On this episode of The Echo Chamber, Shonen Knife – a story of cultural exchange through the cassette tape.
But also a story of an era in history just before the stronghold of the looming internet drastically changed, among so many other things, the way we consume and discover music. It was a time when culture – as writer Karen Schoemer said – was precious, you really had to fight for it.
A closer look at how cassettes, alongside fanzines and college radio, all worked to create an environment that made possible the seemingly improbable circumstance of an all-girl band from Osaka, Japan eventually opening for Nirvana – one of the biggest musical acts of the 90s, and how these women have retained their status of cultural influence some 40 years after their bands’ origin.
This episode features interviews with Shonen Knife; Karen Schoemer, former music critic of the New York Times; and Brooke McCorkle Okazaki, Assistant Professor of Music at Carleton College and author of the forthcoming book, Shonen Knife’s Happy Hour: Food, Gender, Rock and Roll
The Osaka Ramones – The International Impact of Shonen Knife
Naoko Yamano (NY): Sheena is a punk rocker [sings The Ramones “Sheena is a Punk Rocker]
NY: I’m Naoko, I play the guitar.
Atsuko Yamano (AY): I’m Atsuko, I play the bass guitar.
Risa Kawano (RK): I’m Risa. I play the drums.
NY: Shonen means boy in Japanese and it’s a very old brand name of a pencil knife. And the word ‘shonen’ has very cute feeling and the knife has a little dangerous feeling, so when cute and dangerous combined together, it’s just like our band. So I put that name.
Originally I liked The Beatles a lot when I was a child, and then in the late 70s, punk pop movement was happening and I became a big fan of The Ramones or Buzzcocks. First I listened to their music through radio. There was a radio program in Osaka and they played The Ramones or Buzzcocks. Many punk music…
When I was 15 years old I got an acoustic guitar. The strings were so hard and I hurt my fingers so I couldn’t play the acoustic guitar but after I get an electric guitar a few years after that. I rather like pop melody line punk rock, and inspired by such kinds of bands, I wanted to start my own band.
Brooke McCorkle Okazaki (BM): Shonen Knife – they formed in 1981. Naoko decided to form a rock and roll band after she heard some Ramones on the radio. My name is Brooke McCorkle Okazaki. I am an Assistant Professor of Music at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota and I am the author of “Shonen Knife’s Happy Hour: Food Gender and Rock and Roll”. Michie and Naoko were currently working as secretaries and workers in a machinery company in Osaka, and Atsuko was actually still a high school student. She wound up graduating and going to fashion school. They all worked day jobs until 1994 when they went on the big North American tour. And it was then when they decided to quite and become full time musicians. So they were slugging it out for a good 13 years before becoming full time musicians. And they’ve been full time musicians since then which is just amazing.
NY: The Japanese Minna Tanoshiku means “Let’s have fun together”. We recorded it at our friend’s house and everybody was very DIY. One day a guy who’s record label is called Zero Records came to our show and he offered that he would like to release our record. For that cassette album we copied 40 cassettes and we put our kissmark on each jacket.
First I got postal mail from Calvin Johnson from K Records and then we exchanged letters because there was no internet at that time and of course there was no facsimile too. So Calvin Johnson said he wanted to release our album from his label K Records. So we sent our master tape to him by postal mail and then he made our cassette tape.
Calvin Johnson (CJ): The cassette came along and it was something where you could just make 30 or 50 cassettes and it didn’t cost $1,000. Cassettes had existed for a long time, but it was only around that time 1980, 1981, that they became viable in terms of their portability and their sound quality. So I took this concept into the world of underground music. We created our releases using that technology.
CJ: Another big influence was Folkways Records. The idea there seemed to be documenting things. And then making it available to whoever was interested in finding out about it or appreciating it. And I think at K we took on that a lot too. Find people in our town or Olympia or around that seemed worth documenting. Trying to present the same thing to the world.
ARCHIVAL MTV KURT LODER: Cute, keen, well fair enough, that’s Shonen Knife. The most lovable punk band on the planet. Or for that matter, off it. The Japanese group spent December on a tear through the midwest opening for Nirvana, whose members had been converted to the way of the Knife on a European tour the two bands had shared two years earlier.
ARCHIVAL KURT COBAIN: About five years ago when you guys put out the Burning Farm EP on cassette, well my friend Calvin from Olympia, he sold me that tape. I bought that tape from him because he works at K Records. And I heard it and I fell in love with it. And it’s taken a long time for people to hear you guys. We are glad that we finally got to go on tour with you. Now a lot of people, at least in England, love you guys.
NY: In 80s, Shonen Knife was only playing in Japan. And our first outside of Japan show was 1989. We just had only one show in Los Angeles. And in 1991, we played in four cities in the United States including Los Angeles where Kurt Cobain came to see us.
NY: Kurt wrote, When I finally got to see them live I was transformed into a hysterical 9-year old girl at Beatles concert. Wow! I’m very honored about that and I thank to him, Kurt, very much.
AY: Kurt came to our show and that time he didn’t say anything to us, but later he offered to open as a support band for Nirvana.
