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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).



  • 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:

  • Band of Relatives: Steve is David's younger brother by about two years.
  • Bishōnen: Everyone in this band.
  • Breakup Breakout: David Sylvian, who became an iconic art pop musician of The '80s, and Richard Barbieri, who garnered a sizable amount of fame in the prog and metal scenes as the keyboardist for Porcupine Tree.
  • Camp: They weren't called New Romantics for no reason.
  • Cast Full of Pretty Boys
  • Cut Song:
    • "European Son" was at one point the title track of the album that would become Quiet Life, though it was later dropped entirely. "A Foreign Place" was intended for Quiet Life, though cut from the LP at a relatively late stage. The two were later BSides, with "European Son" getting a remixed single release in 1981.
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    • "Some Kind Of Fool" was, rather infamously, dropped from Gentlemen Take Polaroids at such a late stage that the original UK sleeves were printed with it still listed (a sticker indicated its replacement, "Burning Bridges"). Sylvian felt that the track wasn't quite finished due to having to record the LP in less than a year. The group toyed with reworking it as a final single in 1982, though this ultimately went to a remix of the two year old "Nightporter". Finally in 2000, "Some Kind Of Fool" got a rerecording for Sylvian's solo comp "Everything And Nothing", though the original has never been released, with Sylvian personally vetoing each attempt despite fan demands.
  • 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.
  • 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".
  • 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.
  • Gratuitious 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 video", otherwise a VHS exclusive.
  • Growing the Beard: The ambient instrumental "The Tenant" from their second album Obscure Alternatives is considered this by both group and fans. It is the first Japan song where the atmosphere and sound effects, as opposed to a lead riff (though it does have one), drove the song, and its influence can be heard in more celebrated works such as "Nightporter", "Ghosts", and David Sylvian's solo career.
  • 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.
  • Intercourse with You: Several of the tracks on the first two L Ps, with the most obvious tracks being "Performance" and "Adolescent Sex".
  • Lead Bassist: Mick Karn, with his distinctive fretless bass sound.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: The provocatively titled, flamboyant and catchy "Adolescent Sex" is about sad young people indulging in hedonism as a form of escapism.
  • Mohs Scale of Rock and Metal Hardness: They never really get higher than a 3. But it's not like they wanted. In the band's early days they had a few guitar riff driven songs such as "Lovers On Main Street" and their version of "Don't Rain On My Parade".
  • 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 Wave Music: A very unique & creative example, particularly in their last album.
  • 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.
  • Out of Order: At the height of the band's popularity with Tin Drum, their previous label Hansa released several late 70s songs as singles in order to promote their compilation Assemblage. As the group couldn't stop them coming out, they helped commission special remixes and cover art. In the strangest instance Japan themselves proceeded to release the two year old "Nightporter" as their final official single in 1982, whilst Hansa followed with a release of 1979's "All Tomorrow's Parties" in 1983. This led to a lot of the newer fans thinking Japan was a new band who were putting out all these great non-album singles. One notable thing is that Steve Nye, responsible for many of the remixes, went on to be David Sylvian 's long term producer.
  • Precision F-Strike: Sylvian has only sworn in 4 songs, all early era - "Television", "Stateline", "Deviation" and "Rhodesia". "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:
  • Remade for the Export:
    • The Australian release of Adolescent Sex has a different cover and is self-titled.
    • The US release of Obscure Alternatives features "Sometimes I Feel So Low" as track 1 due to it being their single at the time, and also features a pink, rather than blue logo. The pink logo was reused on the remasters.
    • Rather than release Tin Drum, Virgin USA released a self-titled compilation of that album (sans "Canton" and "Sons Of Pioneers") with the addition of the previous LP's "Gentlemen Take Polaroids", "Swing" and the rare "Taking Islands In Africa" remix (which had at the time only appeared on the "Visions Of China" 7", though it was later included on Exorcising Ghosts). It received a single, "Visions Of China" backed with the removed "Canton", though ultimately album and single went nowhere.
    • Assemblage itself is essentially an expanded European version of the Canadian Special Edition EP (a very popular import released the previous year) with a few band-chosen tracks added from each of the three L Ps released on Hansa. It did contain one unreleased track; the planned 1979 single mix of "All Tomorrow's Parties" which did not get released (it was eventually remixed as the compilation's last single in 1983).
    • Whilst the UK release of Assemblage is a best of compilation, the Japanese had a successful Singles EP earlier that year so it wasn't released there. In 1983, Hansa released a Japanese version of Assemblage with a totally different tracklist of 12" mixes and live tracks, as well as the album versions of "Quiet Life" and "Fall In Love With Me" as filler. The UK Special Edition cassette has the Japanese tracklisting on a bonus tape.
  • 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
  • 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.


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