Tokyo Drift On tour in Japan, the founder of D.C. punk band E.D. Sedgwick finds himself lost in translation.

“In the West, people tend to think that flowers in full bloom are most beautiful, but when withered they are not. This is not the case with the Japanese sense of aware—people are aware of the beauty of full blossoms, of course, but are more touched and deeply moved when these blossoms are falling or beginning to wilt.”
The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture by Roger J. Davies and Osamu Ikeno.

We, as a Group, were Not Getting Along.

Like our peers—The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, the Pixies, Dr. Dre and Snoop—we had Harbored Grudges. We had Had Words. There had been Band Drama. And Infighting. Some members had Been Replaced. And I, bald for a decade and five to 10 pounds above fighting weight, had Had a Child.

I was Getting Old.

And there was no way around it: After a muted reception to our 2012 LP, two middling tours of Europe, not-so-great East Coast weekends, an underwhelming SXSW jaunt, and a bummerish West Coast trip, our band had needed to Try Something New.

Why not Tour Japan? I’d said. To which the Record Label had said: You could. The Risk would be yours, but we could Facilitate. We know an Importer-Exporter. The Importer-Exporter knows Some People On The Ground. You could Pull It Off.

After months of negotiations: Ten days. Nine shows. No profit guaranteed.

“It will be a long way to Japan,” the Importer-Exporter wrote on the eve of the tour. “Sleep all the way in the airplane to save your energy for tour!”

This was the beginning of The End.

Flying to Japan with Backup Singer, Bassist and Drummer: Thousands of dollars in airfare, two planes, 16 hours, one Ambien, two-thirds of Saving Private Ryan. Friday’s twilight immediately follows a long Thursday during which the sun never seems to set.

We lie to Japanese customs officials. We are tourists, we say, a designation that, if legally inexact, is accurate given the unlikelihood that this trip will break even. Once through customs, we are met by a goateed man wearing an Ignition shirt. This is Y____, our host.

Reader, kindly note a neutral, nondiscriminatory observation: Japanese folks, or at least those I expect to meet on tour, speak little English. Exhibit A:

Justin Moyer: Do you like Mike Watt?

Y____: Yes.

JM: Have you seen him in Japan?

Y____: No.

Me: I thought he played in Japan a lot.

Y____: Yes, I see him when he plays Japan.

But please know that, by recounting this nonsensical repartee, I am not presenting Y____, a gracious person I greatly admire, as a bucktoothed Oriental caricature à la Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Indeed, I’d bet that most Japanese citizens speak better English than most Americans. Example: Y____ can help me borrow a guitar strap, even though I don’t know the words for “borrow,” “guitar,” or “strap” in Japanese. Or the words for “hello” or “goodbye” or “excuse me.”

Still, conversation often stalls.

But this is not Racism. I am just Reporting the News. It is Just the Way It Is. Do not Shoot the Messenger.

Not yet.

I wake up in Nook.

Though it shares a name with Barnes & Noble’s e-reader, the Nook I speak of is not an electronic device. Nook is a slightly less than six-by-two-feet space I have staked out beneath a spiral staircase at the apartment of T___, Y____’s bandmate.

Nook’s floor is hardwood. His walls are concrete. He has Wi-Fi. Nook is just big enough for me, my duffel bag, my sleeping bag, my copy of The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture by Roger J. Davies and Osamu Ikeno (hereafter, TJMUCJC), and a small towel I use as a pillow.

Nook is precious to me. Here, in his embrace, I will spend the plurality, if not the majority of my time in Japan. Nook is my personal corner of T___’s flat, which is on the eensie side for five people plus visitors to share for 10 days and, given its substantial distance from public transit, not easy to leave.

It’s like a houseboat. In fact, for the Ugly American traveler, Japan, where the average adult male is five-foot-six and the coffin-style capsule hotel was invented, is a nation of houseboats and the home of Houseboat Madness. Symptoms: 1) Claustrophobia; 2) bitchiness; 3) achiness of the back and neck caused by falling asleep in unnatural positions in small spaces during Jet Lag Moments; and 4) the desire to scream and run outside, weather and propriety be damned.

Cures for Houseboat Madness: 1) Quarantine in Nook with soothing distractions (sleep, the Internet, TJMUCJC); or 2) leave Japan.

Emerging from Nook, I squeeze past Bassist, a tall man drinking green tea in a small kitchen, to shower in a room not much bigger than the interior of my Toyota Matrix. Bassist and I have adopted amae, or “depending on the benevolence of others.” According to TJMUCJC, “amae is vital for getting along with others in Japan and is the basis for maintaining harmonious relationships.”

