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Music / Japan

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The classic lineup of Japan. From left to right: Steve Jansen, Richard Barbieri, David Sylvian, Mick Karn and Rob Dean.

Japan were a New Romantic/Post-Punk band from London formed by vocalist David Sylvian, bassist Mick Karn, Keyboardist Richard Barbieri, drummer Steve Jansen and guitarist Rob Dean (who left in 1981). Masami Tsuchiya was their guitarist for live performances in 1982. There were active from 1974 to 1982 and reunited shortly in 1991 under the name Rain Tree Crow. They are considered an influential Synth-Pop band of The '80s and leader David Sylvian later became a distinctive Art Pop pioneer.

Not to be confused with the country (where they were popular), although their band name proved to be rather fitting, as their musical style and image increasingly took inspiration from East Asian music and culture.


  • Adolescent Sex (1978)
  • Obscure Alternatives (1978)
  • Quiet Life (1979)
  • Gentlemen Take Polaroids (1980)
  • Tin Drum (1981)
  • Rain Tree Crow (as Rain Tree Crow) (1991)

This band provides examples of:

  • Alternate Album Cover: The 2003 remaster of Gentlemen Take Polaroids features an alternate version of the cover photo depicting David Sylvian catching the rain in his hands and looking at the camera while facing left (as opposed to the original cover, where he faces the camera but looks to the right).
  • Band of Relatives: Steve is David's younger brother by about two years. Steve has also collaborated with David on many of the latter's solo projects.
  • Camp: They weren't called New Romantics for no reason.
  • Cast Full of Pretty Boys: Keeping in line with their early Glam Rock sound, the band members took on androgynous appearances that would go on to influence the Visual Kei movement in... well... the nation of Japan.
  • Deadpan Snarker: David Sylvian has his moments.
    Reporter: If gentlemen used to take Polaroids, do they take Hipstamatic pics on their iPhones now?
    Sylvian: No, I think they take Viagra now.
  • Darker and Edgier: They were known for easy-going Synth Pop, but later evolved into complex Genre Busters.
  • Do Not Call Me "Paul": An aversion, David Sylvian DID shorten his first name to Dave amongst friends and family, though he insisted he wasn't referred to as such professionally. Fans will sometimes ironically call him Dave when they feel a project is a little TOO pretentious.
  • Downer Ending: The group regarded the ending of Rain Tree Crow like this as they had worked so hard on the project and couldn't even promote it. The fact that Mick Karn died without ever reconciling with David Sylvian is particularly sad too.
  • Dude Looks Like a Lady: The whole group during their early glam rock years., but Mick and David take the cake
  • Dutch Angle: The music video for "Swing" is shot with the camera prominently askew during shots that aren't focused on David Sylvian.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: The first two Japan albums, and to an extent Quiet Life, feature David Sylvian using a rather different vocal style compared to the band's Virgin Records albums and Sylvian's solo work. The first album, Adolescent Sex, is also very guitar and synth heavy, with lyrics predominantly about dancing and comparing relationships to political events (something that was very popular in Glam Rock). Sylvian's appearance was rather different then, with long dyed blond hair and makeup (the other members of Japan had similar styles, because Sylvian wanted to make the group stand out).
  • Epic Rocking: Their songs typically exceed 6 minutes, with the longest being "Television" at 9:12 (though much of this is achieved via repetition). The song that fits this trope most from a prog-rock songwriting perspective is "The Other Side Of Life" (7:27) due to its long orchestral sections towards the end.
  • Expy:
    • "Nightporter" is very reminiscent to Erik Satie's Gymnopédie No. 1.
    • Some people accuse David Sylvian to be an expy of Bryan Ferry and also David Bowie. In the former case, "Halloween" has a near identical intro to Roxy Music's "Out Of The Blue", but for some reason they were never sued.
    • The single version of "The Art Of Parties" has similarities to their own, earlier "Deviation".
