it always gives me big yuks when i meet people in their 20s who are infatuated with japonica (why? i dunno, but i blame anime, although hello kitty and pokemon are probably equally culpable) and assume that i'm an authority.
the sad truth: i am the worst japanese person imaginable. reason: i grew up in new york while my parents (children of immigrants, they) were in the process of becoming acculturated to _ameercun_ culcha. i remember as a child watching my mother trying to sound her vowels the way the people on the brit shows on channel 13 did, the better to lose her hawaii pidgin accent. (she was born on the big island, on the mcbride sugar plantation, in the neighborhood they used to film the julie andrews hawaii
flick. at the time, the mid-'60s, the houses were being torn down as their occupants died off or moved away, but when she was younger than i am now, my mom used to be able to remember the names of every member of every family that lived there when she was growing up, and every kid who was in her class every year while she was in school. i always used to say i was going to roll tape while she was telling her stories, but i never did, and now she says she can't remember them.)
in the environment where i was growing up, there was no utility to learning my ancestral tongue, although when we were nine and eight respectively, my sister and i were sent to a lady in our town who attempted to teach us. of course, i lost interest after i got her to teach us the "bad" words. part of the problem was that our parents used japanese as a secret code for talking about money, as a result of which i can neither speak japanese nor handle money. when i was in the service, i got to talk on a secure-voice phone, where the people on both ends of the conversation have to turn a key to scramble their words to gibberish before they can talk. it reminded me of listening to my parents discussing family finances at the dinner table. my sister actually learned to speak japanese as an adult, when she spent a couple of months traveling around the ancestral homeland with our parents, meeting all the relatives who remembered our grandparents, etc. i was stationed in korea at the time and my first child had just been born in texas, so when i had the opportunity, i came back stateside instead of joining them in japan (although i did spend four days in yokota sitting in the mac port, "showering" in the sink in the men's latrine, and listening to a japanese elvis presley impersonator at the nco club in the evenings). after that, my sister continued studying the language formally for years. she could actually write it well enough to correspond with my father, and once translated an aria from italian opera into japanese and sang it for a class. i shit you not.
as an adult, i learned to appreciate kurosawa films, bento bowls, and sake, but through my teen years, i was openly derisive of the tidbits of japanese culture that entered our home (like the four hours of costume dramas my parents would watch on the puerto rican station from newark every saturday night after we got cable, especially when an airplane or suspension bridge appeared in the background of a story that was supposed to be taking place in the 18th century). best (or worst) of all were the japanese mechanical toys my grandfather used to send us back in the'60s. they all made creepy noises and smelled like electric trains. i wish i'd held onto some of 'em; i'd be making a killing on ebay now. my fave: "mcgregor,"
a little scotsman in a kilt, sporran, and tam o'shanter. when you pressed his button, he very laboriously stood up (with a mechanical grinding sound that went something like "GRRRRNNNNNNRRRRRRRZZZZZZRRRRRR" and was guaranteed to set your teeth on edge), took a "puff" of his cigar, blew a ring of foul-smelling smoke, then sat back down (with the same hideous metallic grinding sound). a classic.
on _almost_ as exalted a plane were the japanese rock'n'roll records he started sending when we were of _that age_. gawd, they were awful. my favorite (the name of which, of course, escapes me) had blaring saxophones playing what sounded like music from godzilla movies and an overemoting singer, kinda like the one in the musical number
(scroll down, link is near the bottom) from the bollywood movie that plays at the beginning of ghost world
. the one i _can_ remember the name of is also the lamest: a single by a group called the tokyo happy coats that had a sappy ballad called "forevermore" on one side and an instrumental cover of "harlem nocturne" that i preferred on the other. incredibly, these people used to record for king records, the same label as james brown.
i started doing some net surfage on the tokyo happy coats, and made some interesting discoveries. apparently, they were a lounge act that toured the states pretty extensively from the mid-'60s on, playing las vegas and the ed sullivan show
as well as dives in pittsburgh and detroit. between 'em, those happy coats played a whopping 26 instruments. this info came from the liner notes to their live album, the track listing from
which kinda tells the whole story:
This is the life
You are my sunshine
Tea for two
The best goes on [presumably "the beat goes on?"
Windmill of your mind
For once in my life
Exodus-Hava nigla (sic) [i'll bet this was choice
Little green apples
Along came jones
Bala bala bala bamba [presumably "la bamba?"
When the saints go marching in
in my mind's eye, i'm seeing a '60s version of some of the godawful lounge bands i got to hear in asia, the ones that were too pathetic to make it on the uso tour. an even bigger surprise was that all of the happy coats were women
-- something i never realized back in the day because all i had was a single and the only way i ever listened to it was at the wrong speed, with the spindle off-center, just like the scene in one two three
(which might have been jimmy cagney's last movie, about a coca-cola executive in berlin around the time the wall went up) where the horst buchholz character gets arrested by the east german police and they torture him by making him listen to "itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka dot bikini" through headphones at the wrong speed with the spindle off-center. we didn't just listen to japanese records that way; we gave the same treatment to the rays' "silhouettes"/"daddy cool," the eloise trio's "chi chi merengue," or anything else we thought sounded "funny."
with that background, words can't express how disappointed i was when i actually heard "forevermore"
for the first time in 30+ years recently. (you've gotta scroll down a bit; the link is under the review of a compilation called island '60s and '70s
.) it sounded so _normal_, nothing like the caterwauling noise that used to drive me and my buds into fits of hysterical laughter back then. personally, i think the latter-day fetish for '60s and '70s japanese pop is a sure sign that we live in a decaying civilization.