After riceballs for breakfast and a spicy pumpkin stew for lunch, about 10 of us (my band plus Y____’s plus entourage) pile into a small rental van and head to Shinjuku, Tokyo’s Manhattan, for our first show. During a two-hour ride across a city in which getting anywhere takes at least two hours, I contract Houseboat Madness. My illness only worsens at the venue, Nine Spices, a warren of underground rooms.

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Still, the show goes well. The opening acts display iitoko-dori—according to TJMUCJC, Japan’s “long-established tradition of adopting elements of ‘foreign culture’ and adapting them.” Japanese bands, I learn, often sound like a better version of the American bands they model themselves after. Our hosts’ band, for example, sounds like a better version of The Screamers. Another on the bill sounds like a better version of Can.

Onstage, I get a Funny Feeling: In Japan, am I anything more than a novelty? Does the guy with hair down to his ass wearing my band’s T-shirt appreciate my aesthetic, or just the American rocker archetype? Though I am in plain sight, am I invisible to my audience, and are they invisible to me? Am I really communicating with fans who don’t speak my language, or just shucking and jiving?

Central question: Can a Japanese audience Get Me?

In our overstuffed rental, we drive to Nagoya, a city about four hours west of Tokyo. En route, I succumb to a Jet Lag Moment and fall asleep with my head on my shoulder. By the time we stop at a rest area, my Houseboat Madness seems unsurvivable. I wander around in a sickly daze. The day is unseasonably hot and the smell of unfamiliar foods is in the air. The toilets in the restroom flush two ways—up for urine, down for feces.

It’s too much.

T___, perhaps sensing my delicate state, beckons. I’m following him through a warren of food stalls when, surprisingly, Lake Hamana, a brackish but beautiful body of water not far from the Pacific, appears. This is like finding the shores of paradise in an unexplored corner of Maryland House.

T___ and I walk down to the water. It’s cooler there. My Houseboat Madness retreats. I stretch. I do not worry how many will attend the show tonight. A happy, fat child slides down the hill on a piece of cardboard.

Then, we go back up the hill.

In Nagoya, a city that reminds me of Pittsburgh, we play a show for less than 15 people, which also reminds me of Pittsburgh. Afterward, we retreat to a motel that’s as graciously paid for as it is filthy. I fall asleep instantly, then wake up at about 2 a.m. to see what is probably not a bedbug squiggling beneath me.

I miss Nook.

Retreating from the bug, I sit in the hall and read William T. Vollmann’s Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement and Feminity in Japanese Noh Theater, late into the night. This is a mistake. Vollmann’s delirious prose makes my Funny Feeling worse.

“This book cannot pretend to give anyone a working knowledge of Noh,” Vollmann writes. “Only a Japanese speaker who has studied [medieval Japanese actor] Zeami [Motokiyo] and the Heian source literatures, learned how to listen to Noh music and what to look for in Noh costumes, masks and dances could hope to gain that, and then only after attending the plays for many years.”

Question I can’t answer: What’s the difference between punk rock and Noh?

In Nagoya, before I’ve even brushed my teeth, Drummer engages me in a Deep Conversation. A version we’ve reconstructed:

Drummer: Are you saying that Americans shouldn’t listen to music from other countries?

Justin Moyer: No. I’m just saying that, when there’s a language barrier, the understanding offered by the music of another culture—whatever “culture” means—is pretty thin. How can a Japanese person understand D.C. punk? I’m not sure I understand D.C. punk! Music just doesn’t convey meaning that well.

D: But aren’t there levels of understanding? And isn’t some understanding worth more than none?

JM: I don’t know. I mean, I like Fela Kuti. But since I don’t have an understanding of Nigerian politics, do I just like Fela Kuti because he is a good dancer? I mean, am I an Ugly American who’s turned Fela Kuti into, like, an African Amos or Andy?

D: For a while, I really liked Capleton, this Jamaican rapper. It was my shit, just the sound of it. I saw him at this club on U Street. Then I realized that he had this song that was totally homophobic.

JM: Did you stop listening to him?

Drummer: Yes. The elements that drove me away from his music became most apparent at his live shows. I feel like at one show around ’06 he told the crowd to put up a lion paw with their hand if they weren’t a chi-chi man [a homosexual].

