This week: The history of the record player in Japan, from the first prototypes to the dawn of the Japanese pop star.
Featured image: A Victor V-2 Talking Machine at the Kanazawa Phonograph Museum. (Image source)
Player piano rolls at the Kanazawa Phonograph Museum. You can spot a statue of the famous “His Master’s Voice” painting on top of the cabinet. (Image source)
A 1910 newspaper advertisement for a phonograph. (Image source)
A portable miniature record player manufactured in Japan by Dynax in the 1960s. (Image source)
A machine for auto-changing records created by Nippon Columbia Co. Ltd. (Image source)
Last week, we talked about a pair of technologies–the telegraph and landline telephone–which were hugely influential in their day, but which in this day and age have largely fallen by the technological wayside. I have to say that I expected much the same to happen with our subject this week–but thanks to hipsters everywhere, the record player is still going strong.
The phonograph, as it was originally named (though it has also been called a gramophone, a record player, and more recently a turntable) is in terms of the physics behind it fairly straightforward.
Sound, as we all recall from high school physics class, is created by the vibration of air molecules, and can be charted in a waveform. The records in record players are essentially just spiraled grooves etched into a malleable surface, with the shape of those grooves reflecting the waveform of the recorded sound. To play it back, you place a needle at the start of the groove; as the needle moves through the spiraled groove, it vibrates in tune with the pattern of said groove–faintly reproducing the sound, which can then be amplified.
The original patent for the phonograph, filed by the American inventor Thomas Edison on December 24, 1877 and accepted on February 18, 1878, relied on playback using a horn that amplified the sound, and made use of wax phonograph cylinders as the recording medium. In the subsequent decades, the technology was steadily improved–moving from cylinders to flat discs that were easier to store in mass, improving the drive system of the turntable, refinding the design of the needle for more accurate playback, and of course improving the sound systems it could be hooked into–thankfully, so far as I know hipsters have not tried to bring back old-timey trumpet-style playback, though perhaps I am simply behind (or ahead of?) the times.
Now, Edison was not the first person to suggest the idea of recording soundwaves; he’d been beaten to the punch not by one, but two different Frenchmen. In 1857, an editor and typographer of scientific manuscripts named Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville came up with the notion of making an expanded mechanical model of the human ear he called the phonautograph, which could be used to record soundwaves onto a sheet of glass covered in lampblack (a type of black pigment). And, just months before Edison completed his patent, another Frenchman, the poet and amateur scientist Charles Cros, deposited a sealed envelope with the French Academy of Sciences outlining his idea for recording and reproducing sound using records made from metal–a procedure that was used to track who had come up with an idea first in case any disputes arose on the issue later. He gave it the awesome name “paleophone”, roughly “sounds from the past.”
However, de Martinville had no way to replay the sounds he recorded–they weren’t actually played until the 2000s, when they were digitized by historians. It’s actually thanks to de Martinville that we have the earliest recorded sound in human history; a recording of someone singing Au Clair de la Lune.
Charles Cros, meanwhile, was more interested in the scientific theory of recording sound than he was in creating something reproducible and marketable. After word of Edison’s invention reached France, he did have that sealed envelope opened so that he could get some credit for his invention, but didn’t really press the issue beyond that. So it was Edison who got the credit for inventing the phonograph–though ironically, he did not foresee at all the main use it would be put to, the playing of music and other entertainments. Edison thought it would mostly be a business tool used for dictation or for speech training and the like.
Thanks to the telegraph and the speedy transmission of information that it enabled, word of this new invention was swift to reach Japan. As early as February, 1877–so before Edison even filed his patent–the science magazine published by Yomiuri Shinbun called Manabi no akatsuki (Dawn of Learning) carried an article describing the core concept of recording sound. In July of 1878, an edition of Bungaku zasshi (Literary Magazine) carried a description of the Edison patent and a description of how it worked. Just a few months later, Tokyo Imperial University devoted an entire 18-page issue of its scientific magazine, Gakugei shirin (roughly “arts and sciences in the wider world”) to explaining how Edison’s invention worked, complete with diagrams.
