When the Beatles did Japan (1)
The origins of Beatles fandom in Japan
Hi there. as some of you may know, 1966 was the year the Beatles toured the world for the last time. It was also the first and last time they played in Japan as a group. The Beatles and Japan are two of my passions, so I was delighted when I had a chance to write about them, together. This is the first of a series of articles and interviews I did earlier this year for ZOOM Japan magazine, expanded with more text, images and videos. Let me know what you think, and please share and subscribe.
More than 50 years after they broke up, the Beatles remain one of the most popular bands ever, and Japan is one of their biggest fan bases in the world.
Japan’s love affair with the Fab Four began in the early 1960s and reached a first peak 55 years ago, in the summer of 1966, when the band played concerts in Tokyo during what would become their last tour.
The first Beatles recording to reach Japan was in mid-1962 when Polydor released the single “My Bonnie” (where singer Tony Sheridan was backed by the Beat Brothers). The Japanese title, “My Bonnie Twist,” was intended to take advantage of the Japanese fad for dancing, but the single quickly faded into oblivion.
The band’s records were not officially released in Japan until February 1964, but their songs could be heard on FEN (Far East Network), the US military radio station, while radio DJ Itoi Goro is said to have been the first to play one of their singles, “Love Me Do,” on public broadcaster Nippon Hoso in 1963. Then, in 1964, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (Japanese title, Dakishimetai, or “I Want to Hug You”) became the band’s official vinyl debut.
Here’s a Japanese version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by the Tokyo Beatles (1964).
About two months later, their second album came out with the title Biitoruzu!, while their first film A Hard Day’s Night (Japanese title Biitoruzu ga yattekuru yaa! yaa! yaa!, or “The Beatles Are Coming, Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!”) premiered on 1 August 1965.
It is interesting to note how some works were released with their original title (albeit written in the Japanese katakana alphabet) while others were given a Japanese title that usually slightly differed from the original. To give you a few examples, “Please Please Me” was rendered as Puriizu puriizu mi while “I Should Have Known Better” became Koi suru futari (literally “Two People in Love) and “You Are Going to Lose That Girls” was translated as Koi no adobaisu (“Advice in Love”).
Among the people who saw the movie was Yamamoto Shin’ichi, a 17-year-old drummer who, though not being a Beatles fans, was greatly impressed by their performance. He particularly liked the humor in the opening railway station scene but most of all he was shocked by the female audience who spent the whole time screaming at the screen as if they were actually seeing the band play live.
By 1965, the Beatles and their songs were widely known in Japan (fans could choose between 12 original singles, four remixes, one EP and three LP albums), though the mainstream media sometimes associated the band’s look and music to increasing antisocial behavior in Japanese society. However, the Beatles and their manager, Brian Epstein, were always careful to present themselves as a laidback, witty, happy-go-lucky band that especially in the mid-60s tried to avoid any controversies.
The Beatles’ management was always careful to promote the band as four laidback, witty, happy-go-lucky lads who avoided controversies
It also helped that on 26 October 1965 they were awarded the MBE (Members of the British Empire) for their contributions to the arts (and filling up the country’s coffers in the process). Being recognized by the monarchy and the conservative circles lent the Fab Four a degree of social legitimacy and respectability that went a long way in establishing their popularity even outside the mob of rowdy youngsters who represented their more hardcore fans.
Be that as it may, the band’s popularity in Japan was confirmed by the birth, in the same year, of the official Beatles Fan Club (BFC) which started with 231 members but within six months had over 6,000.
In the beginning, the four scruffy Scousers were mainly seen by the Japanese as idols (even their album Help was released in Japan as Yonin wa aidoru or “The Four Are Idols”). In other words, their image and personalities were seen as the main reason for their success while their songs were more or less treated as light-hearted, superficial pop music without great artistic merits. It was only after Rubber Soul and especially Revolver came out that they began to be taken as serious musicians.
In the beginning, most Japanese fans saw the Beatles as idols
In this respect, Revolver was an pivotal work in their career as the band reached their artistic maturity, became more conscious of what they wanted to achieve musically, and learned new recording techniques (overdubbing, tape loops and delays, reverse recording) to accomplish those ideas.
At the same time, the group had grown wary of touring. But there were places they longed to visit. For some time, John Lennon and George Harrison had developed a deep interest in Asian culture and religion, while they saw industrialized Japan as an interesting hybrid, somewhere in between the Eastern and Western world. As for their management, Japan was at the time the band’s seventh largest market in terms of sale that promised to become even bigger. (To be continued)
Fascinating stuff, uh? But wait, there’s more. Originally, this article was 5,000 words long but had to be cut down to 1,800 for editorial reasons. In Tokyo Calling I’ll publish the whole story in all its glorious details, but I’m going to divide it in several easy-to-digest shorter chapters. If you don’t want to miss any of them - and the other pieces and exclusive interviews - be sure to subscribe.
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