  • Frankenslation: Since Gentlemen Take Polaroids wasn't released in the US at first, the original release of Tin Drum in the region (retitled Japan) respectively replaced "Canton" and "Sons of Pioneers" with "Gentlemen Take Polaroids" and a remix of "Taking Islands in Africa" that was previously featured as the B-side to "Visions of China", also adding "Swing" as the penultimate track.
  • Genre-Busting: Their last album as Japan combines synth-pop with East-Asian folk music.
  • Glam Rock: Started like that, and just kept the flamboyant clothes.
  • Guyliner: Richard Barbieri would often sport thick black eyeliner. Steve Jansen and Mick Karn would do this too.
  • Gratuitous Foreign Language: "Despair" is sung in French, something Mick Karn says happened due to Sylvian's love of Roxy Music's "A Song for Europe". "Automatic Gun" has French women talking in the middle eight. "Some Kind Of Fool" was to have French language as well, though it is not present in the rerecording.
  • Greatest Hits Album: Assemblage, released at the height of the group's popularity, was the introduction to a lot of their early (Hansa) work for many, and it is still considered a core release due to its various rarities. After they split, Virgin Records released the 2LP Exorcising Ghosts, which covered their releases and two Hansa tracks, and was also a good seller - of note for including complete lyric sheets for Quiet Life, Gentlemen Take Polaroids and Tin Drum. After a few shoddy compilations of Hansa material appeared in the 90s/early 2000s, the group regained the rights to all their material, and a group authorised comp covering the Hansa and Virgin material called The Very Best Of appeared in 2006, with a DVD version featuring the entire Oil On Canvas Concert Film, which was previously unavailable on the format.
  • Intentionally Awkward Title: Adolescent Sex.
  • Insistent Terminology: David Sylvian was vehemently against the idea of Rain Tree Crow being considered a Japan reunion album, even though the band and label felt this would have gotten it better promotion. Eventually a compromise was reached where the band members were listed on the cover.
  • Instrumentals: "Canton" is the only song on Tin Drum without any lyrics, instead being an instrumental exploration of the album's heavy influences from Chinese culture.
  • Intercourse with You: Several of the tracks on the first two LPs, with the most obvious tracks being "Performance" and "Adolescent Sex".
  • Lead Bassist: While David Sylvian was the group's frontman and most famous member, Mick Karn eked out a name for himself during his time in the band thanks to his distinctively "rubbery" fretless bass sound.
  • Longest Song Goes First:
    • Gentlemen Take Polaroids opens with the seven-minute Title Track. The next-longest song, "Nightporter", just barely falls under that mark. This marks a significant contrast from the band's previous albums, which invariably fell under Longest Song Goes Last.
    • Rain Tree Crow opens with the seven-minute "Big Wheels in Shanty Town". The next-longest song on the album, "Pocket Full of Change", is exactly one minute shorter.
  • Longest Song Goes Last:
    • Adolescent Sex ends with the 9:15 "Television", the only song on the album to surpass eight minutes.
    • Obscure Alternatives closes with "The Tenant", which at 7:14 is the only song on the album to crack seven minutes.
    • Quiet Life wraps things up with "The Other Side of Life", which at 7:26 is the only song on the album to surpass the seven-minute mark.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: The provocatively titled, flamboyant and catchy "Adolescent Sex" is about sad young people indulging in hedonism as a form of escapism.
  • Market-Based Title: The Frankenslation version of Tin Drum made for the US market was a Self-Titled Album.
  • Mr. Fanservice: David Sylvian, full stop. Even when he looked like a girl, he was still fine.
  • New Romantic: One of the best examples.
  • New Sound Album: Quiet Life marked a shift from Glam Rock to a synth-heavy and leftfield New Romantic sound, influenced by the Giorgio Moroder collaboration "Life in Tokyo", which the band would carry on to Gentlemen Take Polaroids and Tin Drum. Later, their sole album as Rain Tree Crow moved to jazzy, atmospheric art rock influenced by David Sylvian's solo career.
  • New Wave Music: A very unique & creative example, particularly in Tin Drum.
  • Nobody Loves the Bassist: Averted, as Mick Karn is considered one of the best rock bassists of all time.
