Conversation with Paul Roquet: Japanese Ambient Music of the 1980s

Listening to music is at once a shared endeavor and a private experience. Shared, because music is crafted for listening. Private, because the individual experience of music is always your own, always subject to your own set of experiences, always subject to your own inner emotional landscape and interpretation.

Ambient music feels especially private. Brian Eno’s soundscapes feel designed for personal headphone listening. And the rich collection of Japanese ambient music from the ‘80s invites the listener into a joyfully solitary green world. As a Westerner, however, I feared that I was missing something in my musical wanderings through Japanese ambience. If this music could instruct, what would be its lesson?

To better understand it, I talked with Paul Roquet, Associate Professor of Japanese Studies at MIT where he researches and teaches on the atmospheres of Japanese media and culture. His book Ambient Media: Japanese Atmospheres of Self, considers the function of ambience in Japanese music, video, cinema, urban space, and literature.

- Joseph Hurtgen

Thank you for taking out some time to speak with me about Japanese ambient music. I'm particularly drawn to its nascence in the '80s alongside an economic and cultural boom. At this time, Japan was becoming associated globally with cutting-edge technology and aggressively competitive multinational corporations, yet artists like Hiroshi Yoshimura created music reflecting the simple beauty of nature. Why? What is going on here?

I don’t know Yoshimura’s particular motivations, but simplicity was certainly a central focus for much of the Japanese ambient music produced at the time. Several decades of high-speed economic growth, technological change, and an ever-expanding consumer culture had promised a more comfortable life, but by the late 1970s the complexity of living in such a society was starting to wear people out. In this context, a nature-focused aesthetic became appealing precisely because it promised a break from cultural pressure, from the pressure to constantly navigate complex human-built environments. It wasn’t so much that the natural world was actually simple, but that it offered an experiential simplicity for human observers. Nature wasn’t saying anything in particular and didn’t demand anything in return. By offering compelling forms in isolation from human contexts, natural imagery tended to support the kind of attention Brian Eno had earlier highlighted as central to ambient music, the experience of perceiving something “as ignorable as it is interesting.”

Is it accurate to view ambient music as in conversation with eastern philosophical and religious traditions? Is the meditative aspect of this music reliant on or in reflex to those traditions? And was the call to focus on beautiful yet ignorable things a reflection on the spiritual condition of Japan?

There was a boom in new religions (what in the US might be called new age-type practices) at this time in Japan, which some Japanese religious studies scholars have ascribed to a growing desire for more physically-embodied and consumer-friendly “spiritual” practices. In this sense it overlaps with the emergence of ambient listening. Overall though ambient musicians in Japan are responding to and engaging with many of the same ideas and influences as elsewhere.

In your book, Ambient Media, you relate ambience to the building up of atmospheres surrounding the individual as a way of self care. And in the '80s, the Walkman afforded individuals an ability to sustain desired atmosphere whether in private or public spaces. Would you say the goal of ambient music is to turn all space into private space for this purpose of self care? To, for example, reduce anxiety by connecting a certain detached mood to, say, the movement of crowds or cars through urban spaces.

The Walkman helped make personal acoustic space detachable and portable. At the same time, private space was undergoing a similar personalization through media. More and more people were living by themselves, and new audiovisual technologies like the VCR and console gaming platforms allowed these individuals to surround themselves with personally-chosen media environments at home as well. Choosing what media to immerse oneself in was turning into everyday practice, and using this as a form of self care became a logical next step.

Japanese ambient music from the '80s and '90s has been re-popularized as a result of ubiquitous platforms like YouTube. What does it mean for ambient music and self-care that it is now possible to stay plugged into whatever niche atmosphere one desires?

The online search for obscure titles has made ambient music history more commodified, driven in part by what some have called a "borrowed nostalgia" for the 1980s. Different countries' musical legacies are now just a few clicks away, fed by algorithms working to pull you deeper down whichever particular rabbit hole. At the same time, the most advanced background music systems are increasingly tied not just to subjective listener tastes but to physical biometric data like heart rate. This introduces a new era of more direct mood manipulation, responding in real time and adapting as it goes. In some ways this marks a return to the older Muzak model of utilitarian background music, though this time tailored to each individual.

You've mentioned that Japanese ambient music carried on the traditions of Erik Satie and Brian Eno. With that thought in mind, I recall listening to a lot of Satie and Eno before YouTube began suggesting Japanese ambient artists. Though I might be perfectly happy listening to music that reflects pastoral visions of freedom and innocence, YouTube isn't concerned with my mood so much as it is a system for keeping me around, locking me into particular consuming habits. As a final question, is there a fundamental problem with listening to ambient music on a platform antithetical to the original ethos of the movement?

At first glance, the current era of personalized online playlists seems to extend the privatization of listening that started with headphone use, and especially took off with the Walkman. But while online streaming algorithms claim to offer a more personally-tailored experience, in many ways these platforms are anything but private. Your actions are constantly recorded and collated against the actions of other users on the platform, and your subsequent listening recommendations are likely to be routed along fairly well-traveled paths. Then there are the comment sections, search results, blogs, and other ways your private relationship with the music is continuously shaped with and against a larger online consensus. This kind of social exchange has always been part of recorded music culture, but now it is intricately entwined with ranking algorithms, leading to a homogenization of listening habits even as the sheer amount of listener choice has increased. The sudden elevation of Hiroshi Yoshimura to the primary English-language reference point for 80s Japanese ambient music in recent years has been especially striking to me, as I rarely encountered his name when doing research for the book (especially in English-language sources). While I don’t mean to discount the role of the individual people who first drew attention to his work, I expect the YouTube algorithm played a significant role in amplifying that interest once it reached a certain point. Is this kind of consensus listening antithetical to ambient music as a genre? I’m not sure, though it certainly seems to preclude a certain depth of solitude the music itself once sought to foster.