I love Japan. I think that Japan is an amazing country to live. Living in Japan has given me the opportunity to have an excellent quality of life as well as afforded me many opportunities to continue performing and teaching music.
I currently play guitar in two Japanese bands. One is a melodic metal band, and the other is a hard rock and metal. Both bands have female vocalists. The Japanese metal band is a band called Der Rosenengel, and it leans more toward melodic gothic metal. It is also part of a genre in Japan called Visual-K. Visual-K is a hard rock and metal genre that highly emphasizes the visual aspect of the band. Think lots of makeup and Victorian era clothing. It’s a lot of fun.
Doing that sort of thing was a bit strange at first, but I enjoy doing different things and having the opportunity to perform in new ways, so it suits me. It may not suit you, but there are tons of other possibilities in Japan for non-Japanese musicians.
The other band I play with is a new thing that I was invited to do that is a lot of fun, and of which I am very excited. It’s hard rock with edgy pop style female vocals. The artist is Miwa Yuminaga. The music is the kind of hard driving guitar oriented stuff I like.
The other immediate opportunities are foreign groups that do a lot of the bars and clubs. The beautiful thing about these types of groups is that you can make money do this. It’s not a lot of money, but it is significantly more than you would currently get at the local bar or club in a medium-size city in the US at this point.
The bands tend to be cover bands with some original acts. And especially in Japan, I noticed that there are a lot of more Jazz, Funk, Fusion and Rock Fusion type of bands going on. Usually, this kind of bands is not explicitly foreign. I was in several different bands. One was all foreigners and another one I was in had 3 Japanese members and non-Japanese members.
The real difference in these bands is the venues that they play.
Japanese People and Venues
With the Japanese bands that I’m in, I’m the only foreign member. I want to point out that this all happens in Japanese. There isn’t very much English going on and so to do that effectively I think you need to have pretty strong conversational skills. You don’t have to know how to read or write, but you do need to be conversational.
A part of that isn’t just communication but has to do with the comfort level of Japanese people. People of Japan are amazingly kind and polite as you probably know. But it’s a little hard to get sort of “in” to a band or group like that if they feel they cannot communicate with you. They tend to be very sensitive and considerate people and so it’s not that they are shunning you, but it’s that they avoid situations where they might make you or someone else feel awkward.
The Japanese bands play in what are called Live Houses. Live Houses are just venues where bands play, but they have some amazing benefits that places in the States usually do not have.
When you go to a Live House, they have a stage, dressing rooms, a bar, and usually an area to sell merchandise but the best thing about Live Houses is they supply the backline for the bands.
Backline in case you are unfamiliar with the term just means the amps and drums that the group needs. So as a guitarist or a bass player you pretty much bring your guitar and any effects pedals or any other gear you might need. This is important because if you live in a larger city as I do, I live outside of Tokyo and I perform in Tokyo, you have to carry your gear, and you will most likely be taking trains and possibly busses depending on where you live.
If you live near a train station, then you’ll just take trains. There usually is a bit of walking involved so as you can guess you don’t want to be carrying and amp or something heavy. Although, sometimes people do bring a head to use as the venues have cabinets. Especially since recently companies like DV Mark are producing some amazing small light weight amp heads that you could use.
I bring a guitar and a very limited pedalboard. I use the Mono Vertigo gig bag with the Tick attachment case that fits a PedalTrain Nano pedalboard. It’s very minimal.
The venues usually have a minimum two choices of amplifiers. They’ll either have Fender types like a Fender Twin and Marshall variation. Usually a JCM 2000 or JCM 800. I have also seen a Roland JC-120 or similar as an available option. I prefer Marshalls and often choose the JCM 800 if possible. If not the JCM 2000 is a great amp to use.
For bass guitar, they usually have those large Ampeg refrigerator speaker enclosures and head. For example and Ampeg B2R
and Aguilar GS412 Cabinet.
They also have keyboards like the KORG M1 and
Roland RD-300. And of course microphones and drums.
In addition to all of that the venues have full-time sound guys that are knowledgeable and capable. The sound quality is usually good. It’s consistent, and the staff professional. Everything is very organized. They expect you to show up on time and do a sound check.