Finally, in 1880 a 92-page book called kindaisei ni daihatsumei: denwaki-sogenki (Two great inventions of the modern era: the telephone and record player) was a major best seller. This level of interest just in reading about the new device might seem odd, but once again I think this is an issue of us simply being used to the idea. Literally nobody alive remembers a time before recorded sound was not only possible, but fairly cheaply accessible–but you have to imagine that, even with the quality issues of the first recordings, hearing that this was now possible felt, well, revolutionary.
But what about seeing the technology in action? The first demonstration of a phonograph in Japan took place on March 28, 1879, at the Tokyo Shoho Kaigijo in Tokyo’s Kobikicho neighborhood. This was essentially a sort of convention center set up by the government to demonstrate the utility of new imported Western technology, and to show off Japanese exports, such as they were at the time, to the world. The phonograph obviously qualified as a revolutionary new bit of technology, and so the Meiji government contracted one of its hired foreign instructors to demonstrate the new invention. The man they chose was James Ewing, a Scottish physicist who had been hired on to the mechanical engineering department at Tokyo Imperial University. Ewing was able to construct a functioning phonograph using diagrams published by Edison; he then gave a talk to the audience explaining how it worked, with interpretation provided by his Japanese colleagues.
Ewing then recorded a song and played it back for the audience (unfortunately, I could not find which one), and then called up a hitotsutose-bushi, a type of folk singer, to record one as well. Both songs were played back successfully, much to the delight of the audience.
Supposedly Fukuchi Gen’ichiro, head of the major daily Tokyo Nichinichi Shinbun, then ran onto the stage and shouted into the recording apparatus: “konna kikai ga dekiru to shinbunya wa komaru”–if this invention works, newspapermen are screwed–much to the delight of the assembled audience, which had a great deal of reporters covering the demonstration within it.
Fukuchi’s own paper covered the demonstration with some breathless rhetoric, saying this device, “could store away people’s words and then emit them 10 million ri away or a thousand years later.” Which, again, gives some sense of just how revolutionary this all was, though Fukuchi ended up missing the mark slightly with his notion that the phonograph would end up in competition with print news media. That would have to wait for a new technological innovation; the radio.
Now, despite the heated rhetoric about the promise of this revolutionary new technology, the earliest phonographs were kind of a mess; the English music critic Herman Klein, who saw a demonstration of the device in the early 1880s, had this to say about it: “It sounded to my ear like someone singing about half a mile away, or talking at the other end of a big hall; but the effect was rather pleasant, save for a peculiar nasal quality wholly due to the mechanism, …Recording for that primitive machine was a comparatively simple matter. I had to keep my mouth about six inches away from the horn and remember not to make my voice too loud if I wanted anything approximating to a clear reproduction; that was all. When it was played over to me and I heard my own voice for the first time, one or two friends who were present said that it sounded rather like mine; others declared that they would never have recognised it. I daresay both opinions were correct.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but the technology would be refined over the course of the next decade–though not really by Edison, who by that point had moved on to other projects (most notably his “war of currents” against George Westinghouse to determine the electric standards of the US).
Those refinements–including improvements to the drive system and the switch over to disc records we’d recognize today–were modeled for Meiji government leaders in 1889 at the Rokumeikan, the Western-style pavilion built for state entertainments by the Meiji government. An assembled group of 200 dignitaries, including government veterans Ito Hirobumi and Inoue Kaoru, were treated to a recording made by Mutsu Munemitsu, the Japanese ambassador to Washington, DC. The ambassador recorded himself saying, “I hereby introduce this machine. I believe this machine promises to be extremely useful and so request that every effort be made to make it known throughout Japan.”
The listeners were shocked at the quality of the recording, with those who knew Mutsu personally attesting that it sounded just like his voice. That insistence on the “immersive” quality of recorded sound would also be a major selling point for the first public demonstrations of the new technology. The very first took place at the Imamiya Commerce Club in Osaka in January, 1890. Here, the “star”, so to speak, was not a government official but kabuki performers–chiefly the venerated performer Ichikawa Danjuro IX, who was probably the best known actor of his generation and also a died in the wool man of Tokyo who did not leave the Kanto region and never, ever performed in Osaka or any other part of the Kansai area.
