Rock music as a cultural product of the US and Japan

In this paper, we seek to examine the consumption of rock music as cultural product in two distinctly different countries: America and Japan.

The music industry, which caters to prevailing ideological structures of society with the use of sound as a form of expression, is a multi-billion dollar industry and as such, is extremely relevant to cultural discourse. The values propagated through the music itself, the image of rock singers and bands in the public space, and consequent public response to the messages transmitted through what we call ‘rock’, all reflect that which is inherent in a culture. In looking at the similarities and differences between the cultures that emerge in this one genre of music, a form of cross-cultural comparison can thus be made. Popular music is often a means
by which the ‘collective consciousness’ of the mass is heard, and thus, the evolution of rock music in two different cultures, along a timeline of several decades, reveals how cultural identity can merge or diverge. In this paper then, we chart the growth of the rock music industry in both Japan and America from the 1960’s to the present, with attention paid to significant markers of contrast.

The roots of Rock

Rock, a style of music originating from the United States in the mid 1950s, is a predominant, yet often marginalized type of music. The blending of blues, originating from work songs of American slaves with black rhythm and blues created from the urbanized environment of Chicago served both as a foundation and precursor of Rock, which eventually ended up as a hybrid of these styles.

Rock and roll has been a powerful medium in society since it entered the American mainstream in the 1950’: It has shown itself to be a cultural mirror, reflecting the society and societal changes of the time, as one can often listen to the lyrics from a certain era and get a feel of the major issues of that time. Many genres of rock music emerged in protest of issues of the times and also in reaction to other forms of music. When we consider how rock music emerges as a product of culture, it becomes obvious that difference is inherent in discussing rock music created in America and that in Japan, due to the different cultural context in which the music is produced. This is despite the fact that Japanese rock initially emerged in Japan, having largely been influenced by Western rock.

For America, much of rock’s popularity and power can be traced to its controversy. Ever since it emerged within white suburbia in the 1950’s and became a hit with its youths, rock n roll and its various offshoots throughout the following decades has been labeled “devil music”, “subversive”, “satanic” and “garbage” among other things. Despite the negative connotations that came with it, rock music in breaking down racial, class and cultural barriers due to the universal appeal of music, helped to shape the society of the past half-century.

The importance of African-American culture in the development of rock music is unique to the America culture itself, as great social transformation was taking place at the time. The struggle for equality and civil rights in the 1950s-1960s, led to greater acceptance and awareness of African-American culture, which in turn promoted this black-inspired genre of music. In today’s America, racism remains a pertinent issue, especially with minority groups. In the song “Drowning” by Hootie and the Blowfish, for instance, we hear lead singer Darius Rucker expressed his feelings about racism and what it has become in today’s society.

Western technological advances made, in the invention of the electric guitar and transistor radio, also enhanced the development and popularity of rock music. The affluent post-war baby boom then provided the young audience eagerly receptive of this distinctive music form which combined lyrics articulating teenage problems, such as dating, cars, teen love and school, with loud, heavy beats and quick delivery. A sense of rebellion against traditional authorities and values was created, impacting the social fabric, perhaps negatively as some critics claimed, at that point in time.

US Rock: Rebel with a cause

Rock music was clearly then, an outlet by which people, both American and Japanese, could express their dissatisfaction with society and rebellion against conformity and the establishment. However, because of the difference in the American and Japanese societies, the inspiration for rock music in these two cultures differed. Rebellion against the system has always been part of the American culture. This we see in the clamor for civil rights by black Americans, as mentioned earlier, as well as in the unique brand of protest folk music, popularized by advocates such as Bob Dylan, which appealed to the rapidly climbing college population that sought alternatives to popular “juvenile” levels of music.

Indeed, political commentary was a key aspect of American rock music, as witnessed by how traditional and commercialized folk music was elevated to the level of ‘political protest’ often related to pressing issues of the 1970’s. Bob Dylan’s song “Blowin’ in the Wind”, demonstrated the level of indifference shown by the administrators of the American states towards the lives of common people. His third album, The Times They Are A-Changin’, also chronicled the civil rights movement with the song “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, further reflecting his political polarity. His lifestyle too, clearly reflected his political stance, when he engaged in public demonstrations and staged concerts to promote black voter registration on July 6, 1963. He joined Martin Luther King, Jr. in the march for equal rights a month later, effectively achieving social reformation through both his music and actions. Blatant political activism of this nature is rarely seen in Japan, as rock musicians take on the overt role of the entertainer, and any political protest made, if any, certainly tends to be more subtle.

