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How Music and Musicians Communicate the Antinuclear Message

Noriko Manabe, Princeton University
March 2013

Paper Summary

Despite the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan has pursued a policy of expanding nuclear power, enabled by close relationships between the power industry, government, and media. Given the existence of this so-called Nuclear Village, it is perhaps not surprising that since the Fukushima crisis began, television networks have generally stuck to official viewpoints about the accident and its consequences. Fanned by outrage at the power industry and government’s handling of the crisis, antinuclear protests have grown to form the largest social movement in Japan since the movement against the US-Japan Security Treaty in the 1960s. Demonstrations have been frequent, widespread, and large, attracting as many as 200,000 participants in the summer of 2012, yet have been mostly ignored by the mainstream media. Indeed, the nuclear issue is a taboo topic: many Japanese citizens avoid discussing it, and some entertainers who have spoken out, like the actor Yamamoto Taro or underground musicians, have seen their careers harmed. In such an environment, how does music support the antinuclear movement? Through what means does music communicate alternative viewpoints? How do musicians adjust communication tactics to suit the performance space and stage in the movement? In what ways do musicians support the movement despite the risks?

Based on extensive fieldwork in demonstrations and interviews with musicians and activists from 2011 to the present, combined with musico-textual analyses, my monograph (forthcoming from Oxford University Press) examines how music communicates the antinuclear message in post-Fukushima Japan. Specifically, I examine 1) how the text, music, and performance reference the issues; 2) how the space or environment in which the music is played affect its performance and reception; and 3) the roles musicians undertake in the movement, despite commercial risks. In particular, I am interested in the movement’s use of pre-existing musical traditions. Several scholars, including Eyerman and Jamison (1998) and Mattern (1998),[1] have written about the ways in which social movements or political situations engage music from different eras, coloring habitual references with new situations. Similarly, much of the music of the current antinuclear movement references earlier periods of resistance, both in Japan, as in the revival of utagoe chorus groups and folk songs of the Anpo protests and the use of traditional Japanese song forms, or elsewhere, as in the sampling of classic hip-hop and reggae. My monograph thus examines the continuities in protest music over the history of Japanese social movements and the references to history that antinuclear songs make.

I also take this examination of referencing a step further by proposing a typology of intertextuality. Because of the recirculation of pre-existing material, protest songs and political songs tend to be highly intertextual: they refer not only to the issues at hand but often also to historical events. As Turino (2008) has noted, such songs access the listener’s emotions and beliefs about those events, which the listener then applies to the current situation, compounding the emotional power of these songs. Drawing from Gérard Genette’s classifications (1997), my typology of intertextuality considers the structure of protest songs from a variety of geographies and movements. By particularizing protest songs into categories, I identify the differences in their authors’ procedures and intentions. I subdivide Genette’s hypertextuality into forms that involve large-scale referencing, such as “cover songs” (in the Japanese sense, i.e., setting new lyrics to pre-existing music, or kaeuta), hip-hop remakes, and mash-ups. Musicians also adopt well-known allegories or metaphors to frame their lyrics. I adopt Genette’s paratextuality (the threshold of a text) to encompass advertisements, T-shirts, album covers and inserts, etc., where visual asides convey what cannot be put into words. Musicians also take on musical styles to play on their associations, engaging in what Genette calls architextuality. In addition to playing with intertextuality, many protest songs make ample use of indexes of the crisis, often repeating such infamous quotes as Edano’s “There’s no immediate impact on health” or TEPCO and the government’s insistence that “It’s safe.” (See attached paper for details.)

Some types of intertextuality work better in certain spaces. Commercial recordings by artists on major labels, such as Saitō Kazuyoshi and Asian Kung-Fu Generation, are full of allegories and metaphors; recordings, which can be heard repeatedly with lyric cards in hand, are well-suited for such an approach. In addition, the ambiguity of the metaphor or allegory makes it easier for the release to be approved by the record company; in 1988, Toshiba EMI had declined to release RC Succession’s album Covers, which contained two antinuclear cover songs, Summertime Blues and Love Me Tender. On the other hand, anonymous recordings in cyberspace often consist of cover songs, hip-hop remakes, and mash-ups that make ample use of copyrighted material without seeking clearance.

