Known as jazz kissa, or kissaten, these cafés (or bars) and the music listening ceremony therein is the focus of the new limited edition print magazine #VINYL.
Coming across Japanese writer, photographer and editor Katsumasa Kusunose’s website – Jazz City – promoting #VINYL a couple weeks ago I was so impressed an immediate order of two copies was put in.
Flipping through the thick, glossy pages upon arrival, marvelling at the gorgeous photography, and laughing at the witty, detailed writing style, it was obvious this was a labour of love. Curious about the backstory of the magazine, I reached out to Kusunose to find out more.
Kusunose related how the jazz kissa phenomenon got its start 1929 with a café called "Black Bird" in Tokyo. Following the early success of Black Bird, other jazz kissa opened in Tokyo, Yokohama and Kobe. Before WWII, many of the jazz kissa throughout the country had amassed a huge amount of vinyl. When the Second World War broke out with the United States in 1941, listening to jazz, American jazz in particular, became illegal as it was viewed as "enemy music," and the Japanese government ordered the abolishment of jazz records. Many shops and collectors, however, did not comply with the order and hid them until the war was over. Unfortunately, there were many people whose record collections were lost during bombing air raids. The owner of Black Bird was able to secret away a lot of records in the building where the café was, but when the building was destroyed during an air raid, the records became visible and he was forced to turn over the records to the government – with great pain.
Following the war, jazz kissa continued to gain popularity in the ’50s and ’60s as jazz artists made their way across the Pacific to tour – acts like Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers in particular had a lasting musical impact on the culture. Add in that the cost of a US jazz pressing was equivalent to almost a week's pay for the average salaryman at the time, and it becomes clear why these ‘jazz cafes’ were popular; one could listen to several albums on a large-scale sound system for the price of a cup of tea.
Europe and North America, of late, have seen a very limited adoption regarding some of the 'kissa' ethos with cafés and bars like Spiritland in London, England and In Sheep's Clothing in Los Angeles opening in the past few years to genuine success. A far cry from anything resembling mainstream, it nonetheless speaks to the power of music as intellectual pursuit.
What follows is a back-and-forth via email that sheds light not only on the story of how Kusonose brought #VINYL to publication, but the story of a part of Japanese culture, music and high fidelity few in North America are aware of.
Rafe Arnott: OK, who is Katsumasa Kusunose and how did he become involved with this crazy hobby?
Katsumasa Kusunose: “I am a 61-year-old editor. Then I write the manuscript, take pictures, design the magazine and handle desktop publishing work. I am Japanese. I was born in Kochi prefecture in 1959, lived in Tokyo from 1979 to 2013, and live in Nagoya from 2013 to now.
“When I was young, I wanted to get a job with a record company, but it didn't work out. I tried to get a job with a major record store chain, but I couldn't graduate from university, so my job was cancelled. Eventually, I was hired by the owner of a small editorial company that makes magazines. This is where my editorial career began.
I'm very interested in audio equipment and I like them, but not the so-called audiophiles.
“A major change in my career occurred in 1996 when I was 37 years old. I was asked by an acquaintance to help edit a magazine called "GQ JAPAN" and I started working in the editorial department. At that time, I had never heard of the name of a magazine called "GQ.” I loved music, but I had no interest in fashion or luxury goods.
“In the spring of 2000, when I was working as the Deputy Editor of GQ JAPAN, Condé Nast, the American publisher of GQ, offered to make a branch in Japan and to hire the staff of GQ as regularized employees. But, September 11 changed everything that year. As it happens, I was working in New York until September 10, and when I returned to Tokyo on the following day, the 11th, I had no idea that the effects of that tragic incident would reach me in Japan.