Protest continues in present day America, with American youths rebelling against the strict rules that curtail their liberty. Religious norms and values cast in stone by the Church, who continues to have a stronghold in America, are issues pertinent to public protest. Marilyn Manson, known for his sensationalist brand of rock music, often features anti-Christ images and violence in his music. Such images can be interpreted as a rallying call for the youths of America to rebel against the Theo-centric rules set hundreds of years ago, and perceived to be irrelevant in today’s modern context. Protected by the legislature, the American youths are free to express themselves, and actively consume rock music, which then acts as public voice for their anger and angst.

The Hippie Culture

In the ‘hippie culture’ of 1960’s America, we see the two-way ideological transfer between a culture and its music. The tensions of the Vietnam War in the 1960s led a new breed of college-educated youths to congregate around San Francisco Bay to demonstrate for a new set of values of love, peace, sharing and community. This movement led to the rise of a new hybrid of Rock that reflected and spread the word of hippie-dom, which protested against the rigid bourgeoisie structure of society, while calling for a more communistic form of society. This genre of rock became what is called Acid Rock; clearly named after the drug LSD also known as ‘acid’, which would become the significant icon of the era. The theme of an alternative, cooperative society was realized with the utilization of LSD, which gradually became the focus of Acid Rock as messages of drug use were encrypted into songs, and in some cases, defined the function of the band.

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Music was very much a part of this culture, with the concert stage and arena being a public space where people with common ideals could congregate and feel part of a community. This was especially important when we consider how most of the ‘hippies’ came from an educated and middle class background, and were white and voluntarily poor. Growing up in the age of affluence, they rejected the materialistic American culture, which they felt no sense of identification with, shunning the routine of work and making money that the previous generation had gone through.

Dominant values concerning propriety were challenged, as clothes were considered to be hindering the beauty of the human body, while at the same time being a marker of one’s relative class position, thus serving as a form of economic class barrier. Nudity the flavor of the day and this, coupled with the introduction of the birth control pill and its widespread use, led to the rejection of sexual taboos. The notion of free sex and love was further propagated and reinforced by salaciously titled songs like “Boobs A lot”, “Group Grope” by The Fug, and “Love me Two Time”, “Hello I Love you” by The Doors.

Opposition to the middle class was further reflected through the choice of self-presentation of both rock music icons and their fans, which came in the form of long hair, tattered clothes and the lack of shoes. Offending the middle-class sense of propriety was a deliberate act of subversion against stifling middle-class norms that ruled America, in the hopes of creating a utopia of freedom and heightened individual self-expression.

The Decade of Self

The rock music of the mid and late 1970s was characterized by the obsessive compulsion with the individual, which can be reflected in the theatrical, glittery and androgynous image was embraced and brought out by David Bowie, by his alternate persona of Ziggy Stardust. Following in his direction of shock tactics, other bands, such as Kiss, played on the idea of stage presence and attention grabbing tactics with the use of heavy and bizarre make up and assaulted their audience with projectiles, becoming one of the hottest acts in the process. Sensationalist tactics, employed by Alice Cooper, also began to attract attention, by threatening peoples’ perception of sex, while staging elaborate rock theatrics such as mock electrocution, axing heads off dolls, throwing live chickens to the crowd to elicit audience response and publicity. This glorification of the self would later prove attractive to both Japanese rock music icons and their fans that emerged in the late-1980’s and 1990’s.

Rock in Japan

The emergence of Japanese Rock came about in the 1960s, developed by artists such as Happy End; this followed the parallel development of psychedelic rock, which was imported from the west. However, the drug-laden scene of this genre did not materialize in the Japanese Rock scene, with artistes such as Kosugi Takehisa and Haino Keiji taking a strong stance against drugs, which could be due to the limited availability of LSD in Japan. Although importing the counter culture-stance of the US rock music scene, the Japanese could not identify with the post-war excess and affluence experienced by their American counterparts. After all, post-war Japan was still experiencing heavy sanctions and had to focus on the re-calibrating of industry, which had to be rebuilt from scratch.

