Owen Hatherley

1980 in Parallax: Japan at Number One, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s ‘Riot in Lagos’


In 1980 the first ever Venice Architecture Biennale entitled ‘The Presence of the Past’ famously announced Post-Modernism as the international mainstream of architecture. It proposed a new canon that was to be more inclusive and polyphonic, and sought to embrace a diversity of narratives, a variety of styles, contradictions and irony. Yet despite these ideals, none of the case studies and architects presented at the Biennale went beyond the European and North-American context. Looking back – once again – in order to look forward, this series of essays addressing the question ‘Whose Post-Modernism?’ reconsiders the Post-Modern canon from the critical distance of 43 years to reinvigorate the pluralism suggested by the Biennale and Charles. It invites multiple voices to collectively remap the year 1980 from various geographical and cultural perspectives beyond the West, while reflecting on its legacies today. Third in the series, Owen Hatherley addresses cultural appropriation, 1980s futurist pop by Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, and its relationship to Post-Modern architecture and theory.

‘Riot in Lagos’ is a track recorded by the Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, who was then part of the pop trio Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO), for his 1980 solo album B2 Unit. Engineered by Dennis Bovell, a Black British reggae and dub producer, it has the bass weight and echoing space of a King Tubby side, but all the ‘instruments’ are electronic. A synthesised, swaying, pentatonic melody, parodically Eastern, plays, but what you notice is the beat. Stop–start, polyrhythmic, fast, it frequently comes to a sudden halt, leaving a gap filled by tiny, chattering fragments of percussion, resembling southern African kalimba thumb pianos or the chime orchestras of Javanese gamelan. But why ‘Lagos’? The trained ear might recognise the resemblance those polyrhythms have to the Afrobeat devised in that city by Fela Kuti’s band, Africa 70, with its imaginative, complex drum patterns by Tony Allen; and why a ‘Riot’? There is a sense of menace in the track, with drones and whines rising in intensity and occasionally emerging to dominate the rhythms, the feeling of a possible explosion. This is modernist pop, futurist pop, but it emerges out of a completely new geography – 1980s Tokyo passing through the filter of 1980s London to emulate 1970s Lagos and, by paying tribute in a sleeve which references El Lissitzky’s book About 2 Squares, looking back to 1920s Moscow.

Pop music like this, with its syncretic, bastardised mixing together of genres and its blurring of the assumed differences between high and low art, would fit into some definitions of Post-Modernism. Certainly, if Modernism is given a Greenbergian definition of an art based on purity and an ever-increasing abstraction, and a resistance to commercialism and kitsch, then no pop music could ever really count as ‘Modernist’ – and certainly not the work of Sakamoto, which frequently embraced impurity, hybridisation, appropriation, quotation and, in his most famous piece of music, the theme to Nagisa Oshima’s 1983 film Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, shameless, tear-jerking sentiment. But there are other elements to Post-Modernist architectural and philosophical theory where Sakamoto’s work does not fit at all. Jean-François Lyotard’s announcement of the end of ‘grand narratives’ in The Postmodern Condition (1979) is at variance with the futuristic motion, constant invention and general progressivism in Sakamoto’s music, not to mention the way in which it embraces, albeit sometimes with a raised eyebrow, the ‘narrative’ of Asian modernity superseding and succeeding that of the West. The return to order, to solid classical values and traditions, demanded by Post-Modern architects such as Robert Stern or Leon Krier, also has no obvious connection to Sakamoto’s work; nor, indeed, to the work of many of his contemporaries in Japanese architecture of the 1970s and 80s, where the temporality of Modernist ‘progress’ being interrupted and questioned after the 60s simply doesn’t fit.

