BBC: David Bowie’s love affair with Japanese style

A man walks past a 3D wall portrait of British musician David Bowie, created by Australian street artist James Cochran, also known as Jimmy C, in Brixton, South London, on 19 June 2013. The artwork is based on the iconic cover for Bowies 1973 album, Aladdin Sane.
The iconic Ziggy Stardust look has been immortalized in a piece of street art in Brixton


David Bowie, who died this week, was a well-known Japanophile, adopting many elements of Japanese culture into his stage performances.

He was someone who knew how to express himself both with music and with fashion,” Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto told the BBC.

Someone like that may not be so rare these days, but he was one of the pioneers to do both.

Make-up artist Pierre La Roche prepares English singer David Bowie for a performance as Aladdin Sane, 1973. Bowie is wearing a costume by Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto.Yamamoto designed for Bowie through both his Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane eras

Mr Yamamoto, the creative force behind some of Bowie’s most iconic stage outfits, first got to know Bowie in the 1970s, when the singer was often visiting Japan, and trying to break into the US market.

I don’t know why he was so attracted to things Japanese, but perhaps it wasn’t so much Japan or Japanese-ness itself. He knew when he looked good in something.

“When you wear something and you look really good… you feel confident and good about yourself. I think my designs and costumes had that effect on him.”

Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto waves to the audience after his fashion event 'super energy !!' in Tokyo on June 12, 2015.
Kansai Yamamoto said his relationship with Bowie “went beyond nationalities, beyond gender”

Helene Thian, a fashion historian and lifelong fan who has written extensively about Bowie, agreed. She said Bowie had often been noted as having had “this beautiful androgynous face and body, which suited Kansai Yamamoto’s unisex style”.

‘Shapeshifting’ androgyny

Bowie’s Japanese style had already been developing through his interest in Japanese theatre.

In the mid-1960s, he studied dance with Lindsay Kemp, a British performance and mime artist who was heavily influenced by the traditional kabuki style, with its exaggerated gestures, elaborate costumes, striking make-up, and “onnagata” actors – men playing female roles.

Lindsay Kemp performs in 1974
Lindsay Kemp, performing here in 1974, had been influenced by the intensely stylized productions of Japanese traditional theatre
20th October 1981: Ennosuke Ichikawa, Japan's most distinguished exponent of the three hundred year old art form, Kabuki. Ichikawa prepares his costume and make up before leading a prestigious cast at Sadler's Wells.The dramatic makeup used by kabuki became part of the Ziggy Stardust look

Bowie was a natural “shapeshifter“, says Ms Thian, and his training with Kemp and onnagata style helped him as he explored ideas of masculinity, exoticism and alienation.

He even learned from famed onnagata Tamasaburo Bando how to apply traditional kabuki make-up – its bold highlighted features on a white background are evident in the lightning bolt across the Ziggy face.

It wasn’t trying to be literal interpretation” of onnagata, said Ms Thian, “but rather inspired by its gender-bending androgyny. That’s what makes it so powerful, it’s more evocative.”

‘Quick change’ master

Mr Yamamoto said he wasn’t sure why he and Bowie had such an affinity, but that “something resonated between us, something that went beyond nationalities, beyond gender“.

Through his style and performances, he said, Bowie “broke one sexual taboo after another“.

What he did in terms of bridging the male-female gap continues to this day,” he said, including in the increasing acceptance of gay relationships in Japan.

Among his most famous outfits for Bowie was Space Samurai, a black, red and blue outfit adapting the hakama, a type of loose trousers which samurais wore and which are still worn by martial arts practitioners.

This picture taken on February 27, 2015 shows a costume created by Japanese fashion designer Kansai Yamamoto and used by David Bowie, during a press preview of an exhibition dedicated to the British singer at the Philarmonie in ParisYamamoto’s outlandish costumes became a central element of Bowie performances
An outfit worn by musician David Bowie is displayed at the 'David Bowie is' exhibition at the Victoria and Albert (V&A) museum in central London on 30 March 2013
The dramatic cape could be whipped away on stage mid-performance

He also sometimes wore a kimono-inspired cape with traditional Japanese characters on it which spell out his name phonetically, but also translate to “fiery vomiting and venting in a menacing manner“.