Influence of US Rock on Japanese Rock: The Awakening

The Japanese rock music scene in the 1970’s took much of its influence from US rock. Rock music is clearly identified with the West and Japanese rock bands of the time linked themselves to the West in choosing Western-sounding names for their bands, for example the Southern All-Stars. Imported wholesale too, were the trademarks of the ‘American Rocker’ – long curly hair, head-banging. This came at a time when all things Western were considered superior in Japan. Japanese rock bands in their mimicry of the Western rock bands, then participated in a form of hyperculture, in their overstatement of cultural signifiers that were overtly Western. The rock bands, however, who wrote their own music and did not do covers of Western rock, found it difficult to garner mainstream attention or commercial success. It was only much later that their music was acknowledged by later generations as being invaluable to their Japanese rock scene. Psychedelic rock was the genre of rock music experimented with at the time, a genre which was certainly unfamiliar to a Japanese audience still more accustomed to traditional Enka music. Further, the eclectic and often improvisational nature of psychedelic rock alienated Japanese listeners who could find no similarity between this ‘local’ brand of rock and the riffs of Western rock tunes that they were familiar with. It is obvious then that consumption of Japanese rock music in Japan was more a means by which Western cultural product could be consumed. Japanese then certainly did not view rock music, as an inherent part of Japanese culture.

Indeed, this flamboyance and excess remains today a signifier of the Japanese rock scene, and image is certainly one of the first things that come to mind when the term ‘j-rock’ is mentioned. Bands that came after late-1970’s bands like Southern All-Stars and The Alfee, employed image even more explicitly. X Japan, the band that redefined Japanese rock music, brought visual image to the extreme, with wildly-colored sky-high Mohawks, and flamboyant attire, influenced this time by American bands KISS and David Bowie. Bands like Glay and Luna Sea which later emerged in the 1990’s were clearly influenced both by pioneer X-Japan and Western ‘visual’ acts like Alice Cooper, and also the above-mentioned KISS and David Bowie. The difference however, when we compare a US David Bowie to bands like X-Japan and Luna Sea, is that David Bowie never topped the LP charts in the US despite, of course, experiencing some commercial success, while X-Japan was very successful commercially in Japan, despite the fact that their image was often as attention-grabbing as their music. The fact that Japanese rock bands now managed to far supersede the Western acts that they, in part, modeled themselves after, was telling of how the Japanese consciousness had evolved as a whole. A large part of X-Japan’s success could of course be attributed to their immense talent, their sheer range of composition and the versatility of their music certainly revealed that Japanese rock could be, and was in fact, equal to that from the West. This is in line with Japan’s long history of ‘borrowing from the West’ and then ‘domesticating’ what can be seen as a Western cultural product, so that the ‘exotic’ becomes ‘familiar’ with the indigenized cultural product even viewed as superior to the original. After all, the theatrics of Bowie and KISS that was viewed as mere kitsch in the West was incorporated into the Japanese rock image and rendered commercially viable.

This phenomenon in which Japanese bands act out their music through their image, elaborate costumes and appearance, is termed ‘visual kei’ in Japan, and is of primary importance to these bands, as mentioned earlier. ‘Visual Kei’ encompasses a whole range of styles, from stars that don dark eyeliner to full-blown female impersonations. The 1990s saw the proliferation of Visual Kei in which bands like Luna Sea, Glay, L’arc En Ciel, Malice Mizer, Dir En Grey and Yellow Monkey were successful and had a huge following. These bands started out as ‘indie’ or independent bands in the late 1980’s and were influenced both by Western rock bands and X Japan. Their distinctive image during ‘live’ shows then got them noticed and signed on by major record companies. While it must be said that the talent of these bands contributed to their growing fan base, it was their image that first got their fans interested in their music. This ‘visual’ image often involves feminine elements like shaped eyebrows, make-up, nail polish and costumes that emphasizes a female silhouette.