B2 Unit, after years out of print, was reissued in 2019, one of several recent re-releases of Japanese electronic pop music of the 1980s. The proliferation of techno-pop in Japan during these years has only really been noticed in Europe and the United States very recently, with various reissues and mixes of synth-pop , post-punk,ambient and the plastic soul subgenre known as City Pop. Although most of these records were ignored in the West at the time, it’s unsurprising that Japan should have gone in for extremely synthetic music. For one thing, most of the keyboards, samplers and drum machines that would be used in synth-pop, techno and house had been designed and made in Japan in the first place. Sakamoto and Yellow Magic Orchestra’s music, for instance, made heavy use of early samplers such as the Japanese-designed LMD-649 and the synthetic percussion of the Roland TR-808, whose first recorded use was by YMO on their 1981 album BGM. Sakamoto’s music has a quasi-Polynesian sense of working as both rhythm and melody at once, which is equally plausibly influenced by actual Javanese gamelan or by Steve Reich's imitations thereof – or both. An early example is ‘The End of Asia’, the last track on his extraordinary first album of 1978, Thousand Knives of Ryuichi Sakamoto. The album consists of long but tight electro-funk tracks with strange, roaming and deliberately stereotypically Eastern melodies, which on the closing ‘The End of Asia’ – a track recapitulated on B2 Unit – gradually resolve themselves into the tune of ‘The East is Red’ – the Maoist ‘mass song’ that was closely associated with the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Cultural revolutions were meant to have come to an end by 1980.

And yet, at first Post-Modernism was frequently identified with Japan and its heavily mediated and commercialised urban landscape.1 On the covers of two of the earliest editions of Charles Jencks’ The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, you can find a Tokyo cityscape, centred around a 1970 high-rise known simply as Building Number Two, designed by Minoru Takeyama. It is an image, to be sure, of a ‘decorated shed’ – a building transformed into advertising, a gigantic sign – but it’s also an image of extreme modernity. It is unsurprising that into the 80s Jencks demoted Takeyama’s building in favour of buildings by American designers such as Charles Moore or Michael Graves that were far less futuristic, far more obviously in dialogue with the traditions of Western architecture. Post-Modernism came to mean – as well as media saturation, advertising and the rejection of the Modernist belief in integrity and ‘truth’ – an embrace of the classical traditions of Old Europe and the Beaux Arts, and a rejection of Modernist planning as ‘utopian’ and hence totalitarian. It is interesting that, as Japan disappeared from the Post-Modernist architectural canon, so an alignment with the more obviously reactionary, nostalgic trends of the New Right became clearer. This was best expressed in the deeply conservative ‘Post-Modern Classicism’ which Jencks celebrated in a 1980 volume, and a deeply held belief by some proponents that departing from Western ‘traditions’ would cause chaos and social disaster. This can be seen even in 1977, in how The Language of Post-Modern Architecture roots Post-Modernism’s emergence in the apparent failure of Modernist housing projects such as Pruitt–Igoe, in St Louis, or Robin Hood Gardens, in London,2 both seen as social disasters caused by the radicalism and abstraction of architectural form, with any social, racial or economic causes ostentatiously ignored. More acutely, it can be seen in Leon Krier’s monograph on Albert Speer, and the taxonomies of indigenous vernacular forms in his illustrative work, with a strong suggestion that modern architecture and the modern city are a form of miscegenation. It is, however, hard to imagine Krier or Sir Quinlan Terry or Robert A M Stern listening to ‘Riot in Lagos’. It’s too, well, Modernist.

Modernist skylines run through 1980s electronic music, and Japan was no exception. In the various 1980s Japanese City Pop mixes that litter YouTube, ultramodern neon landscapes of skyscrapers and flyovers are frequently used to illustrate this music. It was common then (as it is now, with the location often shifting from Japan towards Korea and China) to see East Asia as a vision of an already realised future. This is rather cute, given that these seamless gleaming cities of sleek infrastructure are no closer to arriving in Birmingham or Buffalo now than they were in 1983. This wasn’t a 'future', just somewhere else's much more haptically modern present. Japanese architects were well aware of this at the time, during the ‘bubble’ that saw the country standing on the verge of becoming the world’s foremost economic power. The Japanese city might have looked futuristic enough to the rust belts of Britain and the United States, but it, too, was predicated on the rejection and abandonment of the urban utopias of the 1960s. Accordingly, some were rather disappointed with the cityscapes that had been created by the 1980s, after forty years of reconstruction, and here one can make a connection to the ‘failure’ of urban utopias as a spur to Post-Modernism in Europe and North America. In the 1960s, young figures such as Fumihiko Maki, Kisho Kurokawa and Arata Isozaki, as well as older colleagues such as Kenzo Tange, had imagined creating huge mega-structural collective cities, which would sometimes be suspended above the older city and sometimes float on Tokyo Bay. Though connections with big business were inextricable, some of these designers, including both Kurokawa and Isozaki, were or had been members or fellow travellers of Japan's large Communist Party. But very little of this ever got built, and what did came to look increasingly shabby. What happened instead was the world's largest real estate boom, with small prefabricated houses or skinny blocks of flats being forced into extraordinarily expensive plots of land, and the proceeds funding a spectacularly recondite form of refined consumerism.

