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Classical notes: Destination Tokyo

From the Japan of James Bond to the Japan of today...
February 28, 2024

Most of my early encounters, influential ones, with foreign lands came through the medium of cinema (the Streatham Odeon) and its colourful visions of exotic otherness. More specifically, and embarrassingly, James Bond films had an outsized influence on my views. Istanbul and Venice will always be awkwardly lodged in the same brain compartment as From Russia with Love. With Japan it has to be—more queasily—You Only Live Twice. The Roald Dahl-screenplayed movie is bad enough, with Sean Connery’s Bond impersonating a Japanese fisherman; the novel is even more peculiar, with its resurrected villain, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, creating a suicide garden of exotic botanical species to cater to what Ian Fleming imagined was an ingrained Japanese taste for self-annihilation.


By the time I reached adulthood, helping to make current affairs programmes for Channel 4 in London, Japanese economic prowess was a thing of wonder and the talk of the town. How had Japan emerged from the catastrophe of wartime defeat to teach the rest of the developed world how to rebuild from ruins? The fabled MITI (the Ministry of International Trade and Industry) bridged the gap between freestyle capitalism and long-term planning. Japan developed a dazzling electronics sector and formed the avant-garde of just-in-time and robot manufacturing. Miniaturisation was a natural pursuit for the land of the bonsai tree. The story at the peak of the Japan craze was that the notional value of the land on which the Imperial Palace in Tokyo stood could be equated to the entire state of California.

Japan’s so-called Lost Decades began in 1990, just as we were planning a fashionable documentary centred around Sony chair Akio Morita and Tokyo governor Shintaro Isihara’s notorious essay of 1989, “The Japan that can say No: why Japan will be first among equals.” Japan is now a byword for stagnating growth, population decline and an ageing citizenry. At the same time, it is a mirror into which Europe must look, learning lessons on how to reckon with what will be, for developed economies, increasingly pressing problems.


I first came to Japan in 1995, my first job as a full-time singer, travelling to the city of Matsumoto in the Nagano Prefecture (close to the so-called Japanese Alps). I was to sing the small role of Sellem the auctioneer in Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress at the Saito Kinen Festival, founded in 1992 by the recently deceased conductor Seiji Ozawa in honour of his teacher, Hideo Saito. Great musicians were attracted to this out-of-the-way festival. I remember hearing Mstislav Rostropovich (“Slava”) play Bach cello suites; and the cream of international orchestral players, Japanese and non-Japanese, played in the Saito Kinen Orchestra under Seiji’s charismatic and uniquely energetic baton. He danced at the podium.

Visiting Japan for the first time since the pandemic, I can sense a certain anxiety about the future, emanating from a society that is determined to cope with modernity. Tokyo still pulsates with energy and a characteristic level of overstaffing, which now makes eminent sense to a European confronted with post-pandemic understaffing. As is the case in many places I visit, especially since Covid, classical music feels under pressure. But in a country that has had a bond with Austro-German culture since the late 19th century—and which, at Morita’s behest, designed the CD specifically to accommodate the length of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—concerts continue. Audiences come, numerous, enthusiastic and well-informed; and the level of orchestral playing remains extraordinarily high.

I went to Sapporo on Hokkaido, the north island, to sing Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings with the Sapporo Symphony. All bar one were Japanese players, and the orchestra is little known outside its country (we played one gig in Tokyo’s Suntory Hall), but it played the musical poles of Britten (spare, transparent, economical) and Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony (grand, vast, expansive). Its chief conductor, Matthias Bamert, displayed total stylistic assurance. In the three recitals I gave in Osaka, Yokohama and Tokyo it was noticeable, as ever, that many in the audience knew the words of the songs (mouthing them as I sang) and were quiet to a preternatural degree. Britten’s Canticle III for voice, horn and piano, a setting of Edith Sitwell’s “Still Falls the Rain”, was particularly telling in a city and a country that has known the worst of aerial bombardment.

In June I’ll be returning, indirectly and metaphorically, to Japan, playing Britten’s “parable for church performance”, Curlew River, at the Aldeburgh Festival, a hybrid work based on a Japanese Noh play, Sumidagawa, which also forms part of the festival programme. It was William Plomer, great friend of Ian Fleming, Japanophile, adviser on You Only Live Twice, who wrote the libretto of Britten’s masterpiece. Only connect.