Magazine version published in the Nikkei Asian Review on 23/3/2016.
This April, Bob Dylan will make his eighth tour of Japan, playing 16 concerts over a period of four weeks. As usual that is more dates than he plays in any other foreign country on his Never Ending Tour, as his busy concert schedule is known.
Dylan, now 74, is a revered figure in Japan. Indeed, to mark his 2014 tour, a Shinto-style Dylan shrine was set up in Osaka, complete with red torii shrine gate, omikuji paper fortunes and shrine maidens in traditional red and white garb.
Bob Dylan visited Japan for the first time in the late 1970s, but he was present in the country long before that. According to Toshiyuki Sugano, his former A&R man at CBS-Sony and translator of the autobiographical Chronicles, Dylan inspired a whole generation of Japanese singer-songwriters.
A militant (sometimes very militant) student movement was a part of life here through the late ’60s and early ’70s. It was into this buzzing ferment that Dylan’s music came.Whereas most young Japanese might have believed before then that beautiful melodic harmonies and voices were essential for professional singers, Dylan rewired their expectations.
Dylan was especially influential in the Kansai region. In the late 1960s, there was a ramshackle coffee-shop called Dylan, not far from Osaka’s Nanba entertainment district, which served as a meeting-place for musicians, hippies, theatre people and student radicals. The manager, Kyozo Nishioka, formed a folk-rock group called The Dylan, which split up and then reformed as The Dylan 2.
Nishioka‘s song Puka-puka (“Puff-puff”) about a heavy-smoking jazz singer became a hit and a classic of the genre.
Nishioka committed suicide at the age of 52, on the third anniversary of his wife’s death. Minami Yasuda, the jazz singer celebrated in the song, is believed to have died in obscurity some time after the release of her final album in 2004. The year of her death, cause and location remain unknown.
She lulled me to sleep
In a town without pity
Where the water runs deep
She said, “Be easy, baby
There ain’t nothing worth stealing in here”
From Tight Connection to my Heart, on the 1985 album Empire Burlesque.
The accompanying video shows Dylan wandering around mid-eighties Tokyo, browsing the defunct scandal-sheet Focus, getting busted by the cops and enjoying the Roppongi nightlife in the company of some attractive young ladies.
The director of the video was Paul Schrader, best-known for writing the screenplay for the Oscar-winning Taxi Driver and also something of a Japanophile. Schrader co-wrote The Yakuza, starring Robert Mitchum and Ken Takakura, and directed and co-wrote the Yukio Mishima biopic Mishima: A life in Four Chapters, as well as publishing critical work on Japanese cinema.
The enchanting lady-of-the-night who captures Bob‘s attention is Mitsuko Baisho, who has starred in films by Akira Kurosawa, Shohei Inamura and many others. At the time she was married to Antonio Inoki, Japan’s most famous professional wrestler, notable for fighting the great Muhammad Ali in a bizarre mixed martial arts contest in 1976.
Dylan first visited Japan in 1978 as part of a world tour. At the time the Japanese media’s interest was extraordinarily intense. Dylan news was splashed not just in the national newspapers and weekly magazines, but in sports papers and women’s magazines such as Josei Jishin too.
Men’s magazine Heibon Punch focussed on Dylan‘s visit to the Ryoanji stone garden in Kyoto and his perceived interest in Zen, supposedly derived from his friend, beat poet Allen Ginsberg.
Even NHK, the stuffy national broadcaster, carried a programme in which enfant terrible novelist Ryu Murakami discussed the Dylan phenomenon with a series of poets, intellectuals and cultural figures.
As soon as he arrived at Haneda Airport on 17th February, a tired and surly Dylan was hustled into a press conference and subjected to a barrage of flashbulbs and odd questions. His answers were not very illuminating.
From the press conference:
Ladies and gentlemen, we proudly introduce you to the world famous superstar, Mr Bob Dylan!
Q: We have been waiting for your concerts for many years and what is your motive for holding these concerts in Japan?
BD: What is my motive?
