When the Beatles Took on Japan's Right Wing

When the Beatles Took on Japan's Right Wing
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Why you should care

Because sometimes music can say a lot about geopolitics — past and present alike.

Beatlemania was at its peak. It was 1966 — the last year the Fab Four would tour — and the group was so popular that it had to flee a mob after turning down an invite to perform for the first lady of the Philippines. That same year, the band defied a Ku Klux Klan threat and rocked Memphis, Tennessee.

The Beatles had just recorded the rather complex Revolver, but as the Liverpudlians made their way through Asia and America that year, audiences still clung to the easy tunes on Help! and Rubber Soul. “In the summer of ’66, there were really two Beatles,” says John Covach, professor of music at the University of Rochester. “There were the Beatles that we know from Sgt. Pepper’s, the hippie Beatles, the ones that did music that was more interesting to college students and artsy types.” And then there were the Beatles who appealed to pop-loving, screaming girls. As they straddled both identities, the Beatles arrived in one of the countries that has consistently, occasionally absurdly memorialized them ever since: Japan.

Half a century ago, the Beatles were scheduled to play five shows in Tokyo. Like almost everywhere else the four performed, they encountered crotchety old people and young people practically jumping out of their skin with joy. In this case, the annoyed elders were postwar right-wingers, frustrated that the band was set to play the Nippon Budokan, an arena in the Imperial Palace’s backyard designed for staging traditional martial arts.

Built just two years before, as part of the 1964 Summer Olympics, the Budokan emerged when the wartime ashes of humiliation and destruction were still fresh in everyone’s mind. Its creators never dreamed it would be used to host the frivolities of a mop-top-shaking boy band from England. Which explains why then–Prime Minister Eisaku Sato, a man who came into adulthood during the war and was the state minister in charge of the Olympics, found it fruitful to bash the foreign group. Sato, who would later win the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on disarmament and become a symbol of Japan’s confused postwar relationship with the rest of the world, was not confused about the Beatles: They were inappropriate for the Budokan, he declared. “I mean, seriously,” Covach explains, “it was like this holy venue, and here come these teen Beatles.”

This was not Manila, though, where a tiff with the political leadership would send the Beatles scurrying to the airport without state protection. In Japan, 35,000 cops lined the streets, according to local reports from the time. The result of all the security was best witnessed at the concerts: People yelled and cried, Covach says, but the relative quiet stood out compared with everywhere else the Beatles had performed, where fans couldn’t hear entire stretches of the show over their own screaming. In Tokyo, security made it feel like a “school assembly,” Covach says, with guards telling people to return to their seats if they got too lively. It was so tame, in fact, that Covach compares it to a 1964 Beatles concert in Paris, where the audience appeared in tuxedos as if they were attending the opera.

Today, people might not get weepy over the Beatles, but that doesn’t mean their first jaunt into the country is forgotten, says Akitsugu Kawamoto, music professor at Ferris University in Yokohama. It was just the beginning of the love affair between the band’s members and Japan. In ’66, Lennon had yet to meet Yoko; McCartney hadn’t been arrested for possessing marijuana — that would come 14 years later, when he played Japan with Wings. These days, you can still find Beatles cover bands playing Tokyo’s Cavern Club, a joint named for the Liverpool bar where the boys got their start.

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The Fab Four at the Budokan.

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And you can still hear strains of the band in modern pop music, Kawamoto says. Before the Beatles, Japanese groups were mimicking Elvis and Pat Boone. Post-Beatles, the cultural affinity for precise imitation turned toward the group’s more complex melodies. Kawamoto traces the Beatles’ sound through the “Group Sounds” era of the ’60s and the arrival of J-pop in the 1990s, a genre that continues to dominate. (He suggests taking a listen to the four-man J-pop band Mr. Children for a whiff of the Fab Four.)

That’s not the only way the Beatles’ summer jaunt through Japan 50 years ago continues to echo today. For one, Sato was current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s great-uncle. And the Olympics are once again fresh in the mind of the Japanese as they gear up to host the 2020 Games.

The debates about the Beatles playing at the Budokan, where everyone from Bob Dylan to Eric Clapton to Beyoncé have since played, are long forgotten. On a sunny summer day, the crowds gather outside, giggling and quaking in anticipation of another group: Morning Musume ’16, a gaggle of J-pop girls, is about to hit the stage.

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