Ms Thian says Bowie was also “absolutely the first” Western artist to employ the hayagawari – literally “quick change” – technique from kabuki, says Ms Thian, with unseen stagehands ripping off the dramatic cape on stage to reveal another outfit.

David Bowie performs his final concert in 1973 as Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith Odeon, London. The concert later became known as the Retirement Gig
The kimono robe also influenced some of his fashion, such as this Ziggy outfit which is a shortened version with a classic Japanese print on it
A costume designed by Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto for David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust character is display at the Victoria and Albert museums' new major exhibition, 'British Design 1948-2012: Innovation In The Modern Age' on 28 March 2012 in London, England.
The elaborate clash of prints on this knitted bodysuit can also be seen as a reference to yakuza (organized crime syndicates) tattoo patterns, Helene Thian has written

‘A very beautiful man’

It wasn’t just his appearance – references to Japan are scattered through Bowie’s music – his 1977 album Heroes even features the track Moss Garden on which he plays a Japanese koto, a kind of zither.

These days, an artist in Bowie’s position might be accused of cultural appropriation – stealing another culture for his own purposes – but Ms Thian says it was never seen that way in Japan.

David Bowie performing in his 'Angel of Death' costume at a live recording for a Midnight Special TV show made at The Marquee Club in London to a specially invited audience of Bowie fanclub members in 1973
Bowie often wore androgynous or women’s clothing in his Ziggy Stardust phase

Bowie was born to be the ultimate diplomat and artiste,” she says.

He took his creativity and fused it with his impulses to meld East and West and come up with a healing of the world in this post-war period.

This was “a homage to Japanese culture and the Japanese loved it“, she said, as Bowie challenged the tendency of Western fashion at the time to lump all Asian styles together as “Orientalism“.

‘Eternal hero’

Indeed, Japan embraced Bowie back, and he remains an icon there, with his glam rock style influencing generations of bands and musicians.

Photo of Hotei Tomayasu playing with David Bowie onstage at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo in 1996
Hotei shared with the BBC this photo of them playing onstage together at Bowie’s 1996 Tokyo gig

Renowned rock guitarist Hotei Tomayasu, best known outside Japan for composing the theme for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, told the BBC: “[Bowie] is the one who truly changed my life. My eternal hero and inspiration.

Bowie is also known in Japan for his role as Maj Jack Celliers in the 1983 iconic film Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, directed by the renowned Nagisa Oshima.

The film, set during World War Two in a Japanese camp for prisoners, pits Bowie’s character and another soldier against two Japanese officers, one of whom is played by the famous musician Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Tweet by Miu Sakamoto recalling her meeting with Bowie when she was a little girl, 11 January 2015

On Twitter, Sakamoto’s ex-wife Akiko Yano recalled how Bowie carried their young daughter – Miu – on his shoulders when the family visited the Roppongi neighborhood in Tokyo with Bowie in the 1980s.

Miu Sakamoto tweeted this picture of herself as a little girl shaking hands with the singer, saying she vaguely recalled meeting “a very beautiful man“.

(He is) no more. A world in which David is not living still feels totally unreal.


Up-and-coming band combines traditional Japanese instruments with pop metal and awesomeness


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Check out the newly-signed Wagakki Bandwhich combines the chunky guitar chords and shredding of pop metal with traditional Japanese instruments for a totally awesome sound.

While the name Wagakki Band (Literally, “Traditional Japanese Instrument Band”) isn’t going to win any awards for creativity, the group’s head banging videos are a spectacle to behold; Sure to please fans of J-Pop, metal and old-timey Japanese imagery at once.

You might notice from watching the videos that Wagakki Band incorporates modern instruments, including bass, electric guitar and drums, but also utilizes a surprisingly wide range of traditional Japanese instruments, including:

Taiko drums – Already fairly well-known in the West, the taiko drum probably needs the least introduction, especially for anyone with a decent Taiko Drum Master track record.

