David Bowie’s Fascination with Japan
The musician drew inspiration from kabuki theatre and traditional Japanese music to assert an original sonic identity.
‘KABUKI’ stage costume by Kansai Yamamoto for David Bowie, 1973. Photograph by Masayoshi Sukita.
In the early 1970s, Japanese culture gained new exposure in Great Britain through exhibitions dedicated to prints (The Floating World, 1973) and Onisaburo (The Art of Onisaburo, 1974) at the Victoria & Albert Museum. David Bowie soaked it up and immersed himself fully in the Japanese aesthetic. He incorporated elements of kabuki theatre into his performances on stage and drew inspiration from traditional Japanese music to assert an increasingly original musical identity.
Japanese inspirations and collaborations
During this same period, David Bowie sought to develop his love for Japan, which to him represented the perfect metaphor for the notion of foreignness: ‘I think it’s the only place where I could live, apart from England’, he declared to the magazine Melody Maker. He was passionate about the films of Akira Kurosawa and Nagisa Oshima and, being an avid reader, was also a great admirer of Yukio Mishima. A polarising figure who represented a stark contrast to traditional Japanese values, Yukio Mishima was an attractive, multi-faceted man who embodied a rebellious personality refusing to conform to cultural norms, which appealed to David Bowie. In 2013, he referred to the writer in his song ‘Heat’ on the album The Next Day, in which he evokes the sinister image of a dead dog found in the novel Spring Snow. Furthermore, specific themes from Yukio Mishima’s work can be found in the film Furyo (1983) by Nagisa Oshima, in which David Bowie played a British prisoner during the Second World War, alongside Ryuichi Sakamoto and Takeshi Kitano.
Several Japanese artists played a role in the musician’s career, and contributed to his international fame. First was Kansai Yamamoto, famous for the daring nature of his avant-garde, extravagant creations that were perfectly suited to the image of Ziggy Stardust, the singer’s alter ego. This fruitful encounter allowed him to get to know Masayoshi Sukita, a young photographer. The latter travelled to London in 1972 to take photographs of Marc Bolan from the group T-Rex. He discovered David Bowie in concert and instantly decided that he wanted to photograph him. The timing was perfect, because one of the two was interested in Western culture and the other in the East. This mutual influence resulted in thousands of photographs being taken over the course of several decades, the most famous of which, and also the favourite of Masayoshi Sukita himself, is none other than the iconic cover shot for the album Heroes (1977). In 2015, David Bowie described Masayoshi Sukita as ‘a very serious artist, a brilliant artist. I would define him a master’.
Kyoto as a muse
In his songs, David Bowie used Japan as a constant source of inspiration. Oriental sounds can be heard from 1974 on the album Diamond Dogs, then Japan makes its way into the sound and lyrics starting on the album Heroes, with the singer declaring in ‘Blackout’ that ‘I’m under Japanese influence’. He was heavily inspired by the city of Kyoto, a place he loved and knew well, and which acted as a reference for the song ‘Moss Garden’ on the same album. David Bowie drew inspiration from the temple of moss when composing the music, and played the koto (a stringed instrument used in traditional Japanese music) on the recording.
He alluded to Kyoto again in the song ‘Move On’ on his album Lodger (1979), then referred to Japan in ‘Ashes to Ashes’ from Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). For this opus released in 1980, he recorded an instrumental initially entitled ‘Fujimoto San’, which was intended to close the album. The track was released as a single in Japan in July 1980 under the title ‘Crystal Japan’, and served as the music for a Japanese television advert shot in Kyoto for the alcoholic drink Shochu Crystal Jun Rock.
David Bowie’s love for Japan can be felt not only in his music, but also in his image and popularity, and reflects a mutual fascination between two cultures so different to each other that they could not help but come together.
Heroes (1977), an album by David Bowie released by RCA Victor.
David Bowie and Kansai Yamamoto, 1973. Photograph by Masayoshi Sukita.
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