destruction is not a permanent end. Doubters need only look to a small story at a park in a community center in the Kaminiida district of Yonezawa, Yamagata. A 300-year-old cherry tree on the center grounds collapsed last winter in the heavy snows. Before the deadwood could be cleared away in the spring, however, center director Nagaoka Takao spied shoots sprouting from the old trunk. He watered them with a PET bottle for the next two months. When cherry season arrived in the Tohoku region, so did the blossoms on the fallen tree.

Cultures included, we are all less fragile and more resilient than we sometimes think.

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The song, the scene, and the band’s name — they get it, too.

Posted in Arts, Festivals, Music, Popular culture, Traditions | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Third rate

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, February 13, 2011

It’s not your business model that sucks. It’s you that sucks.
– Andrew Breitbart, addressing the media covering a political meeting

READER Aceface sent a link to an article from the February issue of Factia Online. The title, roughly translated, is The Tokyo Bureaus of the Overseas Media: A lineup of third raters. Here it is in English. Be advised that this is a translation for the purpose of providing information. Factia is solely responsible for the accuracy of the content.

To hear the Tokyo correspondents of the overseas media tell it, there is no more degraded journalism than that produced by the Japanese media. But what about those reporters from the overseas media? As the documents that surfaced in Wikileaks demonstrate, they’ve given up their function of monitoring authority. The extent to which they’ve all become mere carrier pigeons is just a matter of degree.

Disbelief rippled through Nintendo’s investor relations office at about 2:30 on the afternoon of 29 September last year. The company’s stock, which had firmed slightly at around JPY 24,500, suddenly jumped to near JPY 25,000, then plunged again just before the close of trading.

The reason for the volatility was a report from the American news agency Bloomberg that the company’s Nintendo 3DS, their newest handheld gaming device and a product critical for their earnings recovery, would go on sale for JPY 18,000 on 28 October. The Nintendo stock reacted, as it had been expected the new game would not be ready in time for the yearend season.

Nintendo executives denied the story at a Makuhari game show the same day. Investors started selling, and as if it were on a roller coaster, the price fell to nearly JPY 23,000.

The villain was a group of Bloomberg reporters assigned to breaking stories called the Speed Team. The leader of this team filed the report after mistaking the existing DS package with Super Mario and others for Nintendo’s 3DS.

The Securities and Exchange Surveillance Commission launched an investigation, and Bloomberg deleted the erroneous article with the author’s byline. They then published an article under a different byline stating that Nintendo had delayed the sale of the 3DS, and hung it on the peg of Nintendo’s downgrade of their results forecast announced after the Tokyo Stock Exchange closed.

Bloomberg did it again a week later, on 6 October. They reported that the Financial Services Agency was considering more rigorous capital requirements for megabanks in Japan only. That touched off a plunge not only in bank stocks, but the market as a whole. The Financial Services Agency, however, denied the story. What happened was that the Bloomberg reporter had a quick, casual conversation with a Diet member, became too eager for a scoop, and got carried away.

It’s the same story with the New York Times, whose reporters don’t even understand the fundamentals. A female reporter in their Tokyo bureau who covered last year’s story on the Toyota recall became angry at an out of order coffee machine in Toyota headquarters and tweeted “Toyota sucks”. That’s the behavior of a bratty delinquent.

The Tokyo bureau of the Wall Street Journal is criticized for what appears to be conflicts of interest. They have a rule that reporters cannot cover organizations at which a spouse or other close relative is employed. The husbands of two of the bureau’s female reporters are executives at Morgan Stanley, a leading American financial services company. The husband of a deputy bureau chief is a banker in Hong Kong. The husband of another is the chief administrative officer of the Tokyo branch of Morgan Stanley. She writes stories on finance, and Morgan Stanley’s competitors complain there’s no guarantee her articles will be impartial.