JM: So, by that same logic, should I stop listening to Dr. Dre, Ice-T, and the Wu-Tang Clan because gangsta rap is bad for the black community?

We drive to Kyoto, where we are to play that night. With a day to kill, we catch a bus which, after a long ride, deposits us at Ginkaku-ji, a Buddhist temple. We walk around well-manicured grounds and climb a hill, admiring a, uh, sand garden that features, ahem, stupa-like formations that date from, um, like, the 15th century.

Some of this is from Wikipedia.

Because, goddammit, it’s not clear what we’re admiring. I studied Buddhism for 12 weeks in liberal arts college almost 20 years ago. This doesn’t equip me to do more than smile blandly at Ginkaku-ji’s generic (to me) beauty. Groping for direction, I ask T___ if he is a Buddhist. He says he has no religion.

Wouldn’t I say the same thing if I took T___ to the National Cathedral?

Then, on the way up the hill, a tourist—a German, I think—reaches past a guide rope to run his hand over the delicate moss that coats a hillside. This seems inappropriate—the moral equivalent of stroking the Mona Lisa to check out the texture of the paint.

I am infuriated. Are Ginkaku-ji’s Western visitors just here to skim someone else’s culture? And why does the monastery, ostensibly a sacred place, enable this Hustle—tourists paying a 1,000 yen admission to blunder about? Does Ginkaku-ji somehow communicate Zen’s message—according to TJMUCJC, that “essential truth is incommunicable?”

On the way out, I spend 2,500 yen on a Buddhist rosary for my wife.

That night in Kyoto, we play Rinky Dink Studio, an appropriately named warren of practice rooms. The walls are green, and the air is smoke-filled. At least five bands are on the bill. We are last.

Waiting to play, I have a Jet Lag Moment and fall asleep at the merch table on a pile of records that I fear I will be unable to sell. I am awakened by a young Japanese promoter and athletics enthusiast who speaks better English than anyone I’ve yet met in Japan. I cling to his every word.

Sports Guy: What team you like?

JM: The Philadelphia Phillies.

SG: Ah! Big “P!” Red hat!

JM: I don’t like Washington teams. Like the [Pigskins]. There is a controversy about the name.

SG: Ah! [SG mimes pulling his hair back in ponytail, Tonto-style.]

JM: Right!

But, when Sports Guy leaves, I get a Funny Feeling: Am I only interested in Japanese people who can have conversations about America?

That’s Racist.

After an all-night drive from Kyoto to Tokyo, I hole up in Nook for most of the day. With evening comes rain. This is the start of Typhoon Wipha, the largest storm to threaten Tokyo in a decade. Despite the weather, we navigate horrendous traffic to play a show near Uguisudani Station in Tokyo. The venue: What’s Up, perhaps the smallest nightclub ever built.

This windowless bar, maybe once a mechanical room or utility closet, occupies an awkward corner where two buildings seem to meet. About 30 people crowd into a space markedly smaller than the Starbucks at 13th and U streets NW to see at least four bands. There is nowhere to sit, and few places to stand. Meanwhile, Wipha’s downpour makes loitering outside impossible, leaving us Ugly Americans with Houseboat Madness in a miniature, enclosed space in the biggest city in the world. Backup Singer is the first to flee, leaping into the rain to wait out the show in a nearby McDonald’s.

But, like most performances for too many people stuffed into tiny venues, the show goes well. In fact, at What’s Up in Tokyo, I unexpectedly find myself crowdsurfing for the first time in more than a decade. This is great fun, but may also be Walking the Bar: when a performer engages in demeaning antics—such as playing atop a bar—to engage an audience. In 1954, it is said, John Coltrane Walked the Bar during a saxophone solo at a club in Philadelphia. When Trane saw a friend in the audience, he fled the bar, ashamed.

Question: When a white man crowdsurfs in Japan, is he Walking the Bar?

It gives me a Funny Feeling. Imaginary dialogue:

Justin Moyer (atop the crowd): Am I a hegemon whose cultural archetype has seduced you?

Assembled Japanese: Yes. We accept your aesthetic authority and abet your aesthetic crime.

JM: By deigning to crowdsurf—by resurrecting an outdated, absurd alt-rock ritual that I would never be permitted before an English-speaking crowd in my native land—am I belittling you while belittling myself? Is my true nature invisible to you?

AJ: Yes. Just as our true nature is invisible to you.

Put another way: I’m not above crowdsurfing. The crowd at What’s Up in Japan is not above being surfed.

But should we be?

