A Brief History of Japanese Chillout & Downtempo

Haruomi Hosono – Paraiso LP

It’s no secret that Japan has produced some of the finest meditative sounds. From the environmental music of Hiroshi Yoshimura to the warm synths of Haruomi Hosono, blissed-out electronics have been surfacing since the 1980s and have continued to evolve through to the present day.

Ken Hidaka, Max Essa and Dr. Rob are three friends and deep digging collectors who’ve been immersed in these sounds for years, be that through writing, DJing or throwing their long-running monthly listening party at Bar Bonobo in Harajuku.

In 2017, whilst in Copenhagen on tour with Midori Takada, Ken visited the home of Kenneth Bagger – the boss behind Copenhagen-based imprint Music For Dreams – who asked him if he’d lead the charge for an instalment of their Collectors Series. Enlisting the help of Max and Dr. Rob, the trio spent the next three years charting the history of Japanese chillout and downtempo music from the 80s through to 2018. Titled Oto No Wa: Selected Sounds of Japan 1988 – 2018, each track is the result of friendships and physical connections, mapping out the development of chilled sounds, from ambient to electro-acoustics, post-house and balearic.

Alongside a mix of Japanese chillout and downtempo from Dr.Rob, we asked him, Ken and Max to discuss some of their personal favourites.

Oto No Wa is out now on Music For Dreams.

Where does your love for Japanese Chillout stem from?

Ken Hidaka: For me, it was when I heard the Silent Poets: Moment Scale (Dubmaster X Remix), the first track on Jose Padilla compiled Cafe Del Mar- Volumen Dos. Not sure where I bought this compilation as I was in between living in London and in Tokyo around the time of when this compilation was released in 1995. At the time, to be honest with you, I was way more into western club music and really not much into Japanese music at all so this Silent Poets’ track in this compilation surprised me a lot!

Although my tastes for music were still leaned towards mostly western club music, after coming back to Japan, I slowly started to discover a few Japanese music that caught my interest. Artists that released music out of Bellissima Records at the time such as Nobukazu Takemura’s Child’s View, Reflection out of Lollop (their debut album, The Errornormous World was also released out of Clear in the UK), Major Force crew, etc. You could say that my roots for Japanese down tempo/ chill-out music stem from Jose Padilla and his Balearic aesthetics, Club Jazz sounds and electronic music that was emerging from Japan.

What Japanese Chillout record has left the biggest impression on you as a DJ, and why?

Rob Harris: As a DJ, I don’t know, but as someone passionate about recorded music, a student of sound, I can give you two Japanese, downtempo / chill out records that made a big impression on me.

The first is Haruomi Hosono’s Paraiso. When I lived in Tokyo, which is about ten years ago now, I spent a lot of time digging for vinyl. Using the second-hand stores as an excuse to get to know the city, and searching for stuff, both for my own collection and to sell. Paraiso was one of the things on my “wants list”. It was on there because Jose Padilla, the former DJ at Ibiza’s Cafe Del Mar, had mentioned it in a radio interview. Even back then this album wasn’t so easy to find. It wasn’t expensive because the boom in Japanese music was still off on the horizon but there didn’t seem to be that many copies around. Produced in 1978, maybe it hadn’t been issued on CD, and those folks with were hanging onto their copies.

Anyhow when I did find one I didn’t know what to make of it – why was it in Jose’s favourites? I’d already hoover-ed up most of the Yellow Magic Orchestras output – the band Hosono founded with Yukihiro Takahashi and Ryuichi Sakamoto – for its chugging electronic afro / cosmic crossovers, but this was acoustic guitar-driven, softly strummed singer-songwriter stuff. But then bumping the needle, scanning from track to track, I hit the title number and understood – as Hosono-san used studio effects to deconstruct the song – send it into the stratosphere. Mid-way through it just dissolved into sonic shimmer, like a passing comet’s tail. Creating an extra-terrestrial exotica – an easy-listening muzak with its sights set not on Hawaii but the stars.

Sth. Notional – Yawn Yawn Yawn

The second record is Sth. Notional’s ‘Yawn Yawn Yawn’. For me this is a defining Japanese downtempo / chill out release. Again it was a favourite of Jose’s – but I only learned that in hindsight. It was Mancunian balearic guru, Richard “Moonboots” Bithell who tasked me with finding a copy. His London-based counterpart, Phil Mison, had one and he didn’t. This record was and still is super rare, since it was made in the early-90s, and kinda opposite to Paraiso, was far more abundant on CD. But then the CD didn’t have all the mixes. Jose and Phil had both championed the break-driven G-Tar Canyon Mix at the Cafe Del Mar, but it was Moonboots who picked up on the Dream… Another Reality version – which is an eight and a half minute meditation of sampled shore-line, piano and poetry. A hippie ode to Mother Nature – which to the West might sound cheesy – but captures a spirituality that exists in everyday Japan – something you only really appreciate, learn to respect, and hopefully come to understand, by living here. These are largely islands of gentle souls.

Moonboots later put this mix on his Originals compilation – co-selected with “Balearic” Mike Smith – for Claremont 56. I can’t tell you how ecstatic I was when I came across the record’s sea-blue sleeve in a rack labelled “Major Force & Friends” in Shibuya`s Recofan. I was seriously in double-take shock. To date I’ve only ever found three copies of the OG. Yawn Yawn Yawn was however reissued by Italy’s Archeo Recordings in 2018. The package expanded by a host of new remixes, and spread across six sides of vinyl. Reworks by Max Essa, Chee Shimizu, and Kuniyuki Takahashi. The update by Tadashi Yabe – ex of Untied Future Organization – is truly amazing. It’ll catch you off-guard. A fucked-up funky, psychedelic collage that – I’ll stick my neck out here – is the best Japanese “balearic” track of modern times. In my opinion if you only own one Japanese downtempo / chill out record then this Archeo reissue of Sth. National’s Yawn Yawn Yawn should be it.

What Japanese Chillout record has made the biggest impact on your sound as a producer, and why?

Max Essa: It’s difficult to single out one particular record, but I’m going to go with ‘Julia’ by Seigen Ono from the Comme Des Garçons Volume Two LP (1989). I got my first break making records in the early 90s through house music. Dance music genres/sub-genres are very rigid stylistically. When one is making those kind of records you can’t just make something that exists purely because it’s a beautiful, emotive, powerful piece of music, it ‘has to be’ a certain tempo, it has to have a 4/4 kick drum etc etc. This is the way I ended up thinking when I approached making music and I thought like that for many years!

I remember hearing ‘Julia’ for the first and being utterly charmed by it. It’s a very elegant piece that combines a calming tranquility with an ever so slightly mysterious, emotional undertow. The effect it had on my own approach to making music was to make me place far more value on the music for it’s own sake. I wanted to start creating music, moments, combinations of sounds that appealed beyond dance floors, DJs, beat-mixing.

Oto No Wa is out now on Music For Dreams.

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