Which meant that if you lived in Osaka, this might be your only chance to hear one of the great legends of the age perform. Several days of newspaper advertisements in the leadup to the event ensured a packed hall–with the audience being absolutely blown away to hear Ichikawa’s performance, though one wonders how they were certain it was him.
This pattern more or less repeated when the device was demonstrated in Kyoto in February and Shizuoka in March–finally, in June, Tokyo itself got a demonstration of the phonograph, which took place at the Ozan Pavillion in Asakusa, near Sensoji and the Nakamisedori shopping arcade (though the pavilion no longer exists).
This time, the recording played was not of Ichikawa Danjuro–who, after all, someone living in Tokyo could go see in person–instead, the pavilion directors had paid kabuki actors performing at the nearby Ichimuraza theater to record entire scenes from a famous play (Ehon Taikoki), and then played these back for an audience. Once again, the reviews were glowing; the Jiji Shinbun newspaper, covering the exhibition, wrote breathlessly that, “they all create the impression that if you close your eyes and listen as they reverberate throughout the pavilion, you might believe that the actors were dressed up in costume right in front of you. How delightful!”
The idea of sound quality, and especially the uniquely distinctive and individual qualities of someone’s voice, as the selling point for phonographs is something you see repeated over and over again in this sort of coverage. Indeed, no less a person than the Meiji Emperor was apparently impressed by this; in one of his literally tens of thousands of poems, he wrote, “ima koko ni/hito no iru ka to/ omou made/ kometaru koe no/ sayaka naru kana”– Is there a person/ here in front of me now?/ I think/ the voice inside the box/ is that clear.
And if you’ve ever listened to historical recordings, you’re probably thinking some variation of what in the actual hell are these people talking about? If you haven’t, go back and listen to some recordings from the 19th century; the sound quality is, to put it mildly, rough. There’s not a wide range of frequency conveyed (so sound is very compressed) and a whole boatload of background noise, and more often than not it’s hard to even understand what’s being said, let alone appreciate the distinct timber of someone’s voice.
One imagines that a lot of the impression being made here is the simple novelty of the thing itself, which after all was pretty unprecedented and, for lack of a better term, just really cool. It probably didn’t hurt that these early phonographs were expensive and rare, and thus quite desirable as well–Edison’s 1890 model sold for $100 US dollars, which would be about $3440 today, so about on par with a high end sound system.
All of this produced what Kerim Yazar calls an “audiophile placebo effect”; the knowledge that you were listening to a famous person’s voice, even if the recording itself was not of the greatest quality, was enough to fire the imagination and get people to imagine a higher quality than what they were actually engaging with.
Admittedly, even with the quality issues historical audio is pretty fascinating. For example, some of the earliest recordings made of Japanese music date back to 1903. The American recording engineer behind them, Fred Gaisberg, was a major figure in the Gramophone company (what became RCA Victor in the US and HMV in the UK) and arguably one of the world’s first record producers, and had been commissioned to record music all around the world to offer people an auditory tour of the globe, so to speak. During his time in Japan, he recorded everything from simple shamisen performers to a 12-person gagaku ensemble performing the courtly music that had been a staple of the imperial court for over 1000 years. The recordings, frankly, do not sound great–but they are a fascinating window into the history of Japanese music, and the gagaku ones for example still get used today by gagaku performers and researchers attempting to study traditional music history in Japan.
For most, the major issue was not audio quality–after all, what did they have to compare it to?–but cost. And for costs to come down and for the phonograph to really become a part of people’s daily lives–to lose that edge of novelty–Japan would have to start making its own models domestically. And in 1891, a watchmaker in Aichi prefecture by the name of Chuujou Yuujirou did just that–the very next year a book publisher named Hasegawa Takejirou, who had hired engineers to reverse engineer American-built phonographs, began selling his own phonographs as well.