NY: We started touring from 1991. Members of Nirvana made contact to our management at the time and they want us to open up for their show. So everything changed.
ARCHIVAL NIRVANA: They went into their first song and everyone seemed sort of baffled and next couple songs…you know, they won over the audience by the night. But I remember I was an emotional sap the whole time. I cried every night. You couldn’t help it.
NY: I didn’t know about Nirvana at that time, so I felt a little bit scary to tour with them because they looked very wild. But after we met them, they were very polite – good gentlemen – and the touring was very nice because they were just breaking and every show is packed, so it was a very good experience.
Karen Schoemer (KS): It was like coming back to me, the Nirvana connection…and the Sonic Youth connection. And kind of reminding me at that time, like basically anything Sonic Youth told you to like, you just loved. They had this incredible influence – culturally, musically, fashion, you know, just everything. So that was one part of it that I had kind of forgotten about, about just how Sonic Youth had a lot to do with them kind of breaking in the states.
My name is Karen Schoemer. I’m a former music writer. From 1989 until 1994 I was a regular contributor to the New York Times writing features and criticism. And then from ‘94 until ‘99 I was the pop music critic at Newsweek.
KS: The thing that was central to me at that time was that was sort of big commercial music. There was MTV which had like hair metal and Madonna and there was just like huge pop music and then there was this resistance to it which was in like clubs and fanzines and college radio. And so we were kind of like underground, dropouts of mainstream music. So the serious to me was like less in the music than it was like in the kind of purity you were supposed to have of sort of the ethics of just being against commercialism. And as more and more bands were getting signed to major labels it was this big thing about like maintaining your purity and not like selling out. So in that sense Shonen Knife was kind of a part of that because they were so defiantly against anything polished.
BM: The reaction, especially in like hipster places like CBGBs and stuff, might come off as thinking Shonen Knife is instrumently incompetent or unpolished. But I actually think that that lack of virtuosity is an asset. It goes back to ideas of gender and gender stereotypes too. Masculinity in rock and roll has typically been conveyed by virtuosity, especially on the guitar. I mean, you have scholars like Robert Walser and Susan McClary who have both talked about, you know, the guitar is a phallic symbol and abilities on guitar as these abilities of masculine expression and dominance. I think about like, you know, Van Halen or somebody like that, just, you know, shredding on guitar and, and, you know, being elevated in some way because this technical virtuosity. So the opposite, this embrace of the sort of DIY teach yourself how to play kind of aesthetic that Shonen Knife has, is something that I think makes their music more accessible to non-musicians in a way. People see them and hear them and are like, this is something that I could and provides that kind of inspiration. And especially to young women, it’s an example of like this isn’t something you have to spend 20 years of private lessons doing. This is something you could go home, buy a guitar and teach yourself three chords and be able to play. And that’s okay too. And it’s just as valid as, you know, an intense shredding solo. And I think that’s part of why Kurt Cobain was so entranced by them. They didn’t perform virtuosically, but they didn’t ever feel bad or apologize for it. They’re genuinely playing music that makes them happy and it makes listeners happy. I think that’s one of the main charms of Shonen Knife.
When I was around 19 or 20, I was a fan of the Powerpuff Girls, the cartoon series, it was on Cartoon Network. And one night when I was watching, they had a music video that happened to be Buttercup, I’m a Super Girl that Shonen Knife performs.
NY: The author of Powerpuff Girls invited us to join the tribute album, Buttercup is a very strong, positive character. So, I wrote that song to make a very powerful song.
BM: I had never seen an all-female punk fan before. I knew about The Go-Go’s and The Bangles, but I’d never seen women really rock out like that. Even more specifically Japanese women because you know, there’s so many stereotypes in the United States about Asian women. And so it was really inspiring and awesome to see those women playing punk rock and representing sort of musical versions of the Powerpuff girls. Seeing someone like that, playing on television on something that’s cool as Cartoon Network was an inspiration.
KS: There were all these interesting women making music, taking the same sources that male bands were doing. But just trying to say, I hear this a little differently. I feel it a little differently. My goals with it are a little bit different. I’m not trying to be polished. I’m really trying to feel this music in the way that’s right for me.
BM: The Riot Grrl movement, which was coming out around the same time Shonen Knife was hitting it big globally in the nineties. And they are a strong contrast to some of those other female punk style bands, like The Breeders or The Slits or something like that in that Shonen Knife embraces their femininity. The idea of cute or kawaii culture in Japan, it’s a little different from how it’s perceived in Europe, and in the United States. By embracing this femininity or this cuteness, Shonen Knife is actually reclaiming girliness as a tool of feminist power. That they’re not nearly as blatant as some of the other UK groups or American groups. They’re not like we’re feminists, we’re here to kick ass. Shonen Knife instead is about embracing what it means to be a woman and taking pleasure in that, which can include wearing cute dresses on stage, singing about ice cream or cream puffs, or, you know, puppy dogs.