Of the architects thrown up by this moment, perhaps only Isozaki shared the Euro-American concern for the classical tradition, which he quoted at a great distance, in a particularly fragmented and dissonant manner in his 1980s work. This was also included – as one of the very few non-Western examples – in the same year in Paolo Portoghesi’s architecture biennale in Venice, which announced Post-Modernism as the new narrative in architecture. But younger architects such as Shin Takamatsu, Itsuko Hasegawa, Makoto Sei Watanabe or Toyo Ito had no apparent interest in anybody’s tradition, or in any kind of familiarity or historical continuity – rather, their works explored fragmented, aggressive forms, ostentatiously artificial and mass-produced surfaces, and evocations of robotics and science fiction. In his writing, Ito was particularly attuned to this commercialised, mediatised space brought about by the omnipresence of popular arts such as TV, exploitation cinema, advertising and pop music. Ito noted in the 1988 essay 'What is the Reality of Architecture in a Futuristic City?' that 'from the 1970s on, architects stopped drawing future cities; astonished by the huge discrepancies between the visions they were drawing and the rapid developments of reality, they turned away from the city'. Films such as the then-new Blade Runner and Akira 'surely approximate real scenes in places such as Shinjuku and Hong Kong', meaning that science fiction had come to be 'showing reality itself':

Our lifestyle is that of nomads floating in a fictional city. We walk through streets scattered with symbols of consumerism, cycling from restaurant to boutique, to fitness club, to convenience store, to theatre. Strolling from fiction to fiction across dream stage spaces, we may revel in a futuristic urban life’.3

That sense of existing within a self-constructed fiction or a collective hallucination was motivated by the sheer scale of the bubble, which would, inevitably, burst at the start of the 1990s, leading in Japan itself to a wave of nostalgia as early as 2001, when the cultural critic Hiroki Azuma would publish his study of the aesthetics of the fanboy or otaku, the anime and manga obsessive who emerged in the 1980s and who lived in a carefully constructed fantasy world. Writing of the anime series Megazone 23 – a source for The Matrix, with its depiction of a completely false environment created by a hostile non-human intelligence – Azuma argues that its appeal stemmed from the unique qualities of the Japanese bubble itself:

In the setting of the anime, contemporary Tokyo is in reality just a fiction created on a futuristic spaceship, a virtual reality constructed by a computer. As the narrative unfolds, the hero comes to realize the fictitiousness of this world and struggles to escape its confines. This setting alone is of profound interest, but more notable is a scene in the second half of the story, in which the protagonist asks the computer its reason for choosing the 1980s Tokyo as the stage for its fiction. In answer to this somewhat metafictional question, the computer replies, ‘because for the people, it was the most peaceful era.’ These lines no doubt struck a common chord not only with otaku but also with many of the younger generation living in Tokyo at the time. Japan in the 1980s was entirely a fiction. Yet this fiction, while it lasted, was comfortable to dwell in.4

This sense of disorientation and nostalgia is also surely linked too the strange position of people who had been connected with Japan's once-powerful left when thrown into this culture of extreme affluence, technological change and discretely differentiated, compulsive shopping. Midway through Tokyo Melody, Elizabeth Lennard's fascinating 1985 documentary about Sakamoto, the heavily made-up musician – who had been a supporter of the Marxist youth movement Zengakuren as a student, had recorded electro interpretations of Maoist anthems in the late 70s, and would, in the 2000s, join a short-lived anti-capitalist party led by the Marxist philosopher Kojin Karatani – reflects with ambiguity on this course of events:

It is 1984. I live in Tokyo. Tokyo or Japan has become the leading capitalist country. I don't know if it's good or bad. The season of politics is over. People don't think of rebelling. On the other hand, they have a real hunger for culture.