These were not the first such machines sold in Japan; the first phonograph dealership, Sankoudou, was set up in Tokyo in 1899, and fun fact one of the original partners was none other than Katayama Sen, a socialist and one of the founding members of both the American and Japanese communist parties.
Its major competitor was Tenshoudou, initially a watch and jewelry company that made the jump into this newfangled technology as it became clear there was a serious market for it. By the first years of the 20th century, the two firms were in steep competition with each other, selling their own domestically produced phonographs as well as records–which were still mostly being imported from overseas at this point.
They would eventually be joined by Nichibei Chikuonki Seizou Kabushikigaisha, or the Japan-American Phonograph Manufacturing Company, the brainchild of an American living in Japan named Frederick Horn. Horn had initially been a technology importer, but decided to focus specifically on the phonograph in 1909–though one year later, he renamed his company and dropped the “America” part from the name to appeal more to domestic patriotic sentiment. Nicchiku, as it was known for short, would become a major player in the Japanese phonograph market, though it would never lose its American roots (and eventually would form a joint venture with the American firm Columbia Records, and acquire Sankodo as well).
As more companies entered the phonograph market, Prices became more affordable, but still steep–a record could retail for anything from 5 sen to 1 yen, at a time when, say, a meal cost about 15 sen.
Those steep costs in turn produced a rather interesting turn of events. Japan did have Western-style copyright laws on the books as a part of its civil code, but as first written in 1896 the civil code focused on text copyrights–it was unclear if the law actually applied to recorded sound. And this created a massive market for, in essence, piracy–semi-legal firms would buy imported records, make copies of them, and sell them for around 1/3rd the initial price.
And legally, given the status of copyright law, there wasn’t really much the actual record companies could do about this! There were even several lawsuits in the 1910s filed by record companies to try and protect their copyrights, which were largely unsuccessful given the nature of copyright law at the time. They had to try and compete on quality instead, introducing innovations like the double-sided record in 1912 as well as slashing their own costs to try and match the prices set down by pirates.
Now, you might have noticed that kabuki was a big source of early promotion for phonographs, with records of famous performers and performances being used to demonstrate the fidelity (such as it was) of the new invention. But actually, the earliest records produced and sold domestically in Japan were not of kabuki–they were of folk music, particularly a very popular genre at the time known as naniwabushi.
This was likely largely because of the technology available at the moment–the records of the time could only hold about three minutes of audio per side, which is of course a lot less than your average kabuki play (or even a single scene of a famous play). Recording equipment was also not of great quality; if you tried to record a live performance the audio quality would be atrocious, but if you had actors come into a studio and record you’d lose a lot of the energy that makes an actual kabuki performance so vital and interesting.
It would take until the 1920s for record technology to catch up to the point where kabuki was viable to record and play, and by then other forms of performance had established a more dominant position in the recording industry.
Though kabuki never went away entirely; after the start of the Pacific War, domestic record companies made a massive push to record kabuki performances of Chushingura, the classic tale of the 47 Ronin, as a way of making some money off the upwelling of patriotic and militarist sentiment among the population.
Naniwabushi and folk music in general are, in contrast, much better suited to this limited format. Naniwabushi in particular is an absolutely fascinating cultural form; it essentially involves a sort of lead singer, who would alternate between improvised singing and narration, accompanied by a shamisen player who would both provide background music and occasionally their own interjections (which both help move the narrative along and keep time). The form originated alongside yose, the narrative storytelling forms that developed in the Edo period–naniwabushi would often share the stage with the rakugo storytellers we’ve talked about in the past.
Individual songs were, of course, comparatively easy to record and well-suited to these early records. Unlike kabuki, where the language of the popular plays is from the Edo period and thus can be a bit tricky to decipher from a modern standpoint unless you’re very familiar with more traditional vocabulary, naniwabushi songs were entirely contemporary in their wording. Beyond this, the performances themselves offered one of the same selling points those early kabuki demonstrations did–star power.
