It’s the morning after his long-anticipated New York gig, and Tomoyasu Hotei seems relaxed in a lounge at a Midtown hotel.
Though he’s moved to London and is leaping into international markets, the guitarist has reason to feel self-assured. He’s coming off two sold-out headlining gigs in London and New York, which have effectively served as his worldwide coming-out party.
“I think I’m the man to do the Olympics,” Hotei answers confidently when asked what kind of music would work for the 2020 Tokyo opening ceremony. “The Olympics should begin with something powerful and Oriental-feeling,” the lanky rocker adds. “Of course they could use Hatsune Miku—it’s great technology—but it’s a bit cold and unemotional.”
Hotei is not the first Japanese cultural figure to express alarm about the rush to embrace virtual idols and the like under the banner of Cool Japan. “I’m a bit worried,” he confesses. “It’s all a bit too cute. It’s great for what it is, but Japanese culture is deeper than that.”
Hotei emerged in the ’80s as the explosive guitarist for multi-platimum group Boøwy at a time when Japan’s charts had more room for muscular rock ‘n’ roll. He’s a guitar hero of the old school, and at New York’s Highline Ballroom Hotei wields his “axe” like he’s got some serious wood-chopping to do, throttling the neck to release bent high notes and windmilling the strings to underline the occasional power chord.
Surrounding Hotei is a crack international cast of supporting musicians. The music draws on his million-selling solo career, but crests on the song for which Hotei is best known abroad—“Battle Without Honor Or Humanity” from the Kill Bill: Vol. 1 soundtrack.
“I originally wrote the music for a Japanese yakuza movie for which I was music director,” he explains. “When the offer came, everyone said you shouldn’t do a yakuza movie because of the bad associations. But the director was good and I felt it would work with my music. Quentin Tarentino loved that movie and contacted my management. I also worked with Terry Gilliam on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I’m a lucky guy.”
With his taste for international collaboration whetted, Hotei’s move abroad has been incubating for a while. But it’s the flowering, it seems, of a seed planted in his mind by his Korean father. “My dad would come to my room and spin the globe,” he recalls about his childhood in Gunma. “He’d say, ‘Hey Tomochan, the world is big. You’re now here, but in the future you should see the whole world.’ So I dreamed of using my guitar as a passport to see the planet.”
Living abroad has given Hotei perspectives on how to best present Japanese culture to a Western audience. “You can find a lot of strange sushi here or in London, for example, but that is sushi for the world. So we should balance what Oriental means outside of Japan with what it means inside of Japan. Now I see this more clearly.”
Hotei deliberately chose Japanese musicians for his international band in order to retain an Eastern flavor. “I don’t play shamisen, but I feel deep inside I have something traditionally Japanese. For example, Kill Bill, somehow it came out Oriental even though I didn’t intend it that way. So abroad, I feel more conscious of my identity.”
Along with artists such as Yoko Ono and Ryuichi Sakamoto (who is in the audience at Hotei’s show) in New York, and Damo Suzuki in Berlin, Hotei is part a growing coterie of Japanese rock elder statesmen who choose to live abroad.
It’s not that there aren’t young Japanese bands based overseas right now, but they come from a generation of Japanese that didn’t experience rock as a subversive Western import, and perhaps don’t find it to be as much of a revelation.
Hotei grew up on David Bowie and Talking Heads, and bemoans the lack of interest many young Japanese musicians seem to have in Western rock. “Japan has the largest CD market in the world, so most artists are satisfied with the domestic market. I want to say to young Japanese artists that they need to challenge themselves more. I think they are too satisfied.”
Hotei grants that touring overseas can be hard. “Even major Japanese artists have told me it’s not worth the effort, but I think it’s important to experience different markets and scenes,” he says. “And it’s interesting to me to see how diverse audiences receive my music.”
Hotei’s current London plans are simply have fun and gig. And he does concede the benefits of Japanese organization when it comes to doing shows. But for now, he wouldn’t be any other place than England. “Everything is on time and perfect in Tokyo,” Hotei admits. “Overseas can be frustrating—but I’m really enjoying life in London.”