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Holly Jolly X'masu

Blog Post – Why Japanese Christmas Music?

Jul 3, 2020

“Dad, why are you listening this? You don’t even understand it!”

I’ve heard that a lot over the last few months. While my daughters have liked a few of the Japanese songs (Christmas and non-Christmas) I’ve played for them, in general, they just don’t get it. To be fair, they don’t get why I like Christmas music in general as much as I do. They’ve heard me play it incessantly at Christmas then sporadically throughout the rest of the year their entire lives, but they still haven’t picked up an affinity for it the way I did as a kid. There’s still time.

As far as Japanese Christmas music goes, that’s another story. I’ve pointed out before that my Christmas music tastes are very broad and somewhat eclectic. When I started collecting it in earnest back in the early 2000s, it wasn’t long before I got to the point where I had a voluminous amount of both classic songs and traditional styles. I’m talking about Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, carillons and pipe organs, high school choirs, choruses and handbells. A lot of it was really good, but a lot of it was also very bland and, frankly, kind of bad. A nice album cover doesn’t always contain good music.

Each year as the sharing blogs ramped up, I found myself searching for stranger and more obscure music. I’d always liked the less run-of-the-mill Christmas music, and as my collection of bland music grew, I really yearned for something different, whether it was bizarre instruments or less mainstream styles like Barbershop or Punk. I would download the occasional foreign-language album. A lot of it was folk songs or choirs singing traditional carols in their native language. The quality varied. I downloaded a handful of Japanese songs and albums, but like the bulk of the rest, after listening to a few samples they ended up forgotten and filed away on my hard drive.

As I’ve recounted a few times before, at some point in the early 2010s, someone online mentioned Akira Ishikawa’s “Drum Christmas Drum.” I won’t rehash all that here. I will say that, in addition to some of the stranger stuff, I also really enjoy Jazz. What I could find online by Akira Ishikawa at the time sounded great. I listened to his albums “Uganda,” “Get Up!” and a few others, and imagined what an entire Christmas album by him would sound like. Over the next 7-8 years, as I continued searching for his album, I found a lot of other really great Christmas Jazz. A lot of it was by American artists, but I eventually found some really fantastic Japanese albums as well, including Shoji Suzuki’s “Swingin’ Christmas,” and “Latin Christmas” by Yasunori Nakajima and The Latin Rhythm Kings. When I first heard those albums, I was struck not just by how great they were, but by the fact that they were virtually unknown in the US. There are plenty of great albums that have fallen into obscurity over the years, but the cream of the crop tends to be rediscovered at some point. These, however, were top-notch albums that hadn’t even had the chance to be forgotten. Every time I played them, I couldn’t help taking a bit of pleasure in the notion that I was listening to something that virtually nobody else outside of Japan had ever heard.

Once I started buying Japanese albums, I started experiencing that feeling of novelty with most of the records I was getting. I’ve been lucky enough that the bulk of the albums I’ve bought have been very good. The Jazz and instrumental albums, and the compilations from the 80s have been exceptional, but even records like the EP from Juke Box, an early 70s boy band, have had some really great music on them. It’s a lot of fun to sit down and listen to a record the first time, knowing that you’re one of the relatively few people in the country to have ever heard it.

At the same time, the guys I talk to online about Christmas music have encyclopedic knowledge about American Christmas music. I know a fair bit more about it than your average bear, but they tend to astound me with the breadth of their knowledge. It can be intimidating at times, especially when you think you’ve stumbled on a “new” long lost song, or bit of information, and they mention they’ve known about it for years, or correct what you’ve said and fill you in with far more detail. When it comes to Japanese Christmas music, though, they don’t have that same level of knowledge. I’m hardly an expert on the topic, but I’ve picked up quite a bit while researching the albums I have, so it’s given me my own little area of expertise. It’s not much, but it makes the hobby a little more enjoyable.

The main reason, though, is that so much of the music I’ve found is really fantastic. It’s really breathed new life into my passion for Christmas music, and has given me something really positive to focus on during these trying times. Not just listening to the music, but recording the albums, editing out the clicks, pops and noise, scanning and cleaning up the covers, tagging the MP3’s, and researching the songs and artists so I can talk about them on my podcast. It’s a lot of work, but it’s far better than staring at the ever-increasing death and infection counts from COVID, or watching people argue online about social distancing and how they refuse to wear masks. It’s also given me the opportunity to meet some really great people, including some online who share a passion for either Japanese music in general or Japanese Christmas music specifically, plus the people at my local record store where I go to have my albums cleaned (at some point I’ll break down and get a cleaner of my own).

As much as I love the music, occasionally while listening to a new album, one of the girls will come through the living room, listen for a second and say, “That’s not so bad.” It may not sound like much, but from a teenage girl, that’s actually pretty high praise and helps make this all worthwhile.