Q: What motivated you to come to Japan?
BD: No motive, just… that’s a place we always wanted to come to play.
Q: What in Japan do you want to see most of all?
BD: Rivers, flowing rivers.
Q: For the Japanese tour you have rehearsed for about two months—is that right?—do you always do that?
BD: Well… we are always rehearsing. We’re rehearsing to record an album. We’re always rehearsing. We never stop rehearsing.
Q: Are you going to introduce any new songs in these concerts?
Q: What is the title to the songs?
BD: Oh, various titles, some don’t have any titles yet.
Q: At the press interview in Los Angeles you said you were working on your new album already…
Q: …and that the theme for it is “love”. Is there any difference between your love and the love that Beatles sing about, or you’re going to sing about love?
Q: Is there any difference between their idea of love and your idea?
BD: There might be… a different point of view.
Q: What are the differences?
BD: My point of view is less abstract than their point of view.
Q: What makes you angry at the moment?
BD: Now nothing does.
Q: People call you the god of folk songs. What do you think of that?
BD: Well, I’m not a god of folk songs.
Q: Then what are you?
BD: I’m just a person.
Q: Have you got a message for Japanese fans?
BD: I haven’t come to deliver a message. I’m here to do some shows.
Two of the eight Tokyo concerts contributed to the At Budokan album, which was originally a Japan-only release. In attendance were celebrities such as Hibari Misora, the Japanese equivalent of Edith Piaf. Hibari was apparently unimpressed by Dylan‘s music and left halfway through.
Her verdict was shared by many American critics, who gave a decisive thumbs down to the 1978 tour’s slick arrangements.
By the end of the year, Dylan had moved on and become a born-again Christian.
My Back Pages, performed in Japanese by the Magokoro Brothers. From the soundtrack of the 2003 film Masked and Anonymous, starring and co-written by Bob Dylan.
Dylan has toured Japan on seven separate occasions, making his forthcoming April 2016 tour the eighth in all. Additionally in 1994 he performed with the New Tokyo Symphony Orchestra at Todaiji, the 8th century Buddhist temple in Nara which houses the world’s largest bronze Buddha in the world’s largest wooden building.
It was presumably on one of his 1990s visits that Dylan came across the somewhat obscure memoir Confessions of a Yakuza. The author, Junichi Saga, is a medical doctor who recorded a series of conversations with an elderly patient who had lived the outlaw life in the early twentieth century. An alert Dylan fan noticed that several phrases from the book, most of them quite ordinary, appeared verbatim in some Dylan songs on his 2001 album, Love and Theft.
Some critics cried plagiarism. Others noted the dictum attributed to playwright Oscar Wilde; “talent borrows, genius steals.” Dr. Saga handled the issue graciously, stating that he felt honored to have been the subject of Dylan’s attention. Perhaps he recognized that, as the album title suggests, Dylan “thieved” the material because he loved it.
These days Dylan is not a crowd-puller in the class of Paul McCartney or the Rolling Stones, but his fans tend to be loyal in the extreme, as you would expect from the land of otaku, or obsessives. Sugano notes that “once a person becomes a fan of Dylan, they tend to stick with him forever.” He should know, having attended over 250 Dylan concerts.
Japan’s number one Dylan blogger is an Osaka native called Itsuko Nishimura who was an infant when Dylan first visited Japan. It was in 1995 that she became a compulsive fan after seeing him on TV singing A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall at Todaiji. Subsequently she has traveled the world, from New Zealand to Holland, to watch Dylan in action. All you need, she writes on her blog, called How to Follow Bob Dylan, is money, time and physical stamina.
Unlike many aging rock stars, Dylan is no nostalgia act, churning out the greatest hits of yesteryear. On his most recent Japanese tour, most of the songs he featured were written this century. In the words of Sugano, “in every performance, he keeps searching for new possibilities.” Rather than knocking on heaven’s door, Dylan’s creative energy keeps him forever young and forever relevant to millions of fans all over the world. To paraphrase the man himself, this wheel is still on fire.