The environment of sound demonstrations typically call for directness and immediacy, but the style of sound demonstrations has been evolving. In its genesis in the Iraq War protests in 2003, it was conceived as a techno rave in the street to attract young people and passers-by (ECD, p.c.; Mōri 2009). This philosophy was inherent in the Shirōto no Ran (Revolt of the Laymen) demonstrations in April, May, June, and September of 2011: performers such as reggae singer Rankin Taxi, rapper ECD, and several punk groups would perform prepared songs on top of trucks that followed the route of the demonstration. Some of the songs they played were explicitly antinuclear; others were not. These sound trucks typically attracted the largest numbers of protesters, and the greatest attention from police, culminating in the arrest of journalist and protest organizer Futatsugi Shin and a dozen others in September 2011. Since May 2012, a new type of sound car has emerged, whereby the rappers Akuryo and ATS improvise antinuclear Sprechchor (call-and-response slogans) in time with whatever beats journalist and protest organizer Noma puts on. Some protest organizers feel this style is more in keeping with the current goals of demonstrations, which have moved past awareness-raising in 2011 to building solidarity among participants and raising citizens’ voices against the government. In early 2011, many citizens would not have felt comfortable shouting slogans; by 2012, they had grown accustomed to it, making this style of protesting possible. As of 2013, the performers have developed a sensitivity to the urban landscape of the demonstration, stirring up the protesters with tailored calls at key landmarks (e.g., the offices of METI or the LDP), appealing to bystanders at crowded intersections and stoplights, and taking advantage of the reverberant qualities of the urban topography, such as narrow streets, underpasses, etc.

A concert or festival—particularly that arranged by the musician him/herself—can afford an artist a larger degree of control than a recording released through a major label or a sound demonstration. Sakamoto Ryūichi staged the No Nukes 2012 concert as a multimedia effort to raise awareness, not only through live performance (which was broadcast on Ustream) but also through videos between acts, booths for antinuclear activist groups, and books on sale at the concert. It takes musicians conviction and nerve to state their antinuclear views in Japan, given not only the influence of the nuclear industry on media companies but also the attitude of many Japanese that music should be purely entertainment. Despite such risks, musicians like Sakamoto, Gotō (Asian Kung-Fu Generation), Shing02, and Deli have led charitable organizations, volunteered in relief programs for stricken areas, held information sessions on radiation and health, and participated in protests as citizens.

Street (2011) has written about the ways in which musicians taking up a cause become “representatives” of their fans. However, I have found that most Japanese musician-activists are not seeking to be seen as leaders, like some Western musicians; they prefer to participate as ordinary citizens, at times using their fame and connections to build awareness of the issues. Through close interviews with the artists themselves—composer and rock star Ryuichi Sakamoto, the rapper Deli, the rapper Shing02, and bandleader Wataru Ōkuma, among others—I assess the turning points in their lives that motivated them not only to protest against nuclear power, but to take the role of educators, festival organizers, and NGO operators.

Many of the tactics and experiences of antinuclear musicians can also be observed in social movements in other parts of the world or in different time periods. Hence, I aim to use the details of antinuclear music in Japan to construct a more general theory of the ways in which music transmits political messages, how these messages change with the stages of the movement and the performance space, and how musicians are motivated and mobilized to participate in a social movement. The current antinuclear movement presents an excellent opportunity to analyze music and musicians in the context of ongoing political activity, particularly because of the diversity of musical genres, communication tactics, and venues represented.


Noriko Manabe is Assistant Professor in the Department of Music and associated faculty in East Asian Studies at Princeton University. She works on popular music from ethnographic and music-analytic perspectives and has published articles on Japanese rap and hip-hop, mobile technology and music, controversial Cuban songwriter Silvio Rodríguez, and Japanese children’s songs during World War II. Her monograph, tentatively titled, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Music, Media, and the Antinuclear Movement in Post-Fukushima Japan, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Selected list of references

Eyerman, Ron, and Andrew Jamison. Music and Social Movements: Mobilizing Traditions in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Genette, Gérard. Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree. U of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Manabe Noriko. “The No Nukes 2012 Concert and the Role of Musicians in the Anti-Nuclear Movement.” The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol 10, Issue 29, No. 2, July 16, 2012,

Mattern, Mark. Acting in Concert: Music, Community, and Political Action. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998.

Mōri Yoshitaka. Sutorīto no shisō: Tenkanki toshite no 1990 nendai. Nippon hōsō shuppan kyōkai, 2009.

Street, John. Music and Politics. Polity, 2011.

Turino, Thomas. Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation. University of Chicago Press, 2008.