The jazz-like quality of naniwabushi, where a good chunk of what happens is improvised along the pattern of an existing song, lent itself well to star power, so to speak–a particular performer might have a specific approach to improvisation or a certain song that was particularly famous, and record companies could market around that. In that sense, the popularity of naniwabushi laid the groundwork for the entire history of Japanese popular music that came after it in the 20th century.
The content of these songs tended towards the melancholy–they were rarely particularly happy, and instead focused on drama and personal hardships and the overcoming thereof. Often, they had a strongly nationalistic bent as well; for example, many of these songs extolled the virtue of joining the Japanese military and serving the nation, leaving aside tragic personal concerns for the benefit of the Japanese community. Figures like General Nogi Maresuke, who alongside his wife committed suicide to follow the Meiji Emperor to the grave, were played up in naniwabushi narratives as romantic folk heroes expressing a true essence of Japanese loyalty.
It’s not quite clear why naniwabushi, which after all did not have such explicit political overtones from the start, began to take them on in the 20th century. Perhaps artists were concerned about avoiding government censorship and simply overcorrected. Perhaps they were swept up in a general sense of patriotic martial nationalism which swept the country after its victories in wars against China and Russia. It’s not particularly clear.
Still, the songs were not exclusively nationalistic propaganda; many of them included references to the sorrows and hardships of working people, leading to more than a few comparisons to another uniquely American form of music: blues. By far the greatest superstar of the age–and perhaps the first star in Japan created by the record business–was Tochuken Kumoemon, born in 1876. His birth name is unclear; I’ve seen it given both as Okamoto Minekichi and Yamamoto Kouzou. His family were performers by trade; his mother was a shamisen player, and his father was a yose narrator of religious tales. Apparently the son inherited the parents’ talent for stagecraft; he was apprenticed to a folk singer at a young age, and quickly proved to have something of a flare for showmanship.
In 1907, Tochuken was able to land a spot at the Hongoza theater in Tokyo, which in turn sold well enough to bring him to the attention of record companies. Kumoemon was not the first such naniwabushi to be offered a deal like that–indeed, his great-grandson would share a bit of family lore a few decades later, that the only reason Kumoemon took the deal was because one of his most immediate rivals had been offered a record deal and Kumoemon did not want to miss out and be shown up by said rival. However, if that was the case he need not worry; record sales made Tochuken Kumoemon one of the most recognized musicians in the whole country.
His combination of performative skill as well as his personality–boisterous and over the top, including a truly wild look with his hair often unkempt and unbound–gave him, for lack of a better word, a rock star energy that sold extremely well.
It did also help that Tochuken himself was something of a drama magnet, and that personality did just as much to help sell his records as anything else. The man was a wild partier, and his family life was a bit of a shambles–his first marriage failed because he spent so much time on his performances, and his relationship with his son was a trainwreck. But this only enhanced his popularity; after all, naniwabushi were songs about hard times in life, and clearly this guy knew his hard times.
And besides, he occasionally did wild stuff as well; after his first marriage failed, Tochuken ended up seducing the wife of one of his teachers (Ohama was her name) and eloping with her, which caused a massive scandal both for the usual reasons and because Ohama was an extremely talented shamisen accompanist, and by seducing her Tochuken Kumoemon had, in essence, stolen her for his act. Apparently, the whole thing was such a scandal that the newlyweds had to leave Tokyo for several months to escape the spotlight while they waited for the heat to die down.
Tochuken’s star would not last very long; his life of hard partying caught up with him and led him to an early grave in 1916. But his style remained very influential on popular music in Japan–particularly on the loosely defined genre of ryukoka, or popular music–essentially, a mixture of classical Japanese performance styles with Westernized musical sensibilities.
That, however, is a whole other tale from the one we’re telling here. What matters for us is really that his star was essentially made by the phonograph just a few decades after it was commercially introduced, a real indicator of just how quickly it caught on even with the technological limitations of the period. And that’s all the more impressive when one considers that personal ownership of phonographs remained something of a rarity during this time period. Generally speaking, very few households in Japan could afford appliances in the early 20th century, and even if they could there was still a massive limiting factor: the availability of electricity.
