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Yellow Magic Orchestra – three Japanese musicians’ emphatic response to Orientalism

Yellow Magic Orchestra’s eponymous debut album, released at the back end of 1978 by Japanese record label Alfa Music, is a masterpiece of early electronic, synthesiser-based music. At 36 minutes, it manages to be both a wacky, wonderful pastiche and a serious statement against Western perceptions of East Asia.

In 1978, established solo musician and bass player Haruomi Hosono hired two session musicians for an upcoming project: drummer Yukihiro Takahashi and keyboardist Ryuichi Sakamoto. The album Hosono wanted to make was intended as a reply to the Western musical genre of ‘exotica’ that emerged in the U.S. during the 1950s and 60s. ‘Exotica’ was music that mimicked traditional styles of non-Western music, notably those of Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, and ‘tribal’ Africa and was representative of skewed Western perspectives of other cultures.

The songs combine ground-breaking sounds with traditional Japanese melodic styles or at least a caricature of them through an American lens. The hit single Firecracker uses a melody from an ‘exotica’ song of the same name, released in 1959 by American pianist Martin Denny. By taking this melody, YMO successfully pastiched Denny’s original and thoroughly surpassed it. This song and Cosmic Surfin clearly demonstrate the album’s purpose: to satirise ‘exotica’ and play it better than any non-Japanese could.

The technology used by the band was ground-breaking. Synthesisers and computer-based instruments allowed them to use new sounds that had previously been impossible to create. The marriage of these sounds with a very human ‘feel’ and rhythm can largely be credited to the work of Hideki Matsutake. Considered by many, including the band, as the fourth member of the group, he was the studio technician who programmed much of the equipment on the record.

Aside from Firecracker, it is the song La Femme Chinoise (literally ‘the Chinese woman’) that deals most explicitly with Orientalism in Western culture. On a largely instrumental album, this is one of the few songs with lyrics. They satirise the Western idealisation of the seductive, yet subservient, Asian woman, as well as Asian tropes in Western popular culture:

‘Fu Manchu and Susie Q
And the girls of the floating world
Just sails on a yellow sea
For Suzie Wong and Shanghai dolls
Suzie can soothe
Away all your blues
She’s the mistress
The scent of the Orient.’

Fu Manchu is a well-known (and very offensive) Asian villain who has appeared in plenty of Western popular culture for decades, played almost exclusively by white actors and a symbol of the ‘evil Asian’. Here he is paired with Susie Q, the name of a classic rock n’ roll song and symbol of Americanness. She soon becomes ‘Suzie Wong’, the troubled Asian love interest and muse in the successful film The World of Suzie Wong (1959). These lyrics mock Western ideas of Asian men as villains to be vanquished and of Asian women as mere objects of desire.

Another big theme of this album is the American association between Japan and video games. All of the songs, in particular Computer Game/Theme from The Circus and Computer Game/Theme from The Invader use samples of sounds taken from the video games of the era. Existing Japanese arcade games, such as Gun Fight (1975), were joined in the North American market by Space Invaders in late 1978, a game which has endured to the modern-day. The album’s release in North America in mid-1979, six months after Space Invaders in North America, coincided well with the rising popularity of Japanese video games and because of this was able to play with yet another Western perception of Japanese culture.

Yellow Magic Orchestra kicked off a generation of technopop in Japan and experienced significant domestic and global success. Coming together for a project initially conceived as a one-off, Hosono, Sakamoto, and Takahashi created an international sensation that made an important statement in the increasingly globalised interaction of cultures.

Fruzsina Vida is the Arts & Culture Editor at The Yorker. If you have any questions or queries, please contact her at arts@theyorker.co.uk.