Jul 17, 2020
We got a new car recently and we finally got a chance to take a road trip. My wife had been telling me she wanted to hear more of the Japanese Christmas music I’ve been getting. She’s heard some of it while I’ve been recording records and she’s listened to my podcast, but otherwise, she’s only heard the occasional song when she’s walked past as I’ve been listening to it on my PC. I told her I’d load a bunch of it on the new car’s hard drive and we could listen to it while we were driving.
Due to my disastrous discovery that everything I’ve recorded from vinyl has been at the wrong speed (off by as much as 10-15%), I only added songs taken from CD, which left out some of my best music but still gave us a pretty broad selection to choose from. As we were driving along, I remembered a couple points that I’d intended to make in my first post but had forgotten about.
A big part of the appeal of Japanese Christmas music for me is that it’s an entire culture’s catalog of Christmas music that, for the bulk of people outside of Japan, is virtually unknown. While most people in Japan don’t view it from the Christian perspective, Christmas is still a very popular holiday. For most, though, it’s an entirely secular, romantic holiday, which has a big influence on a lot of the music. Being alone or lonely, or finding oneself newly-single on Christmas is a recurring theme and could almost be a genre of its own. And while a lot of songs incorporate jingle bells, melodies from other traditional Christmas songs, and other things that would let a non-Japanese listener instantly identify them as Christmas songs, there are plenty that, stylistically, don’t sound Christmassy at all. The only way you’d know they’re Christmas songs is by reading they lyrics or catching a stray mention of Christmas, holy night or eve. I should point out that Christmas Eve is, in general, a much bigger deal than Christmas Day for most in Japan, and a lot of songs, or song titles, mention Eve and may not have any actual mention of Christmas.
While a lot of the albums I’ve gotten have included traditional Christmas songs, or have been made up entirely of them, the really good, original Japanese songs really help keep my interest up. “Christmas in the Air” by PSY-S, “Christmas Eve” by Tatsuro Yamashita, “Christmas No Hi” by Original Love, “I Believe” by Miho Fukuhara, and a few others have become some of my favorite Christmas songs. They’re fun songs with great melodies and a couple are even entirely in English. Not everything I find measures up, but I uncover really good songs often enough to keep me searching. Most years, I get burnt out on Christmas music sometime around the end of January and have to take a break until June or July. This year, though, my interest hasn’t waned. If anything, I’m more enthused about it now than I was back in January. It might drive my girls nuts, but I think it’s a good thing.
Another aspect of Japanese Christmas music I’ve really come to enjoy is the wide variety of novel and collectible records. A couple months ago, a friend told me that everyone in Japan puts out a Christmas album. He was specifically referring to Christmas compilations, and just searching Ebay and the record stores, I didn’t get a real sense for what he was saying. However, as I started finding other Japanese retailers and auction sites, I finally saw what he meant. When he said everyone puts out a Christmas album, he meant that literally almost every company in Japan at some point has put out a Christmas album of some sort. I’ve found compilations from curry shops, car dealerships and other small businesses. The record labels put out tons of them. I found one blog that just covers Japanese Christmas compilations. A lot of them just repackage the same dozen or so Western songs (they’re almost identical to any of a dozen or so bargain compilations that come out in the US each year, usually with more interesting covers), but some have a little more variety. I’ve seen a few collections of old R&B Christmas songs from the US. These veer more towards older Blues and less toward Motown. Some repackage songs just by Japanese artists, while others feature a mix of both Japanese and Western songs. In any case, I already have most of the songs on the compilations by the record labels, but it’s fun to see the different covers. The only ones that really intrigue me are the ones from the smaller businesses. None of the labels or covers I’ve seen have been in English so I have no idea what’s on them. However, I’m not going to spend $50 or more to find out.
The idea of everyone putting out a Christmas album goes back at least to the 1960s. Before the compilation CD’s became the standard, flexi-discs were the way to go. Anyone who grew up in the 80s or earlier likely remembers getting flexi-discs in magazines, on cereal boxes, in the mail, etc. From what I can tell, they were even more popular in Japan. The record labels seem to have used them to promote the LP’s the songs came from, or as fan club releases. I’ve seen single flexi-discs and sets of up to four that came out at the same time as the corresponding LP. Some are just the flexi-disc in a sleeve, but others have more elaborate packaging, including a couple I’ve seen that come inside short books promoting the artists. They’re really cool!