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The ‘visual kei’ phenomenon also includes fans who dress up in flamboyant and intricate costumes like that of their favourite stars, such as Mana from Malice Mizer who always appears in promotional materials and live shows as a gothic Victorian doll. Emulation by fans, of the personas of their favorite stars onstage, allows fans to feel ‘close’ to these stars, as well as with other fans of visual-rock who engage in cosplay. Harajuku today, remains a popular spot in which j-rock cosplayers congregate. In this respect we see how media culture provides material for identity and how a subculture of visual-rock fans has emerged. This congregation of a specific group of rock music fans in a public space, made highly visible by their choice of attire, is similar to that of American hippie culture in the 1960’s, where youth similarly, claimed representation in public discourse by imposing a strong presence in the public arena.

J-Rock: Rebel with a (different) cause

Rock music has always been associated with anti-establishment, and in this sense, Japanese rock music is no different. With its in-your-face music, shock tactics, and attire, the Japanese rock band is certainly at odds with pragmatic Japanese society. Indeed, the whole objective of band image is to call attention to the self, and this notion of being distinct from the group is quite alien to Japanese society. The popularity of rock music with Japanese youth in Japan today then reflects how the young in Japan seek to distance themselves the values upheld by the older generation in Japan. The value of working hard to contribute to society is rejected by the allure of investing time and effort to make oneself stand out from the crowd. The popularity of the odd, the kitsch, the bizarre amongst Japanese youth, is perhaps why the image of rock bands is often as important, to their audience, as the music they play. In fact, some purported ‘fans’ of Japanese rock bands may not even listen to rock music per se, but may attend ‘live’ shows and purchase rock albums simply because they admire the image of a band. In this sense, the very fact that one is in a rock band in Japan, or is a Japanese fan of rock music, can be seen as a form of protest in itself. The values represented by rock music and its image are, by their very nature, anti-establishment in the Japanese context. This is not so in the Western context, where the protest message is inherent in the music and lifestyle of rock bands. Songs are explicit in their protest, as in the case of ‘American Idiot’ by Greenday, which derides the political decisions made by US President George Bush. Rock bands also hold concerts to promote awareness of social or political causes, as we see in rock band R.E.M.’s involvement with the ‘Vote for Change’ concert and U2’s song All That You Can’t Leave Behind, written in honor of Myanmese freedom fighter Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi. Japanese rock music, when viewed in the light of American rock, is sometimes seen as an empty shell, where the image of bands detract from their music, and is hence not as culturally transferable as American rock music. It is obvious then, that the outsider to Japanese society fails to identify with the resonance that Japanese rock bands and their music create for their Japanese audience.

Visual Kei: A fantasy space

The ‘visual’ rock world created a fantasy space for Japanese youths by which they could temporarily forget their problems in a society, which the recession had hit. Since the economic bubble of the 1980’s burst, the number of high-school graduates finding employment dipped to an all-time low. To find employment could no longer be taken for granted, and it became increasingly difficult to hold down a long-term job. This resulted in youths bearing the brunt of the economic downturn, and becoming disillusioned with the less than promising job market. The possibility of being able to switch personas through the elaborate use of make-up and costumes was then alluring to Japanese youth, as a means for them to escape from the harsh realities of life. Further, dressing up like one of their favorite rock stars granted them a momentary taste of the glamour of celebrity, which was a world away from their mundane existence.

The depressed Japanese economy is also a possible reason that gave rise to the ‘visual kei’ trend in the Japanese rock music scene. Analysts have observed a co-existence of increased attention to cultural and artistic expression with economic adjustments, arising from the fact that the poor economy provides fewer jobs and depresses the working population. Hence, the opportunity cost of choosing an artistic career decreases. Visual Kei as an artistic expression also allows an avenue for one to express anxiety and vent frustrations and provides temporary escapism. Such trends are typical of developed economies like Japan, where there is a high standard of living and rudimentary needs are still satisfactory despite poor economy. Today’s Japan can be paralleled to the period of strong cultural expression in America during its own period of economic and social adjustment in the late 1960s and 1970s when American youths explored new forms of art, fashion, music and cultural lifestyles.