The problems are not exclusively those of American-affiliated outlets. A Japan-U.S. financial symposium was held last October in Hakone with financial experts from both countries. What puzzled participants was that a reporter for The Economist, who was rumored to have left the company, attended with name cards identifying that reporter as a special business and financial correspondent for the magazine. A different Economist reporter with the same title was in Tokyo at the time. Those in attendance who were interviewed wondered which one was legitimate.

Also attending was a female reporter whose father is a well-known economist. Known as a troublemaker who sued The Economist, she claimed the company was at fault because she developed a neurosis as a result of a dispute with the magazine’s editorial board. The reporter is said to be on sabbatical, but the magazine allows her to walk around with the company’s name cards after leaving their employ, just to cover up the stench.

The Financial Times, another British publication, is no better. They’re known for having been critical of Goldman Sachs, but when Goldman purchased advertising for a book review event, the criticism was suddenly softened. Not a sound is heard from their former bureau chief, who wrote a book about the bankruptcy of the Long-Term Credit Bank of Japan.

The Japanese media is second rate? They’re the ones who are intolerable prigs with preconceived notions and vanilla coverage. How long do they think what they really are will remain hidden? The overseas media, and the reporters at their Tokyo bureaus in particular, are unquestionably third rate. They’re the ones who suck.

(end translation)
Chin-don is my preference for infotainment delivered by a vehicle for advertising. Here’s the face-off for the championship in last year’s national chin-don competition in Toyama. They’re pretending to advertise a stomach remedy. The second team won.

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Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Foreigners in Japan, Mass media | Tagged: , , , | 6 Comments »

Marching through Yamagata and Tokyo

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, September 9, 2010

ARE YOU READY for this musical mix? The Tohoku University of Art and Design in Yamagata City held a concert on Tuesday night with performances by two groups. The first was by the school’s taiko group, called Taishin (太悳), and the second featured an American bluegrass group called The Fox Hunt. Then they tried a jam session.

How’s that for hip in a regional city of 255,000?

You can hear for yourself what it sounded like in this short video. It starts with Taishin, follows with The Fox Hunt, and ends with them both. The MC is John Taylor, who’s in charge of the cultural exchange programs at the American consulate in Sapporo.

His idea was to have young people think about world peace through music. I don’t know how much of that went on, but the audience seemed to enjoy themselves, even though rain forced the event indoors.

Seeing this made me wonder if there wasn’t a Japanese music style that would make a better partner with bluegrass than taiko. You know, something like…chin-don! Besides, I was way overdue for a chin-don post.

But the Japanese were way ahead of me, as it turns out–by almost a century. In 1919, a teenager named Soeda Satsuki wrote some goofy lyrics about Tokyo that he called Painopainopai, that also became known as Tokyo-bushi. He borrowed the music to Marching Through Georgia, written by Henry Clay Work in 1865 about Gen. William Sherman’s March to the Sea at the end of the American Civil War. The tune was already popular in Japan when Soeda wrote the lyrics.

Here’s a version of Tokyo-bushi performed by Daiku Tetsuhiro—from Ishigaki on one of the smaller Okinawan islands—in chin-don style. Does it work? Is makizushi wrapped in seaweed? The scenes in the video are of Tokyo in the 1930s, including the Marunouchi, Ginza, and Asakusa districts.

Now for a comparison, here’s a video of Marching Through Georgia that combines two versions–the first by a bluegrass band, which lasts about a minute, and the second done marching style. Yeah, that’s Tokyo-bushi all right.

The singer in the second version, by the way, is Tennessee Ernie Ford. In short, a native Southerner is singing a song about the Union army burning its way through the Confederate South.

And for more on the wonderful world of chin-don, get clicky with the tag below.