It’s very cool. If you grew up playing in the States like I did, then it all seems very professional. A lot of what you need is provided for you, so it’s very convenient.
All of these things are things that have enabled me to keep making music. Increasingly, the idea of carrying a large amplifier like a Marshall half stack is just less and less of an option. Also if you do use a car which you can, you have to pay for parking. So that’s the drawback with that. Parking in Tokyo is unreasonably expensive in my opinion, so there is no reason to use a car.
However, if you are playing in a smaller city somewhere else in Japan, then there could be more flexibility. Parking isn’t as expensive and is more readily available near the venues
The foreign band situation
When I say foreign, I just mean that it is a predominantly non-Japanese band. The term “Foreign band” is not an actual name that you hear in any formal sense. I’m just using that to describe the situation so if you are sensitive to any discrimination rest at ease; you will rarely encounter anything of the sort.
With the Foreign band situation, you could be playing in a live house. There is no reason you couldn’t, but generally, international groups tend to have members with less Japanese communication skills and cultural awareness.
These bands are more of an English speaking environment, and so they will naturally gravitate more toward venues, usually bars and small clubs, where there are more English speaking people. Usually more foreigners come out to see these shows, and English will be the primary language.
The overall atmosphere of these shows is different as well. I should point out that when you play the Japanese live houses, the crowds that I’ve seen have mostly been Japanese with a few foreigners here and there and that the atmosphere is more sincere. Japanese audiences will listen to your music and watch every nuance of your performance. It matters to them. It’s also considered disrespectful to act out during a performance. It feels a bit subdued to me.Venues that cater to foreigners tend to be more pub like and have a looser party vibe. The drawback, of course, is that people are there to drink and overindulge and the music takes a back seat.
The one drawback of the live houses
One of the biggest drawbacks that I see with the live houses is that it is pay-to-play. As a band or artist you have to sell a certain amount of tickets, and if you don’t sell those tickets, then you have to pay basically. You have to buy the tickets.
This kind of sucks but in some ways its good. It’s very straightforward.
Pay-to-play is a topic for another article, but if you were unaware, you could accomplish quite a bit in the music industry by paying your way. I will save that for another article.
The other way I have made a living in Japan is by teaching music in Japan. Right now I teach guitar. I teach guitar online, and I also started a local school called the Shonan Music Academy. I live in a fantastic place on the coast of Japan called Shonan. Hence, the amazingly creative name Shonan Music Academy.
I teach children, teens, and adults. I teach guitar, ukulele, bass, and percussion. I’m not a percussionist, but I use percussion to teach and demonstrate rhythms. I also teach a form of vocal percussion from India called Konokol.
When I lived in Tokyo, I taught guitar lesson at my condominium. The condo had a room that was specially treated for sound reduction, so it was a professional looking setup. I did guitar lessons primarily. Mostly for teens and adults.
There is one thing that is readily available to you that is not in an English speaking country, and that is teaching English. Now when I say teaching English I’m not talking about in a formal classroom like an English teacher with an advanced degree in English.
What I’m talking about, virtually any native English speaker can do, and that is giving conversation lessons. You mainly talk to the student.
To do this, you have to be able to speak and be a good communicator. It’s important to be able to lead the conversation and be somewhat interesting or entertaining. You can do very well at this by just being a pleasant person. Have a clean appearance. A good attitude. You can make real money doing this. Anywhere from $25 per hour on up to $40 and hour. If you have little experience doing this, then you would be in the $25-30 range.
You can do this freelance, or you can do this working for a company. If you are going to work in the school system, which is entirely possible, you will most likely need a degree. However, the degree is not to qualify your English teaching ability. It is simply to a requirement for getting a visa to work in Japan. If you are going to live here long term, you need to think about how you will get a Visa to do so, but that is outside the scope of this article. I will cover visas in another article.
Japan is a very livable country
I want to mention that Japan is a very “liveable” country. You often hear how expensive it is, especially Tokyo. And it is quite expensive, but it is very doable. You can rent a small but clean one room studio apartment for anywhere from $500 to $800 per month. It will be small, but you can be in the heart of the city where the action is, and it’s a good starting point for you to be able to go from there. This is similar to what I did and how I got started here. Now I own my home and live an excellent life doing what I love to do.