Another reason for the interest in ‘visual kei’ is that Japanese Youth are reluctant to follow the traditions of the older generation so they like to rebel and challenge Japanese traditions. Thus ‘visual kei’ bands, being alternative and rebellious in nature, that appeal to the angsty and ‘dark’ culture of Japanese Youth. The gothic fashion omnipresent in visual kei bands displays this inclination toward “the dark.” Gothic fashion in Japan is also known as “Goth-Loli,” and is short for “gothic” and “Lolita.” The general dressing is solemn, frilly and lacy and usually black in colour. This kind of fashion, epitomized in Mana from Malice Mizer, is popular with young girls and it has in fact spawned a fashion magazine, Gothic Bible, for fans to learn how to make the costumes and dress up. One interesting thing to note is that J-Rock is not usually the music Gothic Lolita followers listen to. Therefore it can be said that visual kei bands attract two types of fans: those who are attracted because of their image and copy their looks, without actually listening to the music (Gothic Lolita) and those who actually do both or the other, which is quite uncommon in the Western context. As such, we see how the Japanese construction of identity is mediated much more by image, being central to construction of individual identity.

The “Window Period”

The ‘Japanese youth’ label has come up frequently in our earlier discussion of Japanese rock and it is obvious that it is largely the young Japanese who are fans of rock music in Japan. This demographic between the ages of 17-22 are in the “window period”, whereby they experiment with everything before being formally introduced as an adult to the working world. Thus in indulging in ‘cosplay’ which mimics that of their favorite rock stars, they unleash the desire to stand out, rebelling against conformity after all the cramming for places at universities, before being tied down with responsibilities once they enter the workforce. When they were children in school, these youths were taught to think of themselves as components of the group, not as individuals. They wore uniforms, a symbol of conformity, oppression. In high school, Japanese youths start to feel the suppression of their individuality and begin questioning these restrictions. Thus, they are eager to follow unique unconventional trends, such as ‘visual kei’, to display their individuality.

Androgyny in J-Rock

In ‘cosplay’-ing their favourite ‘visual kei’ rock bands, these fans are also allowed to temporarily switch gender roles. ‘Visual Kei’ provides the fantasy space for one to break away from gender constraints set forth by society. Since the Meiji period, the society has been a male-dominated one with the patriarch being the head of the family. Eldest sons were treated as future heads of family, served after their father and before their younger brothers; therefore, males feel the responsibility to be the breadwinner, which is stressful.

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In addition, young men have seen their fathers and are weary of what is demanded of the salary man (sarariman) culture prevalent in the male working environment. The salary man goes to office doing monotonous work for very long hours. Japanese women however, appear to have more liberty for leisure in shopping and also taking care of the family’s needs. The males, tired from having to live up to the traditional male ideal in real society, relish trying on aspects of femininity like make-up.

Indeed, the emergence of the image-conscious male in Japanese society has been a topic of much sociological interest. Of late, women are no longer the ones being gazed at; instead they take on the role of ‘male gazer’2. There is an increasing trend of effeminacy among men due to their perception of what women want, hence the emergence of the metro-sexual fashion trend in Japan, promoted by celebrities such as Kimura Takuya and the media. Men emulate celebrities who sport plucked eyebrows. Eyebrow plucking and shaping, yet another aspect of femininity that Japanese guys nowadays adopt, was in a way ‘pioneered’ by the often androgynous members of the Japanese ‘visual’ bands. In this sense, in our observation of images portrayed in the Japanese rock music scene, we see how gender markers in Japanese society have really been scrambled.