[1] Eyerman and Jamison have explained music in social movements in terms of cognitive praxis; they illustrate the reshaping of traditions by tracing the development of American protest music of the 1960s to earlier folk and soul. Mattern’s primary point is to categorize political music into confrontational (framing the opposition), deliberative (laying out opposing visions), and pragmatic (advancing common interests), but he also describes several instances where protest music from another period is re-used at another time (e.g., anti-Pinochet music in 1980s Chile recalled nueva canción of Salvador Allende’s time).

  1. Very informative and insightful paper. I am especially interested in the way that musicians and actors take on personal risks by associating with the antinuclear movement, and by publicly contributing their individual perspectives to the broader political dialogue. Is this interface between political and artistic identity another mode of intertexuality…? A kind of coming-out which folds an artist’s political goals into other aspects of their public personality? If so, as you point out, the political position of Japanese musicians in the antinuclear movement constitute very different, and perhaps more ambivalent, kinds of texts than those of Western pop music/political spokespeople (i.e, Bono).

    Very much looking forward to your book.

  2. Hi Noriko,

    So first of all, thank you so much for taking time out of your travel schedule to pull together this manuscript. I enjoyed how it complemented David’s piece, both in terms of historicizing Japan’s current music scene, as well as the focus on the diverse musical subgenres, the different modes of textual engagement, and how they produce distinct expressions of musical protest. I also enjoyed reading the specific examples in your long paper.

    I was struck most by your comments about the signage related to the bright energy future. It’s a common motif. But considering the experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it’s striking just how far such signage can go. (As a historian, I guess I’m more prone to think in both narrative and diachronic terms; the image you provided reminded me of other talks I’ve heard about the domestication of the atom.) Considering your reference to Peircian semiotics, I found myself wondering what all of the turns in the semiotic system surrounding the atom had to occur in order to produce this “sweet” and “comic” rendering, and all it connoted or signified. I presume it begins with the CIA’s influence, the role of the conservative Japanese papers, and what eventually becomes enfolded into the cultural construct of the genpatsu mura (nuclear village [nuclear fraternity]). If I understand your argument correctly, it is the elaborate depth of this construct (strained as it is you would think) that provides rich material for musicians to appropriate through ironic and other means, which they do through different musical genres and the modes of textual appropriation that you’ve described.

    I also found very interesting your discussion of how musicians position themselves in Japan as opposed to the United States. Whereas U.S. musicians leave little room between their public and private lives, this seems not to be the case in Japan, bringing some (many?) musicians to engage in protest as private (individual) citizens rather than their own performances. I assume this kind of privatization/ individuation reflects a corporatist culture that works to quell political mobilization, and accounts for the difficulties that the musicians you describe face. I guess that’s why the “noise” genre that David points to has been so important in setting out to deny/reject/break the dominant institutional configurations (if only in order to just be heard).

    Atsushi Akera
    Department of Science and Technology Studies
    Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
    Troy, NY USA

  3. Hi Noriko, I can’t wait to read your book. Yesterday, I coincidentally played a Youtube video of RC Succession’s protest cover of “Love Me Tender” for students in my class on the history of East Asia. I couldn’t help but wonder at the very end, as the stadium lights shone upon rocker Kiyoshiro Imawano, whether his face was glistening with the moisture of sweat, tears, or both. I also wondered about the source of energy for those lights and the amplifiers that created that sensation of that live performance that foreshadowed as much as it had responded to Chernobyl. It seems that there is something interesting to explore here about the changing practices of music production in relation to energy. For musicians in Japan who stand critical of Tepco and so forth, to what extent do they walk the walk with respect to locating alternative energy sources to power themselves? I actually do remember seeing one protest video in which the hip-hop artists (sorry, the name slips my mind right now) were using generators, perhaps out of necessity, so I wonder if the discussions you’ve had with the musicians touched upon this? Jack Johnson, who has a healthy following in Japan, produced the album To the Sea in two solar-powered studios in Hawai’i. This production-level response or intervention comes to mind as something one might find in an angle of analysis that dials in on the materiality of music production, consumption, and appreciation, in addition to the paratextuality.

    Your paper reminds me more generally of how music played a role among the Nikkei+ community to express solidarity with the victims, so, in addition to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s sentiments, I wonder if you look at this turn of the speakers from the eastern side of the Pacific to the west. (For example, a little known L.A. band, Kid Monkeys, wrote this song in a hurry after 11 March 2011: As you mentioned ever so briefly in your post, the story of how Toshiba declined its support of RC Succession underscores the great contradictions that everyday people face with regard to the electrification that lights up everyday life. One wonders know Imawano would have responded had he lived long enough to witness the three disasters that day. Thanks again for helping us remember these songs through your research.

    Lisa Onaga
    Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

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