“In November of that year, Condé Nast sent a fax to GQ JAPAN. "The impact of the terrorist attacks on September 11 led to a review of our company's management strategy. Therefore, we have decided not to open a branch office in Japan." When we approached them about a merger in the spring, the head of the Asia-Pacific region from the United States came to our office and explained what was going to happen, but we only received a fax to end the deal. The licensing agreement was terminated by the end of the following month and the last issue of GQ JAPAN was published in December 2000. The following month, I was laid off. With the retirement money I received, I traveled to Italy with my mother. The following year she died of illness.
“Six months after returning from a two-week trip to Italy, I was fortunate to find work at a publishing company. I was the editor-in-chief of magazines and web magazines at the company. However, in 2008, my boss advised me to move to the management of the company instead of the editing job. However, I am a person who studied literature, not management, at college. And above all, I still wanted to work in the field of editing. At that time, I was 49 years old, and I had enough physical strength and energy, so I thought that I should create a workplace where I can continue for the rest of my life. Because of this, I left the company. I tried several jobs, but I couldn't get the results I wanted. In 2013, I decided to leave Tokyo and move to Nagoya, and founded JAZZ CITY LLC, a company to do the work I want to do. And what I want to tell you is, since I was young, I have always liked music and played music. I've been in music for a long time. And I'm very interested in audio equipment and I like them, but not the so-called audiophiles.”
RA: Please explain what #VINYL is, why you started it, and what you hope to achieve with the publication.
KK; “Before I published #VINYL, I published Gateway To Jazz Kissa VOL. 1. This is to show readers how jazz kissas are all over Japan. And now, there are more and more shops that let customers listen to various genres of music on record, not just in the category of jazz. The number of such establishments is increasing not only in Japan but also worldwide. The purpose of publishing this magazine is to introduce this new wave to readers in the form of a magazine. And I would like to introduce not only the shops where records are played but also the pleasure and lifestyle of living with records. This magazine doesn't cover anything very geeky about audio or records. There are already enough magazines published to serve those purposes. I would like to make music and lifestyle the main themes.The first issue has 48 pages, but the next issue will have about 60 pages. I would like to publish the next issue by the end of the year, but unfortunately, due to COVID 19, there is no prospect of covering the shops. Actually, all the coverage of the first issue was done last year. I already have plans for two or three issues, but it's too bad that I can't do that now.”
RA: The hi-fi scene in Japan could be described as intense and fetishized, in particular the vintage scene, what is it about this slice of the hobby that stirs so much passion in your country?
KK: “The baby boomers have been the driving force behind the Japanese audio scene. In Japan, they are the generation with the most economic power now, and I think their purchasing power overheated the vintage scene. Interest in audio equipment increased in Japan in the ‘60s and reached its peak in the ‘70s. It is the most enthusiastic thing in Japanese history ever. It happened during the period when Japanese baby boomers were in their teens to thirties. In the ‘70s, JBL speakers, Tannoy speakers, and McIntosh amplifiers were selling well. High-end audio awakenings at this time have come to buy rare vintage equipment that they couldn't afford when they were too young to fulfill their dreams. Now they have retired from work, freed themselves from child rearing, and freed themselves of time and money. Also influenced by them, generations below them, those in their fifties and sixties who can afford it, are looking for vintage equipment.”
RA: Talk to me about the ‘jazz kissa’ scene in Japan (mainly Tokyo). In the ‘60s it was probably the most popular form of cafe/bar. It grew out of a love for American jazz music and a strange twist of Japanese law that allowed music to be played, and alcohol to be served in the same establishment (depending on the serving arrangement), but dancing was forbidden. This may seem strange to those outside Japan.
KK: “The Japanese word KISSA means "have a cup of tea.” So JAZZ KISSA means "a place where you can listen to jazz while drinking tea". And this is a law that has existed in Japan since before World War II, and kissaten prohibited the serving of alcohol. These store are called "JUN- KISSATEN" in Japan. It is a business style store that only serves coffee, tea, and snacks to customers, and is not allowed to serve cooked food. These coffee shops existed before the birth of the jazz kissa in Japan, and the prohibition of alcohol in jazz kissa was a vestige of this. On the other hand, stores called "Café" were allowed to serve alcohol, and cooked food.