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Posted in Foreigners in Japan, Music | Tagged: , , , | 5 Comments »

Common sense from the street

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A SIGN THAT mass media outlets are beginning to recognize the renaissance of citizen interest in politics is their growing willingness to seek and disseminate the views of people outside the dessicated circle of professional pundits and academics. That’s a welcome step for those of us who have long thought we would rather entrust the system to the first 500 people in the Boston phone book than to the students enrolled in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

Long-time friends know that I’m a big fan of chin-don, Japanese urban street music, which is enjoying a renaissance of its own. That’s why I quickly recognized the name of Adachi Hideya, the leader of Fukuoka City’s only full-time chin-don band, when his name appeared atop this short piece in the Nishinippon Shimbun compiled from an interview. Read it and see if what he says doesn’t make more sense than the snippet quotes from college professors you’ll wind up forgetting anyway.

People lament the constant turnover in prime ministers, but the people should be embarrassed too. Just saying something like, “It’s all the same no matter who the prime minister is” in front of other people is in itself embarrassing. It’s unfair to have expectations for getting something while leaving the problems to someone else. Citizens in other countries around the world are more politically involved than in Japan.

So, you might ask, what should we do with the Futenma issue? Since everyone dislikes the bases, has anyone seriously thought of transferring them to Kyushu or Tohoku? Can you criticize Prime Minister Hatoyama for looking for a way to transfer the bases outside of Okinawa Prefecture to help the people there?

Even with the change in governments (from the LDP to the DPJ), aren’t people just getting carried away by their moods? The backdrop to this is the nonsensical Cabinet support rate polls published by the mass media. When the polls are high, they lift the politicians up, but when they’re low, they bash them. This pattern will keep repeating itself until each citizen has developed the ability to judge the value of news on his own.

It’s impossible for a short-lived government to accomplish anything. I think the people should look at things from a longer perspective. They shouldn’t think a party is going to accomplish everything in its rose-colored political platforms. We must also develop the resolve and make the effort to avoid shirking our responsibilities for the future.

Chin-don musicians are hired to play a wide range of Western and Japanese pop music from different eras while dressed in goofy costumes to publicize new store openings or to entertain at parties or public events.

That means they’re a combination of street musicians, popular entertainers, publicists, and independent businesspeople.

Of course they’re going to make more sense than the average professor/pundit!

For more posts on Mr. Adachi’s real business, click on the chin-don tag at the bottom.

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Posted in Mass media, Politics | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

From chin-don in Nagoya to the Passage Choiseul in Paris

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 24, 2008

REGULAR VISITORS know that we sure love us some chin-don music at Ampontan. In fact, there’s a post about halfway down the page about Tchindon, a new French film in which the key element is this musical style/instrumentation/manner of presentation.

The musicians in the movie are played by the Adachi Sendensha group, but there are plenty of other working bands in the country that could have just as easily stepped into their shoes. Another important outfit is the Osaka-based Chin-Don Tsushinsha. Rather than being a single band, they seem to consist of a larger contingent of musicians that splits up and travels to different sites. How else is a band supposed to play 700 gigs a year?

As you can see from their English page (pdf), their calling card is their PR potential rather than their musical skills. That’s not to say they can’t play; it’s just that publicizing commercial establishments is how they make a living.

But in addition to their ability to attract customers, they also have the musical chops. They’ve taken first place 10 times in the annual national chin-don championships in Toyama, and performed overseas 22 times.

Their Japanese-language website has a link to a YouTube video of one of their performances in Osu, Nagoya, at a commercial fair this fall. Here it is, and it’s a classic!

And that reminds me!

The street scene in this video is of a typical Japanese shotengai, or pre-shopping mall-era urban shopping and service cores. These permanent commercial districts are packed with streets of shops; they could be just as easily be described with the words marketplace, bazaar, or souk.

As in the district shown in the video, some of the streets in the shotengai are open, but most of the area is occupied by a shopping arcade or gallery covered by iron beams with hard translucent plastic sheets that admit light and keep out the rain. That’s also the case with this neighborhood in Osu, as I confirmed after a bit of scouting around on the web.