Cue a scene of an entire street filled with people dancing in matching outfits, whether traditional-parodic or pop-parodic, while others watch from a flyover above.

A remarkable amount of this music was directly connected with the consumer economy of the 1980s bubble, probably the largest – until recently – of its kind. As Michael K Bourdaghs notes in his study of Japanese pop, Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon (2011), YMO's 'Technopolis' (1979) was 'used in a television commercial for cassette tapes, the musical playback medium that was achieving mass-market penetration with Sony’s just released portable Walkman player.5 These sorts of corporate connections were very common – the sort of 'useful', corporate and unpretentious uses that Brian Eno imagined with his 1978 Music for Airports but generally didn't manage to actually achieve. YMO member Haruomi Hosono's long composition Watering a Flower (1984) was made to be played in-store at the first MUJI shop. Japanese synthetic music became, very literally, a form of Muzak, the ‘elevator music’ specially recorded by specialised companies to be played in retail environments or hotels in the United States during the middle of the twentieth century. In the 1980s, Japanese electronic musicians were frequently commissioned by retailers, arts centres or public buildings – or by combinations of these, such as Spiral, or the Wacoal Art Center in Tokyo, a fragmented Post-Modernist building of 1985 by Fumihiko Maki, which commissioned the ambient drones and atmospheres of Yoshiro Ojima's Une Collection des Chainons I and II – Music for Spiral . Here, the limpid, Late Modernist surfaces and delicately calculated spaces of Maki’s buildings were mirrored by a completely artificial, placid and relaxing music which was intended to enhance consumption.

YMO’s musicians all participated, in their various projects, in this peculiar world of seamless, High Modernist environments, ubiquitous commercialism and endemic cultural appropriation. When the group formed in 1978, Haruomi Hosono was already famous in Japan as a solo artist and member of the rock group Happy End – who were, as their Brechtian name trailed, consummate ironists. This attitude was also developed in the pan-Asian experimentation of Hosono’s brilliant solo albums such as Paraiso and Cochin Moon (both 1978), which are practically concept records about Japanese and American imperialism and the ways in which these two forces meet and interpenetrate across the Pacific. Yukihiro Takahashi, meanwhile, had been drummer in the glam rock Sadistic Mika Band, a Roxy Music-like group of fashion enthusiasts whose thrillingly trashy records had got them some notice in the United Kingdom, though of a fairly grim sort (an appearance on the BBC's ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ saw them appear in front of a redrawn sign, reading 'Old Gley Whistle Test'). Takahashi’s work was more straightforward pop than most of his colleagues’, but still involved some moments where cherished Americana icons of Western rock music were radically transformed, as in the yearning, Kraftwerkian cover of Neil Young’s country rock classic ‘Helpless’ on his 1984 album Wild and Moody.

Sakamoto's solo records covered an astonishing amount of ground. Aside from B2 Unit, he put out the straightforward, joyful City Pop of Summer Nerves in 1979, the twitchy synth-pop of 1981's Left-Handed Dream (recorded with Robin Scott, aka ‘M’, whose 1979 single ‘Pop Musik’ is one arguable birthplace of explicit, knowing Post-modernism in popular music), the alternately parodic and moving melodies of 1984’s Illustrated Musical Encyclopedia, the eerie clockwork constructions of 1984’s Esperanto and 1986’s Futurista, which was a hyperactive but straight-faced tribute to the work of the Italian Futurists, with track titles such as ‘Ballet Mécanique’ and ‘Milan 1909’ and a techno-pop cover of the Andrews Sisters’ ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’, retitled, with a nod to Mondrian, ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie’. In all these, there is certainly a Post-modernist interest in pastiche and neoclassicism, but also a very straightforwardly modernist and futurist embrace of technology, newness, optimism. The version of Post-modernism that centres on a renewed interest in tradition and the ‘failure of modernism’ is radically incompatible with that sense of excitement, novelty and discovery.