“Jazz Kissa in the '60s was a youth culture. I guess the number of customers over 30 years old was about 10 per cent.The majority of Jazz Kissa customers were in their teens and in their mid-twenties. Japanese law prohibits people under 20 from drinking. And many young people who are old enough to drink also order coffee. Because coffee was cheaper than alcohol. Jun-Kissa to Jazz Kissa converted shops had to apply for a new business license to serve alcohol and food. Many jazz kissas in the 1960s did not apply for this service and operated in a non-alcoholic manner. Also, I guess some of the owners didn't dare to get a business permit to serve alcohol because they didn't want the attitude of the customers to deteriorate and the peace of the store would be ruined if they allowed alcohol.
“Many Jazz Kissa stores in the ‘60s banned conversation and dance, but these rules were created because many customers wanted them. Japan's explosive jazz boom started in the ‘60s when Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers came to Japan in 1961. Since then, many great jazz musicians have come to Japan, including Horace Silver, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk. However, the people who were able to listen to their live performances were part of the population of a large city. This is quite different from the situation in America where you could go to a jazz club and listen to their music at a low price if you wanted to. For many Japanese audiences in the ‘60s, listening to their live performances was a lofty dream. Instead, they wanted a jazz kissa where they could experience the music as if it were playing right in front of them. Also, records were very expensive at that time, and the price of one record was about 25 per cent of the weekly salary of a college-educated salaryman. That's why young people at the time went to Jazz Kissa, where they could listen to a lot of records for a cup of coffee. In this way, the opportunity to listen to jazz was so precious that places where people could listen to jazz were respected by young people. When they listened to jazz at a jazz kissa, they were able to naturally create an atmosphere where everyone listens with concentration.
“For those of you in North America who have experienced the SWING era of the ’30s, this style of sitting and not talking may seem odd. However, in my opinion, the aftereffects of the frenzy swing era may cause you to feel that way. Born after World War II, Be-bop was no longer music for dancing. Charlie Parker didn't play his alto saxophone to make the audience dance. Did Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans want you to dance to their music? They played for their expression. It is an art that does not serve anyone. And the Japanese were quick to recognize the true nature of their music... that this music is music that you can't understand unless you sit down and focus quietly. In the movie theater, the entire audience sits down and focuses on the screen in front of them without talking. I think the customers of Jazz Kissa in Japan are the same. I don't understand why it looks strange.
“There are two jazz kissas in Tokyo where conversation is prohibited. Even in Japan, there are only a few shops where conversation is prohibited. In Jazz Kissas in Tokyo, shops of young owners are also popular. What they all have in common is that in addition to the good choice of audio equipment and records, they also have a rich and delicious menu of food and drink. There are many shops with excellent overall points. And the shop with a long history is still alive. However, the rent is high in Tokyo, so it's hard to find a shop with a wide space and the sound level. In recent years, the number of Jazz Kissas that are popular for audiophiles has increased in rural areas. The baby-boomer generation is remodelling their home and starting jazz kissa. In addition, audiophiles in their fifties and sixties, younger than the baby boomers, are increasingly opening jazz kissas. Currently, about four to five such stores are opened every year.”
RA: What is shopping the vintage hi-fi scene like in Japan these days? I’ve heard there are some amazing places that stock rare SET amplifiers, phono stages, SUTs and Altec/Western Electric drivers and horns.
KK: “I don't buy vintage audio, so I don't know which store is good or reliable. The most famous Western Electric store in Japan is Western Labo. There is also the famous stores that I know are as follows.
"The owner of the Western Labo store runs a jazz bar called 'Bluenote Mokkindoo' as a hobby, it seems only open on Thursday, and I've been there once and the system I listened to there was amazing and awesome. Mokkindoo means [Mok-Thursdays] + [kin-Fridays] + [doo-Saturdays]. Initially, the owner intended to be open on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and named the store this way. It seems that it is only open on Thursdays now.”