I’ve had it in the back of my mind to do a post about the shotengai for a while now. For one thing, they’re unlike anything I saw in the U.S., where retail commerce has become increasingly mall-dominated. I grew up not far from a small American-style shopping arcade, but unlike its Japanese counterparts, it wasn’t as open to the outside, nor did the shop proprietors live on the premises.

The shotengai in Saga was the social/commercial center of the city when I arrived in 1984. The place was always filled with people, even during weekday afternoons, but it was ram jam city on weekend nights in August when they held their commercial fairs. It opened in 1964 and was in its golden age by the time I first saw it. Only a half-hour at most was required to walk around its circumference, but it had everything most people needed: a movie house with five screens; the city’s best grocery store, bookstore, record store, and Chinese restaurant; a French pastry shop operated by a man who learned his trade in Paris; the best drinking establishment I’ve ever patronized, and a coffee shop with more jazz LPs than a record company warehouse.

But the increased ownership and use of automobiles and the amendment of the Large Retail Store Law at American insistence put an end to all that. The American mall culture gained a foothold in my part of Japan about a decade ago and has been growing ever since. Meanwhile, the local shotengai is nearly dead. More than half of the shops have been torn down, and operations have been drastically scaled back at the ones that still exist.

A few of these centers are still thriving. I visited one in Nagasaki a few years ago that was quite crowded late one Sunday afternoon, and the big ones in Fukuoka City are still hale and hearty, particularly the one in Tenjin. (At one end of the shotengai near the Nakasu-Kawabata subway station is a relaxing Shinto shrine with plenty of trees, one of the unexpected pleasures of Japan.)

It’s encouraging to see that this shotengai in Nagoya seems to be doing well, but regardless of the few viable districts that remain, they have permanently lost their predominant position in the commercial life of Japanese cities. It’s a shame, because they were built and operated on a human scale that shopping malls will never have, and they were free of the latter facilities’ contrived, impersonal, and hard plastic edge.

I hadn’t given much thought to how the Japanese developed their concept of shotengai, except to vaguely assume that it had evolved organically. But here’s some serendipity: On the same day I saw the Chin-Don Tsushinsha video and wondered again about the possibility of a post, I stumbled across a reference to French shopping arcades called passages couverts. They were created in Paris in the 1860s and later spread throughout France. Then I searched a bit and found this recent photo by Clicsouris of the Passage Choiseul in that city:


That’s a shotengai, right down to the roof covering and the three-story buildings! (Except that the roof is glass and not plastic.) Double the width of the passageway and change the language on the signs, and that could be any one of hundreds of sites in Japan. The basic idea is obviously the inspiration for the Japanese version that took root and thrived a century later on the other side of the planet.

Now I ask you: Wouldn’t you rather spend your time at place like this–either in France or Japan—than at a shopping mall?

And why did we make that collective choice anyway?

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Music, Social trends | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

Chin-don: The movie!

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, December 13, 2008

WORLD MUSIC MAVENS and street culture vultures will be thrilled to learn that the inspired good time goofiness and novel musicality of chin-don bands has at last made it to the silver screen.

Oooh la la!

Oooh la la!

Premiering at the Espace Culturel Bertin Poirée in Paris this week was the movie Tchindon, starring the Fukuoka City-based Adachi Sendensha, a chin-don troupe headed by Adachi Hideya; Frenchman Jean Christian Bouvier; a group of child actors; and a woman named Tomato.

Chin-don music combines Japanese percussion, bells, and shamisen with such Western instruments as accordions, trumpets, and clarinets. The performers are hired to dress in a comical exaggeration of Edo-period Japanese costumes and play just about any kind of music anyone could possibly want to hear to attract customers to commercial establishments. Long time friends know that we’re nuts about the stuff; inserting the onomatopoetic term “chin-don” into the site’s search engine on the left sidebar will turn up several posts with a cornucopia of links.