To the Western outsider, it may be surprising that Japanese society apparently condones, and even encourages and emulates, public images of androgyny and cross-dressing. This is starkly apparent when we consider how almost every Japanese rock band, has at least one member of the group who has an androgynous image. Even a band like Yellow Monkey, more known for their skill and music then their image, we see a slightly more effeminate vocalist in Yoshii Kazuya. Indeed, it is clear the Japanese are not averse to cross dressing image portrayals by ‘visual kei’ bands. Cross-dressing in the American rock music scene, however, is more the exception then the norm, as American society views it as endorsing homosexuality and is largely uncomfortable with the homosexual undertones. The different reaction that both audiences have towards cross-dressing is largely because most Japanese are born into the Shinto religion and do not have a set of universal set of values system unlike the Western value system which is largely based on Christianity and does not condone homosexuality. Further, unlike the US, Japan has a long and existing culture whereby the genders blend and border on each other. There is Takarazuka Revue, the all female theatre where females role-play both male (otokoyaku) and female characters, and playing of female roles (onnagata) by the all male Kabuki Theatre in the entertainment industry. However, although gender markers seem to be more flexible in Japanese society, it must be said that gender roles within the society remain starkly dichotomized. We see this from the simple fact that Japanese female university graduates, despite entering a company at the same time as their male counterparts, rarely see promotion to higher-ranking positions in companies. [1] This is perhaps explains why the scrambling of obvious gender markers is so popular in Japan, for beyond the physical, the Japanese remain constrained by traditional gender roles determined for them by society.

Transferability of Rock Music (American Rock vs J-Rock)

American rock music, containing messages pertinent to the American consciousness, resonates with a much larger audience by virtue of the fact that America is a super power in the world today. In short, the American consciousness, in a sense, has worldwide relevance. Western cultural imperialism is also furthered by the presence of MTV worldwide. MTV Asia and MTV Japan all feature chart-topping hits from the US, but this is not the case vice versa on MTV US. As such, it can be said that US rock is more cross-culturally transferable simply because the world audience is made more aware of its presence via the far-reach of MTV, which clearly privileges the West.

Use of English in J-Rock

America’s super power status in the world today also results in people conceiving its culture as more superior. This cultural imperialism likely explains why J-rock bands often incorporate English words in their songs titles and lyrics, in the attempt to make their songs sound more ‘hip’. English is often used as slang in the Japanese language, and sometime even being conjured up to add a hint of modern sophistication; this could be seen in the music industry in Japan, where artists are adopting English names and incorporating English words into songs. There are also cases of Japanese preferring to write and sing songs in English, due to having had a Western education and holding the belief that the true roots of rock lie with the West. These songs would then be translated into Japanese for the local audience. However, the highly ‘Japanese’ form of English seen in Japanese rock also inhibits the spread of J-Rock to other parts of the world, due to the lack of understanding of such a highly localized form of English. Indeed, the English lyrics observed in Japanese rock music, often do not make sense, and if they do, the mangled pronunciation of these lyrics makes them unintelligible to the foreign listener. US Rock music, however, is much more accessible to many countries simply due to the fact many countries are English speaking and is aided by the fact that people still believe the true origins of rock lie with the US. The Japanese language in which Japanese rock music is written is unique to Japan making it difficult for people outside Japan to fully appreciate J-Rock because of the language barrier.

Thus, American Rock is more culturally transferable compared to J-rock.

Conclusion

In our analysis of the consumption of rock music, it is apparent that this style of music has become an outlet by which minority groups in a culture can voice their thoughts. This we observed by paralleling the slow but widespread acceptance of the heavily black-based genre of US Rock in the 1950s with the gradual and steady movement of visual kei from the shadows to the mainstream music scene in Japan.

The cultural differences between Japan and US have today, spawned different breeds of rock, each with its distinct style. The evolution of this medium in both cases is highly dependent on the prevailing culture and norms of the society, and based upon the constant struggle against the rules of conformity. The way in which this terrain of struggle is negotiated and presented differs, with protest brought to the level of the personal in different ways. Similarly, audience response to rock music in both cultures illuminates the similarities and differences of that culture. Exploration of rock music as cultural product has then successfully given us deeper insight to and understanding of the underlying cultural values and norms upheld in the US as well as in Japan.

Bibliography

Wicke, Peter, 1990, “Rock Music : Culture, aesthetics, and sociology” Cambridge University Press

Reebee Garofalo, 1992, “Rockin’ the boat : mass music and mass movements,” South End Press collective

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John Strausbaugh, 2001, “Rock ‘Til You Drop: the decline from Rebellion to Nostalgia”, New York Press

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About the author

Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

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