My editors insist that my narrative of this day’s events be excised, as the themes of this essay have already been established. This seems reasonable. Their News Hole is only so big.

I leave Nook for a show in Ashikaga, a town about 60 miles north of Tokyo with the shuttered feel of Scranton or Wilkes-Barre, Pa. We arrive at dusk. But, on Ashikaga’s postindustrial-looking streets—streets with bodegas selling nothing a Westerner can identify but hard candy and pork rinds—it seems that it has been dusk all day.

After soundcheck, I wander into a record store to try to unload my unsold LPs. No dice: Jazz is spilling from the shop’s speakers, and I see shelves devoted to soul and R&B. An impeccably dressed man with a pencil moustache behind the counter and (maybe?) his impeccably dressed wife are, I think, Japanese beatniks.

Which gives me a Funny Feeling. I am interested in William S. Burroughs. I appreciate bebop. And I love Jack Kerouac. Hell, the author of On the Road and I even share a birthday. I am an Appreciator of Beatnik Culture.

Which is weirdest: to 1) come upon an Outpost of American Culture in Japan, but leave without buying anything; 2) pay Japanese import prices for Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together on vinyl only to export it back to America, where cheaper copies abound; or 3) spend 3,500 yen on an Japanese alarm clock with plastic birds that chirp when my hand is near?

I choose No. 3.

Back at the show, my band, for the first and only time in Japan, is met with palpable indifference. The un-fact-checkable vibe, borne out by slow merch sales, is that the teenagers in attendance staging mock-sumo wrestling matches are simply not impressed with the Group from America. We are gaijin—outsiders.

Witness TJMUCJC: “The Japanese generally call people from other countries gaijin no matter how long they have lived in Japan or how well they speak the Japanese language….Such distinctions, which can be deeply hurtful to outsiders, are often unconscious.” The presumably globalization-minded Davies and Ikeno, TJMUCJC’s authors, want Japan to transcend this anti-gaijin reflex. However, marginalizing the Other is the most Western of the Japanese qualities they identify.

In other words: In dreary Ashikaga, where I am slightly ignored, I feel most comfortable.

I leave Nook for a show about 30 miles—again, two hours—across Tokyo. The venue: Bushbash, a vegetarian restaurant. I neglect to investigate its name’s etymology.

At showtime, Bushbash’s small performance space is either half-empty or half-full. One of the opening bands, a surf trio with a female drummer, gives me a Funny Feeling. The trio plays many covers of American rock ’n’ roll songs from the 1950s and early 1960s like “Oh Boy!” and “Wine Wine Wine.”

The appeal of this band is: 1) emotional, as I love ’50s rock ’n’ roll; 2) nostalgic, as the Ventures and Buddy Holly have fallen out of fashion and, unless the ironic Man or Astroman? counts, I’ve never seen surf music performed live; 3) nationalistic, since the music is unabashedly American, and I miss America; 4) spectacular in that word’s literal sense, since the group—Japanese, mixed gender, suits and bowties—looks great.

My Houseboat Madness disappears. This is the only time in Japan that I am certifiably Houseboat Madness-free.

Because of Racism.

I leave Nook for a show in Koriyama, a city about 150 miles north of Tokyo. And Things Get Serious. For:

Koriyama is at the edge of an exclusion zone established in 2011 after the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, one of the worst atomic accidents in human history. The band has had sometimes heated conversations about whether playing Koriyama is Advisable given the Japanese government’s chuckleheaded handling of the ongoing environmental catastrophe at the plant.

Relevant question we can’t answer: Is playing near Fukushima in 2011 like playing near Chernobyl in 1986?

Luckily, we have a Trusted Source: the ubiquitous William T. Vollmann who, in his Kindle single Into the Forbidden Zone: A Trip Through Hell and High Water in Post-Earthquake Japan, measured radiation levels not long after the 2011 disaster. Vollmann: “If I were young, I might not want to marry and raise children in Koriyama.”

So.

The venue is Studio Tissue Box—a warren of practice rooms in the center of Koriyama. It is the studio’s opening night—Koriyama’s previous practice space, we are told, was destroyed in the same quake that caused the 2011 tsunami. Flowers adorn a small table in the front office. TJMUCJC is silent on whether a gift of flowers is thought to bring good luck to a new business in Japan, but this seems likely. Nine bands are on the bill.

“It is difficult,” says a member of one of these opening bands. “We do not know the effects of radiation on small children.” He can’t leave Koriyama—his entire family lives in the area. And he has a 4-year-old daughter.