In keeping with this yeasty mélange, the movie Tchindon was shot in Fukuoka, directed by Shibata Yoichi, and has a largely Japanese cast, but is in French. Don’t ask me how that happened—I haven’t seen the movie yet, and nobody’s explained it.

The inspiration likely came from M. Bouvier. He has taught at Fukuoka universities for several years and is the organizer of the World CM (television commercial) Festival. The Japanese-language website for the film says it was produced to commemorate the 150th year of relations between Japan and France. M. Bouvier also says it is a tribute to the new age of Japonisme, which is probably a French phenomenon.

Several members of the production committee and two members of Adachi Sendensha, including Mr. Adachi himself, went to Paris on the 9th to attend the premiere. To promote the film, he and Higuchi Kazumi performed in costume on the streets of Paris on the 10th, which you can see from the accompanying photo. Mr. Adachi played accordion and Ms. Higuchi played the distinctive chin-don percussion instrument. (The percussionists in chin-don music are often women.)

One can only imagine what the Parisians thought when this apparition from Japan suddenly appeared on their streets, but then again, they did invent the word sang-froid for situations such as these. Some of the French offered tips of money to the musicians; others said they were intrigued by the combination of a street music performance with advertising. The best description came from the man who commented, “I have no idea what it all means, but it sure is a lot of fun.” That’s chin-don in a nutshell!

He might well have said that about the movie itself. An article in the Nishinippon Shimbun reported that the film was conceived in the French style to focus on the visual impact and the music. The reasons for that become apparent when one reads the plot summary on the movie website. Here it is in English:

One day, a young girl encounters a chin-don band. She is enchanted by the beauty of the sound, and follows the performers around. As she listens to their performance, the town becomes so beautiful it is as if she is seeing it in a daydream. That night, she has a dream in which a group of children meet, and then part from, a chindon band who use the street as their stage.
When she wakes up, she looks for the band throughout the town, but can’t find them…

It looks like what we have is a French vehicle to celebrate chin-don music and the often unseen corners of Japan. The movie itself was filmed in small towns in Fukuoka from February to September this year. One scene was shot in the Kaho Gekijo in Iizuka, a theater built in 1931 to resemble a kabuki playhouse from the Edo period. (The theater was partially destroyed during the Fukuoka earthquake three years ago and later restored.)


There are other surprises in addition to the combination of chin-don with the French language. One is the performance of a song by Saga Haruhiko, a throat singer in the Mongolian style who also plays the morin khuur, or horsehead fiddle. Throat singing involves the creation of two different sounds in the throat. In other words, it is a performance of polyphonic music by one person without a musical instrument.

Why is he in the movie? Well, it’s chin-don–why the heck not!

And long-time readers won’t be in the least surprised to find out that the Japanese society for throat singing has a website with an English page. Voila!

The Japan premiere of Tchindon will consist of three showings at the Ajibi Hall in Fukuoka City (at the Fukuoka Asian Museum of Art, also on the right sidebar) on Sunday the 21st. Curse the luck, but I’m going to be busy doing something else that day.

I searched around for a video clip on YouTube (or anywhere else), but couldn’t find one. Isn’t that odd for a movie promoted and produced by a man who has conducted a world TV commercial festival for the past 10 years?

I’ll guess we’ll just have to wait for the DVD!

Regardless of how it turns out, my congratulations go to Jean Christian Bouvier. He had a great idea, and he got it down on film forever.

Posted in Films, Music | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Chin-don music Okinawan style

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, February 17, 2008

WHAT A LUCKY FIND! Long-time friends will know that I’m nuts about chin-don music, the urban Japanese street music that is more fun that the proverbial barrel of monkeys. (Try here, here, and here.) And I’ll stop anything I’m doing at any time to listen to the modern take on Okinawa minyo, a different style of music altogether. (Try here.)

Well, you can see where this is heading!


Yesterday I spotted an item on the web about a short segment broadcast on a Kansai television station featuring a chin-don band. I scouted around to see if a video clip was available, but unfortunately it was not.

