Art for Twelve Million

Tokyo’s streets are all but devoid of graffiti. Acres of smooth, flat concrete surround buildings and houses, yet remain completely untouched by spray paint or texta. You won’t find it scratched into toilet doors or etched into train carriages. You won’t even find much of anything on school desks or cafeteria benches, beyond the odd half-heartedly scrawled slur.
Street art, at least in visual form, is almost entirely reserved for a few of the more ‘alternative’ districts, and even there it stays confined to a few specific surfaces – a wall in a back alley, a shopfront for a cool, alternative bar. While Tokyo’s graffiti is still stunning in its colour and complexity, it’s as if the murals and tags are somehow excusing their own existence, content with their allotted space and hoping not to challenge or offend any passers-by.
This spirit of conformity within rebellion extends to other areas of Japanese popular culture, one example being the group of young people roughly equivalent to Goths. To stand out in a society that prizes uniformity, they don the ghostly make-up, the huge shoes, the candy-coloured hair (think Alice in Wonderland meets Alice Cooper), and congregate in certain places across town, where they obligingly pose for photos with amused travellers. It’s usually closer to pure spectacle than street art, and while the outfits do get quite wild at times, the fashion seems to become more normalised and blurred with mainstream popular culture with each passing year.

There is one particular form of street art where Tokyo comes into its own. Improbable as it might seem on streets seething with workers and shoppers, people have no difficulty making space for music. Wander around near any major train station and you’ll soon come across a tight acoustic three piece, a soulful singer/songwriter at her keyboard, or any number of beatboxers and their freestyling friends. These people aren’t busking in the traditional sense – the upturned hat begging for spare change is either nowhere to be seen, or replaced by a case full of professionally pressed CDs. Even better, most of these bands sound only a recording session away from what you’d hear on radio. It’s one of those wonderful dichotomies so often found in Japan, ‘the land of contradictions’ – rarely will young people so much as yell to each other in the streets, but give them an amp, a guitar and a space outside a department store and they’ll bask in the attention of their makeshift audience.
One of the more spectacular examples of street art I came across wasn’t interested in an audience at all. I found them in the shadow of the Shinjuku skyscraper district – a sea of tall, bleak concrete buildings that stand deserted after the salary men go home for the evening. After dark, the mirrored windows and wide cement courtyards function as the perfect studio for Tokyo’s troupes of budding breakdancers, who practice well into the night. There’s no expectation that you’ll throw them your spare change, in fact they’ve chosen an area where few people are likely to find them. Their focus is on perfecting their routine – for what eventual performance I never really figured out.

But the most moving street performance I stumbled across was in the semi-bohemian district of Shimokitazawa, a maze of narrow streets woven with fantastic music shops, ultra-hip fashion boutiques and the all-pervasive neon-lit chain stores. Walking near the station, I had one of those moments of slow realisation when a familiar song is filtering through to you in an unfamiliar circumstance. Threw my bad fortune…off the top of…a tall building…I’d rather’ve done it with you-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh! There in the entrance to the station stood an all-male three piece, the singer belting out PJ Harvey’s Good Fortune, word perfect, pointedly keeping his back to the passers-by.
Liberating as it must feel to draw attention to yourself in a society so devoted to subtlety, perhaps in the end it’s not about the audience at all. Maybe it’s more the fact that you’re doing something you love, and stuff the fact that it won’t make you any money or advance you on the social ladder. I remember one Summer evening years ago, as a young exchange student in Tokyo, I was walking home through the local park, doubtless missing home and hating my host family. There at the edge of the park sat a young man with his guitar, strumming and singing as loud and sweet as he pleased, to no one in particular. In my homesick haze his concert seemed unbearably lonely, but now the memory makes more sense. If you live your life squeezed between twelve million other people, and creativity is something you can only find room for in a moonlit park, then why not get out your guitar? Who cares if nobody’s watching?