Even better are the corporate flexi-discs. Banks, car companies, whiskey and malt liquor companies, rail lines and seemingly everyone else would send out flexi-discs at Christmastime. From what I’ve seen, these have a song or two and possibly a Christmas message from the company. The ones I’ve found have all been in Japanese so I have no idea what the songs are or who sings them. The artwork on the sleeves is the real attraction. While a couple have been pretty generic, most of the ones I’ve seen are really great. Some are photos of people in 60’s garb dancing in front of Christmas trees. The best ones tend to have stylized, mid-century Christmas graphics, usually incorporating Santa Claus. I’ve yet to see any of these on Ebay, so I’m not likely to get one anytime soon.
Something else I’ve found are singles and alternate covers from other albums. There were at least three different covers to Akira Ishikawa’s “Drum Christmas Drum.” Lots of other artists released one or more singles to go along with their albums. While I’ve seen a couple of the alternate covers, I’d never heard of a lot of the singles. The songs don’t appear to be any different, but it’s fun to see just how much is out there. Sam “The Man” Taylor seems to have released so many Christmas singles and EP’s in Japan that you could get the songs from his LP several times over just by buying those. Most of the singles I’ve found are songs I already have on CD, so I’m not too interested in those. However, I will say that I couldn’t resist Chiemi Eri’s “Jingle Bells/Silent Night” when I found it at Record City a few months ago.
Probably the least common “record” I’ve seen are the playable cardboard Christmas cards. I think I’ve seen three total, all from the 50s. The listings say they still play, although I don’t know that I’d trust them to my record player. One was from a seller in England and, despite being a Christmas card, didn’t have a Christmas song on it. The other two were from Japan. One had a Christmas song, while the other had what I believe was a song about winter, but not necessarily Christmas (the translation wasn’t very good). These would be really cool from a collectible standpoint, but I wouldn’t want to risk $80 for one song that might not even survive being played the first time.
On top of all this, there’s a fun sense of discovery. When I first started collecting Christmas music, it seemed as though every year, the more notable collectors and bloggers online would uncover a dozen or so forgotten old albums. These were predominantly American artists. The music was great but one of the things I really enjoyed were some of the posts about how the person who’d found the album felt when they found it in a dusty box under a table at the thrift store or record shop, took it home and listened to it for the first time, knowing they were one of the few, if not the only person to hear it in years or even decades. As fun as that was, I was just experiencing it vicariously through them. It wasn’t until I got that first shipment of Japanese records that I got a real taste of that on my own. Sure, that first batch of albums were fairly to extremely popular in Japan, so there were 125 million or so other people likely hearing at least a few of those songs on the radio each year, but I was one of the few people outside of Japan listening to them.
I likely won’t have the chance to dig through the crates at a Japanese record store anytime soon, so all my “digging” takes place online. However, the more I dig, the more I find. As fun as it was to hear some of the bigger Japanese songs for the first time, and to eventually get records or CD’s of a few of them, what’s really great is finding out about a record that would even be considered rare or obscure in Japan. I’m talking about albums that received a limited release on vinyl 50-60 years ago and haven’t been re-released since, or Christmas albums by bigger artists that have faded into obscurity over time. Most of these never show up on eBay. The stray copy might appear on one of the Japanese sites every few years or so, but there are a few I can’t find any historical listings for online. Some of these I’ll probably never find for sale or get to listen to, but I’ve been lucky enough to get copies of a few of them.
There’s one album I got recently (I’ll talk about it more in a few months), that, honestly, I didn’t think I’d ever own. When it finally arrived, my hands were actually trembling as I opened the cardboard sleeve it arrived in. I removed the album from its protective plastic sleeve and just looked at the cover for a few minutes, reading over the track listing and scanning through the Japanese liner notes, wishing I knew what they said. I took out the record and carefully looked at each side, inspecting it for scratches or flaws. I finally put it on the turntable, sat back and just soaked in this amazing music*, savoring the feeling that I was probably the only person on the planet listening to it at that moment. It was one of those moments that made my 20+ years of collecting Christmas music worthwhile.
*Okay, the moment might have been spoiled if the music sucked, but in this case, it was truly one of the most remarkable albums I’ve ever heard.