So.

First to perform: a trio greatly influenced, by its members’ admission, by a band of which I’m an ex-member. This trio proceeds to play a better version of my old band’s music. I am beset with a range of emotions including, but not limited to: nostalgia, envy, embarrassment, anger, and pride.

Funny Feelings.

After the show, we drive to a house somewhere near Koriyama in an area Vollmann may or may not have deemed safe. When we arrive, I have a Jet Lag Moment and stumble into a traditional Japanese home with tatami floors, minimal furniture, shoji (paper-covered sliding dividers between rooms), low ceilings, and a picture of Emperor Hirohito (who started World War II) on the wall next to a shrine to the family gods. Hangers-on from the show crowd the small space—about 20 people stuffed into a home not much bigger than Amsterdam Falafel. Struck with Houseboat Madness, I retreat to a closet-like room and try to sleep on a small mattress on the tatami.

In this poor substitute for Nook, sleep proves elusive. Unable to nod off, I read Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson on my laptop. Published in 1883, the book is now in the public domain, and available to download for free.

It’s about a boy who looks for treasure, only to find that it’s been moved.

Our last show is in Tokyo. The venue is another underground warren: Music.org. I neglect to investigate that name’s etymology, too.

Music.org is small and crowded. The show goes well. I Walk the Bar by stripping to my underwear and throwing our T-shirts into the crowd during an encore. These shirts can’t be brought back to America. They are adorned with the faces of band members who have Been Replaced.

After the show, we share a meal with our hosts and new acquaintances. While I’m still struggling with Houseboat Madness and a Funny Feeling about the Meaning of My Trip to Japan, the tour is over. For about 90 minutes, it’s almost like we and our Japanese hosts, instead of Performer and Audience, are Just People. This is preferable to the previous status quo.

I drink a post-tour Coca-Cola. And, while drinking this Coca-Cola, I experience Total Recall.

I recall a mosh pit at a Body Count show at the Trocadero in Philadelphia in 1992. Did those of us in the mosh pit agree that, as per the song “Cop Killer,” cops should be killed?

I recall the pile of mattresses I slept on at Ft. Thunder, a legendary punk space in Providence, R.I., in 1998. Why did I sleep on these mattresses when I, a wealthy graduate of a New England liberal arts college, could’ve sprung for a motel room?

I recall Thanksgiving 2003: eating cold spaghetti backstage at an empty dive bar in Ljubljana, Slovenia, alone. If a band plays and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

I recall licensing a song to MTV’s inane show Viva La Bam in 2005. What did the four bars of my music used in the episode—bars that would generate thousands in ASCAP royalties—mean to viewers?

I recall the arduousness of SXSW in 2005. And 2009. And 2012. Is anything communicated at these endurance contests?

I recall the cocaine I declined in a filthy backstage in Stoke-on-Trent, England.

I recall the many places I’ve been on tour that I thought I’d really seen, but am beginning to wonder if I’ve seen at all: Fargo, N.D.; London; Rome; Bulgaria; Tokyo. Have I only skimmed the surface of these places?

I recall the Funny Feeling I get at every show, good or bad: the way a performer must, at least a little bit, treat an audience like a target demographic. Musician to audience member: Are you a Person Here To Praise Me? Are you a Person Who I Can Sell a CD To? In my youth: Are you a Person Who’s Gonna Fuck Me?

I recall the divide between artist and performer that not even punk rock is able to overcome.

And, in that moment, after 16 years—while drinking that Coca-Cola—I Give Up Touring. Because:

I create music for My Punk Community. But, when I take that music beyond the geographic or psychological borders of that community—even if I’m just going to Pittsburgh!—not only are Material Rewards elusive, but I get a Funny Feeling because there are often Communication Breakdowns.

Promoter in Humboldt County: “We can pay you in weed.”

Dude in Sicily: “Sign my record.”

Woman in Little Rock, Ark., whose name I’ve forgotten: “Let’s make out in this bathroom.”

Dude in Japan: “Sign my record.”

Showgoer: “Are any of the records on this merch table available on the Internet for free?”

Me: “This show will be Good For Us.”

This life is not for me anymore.

It is my last day in Japan. I gather my belongings—clothes, duffel bag, sleeping bag, gifts, and TJMUCJC. I pack. I am graciously driven, for free, to the airport—a three-hour trek—by my hosts, who most assuredly are sick of me by now, or should be.

It is The End.

I leave my Nook behind.

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