As most of our older listeners and probably none of our younger ones know, a landline phone works on its own without electricity, but phonographs were among the first household consumer goods (alongside clothing irons, washing machines, electric stoves, and refrigerators) to require that a home be hooked up to an electric grid in order to run. In a place like the United States with substantial deposits of oil and coal as well as many, many rivers for hydroelectricity, this was less of a limiting factor before the Second World War–but Japan is very poor in oil and gas, and what little there was went first and foremost to military and industrial uses.
This was compounded by a hugely fragmented electricity market, with some 700 different electric utilities competing with each other before WWI–none could really offer good economies of scale as a result. Electricity was therefore hideously expensive, so even if you could afford to buy a physical phonograph player, you might not be able to afford to turn it on.
One anecdote from 1924 illustrates this well; the executive Shibusawa Hideo (son of the famous entrepreneur Shibusawa Eiichi) was working on developing Denen-chofu, a neighborhood of Ota in southern Tokyo that his father had bought in order to turn into a British-style garden suburb. In the offing, Shibusawa Hideo had ordered the construction of a model home to demonstrate the promise of the new suburb, complete with an electric stove, washing machine, and even a vacuum cleaner.
However, when he was then informed of how much it would actually cost an interested consumer to plug in and run these devices, he decided to pull all three from the model home–otherwise, he said, potential consumers would not be intrigued by the potential of modern living, but furious at their potential bills.
It’s hard to know how much cost impacted the adoption of the phonograph, but we do have a few solid guesses; the American academic Andrew Gordon estimates that by 1930, 5% of Japanese families owned a radio (also requiring electricity), and that phonographs were even less widely adopted.
It wasn’t until the 1950s, when the mass electrification of the Japanese countryside–combined with cheaper power thanks to preferential deals with the United States for coal and oil–made owning a household phonograph became more common. By the mid-1950s, about 20% of Japanese households owned an electric phonograph.
So how were people listening to phonographs enough to make musicians into stars if they couldn’t afford them in their homes? The answer were phonograph clubs–essentially bars and cafes where customers could also make use of a player in the same way that a modern cafegoer might grab a drip coffee so they can work on the complimentary wifi.
These cafes–kissaten, or kissa for short–could be tastemakers, in a sense, for the music scene in Japan. Since the owners could afford more records than an average person might be able to, and so were willing to take a flyer or two on more experimental imports in particular. That’s actually how jazz developed such a big following in Japan, particularly during the postwar era; young people looking for something new, and knowing that the wartime government had banned American music, went looking for places playing American records, and jazz in particular caught on big at the cafes that were playing it. Which is why, apparently, Japan still has one of the largest jazz scenes on the planet outside the United States.
The more dedicated enthusiast might join a phonograph society of fellow audiophiles, who between them could afford the bills for a single device (and a record collection, because remember imported records could get expensive–around 100 yen for a particularly rare or in-demand one. The phonograph in all its many forms did come under substantial pressure during the 1930s and 1940s, particularly after the “National Spiritual Mobilization” announced in 1937 to support what everyone in the government was sure would be a very short war in China. To mobilize patriotic sentiment, the government (by this point dominated by the military) began to lean on record producers to focus more on patriotic content, and on import companies to avoid music from countries outside of the “friendly” nations of Germany and Italy. Music that was not extremely patriotic, and especially anything that was foreign, was viewed with suspicion as potentially spiritually detrimental to the war effort.
Thus, well before it approached anything close to mass adoption in the Japanese market, the phonograph was already having a recognizable impact on society–enough that government agents saw it as a vehicle for mass mobilization during the war years. And frankly, it’s not hard to understand why. Think about how much time you’ve spent listening to the music you like; hell, think about how much your opinion of someone you meet might change based on your knowledge of their musical preferences.
Musical tastes are very personal, and the ability to define yourself with them is quite powerful. And that, I think, was the true power of the phonograph–finding yourself musically, and finding other people who like the same things you do. And that’s why, in Japan, and everywhere else, from the beginning, it’s something people have been truly fascinated by.