But sometimes seeking allows you to find something better than what you were looking for to begin with, and boy, did I stumble on the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

The Ryukyu Chimdon Gakudan! They combine Okinawan music with chin-don orchestration, which is about as rare a pairing as the double-necked sanshin one of the band members plays. (Chimdon, the band explains, means to be excited, and was chosen because it sounds similar to the onomatopoetic chin-don.)

If you have anything approaching the blues, do not fail to click on this video! And you won’t even need that excuse. An eight-minute promo the band put together from tunes on their first CD, it is funkier than a five-legged horse and guaranteed to melt the snow on your roof. If viewing this clip does not bring a smile to your face and make the hills come alive to the sound of music, then your middle name is Grump!

And better yet, they have a website with English here!

Here’s another promotional video of the band’s more recent music. They’ve taken a step away from pure chin-don, but it’s easy to like the taste of Indonesian gamelan music in the first song.

Besides, come clean and admit that you’re dying to hear songs played by people with names like Bobzy, Yoda, and Yanba Run! (Yoda has a Mohawk and Yanba Run has a pigtail that stretches up vertically for what looks like 18 inches.)

They’ve even appeared on Okinawan TV providing the music for this short awamori (shochu) commercial.

For more bouncy takes from different bands of straight chin-don–if that adjective applies–try here, here, here, here, and here.

But brother, beware: you might bounce around so much you’ll have to pad your walls!

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Chin-don lives!

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, September 19, 2007

JAPAN’S INDIGENOUS URBAN STREET MUSIC, otherwise known as chin-don, is the subject of this brief AP article that appeared a few days ago.

But the AP is behind the curve! Ampontan has already featured posts about the most seriously silly music this side of Spike Jones. If the AP article whets your appetite, try our more detailed account, or this interview with a contemporary chin-don performer.

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Japanese urban street music: The chin-don interview!

Posted by ampontan on Monday, March 19, 2007

It’s a shame that more people—especially world music mavens—aren’t aware of the musical style of chin-don, a deliciously goofy hybrid of Japanese and Western music and instruments. There’s been an Ampontan post on chin-don in the past (try here), but the Nishinippon Shimbun recently ran a short interview with Atsuya Kitamura (35), one of the few full-time professional chin-don performers in Japan.

Since the interview is in the print edition in Japanese only, I’ve taken the liberty of unofficially translating it here.

What kind of work does a chin-don performer do?

Originally, we performed to advertise and publicize new shops and companies for the people that hired us. Now, however, advertising and publicity work account for only about 10% to 20% of our work. Most of our performances are at festivals sponsored by local governments or companies, or at parties or other events.

Why did you get involved in this kind of work?

Well, I started out in a band. When I was 27, I heard that Adachi Sendensha was hiring musicians. I thought it would be great if I could have a career playing music, so I applied for the job. I had a hard time of it at first. It’s really difficult to perform with a smile on your face, sing, and talk all at the same time.

Do you like being the center of attention?

No. In fact, I’m more the reserved type. Contrary to what you might think, the people who enjoy being the center of attention don’t last long in this business. The job of a chin-don performer is to make everyone happy—the employers, the event organizers, and the people watching you. Sometimes it’s necessary to be a show-off, but the most important thing is that the role demands the group create a pleasant atmosphere at the performance site.

The role required of us changes depending on different factors, including the season and the employers. That’s why the people most suited to this work are those who are adaptable to different circumstances. I think.

Kitamura works as a musician in Hideya Adachi’s chin-don band, but the band leader calls his company Adachi Sendensha, which literally translates as the Adachi Publicity Co. That might give you an idea of which business Adachi thinks he’s in.

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Chin-don: The most seriously silly music since Spike Jones

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, January 20, 2007

ANYONE WHO THINKS the Japanese can’t be as goofy in the pursuit of a good time as anyone else should see and hear a chin-don band. You might even come away thinking the Japanese are the goofiest people anywhere.

