Strange calmness and security felt during the Coronavirus crisis
Your 10th-anniversary tour was postponed due to Coronavirus, how are you feeling about this restricted situation?
“At first I was quite pessimistic. Fear of infection with unknown virus, world-wide pandemic was a brand-new experience, and even in Japan, hearing the words ‘Emergency Declaration’ was something I never expected to hear in my lifetime. But after contacting old friends via email or messaging app, I gradually started to think that ‘not everything is negative’. Of course, I can say that because I’m not infected and still have my job”
What do you mean by ‘not everything is negative’?
“This is a bit hard to explain, but since economic activity came to a halt on a global level, it meant there was less competition. In a normal world, there is competition between companies and between us as individual artists. However, everyone was having a break and didn’t need to compete. I’m enjoying this strange calmness and restful feeling with healthy mental state. (LOL)”
Indeed, it’s not the time to be forced into making things.
“Whose song is selling, which song has backing, how many million times it’s been played, or how many million tickets been sold… I feel that music has lost its commercial value and left with ‘goodwill’ and ‘kindness’.”
You mean, no disparity in the music business?
“Only temporarily. It might seem inappropriate, but I was a bit excited with the idea of existing systems suddenly becoming useless. It’s a shame that competition will start again. I was expecting this would be a chance for our conventional values to be destroyed. For example, going to work or attending school has been unconditional, now it’s no longer necessary nor essential. So, what is essential and urgent, what is more important than my job? I guess these shift in our values are happening everywhere in the world.”
So, this change wasn’t all bad?
“I never expected I could officially ‘drop-out’ from this competitive society. Although I’m a musician, I’ve been following the social norm and never doubted that I needed to create better music this year than last, make more profit and sell more tickets. It may be a chance to change.
Of course, the spread of the coronavirus is scary, but instead of focusing on the suffering and being depressed, it’s a chance to find hints from this disaster, that could trigger an upgrade to a variety of systems.”
I find it amazing that you, as well as other artists, are accepting this situation as-is without panicking.
“Disrupting common practice and traditional values are the fundamental of art, so as an artist, it’s our specialty. We’ve been waiting for this situation. Actually, we’ve been in a panic. We are afraid to be content in the mundane environment, therefore we’re good at discovering something new in an unstable situation. Often, a band makes great songs while facing a crisis. After all, encountering amazing music, films, literature is like a mini cataclysm, so I guess we’re accustomed to having many such experiences daily.”
Create new from nothing
The Coronavirus crisis has changed the value in society, so as creator Ryohei Shima, what changes have you experienced?
“Recently I started to think about the meaning of music, to me. Music industry is doing what it can do now, such as live broadcast and audience less live. Before starting my routine of writing songs or performing, I am thinking about why we have music and why it is created.”
Now that you have escaped from the system, are you once again questioning what it means to create music?
“Yes, this is kind of resetting myself.”
As a result of resetting and thinking, what is music for you?
“I saw other musicians’ activity during the coronavirus crisis, without really seeing it. In March ~ April, ‘Uta Tsunagi’ (connecting with songs) became very popular on SNS, I intuitively or instinctively didn’t think that was for me. I was in no hurry to perform live music in front of an audience. ‘Why didn’t I want it?’, after giving it some thoughts, I realized I wasn’t motivated to play music for someone else.
For me, music is not a tool to connect with others, but a tool to connect with myself. It’s deep within me, collecting it from the bottom of my soul, it’s hard to put it into words, but through thinking, writing, and performing, I acknowledge myself. By publishing it, I compare myself with society and see myself objectively.”
It’s like reading philosophy, finding out how you connect to society and recognizing how you feel.
“I agree. I guess it’s a personal task.”
I think we are at the stage where we must think about post Coronavirus world/society. We have the word ‘New Normal’ but no practical clue, yet we need to continue living. At time like this instinct and idea from artists who can produce one from zero (something out of nothing), is helpful to us, so how will you live in this new world/society?
“Recently I’ve started to clearly recognize myself as an ordinary citizen, aside from being an artist. Up to now, I had been concentrating on how to better myself as an artist, whilst neglecting my living, but maybe being older, or because of this situation, I now have my own thoughts and resentments.