Tsugaru-Shamisen – Both an instrument and a play style, Tsugaru-Shamisen are a three-stringed guitar-like instrument that’s larger than a normal shamisenand with thicker strings. It’s distinctively twangy, and if you’ve seen basically any documentary or film set in Japan, you’re probably familiar with its sound.

Shakuhachi – Otherwise known as Japanese flute, shakuhachi are 5-holed wind instruments traditionally played by men wearing funny hats.

Koto – The koto is a sort-of dulcimer style of instrument that’s played across the lap or laid on a stand. Like the taiko drum, this one is also an increasingly common instrument outside of Japan, played most awesomely by David Bowie himself.


Most of the members of Wagakki Band come from deep instrumental backgrounds, with at least one of them attaining the amazingly cool-sounding “master title” of YoZan for being so proficient with the shakuhachi – which we think means he can beat you senseless with it in addition to playing it normally.

Check out this link:


Hiroshima’s 19th album takes stock in local surroundings and distant lands


J-Town Beat,” released Sept. 26, is the 19th album from Hiroshima, the Grammy-winning group that played a major role in establishing jazz-fusion as a major music genre. Hiroshima co-founder Dan Kuramoto said the idea that anchors the album came from a dear friend with a vision.

‘J-Town Beat’ was really a concept conceived by our friend, Duane Ebata. He was the driving force of the Japan America Theatre in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo.”

As manager and artistic director of the Japan America Theatre, now known as the Aratani Theatre, Ebata sought out the best in Japanese American and Asian Pacific Islander programming, and is largely credited for the rise in popularity of taiko performance.

Ebata created a series of concerts called “Kokoro” (in Japanese, “from the heart”) that focused on artists committed to exploring their own multiculturalism.

He encouraged June to do a solo concert, myself as well,” Kuramoto said, referring to original band member June Kuramoto, a master koto player who has released solo CDs in addition to her work with Hiroshima.

Ebata, who often held symposiums on Japanese American performing arts and served on panels for groups such as the National Endowment for the Arts, died of cancer in 2000 at the age of 49.

We wanted to take Duane’s idea and apply it to an entire CD project. For us, the preservation of ethnic enclaves is one of the keys to the cultural diversity of this country. That mix is what makes this country so vibrant,” Dan Kuramoto said.

The latest collection finds Hiroshima taking influence from local hangouts and distant lands, and even includes a re-worked version of “Cruisin’ J-Town,” one of their earliest recordings.

This is a re-visitation of the first song off our second album,” Kuramoto explained. “After all, if we do a record called ‘J-Town Beat,’ how could we not do this one? For a different ‘vibe,’ I put a Latin spin on it, a tribute to my East L.A. heritage.”

J-Town Beat” opens with sounds familiar to practically anyone who has spent a fair amount of time in and around the JA community… Celebrated percussionist Kenny Endo provides many different rhythms, kakegoe (calls made by the drummers) and unique Japanese percussion instruments. June Kuramoto comes from behind her iconic koto and sings and plays the shamisen in the beginning of the song.

I wrote this song based on a number of my musical and cultural influences,” Dan Kuramoto recalled. “The title is actually the title of an amazing musical theater piece by Stomu Yamashita. It was like a commentary on contemporary Japanese culture in conflict with its own history.

“Several years later and a few Japan tours for the band, one of the many things I really dug were the Obon festivals. They were so surreal, with spikey-haired kids and ladies in kimonos and all this Japanese folk music and everyone dancing — and great food! So this is sort of my tribute.”

Other tracks draw their inspiration from locales as far off as France and Hawaii, with the tune “Da Kitchen” providing a sonic homage to a plate-lunch restaurant on Maui.

J-Town Beat” is available at Apple’s iTunes, and from the band’s own website:

Check out this link:

Hiroshima’s 19th album takes stock in local surroundings and distant lands.