BLUENOTE MOK KIN DOO: 2-5-20 Toyooka, Iruma-shi, Saitama-ken, Japan. TEL 81-4-2964-0917 [Hours] Thursday 8pm-11:30pm.
Sound System: Western Electric 618B (Line Imput Trans), 111C REP (Line Repating Coil), 62A (Line Amp), 1086 (300A p.p Power Amp), 20A (Power Supply), TA-747 (Power Supply, TA-7213 (Filter), TA7375 (Network, 16A (Horn) 555W, (Receiver, TA-4181A (46cm Woofer, WesternLabo 597A, (Bostwick Tweeter), TA-7245 (Network), EMT 927ST (Record player system), 139ST (Phono Equalizer), TSD15, TMD25 (Phono cartridges), Langevin SMX-111-G (600/600 Ohms attenuator), Studer A-725(CD Player), Philips LHH-500 (CD Player), Pioneer PD-F90B (CD Player), Esoteric PS-1500 (Isolation Transdormer), Acrolink ７N-S1010Ⅲ (Speaker Cable),７N-A7020 (XLR Line Cable), 8N Reference (Phono Cable), 6N PC-6100 (Power Cable), Western Labo EL5B Tungar Bulb (Power Supply), Oyaide MTB-6 (Multi Power Tap), Oyaide SWO-DX (Power Wall Outlet). *The sound system data is from 2014 and may have changed.
RA: Record stores have struggled in North America the last decade despite a vinyl resurgence, are there still a lot of old school vinyl record shops in Japan? Are CDs as big as vinyl? Did vinyl ever go out of style there?
KK: “CDs emerged as a new medium in the mid-‘80s, and in a few years the records disappeared completely in Japanese record shops, and only CDs were being sold. However, in the ‘90s, the popularity of the record revived. It was a bubble, with over 10,000 record stores in Japan at its peak. Their popularity was boosted by those in their twenties, who were in the midst of club culture. They aspired to become DJs and sought records as sampling material.
“Thanks to this era of enthusiasm, it seems that there are still record shops in Japan. However, major record chains dominate the market for stores that sell new products. In the second-hand record market, major record chains dominate over the retail stores, but the retail stores have a more detailed service than the major ones, so they will probably survive. In any case, COVID 19 has changed everything, so there's no way to tell. Now in Japan, especially young people seem to be more interested in records than CDs, and they feel that records are cooler than CDs. Middle-aged and older people are now rushing to buy back the records they sold in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Some of them also have an unusual obsession with collecting first-press discs. Perhaps the only way for CDs to survive in the future is to appeal that they are media with higher sound quality, such as SACDs.”
RA: Describe your perfect sound system and why.
KK: “A perfect sound system would be a combination of space and equipment. No matter how expensive the equipment, it would be meaningless if it was not installed in a space where it could fully demonstrate its capabilities. A good example of this is the store called Tournez La Page, which has an Avantgarde, a very expensive German system introduced in # VINYL issue 1. This store was designed and built on the assumption that it will have an Avantgarde. I think this is the ideal method, and that's what a perfect sound system is.”
RA: What are some are of your favourite LPs? Bands? Musicians?
KK: “I have a lot of LPs that I like, so today I took a picture of four LPs that came to my mind. It may change again tomorrow. The upper row in the photo, on the left is the debut album of MANASSAS, a band led by Stephen Stills. Here is the essence of ‘70s American rock. To the right is a record of Lester Young miraculously regaining the brilliance of the ‘30s in the ‘40s. On the lower left is a beautiful collaboration between Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius. Music is celebrating people all over the world, as the album title Bright Size Life shows. To the right is one of my favourite Bill Evans albums that I suddenly want to hear. I heard this every night for about a week when my dad died.”
RA: If you had one piece of advice for aspiring audiophiles what would it be?
KK: “I think it's about trusting your ears. Instead of being distracted by other people's opinions and values, we should pursue what we feel is a good sound.”