The basic chin-don lineup consists of three to five musicians, but it often contains more. Street performers who dress in outlandish theatrical costumes to attract a crowd, they’re more fun than a barrel of musical monkeys. Their instruments of choice are an inspired blend of Japan, such as drums, bells, and shamisen, and the West, including accordions, trumpets, and clarinets.

Traditionally, their performances were not for the sake of the performance itself, but rather to advertise the opening of a shop, such as a pachinko parlor, or a special sale. In other words, they were paid to play as a musical sandwich board. The name chin-don is onomatopoetic, coming from the sound of the bell (chin!) and the drum (don!). These percussion instruments constitute a walking drum kit for the band, and are usually played by women.

Their musical repertoire is just as inspired, affable, and gloriously goofy as their appearance, and can and does include anything from the body of popular music East and West. This ranges from the Japanese hit parade of a century ago to the theme music from the movie Titanic. It’s a hybrid stew that resembles the zanier aspects of Indian movie music.

Since the bands are hired to advertise or provide publicity, they have to attract and keep an audience quickly, so the music is usually upbeat, jaunty, and familiar. The band members often accompany the performance with amusing comedy routines or odd behavior to attract onlookers. For example, the accordion player in Adachi Sendensha, the one working chin-don band in Fukuoka City, performs while riding a unicycle.


There was a centuries-old tradition in Japan of percussionists walking and rapping their way through the streets to shill for a shop, but the other musical instruments weren’t added to these groups until the first years of the 20th century. One reason for the strange combination of instruments is that the presence of Western instruments themselves were still somewhat unusual in those days, and merely seeing them on the street would be enough to attract a crowd. The bands had a ready supply of musicians when talkies hit the movie theaters and threw the musicians in the orchestra pit out of work.

In turn, television and its mass advertising threw most chin-don bands out of work. Today, that Fukuoka band is the only one working full-time in a city with a population of more than one million. Most Japanese of a certain age recall seeing chin-don street performances when they were younger, but not recently.

The visual entertainment aside, chin-don can be taken seriously as urban street music, and the West’s interest in “world music” suggests it might find an audience outside of Japan. When I mention this to Japanese people, however—even ones with adventuresome musical tastes—they often look at me as if I were goofy. I remind them that people in Japan didn’t care for Kurosawa movies until they found an audience in the West, either.

There’s not that much available on CD, which is a shame. The best bets are the three discs by Soul Flower Mononoke Summit (a mononoke is a demon). This group was formed by members of two Japanese loud rock bands (one called Mescaline Drive). SFMS’s discs are available at this English-language site, with sound clips. Theirs is a modern take on the sound, and it’s quite good, but I wouldn’t blame you for balking at those import prices, especially as the first one, Asyl, is only 30 minutes long, and the other two, Levelers and Deracine, are about 45. The discs by Cicala Mvta (pronounced Muta) are also worth a listen. The group is led by Okuma Wataru, the clarinet player for the Mononokes, but it’s not straight chin-don and tends to be a little “out” in places. They’ve generated some interest overseas, particularly in Germany.


Though there’s been a sharp decline in the number of working bands, the style still has its fans in Japan, and younger musicians enjoy playing with the form. This is an Osaka take on the phenomenon, in which they’re unfortunately referred to as “ding-dong bands”. Here’s a website in Japanese that presents an overview of chin-don today, with a lot of photos. This is the Japanese language site of Adachi Sendensha, the Fukuoka band, with plenty of pictures. And this website promotes the chin-don contest held every April in Toyama City. It’s in Japanese, but shimmy down to the bottom of the page until you see the English word “play”. Just to the right are three audio links that will give you a taste of the treats that await you.

When I discovered the contest site, I suggested to my wife that we take a couple of days off and take a trip to Toyama to get happy. She looked at me as if I were goofy!

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