YMO and Sakamoto’s work sometimes glances at Western and, particularly, American imperialism, and sometimes approaches it head-on. YMO had some representation in the United States through their 1978 cover of Martin Denny's Eastern-exploitation number 'Firecracker', and silly–serious covers of 'Day Tripper' and 'Tighten Up' the following year – as was the case with Kraftwerk, they were big in clubs in Detroit and the Bronx, but unlike Kraftwerk they made it as far as an actual appearance on Soul Train’. Sakamoto expanded this through his connections with the tellingly named south-east London synth-pop/New Romantic group Japan. He appears on their 1980 album Gentlemen Take Polaroids, and the clattering rhythms and chiming ethnological fakery of their 1981 masterpiece Tin Drum is, in retrospect, very clearly derived from Thousand Knives and YMO albums such as BGM (1980) and Technodelic (1981). Sakamoto's two collaborations with Japan’s singer David Sylvian, the singles 'Forbidden Colours' and 'Bamboo Music/Bamboo Homes', would popularise a sound which many Western critics have wrongly assumed was Sylvian and his group's own product. YMO, like Kraftwerk, were the part-celebratory, part-self -critical embodiment of a post-Second World War economic miracle built on the often disavowed foundations of fascism; both groups were much more popular in Black America than currently popular notions of cultural exclusivity might have one believe. But they had a quite different relationship to mainstream Anglo-America, and to the recent past. Kraftwerk had their cake and ate it, by combining their electronic evocations of Constructivism and Schubert with Beach Boys harmonies and a sense of steady, mechanical rhythm that derived from their love of James Brown. Hosono’s solo albums are far more explicit about the recent past, and frequently made reference to the history of Japanese colonialism elsewhere in Asia, a history which was obscured but lay behind the rise of the developmentalist ‘tiger economies’ in Japan’s wake. YMO would, on occasion, deliberately provoke associations with Japanese fascism, as in the uniforms, posters and banners of the tour documented in the 1984 film Propaganda – a parodic image of absolute power that you can also find in some Japanese Post-modernist architecture, such as the exaggerated symmetries and formal approaches in Arata Isozaki’s Tsukuba Center building at the heart of a new town outside of Tokyo.

But the evocation of twentieth-century totalitarianism did more than just draw attention to that certain note of authoritarian chic that one can find in some of the more domineering works of Post-Modern architecture, such as Terry Farrell’s MI6 headquarters in London. Reopening the apparently closed book of the war and Japanese imperialism was also a way of pointing to the unfinished business of Japanese–Western relations. In the United States during the war, Japanese-Americans were interned en masse and German-Americans and Italian-Americans left alone, and this reflected something crucial to the way in which Japan was perceived, during the war and after it. Germans were errant Europeans, and were not considered ethnically or biologically disposed to violence or authoritarianism, but Japanese culture was frequently described in this manner during the war and after it. The Japanese were many things – in the first half of the twentieth century, they were among the world's most brutal imperialists, in a swathe from Seoul to Nanjing to Jakarta, from Taipei to Hanoi to Yangon – but they were not White.

It is this persistent theme of Japan as both coloniser and colonised that runs through YMO's most pointedly satirical work. On the album X∞Multiplies, with its terracotta army of interchangeable Japanese figures on its cover, a series of sketches by the comedy troupe Snakeman Show brings all these tensions out, in a skit where a radio presenter makes various racist comments to the group, which they pretend not to understand. For Bourdaghs:

The sketch suggests that despite (or perhaps because of) the appearance in the United States of a seemingly Japanophilic trend represented best by Ezra Vogel’s best-seller Japan as Number One (1979), whose title is alluded to in the comedy routines, hierarchies continued to define the imaginary map by which Americans and Japanese understood their own geopolitical positions – hierarchies that YMO was at pains to undermine by revealing their basis in a hall of mirrors'.6

