Yellow Magic Orchestra – emphatic response of three Japanese musicians to Orientalism


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Yellow Magic Orchestra’s eponymous debut album, released at the end of 1978 by Japanese label Alfa Music, is a masterpiece of synthesizer-based electronic music. At 36 minutes, it manages to be both a wacky and wonderful pastiche and a serious statement against Western perceptions of East Asia.

In 1978, solo musician and bassist Haruomi Hosono hired two session musicians for an upcoming project: drummer Yukihiro Takahashi and keyboardist Ryuichi Sakamoto. The album Hosono wanted to make was intended as a response to the Western musical genre “exotica” that emerged in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. “Exotica” was music that mimicked traditional styles of non-Western music, especially those of Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and “tribal” Africa and was representative of the distorted Western perspectives of other cultures.

The songs combine revolutionary sounds with traditional Japanese melodic styles or at least a caricature of these through an American lens. The hit single Petard uses a melody from an “exotic” song of the same name, released in 1959 by American pianist Martin Denny. By repeating this tune, YMO successfully pastiched Denny’s original and far surpassed it. This song and Cosmic Surfin clearly demonstrate the purpose of the album: to satire “exotica” and play it better than any non-Japanese.

The technology used by the group was revolutionary. Synthesizers and computer instruments allowed them to use new sounds that were previously impossible to create. The marriage of these sounds with a very human “feel” and rhythm can in large part be attributed to Hideki Matsutake’s work. Considered by many, including the group, as the fourth member of the group, he was the studio technician who programmed much of the equipment on the record.

Apart Petard, this is the song The Chinese Woman (literally “the Chinese woman”) who deals most explicitly with Orientalism in Western culture. On a largely instrumental album, this is one of the few songs with lyrics. They satirize the Western idealization of the attractive, yet submissive Asian woman, as well as Asian tropes in Western popular culture:

‘Fu Manchu and Susie Q
And the girls of the floating world
Only sail a yellow sea
For Suzie Wong and Shanghai dolls
Suzie can soothe
Far from all your bruises
It is the mistress
The scent of the Orient.

Fu Manchu is a well-known (and highly offensive) Asian villain who has appeared in many popular Western cultures for decades, played almost exclusively by white actors and a symbol of ‘Asian evil’. Here it is associated with Susie Q, the name of a classic rock n ‘roll song and symbol of Americanity. She soon becomes ‘Suzie Wong’, troubled Asian lover and hit movie muse Suzie Wong’s world (1959). These lyrics poke fun at Western ideas that Asian men are villains to be conquered and Asian women are mere objects of desire.

Another big theme of this album is the American association between Japan and video games. All songs, especially Computer game / Circus theme and Computer Game / The Invader Theme use sound samples from period video games. Existing Japanese arcade games, such as Gun Fight (1975), were joined in the North American market by Space Invaders in late 1978, a game that has endured to the present day. The album’s release in North America in mid-1979, six months later Space invaders in North America, coincided well with the growing popularity of Japanese video games and, as a result, was able to play with a different Western perception of Japanese culture.

Yellow Magic Orchestra launched a generation of technopop in Japan and achieved significant national and global success. Coming together for a project initially conceived as a one-off project, Hosono, Sakamoto and Takahashi created an international sensation that made an important statement in the increasingly globalized interplay of cultures.

Fruzsina Vida is editor-in-chief of arts and culture at Yorker. If you have any questions or queries, please contact her at [email protected]

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