KS: When I think back on how I felt about Shonen Knife at the time. Like they were kind of a joke at the same time. And I think that goes in with the kind of exotic quality of it. I think that was the part of it that I was a little uncomfortable with. That we were sort of laughing at them even as we were kind of underneath it all kind of laughing at ourselves because fandom was also such a huge part of that scene. You heard that kind of fandom in Shonen Knife. You could imagine them being over there in Japan and being like, we love the Ramones, you know, and being like, we’re going to play the Ramones and, and it came out sounding like totally warped but at the same time it had that sort of genuine exuberance and sincerity that I think we all really related to.
NY: We were happy to play at CBCB.
KS: CBGBs at that time, there could be like six bands, like every night of the week.
NY: The club was very long an sometimes it’s a little hard to watch the band.
KS: The stage, like to get downstairs to the bathroom, there was a space that felt like it was about two inches wide. And then the area in front of the stage seemed like it was about four feet wide. It was a really awkward sized room. New York was still very grimy. It’s still had this hangover from the seventies and I miss that a lot, glad I got to be there.
NY: I was happy to play such a historical place. And when I was a high school student, I listened to Blondie or Talking Heads, like many bands played at CBGB. So when I got a CBGB t-shirt I was so happy and I was wearing it every day.
KS: By then, you know, CDGB’s like real kind of glory days as influencing music with Television and Blondie and all that stuff, you know, that was kind of long over. But it was still a place that a lot of people played and it still had all of that…you know, it had the disgusting bathroom and it had the terrible layout and it had the pistachio gumball machines that you would put a quarter in and you would get these like pink pistachios that left pink stuff all over your hand. At that point uou felt a little bit like you were entering in a shell of something that had been really, really important, but it was still there. You still got to partake of it. People like Joey Ramone would be sitting in the back. It’s still had a lot of that, like rank glamour to it.
NY: Marky Ramone came to see us when we play in New York in nineties and he played the drums for us and we played some Ramones songs on stage. And also we toured with CJ Ramone in the United States a few years ago. T
BM: The first time I saw Shonen Knife was in Philly and it was when they were doing the tour with CJ Ramone. So that was a very different experience from some of the other shows they’ve seen. The show was intense. A lot more hardcore punks were at that shows. There’s a lot of moshing and it’s not something you really expected at a Shonen Knife show. People moshing to Banana Chips is not something I ever thought I would see and in this lifetime, but I’ve seen it. So that’s kind of cool.
In the eighties, Hello Kitty was first making its way to North America. But it was really the early nineties when it explodes. When you start to have more and more Sanrio goods at the mall. Then of course Nintendo and Sega Genesis were the other sort of main introductions to Japanese popular culture I think for people of a certain generation, but Shonen Knife musically is likely one of many people’s first exposures to Japanese music culture. Aside from say, Yoko Ono. Shonen Knife in terms of Japanese bands was really one of the first to become part of this phenomenon that eventually was known as Japan’s “Gross National Cool”. It’s this idea that after Japan’s economic bubble bursts at the beginning of the 1990s, they went through an economic slump, but in order to sort of revive Japan’s economy and prominence in the globe, the government started promoting among other things, the exportation of popular culture abroad. And this is when you start having things like Toonami on Cartoon Network with Dragon Ball Z and later Naruto and Inuyasha as well as the explosion with Pokemon at the time. So you have around the nineties, early 2000s, you have this explosion of Japanese popular culture around the world. And Shonen Knife I think can be seen as heart of this Gross National Cool project as a way of sort of upping Japan’s image in the global economy and the global world in a way, and introducing young people, especially to Japanese culture. And it’s become a real core part of Japan’s economy. And I think Shonen Knife has contributed to that. Like they certainly have upped I think Japan’s prominence musically speaking in the world.
Certainly in Japan, I think Shonen Knife has had a huge impact on other female musicians, especially female musicians that were coming of age in the nineties and early 2000s. Otoboke Beaver, Afrirampo, there’s so many more bands with women performers or all female groups in Japan now. And I think that’s thanks in part to Shonen Knife really paving the way for these musicians. And I think that that translates both to fans in the States as well. Certainly for me personally, they were an inspiration and I imagine they’ve inspired many other young women all around the world.
KS: You know, it’s kind of nostalgia – Shonen Knife in a way it’s going to be nostalgia for people like myself. And then probably for plenty of other people, they still are that act of Japanese interpreting American culture. When Shonen Knife gives us punk rock back, they’re doing it in a very knowing, cunning way of knowing that they’re changing it and knowing that we’re going to hear it as both what it originally was and what they’re adding into it. So I think that’s as viable now as it ever was.
NY: I’m keeping my self fresh and that’s why I can continue the band. It’s getting more easy to exchange culture through internet, and it’s very easy to express music or art. But in our case, we don’t imitate the other people. We are very independent and very unique. I think that’s why many people listen to Shonen Knife.
Karen Schoemer’s New York Times articles on Shonen Knife
Pop/Jazz; Japanese Trio With Songs Of Animals And Oysters
August 16. 1991
Review/Music; Punk Rock From Japan
June 22, 1992
Brooke McCorkle Okazaki’s book Shonen Knife’s Happy Hour
Food, Gender, Rock and Roll will be released by Bloomsbury 2-11-2021
This episode features archival interviews from Nirvana and Calvin Johnson.