‘A hall of mirrors’ is also an appropriate way of describing Sakamoto’s imaginary Lagos. He had not made an authentic piece of Nigerian music. He had stripped completely out of context a few components of Afrobeat and bolted them onto a Japanese–Teutonic piece of electronic music. It’s not unusual today (particularly on social media) to see assertions being made about certain peoples having the exclusive right to produce and benefit from their own cultural products – a belief in total separateness which one could compare to the way Jencks argued that Pruitt–Igoe failed because it did not ‘speak the language’ of its residents, an idea which implies a cultural exclusivity in architecture, with different social and ethnic groups necessarily having their ‘own’ forms, and necessarily responding to other ‘languages’ with suspicion or incomprehension. The contemporary disdain for cultural appropriation comes from a slightly different impulse; it is in large part a response to the fact that so much music was ‘appropriated’ by White musicians in the middle of the twentieth century who got very rich out of borrowing from Black musicians who died in poverty. In that sense, it is a demand for justice.

But who is appropriating what in ‘Riot in Lagos’? What does it mean for Nigerian music to be reinterpreted in Japan? It is, after all, another rich country, another part of the Global North, but somehow it feels radically different to, say, Mick Jagger appropriating blues musicians from the United States’ South. In the global disco implied in the work of Sakamoto and his contemporaries in the early 1980s, the relations of borrowing, tribute and parody are wildly unclear. One reason for this is that the appropriation was never simply one way. Over the course of the 80s, ‘Riot in Lagos’ became one of the building blocks for Black American electronic musics such as New York Electro, Chicago House and Detroit Techno, whose producers threw this Japanese Afrobeat into the mix along with musics deriving from Jamaica (dub, dancehall), Black America itself (disco, gospel, Parliament–Funkadelic, the electronic jazz fusion of the 70s), Britain (New Romanticism and synth-pop) and Germany (Kraftwerk, Manuel Gottsching).

This, again, is not a version of cultural change that is ‘pure’ in the 1950s High Modernist, MoMA-approved sense of intensified purity and abstraction, but nor is it one where realness or authenticity – the original provenance – are particularly important; and in each case, it is deeply progressivist, and committed to forward motion and constant change. If Sakamoto’s track scrambles geography, it also makes a nonsense of time. Perhaps because of the slowing down of musical change since the 1980s or, more likely, because of its intrinsic modernism, ‘Riot in Lagos’ still in 2023 sounds like something we could call, for convenience, ‘the Future’. If it implies a particular architecture, it is equally distant from High Modernist purity and Post-modernist embrace of mutually exclusive languages, cultural pessimism, continuity and tradition; perhaps it suggests a modern architecture which has never quite emerged, which would be both futuristic, multifaceted, multicultural and international, all at once. It decentres the West, and radically so – ‘Riot in Lagos’, and most of Sakamoto’s work, shuns any audible connection with American music, and refers to Euro-American culture only through parody and scorn – but in disdaining the West, it also discards the notion that any particular culture belongs exclusively to anyone.

  1. For a book from this period which gives nearly as much attention to the mediascape as to formal high architecture, see Michael Franklin Ross, Beyond Metabolism: The New Japanese Architecture (McGraw Hill, 1978).

  2. Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (Rizzoli, 1977); on Pruitt–Igoe, see page 9, and for Paul Goldberger ‘miming an act that often occurs’ in Robin Hood Gardens – a mugging – see page 23.

  3. Toyo Ito, ‘What is the Reality of Architecture in a Futuristic City?’ (1988), in Tarzans in the Media Forest, ed. Thomas Daniell (London: Architectural Association, 2011), 67.

  4. Hiroki Azuma, Otaku – Japan’s Database Animals (University of Minnesota Press, 2009), e-book loc 445.

  5. Michael K Bourdaghs, Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon – a Geopolitical History of J-Pop (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 187.

  6. Ibid., 191.

Owen Hatherley
1980 in Parallax: Japan at Number One, Ryuichi Sakamoto’s ‘Riot in Lagos’
1980 in Parallax