To answer your question, as a member of our society, I think Japanese people are in the middle of training themselves to be more assertive with their opinions. For example, Japanese idealism was to go to work no matter what, so ‘don’t feel like going to work, I would rather stay at home.’ was simply not acceptable in Japan. We would have been told that everyone’s in the same boat and that’s that. However, that has changed in the past few months. Asserting to protect your health and way of life is no longer a taboo. Japanese people, including myself, are not very good at asserting one’s view and using statements such as ‘I demand compensation’ or ‘I’m against this policy’. However, I feel it’s slowly changing, and we are getting used to it.
As an artist, my perspective or instinct, sees an image of reconstruction from a burnt field. Unlike earthquakes or war, the destruction bought about by Coronavirus is invisible. It has become difficult to meet people face to face and have conversations. Suddenly all customs or common practice have been destroyed, to overcome it, we must learn the new normal and standards.
I think it’s like a post-war outdoor school with just desks on an empty field. The pages of textbooks that we were using last year are mostly blacked out and unusable, and we are thinking what to teach our children.”
You mean like in post-war times, when we lost what we believed in. So, what is the core of this country? Unless we all think about it now, we might lose a common understanding.
“Exactly. I think losing common understanding has caused a situation over the last several years where things have become bipolar or divided and confronting. I reckon it’s time for us to work together to find the answer to this problem, and that makes me think that some good has come from it.”
How many years are we continuing ‘I Won’t Wish for Anything Until We Win’
What do you remember most about the Coronavirus crisis?
“I was terrified with all the intensity with which the news of lockdowns was reported. News after news, such as British prime minister’s infection or the death of Ken Shimura*, felt unrealistic.
I also remember seeing people in the park nearby, having a relaxing stroll or picnic, since they didn’t have to go to work. My rehearsal schedules were canceled, so suddenly I felt like I was presented with another life. Around that time, I played ‘Sad Vacation’ by Johnny Thunders on my radio show, and that was exactly how I was feeling.”
Coronavirus brought to light various problems, which of these are you most concerned about?
“There are a variety of problems in the world, but in Japan, the sense of ‘being punished’ is one of them. As I stated earlier, there is a nationalistic character in Japan, where people tend to think that assertions such as ‘I want to have a day off’ or ‘I want to have money’ are bad. In the same way as being told ‘God sees everything’, we have these thoughts imprinted on us through education. So, when asked to refrain from work, we do, however when one wants to continue working since there are no financial compensation, society turns on them. I think the problem was that the country’s Coronavirus strategy was actually working, and we were overcoming the spread of infection. It’s similar to how we got over disasters with ‘Kizuna’ (bonds between people), the repeated success almost feels like a cult and a little scary. Virtue isn’t an action plan; wonder how long we continue keeping the wartime motto ‘I Won’t Wish for Anything Until We Win.’”
These successful experiences resulted in the typical Japanese standard of peer group pressured to conform – ‘Since everyone is doing this, I have to do the same.’
“I sort of understand that it is a beautiful gesture, but with so much information, even a fool can take an objective view of our national character and situation. This idealism might have led to our past mistake and we need to change this.”
Under such circumstances, music and art are ways of connecting people and giving us some hints to move forward without conforming.
“Various strains of the past are now simultaneously giving birth to a lot of energy, and we are all sharing these problems such as human rights or democracy happening in the US and Hong Kong through SNS. Even if I can’t give any advice on how to solve these problems, music and art can be a mirror to reflect them, so I think it’s my responsibility as an artist to polish myself, so the image stays sharp.”
*Ken Shimura… famed Japanese comedian. Started as an assistant and later joined the Japanese band/comedy group ‘The Drifters’, had massive success with their TV Show ‘Hachiji dayo! Zen-in shugo’ and the song ‘Higashimurayama ondo’. Also known hosting a variety of popular TV shows. Died age 70 after contracting coronavirus in March 2020.
Born in Wakayama Prefecture 1982, formed “Kegawa no Maries” in 2003, major label debut in 2010. Following year after Budokan concert, dissolved “Kegawa no Maries”. Formed “the dresscodes” in 2012. In 2014, ended activities as the original four man band and continuing recording and live performance with different members.
Interviewed by Joe Yokomizo on 30th June 2020