  • The Not-Remix: Did this a fair amount on single mixes, usually with the help of Steve Nye. To name a couple, the single version of "Nightporter" features additional piano parts compared to the original, and the 1982 single version of "Life in Tokyo" had a new bassline due to Mick Karn disliking the original.
  • Precision F-Strike: Sylvian has only sworn in 4 songs, all early era — "Television" ("fucking"), "Stateline" ("shit"), "Deviation" ("fucked"), and "...Rhodesia" (the n-word). "Television" is a particularly amusing example of this trope as he repeats "fucking television" to emphasise his dislike of television.
  • Putting the Band Back Together: After 7 years guesting on each others projects, the group reformed under the name Rain Tree Crow in 1989 and released an album in 1991. They split up prior to the release of the album due to David Sylvian refusing to let them be part of the mixing process, and the album received poor promotion partly due to his insistence on using a new name. The rest of the group formed Jansen Barbieri Karn soon after, with only Jansen ever working with Sylvian again.
  • Rearrange the Song: The version of "The Art Of Parties" released as a single features horns and loud percussion, whereas the version released a few months later on Tin Drum features Asian instruments and more subdued production. The 1982 remix of "Life In Tokyo" that appears on the special edition cassette release of Assemblage is a complete reworking to sound more Asian. Live in 1981, the group rearranged "Sometimes I Feel So Low", "Adolescent Sex", "Obscure Alternatives" and "European Son" in a similar way.
  • Red China: Played straight on their album Tin Drum. The cover shows David Sylvian sitting below a Mao poster, eating rice. The back cover shows all four members sitting below a Mao Poster in a sparse white room. This is likely done to increase the eastern Asian impression of the album's music.
  • Self-Titled Album: The band never included one in their canon discography, but Epic Records' Frankenslation version of Tin Drum for the US used the Market-Based Title Japan.
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: Once again, everyone in this band.
  • Shout-Out: The Batt brothers took Stage Names from members of the New York Dolls. David Batt became David Sylvian after Sylvain Sylvain, while Stephen Batt became Steve Jansen, after David Johansen.
  • Smart People Wear Glasses:
    • David Sylvian in the Tin Drum era. However, he intentionally wore unfashionable frames as a fashion statement. Whilst they otherwise aren't part of his public image, he can be seen wearing more modern glasses in some pictures later on.
    • Though not back in the Japan days, Richard Barbieri is always seen with them in the modern day and is widely regarded as having been The Smart Guy of the group.
  • Stage Names: David Sylvian, Steve Jansen and Mick Karn are the stage names of David Batt, Stephen Batt and Adonis/Anthony Michaelides. David and Steve have since legally changed their last names to their stage names.
  • Stalker with a Crush: "Swing":
    Things you say are not too clear
    I'm someone you'll neither know nor care
    But I'll sit here and watch from afar
    Taking islands in Africa
  • Synth-Pop: The band jumped headfirst into this style from 1979 onward, spurred on by the Giorgio Moroder collaboration "Life in Tokyo".
  • Three Chords and the Truth: Mostly averted, though "Quiet Life" was written around 3 guitar chords, the rhythm section is quite complex.
  • Title-Only Chorus: "Lovers On Main Street" and "Sometimes I Feel So Low".
  • Title Track: Their first four albums and the live Oil On Canvas all have one. The title of the remaining LP Tin Drum, however, comes from a line in "Cantonese Boy" (though it does have the similarly titled "Talking Drum").
  • Trope Codifier: New Romantic, which is a lush version of Synth-Pop.
  • Vocal Evolution: David Sylvian, and how! He went from a high, quite flamboyant voice to a soulful low voice between Obscure Alternatives and Quiet Life.
  • Word Salad Lyrics:
    • David Sylvian is prone to this with his use of political metaphors to mask personal lyrics. The most famous example is "Taking Islands In Africa", a phrase that appears in its titular song and in "Swing". None of the group have any idea what it means, and David himself has never said.
    • Sometimes the lyrics are so Word Salad-y, that even other band members don't know what the songs are about.