Travel & Culture

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Japanese culture and lifestyles through the eyes of NHK WORLD personalities

January 14, 2016

Music: a Universal Language

Russell Totten / Actor, Writer

Russell Totten is an actor and writer, equally known for his work behind the scenes as a dialogue coach for film and TV. On NHK WORLD, he hosts Japan Railway Journal.

Picture Japan, and maybe you see an army of black-suited workers filing through a neon urban sprawl, or a samurai sipping sake in an onsen on the slopes of Mt. Fuji, as a geisha brushes cherry blossom from her hair.

People say Japan is "different". And it's true; Japan is a unique country, with a rich culture all of its own that is both fascinating and appealing. It's a traveler's paradise, and if you live here you'll soon find yourself missing "normal" things, like o-shibori (hot towels) in restaurants when you visit "home".

When I first arrived, I was enamored with how different everything was. I was living in Osaka. In Japan! I picnicked under cherry blossoms; ate takoyaki with toothpicks at festivals; got naked at the onsen; gaped at the shrines and temples. It was new. It was fantastic. It was different. But, although I love Japan's uniqueness, my window into its soul was something far more ordinary: live music.

You'll struggle to find a kinder, more generous people than the Japanese. In Osaka, people bundled me into taxis and paid the fare when I pointed at some poorly sketched map. But, it's true that it takes time to get past the politeness, and actually see the passion that inspires Japan's breathtaking art.

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Then ten years ago, I played an open-mic night in Amerikamura in Osaka... Music lovers are music lovers wherever you go. And the Japanese love music. Of course, you'll find subtle differences: performers definitely talk more here, and audiences are mega-attentive, listening in complete silence or going wild depending on the music they like. But what you always see is the music breaking through the nervous smile. Guards get let down, and opinions come pouring out. You watch people transform as they take to the stage and express themselves. And oh, how they express themselves!

An IT programmer rages with his metalcore band, as a dance-floor the size of your living room erupts into a mosh pit; a banker dons a bear costume, hands out instruments and teaches the respectful audience his one song; an office worker stuns her colleagues into silence, and then tears, as she laments a lost love.

Music is a universal language. You don't need to understand "Japan" to feel the emotion in a song, and you don't need to know the words to enjoy it. That's what makes music so powerful – we all appreciate music. I've made many friends through live music. There are too many venues and music bars to name here, but you'll always find somewhere strolling round Shibuya, Shinjuku or Roppongi. And, if the underground scene is more your thing, try Shimo-Kitazawa or Koenji.

But, simply speaking, if you want to know Japan more intimately, just keep your ears open. If you like the sound of the music you're hearing, you'll find the people inside aren't so different. So just open the door, and discover what else you have in common.

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Russell Totten / Actor, Writer

Russell earned a degree in Drama from the University of Exeter in England. His father has worked for 36 years in the UK rail industry, so growing up with the railway was Russell's backyard. He went on to work in freight wagon repair and maintenance. This year marks his 10th year in Japan as a dialect coach, writer, actor for film, theater and television. He is very excited about this opportunity to combine his railway background with his work as an actor here in Japan.

Question How long have you been in Japan?
I entered double-digits this year.
Question What was your original reason for coming to Japan?
I was working for a car magazine and I couldn't even drive, so I figured a change of scenery teaching English in Osaka for a year would help "clarify things".
Question What's your favorite scenic spot in Japan?
Many places, but I love the streets in the early hours. Finding a pocket of stillness in Tokyo is just stunning in the morning light, or when the only sound is the rain on your umbrella…
Question What's the one thing that's essential to your life in Japan?
A notebook. Gotta have a notebook. Oh, and coffee. And my guitar, too. Oh, I can't say one. How can you ask for just one!
Question What is your favorite Japanese word? Please briefly describe what it means in English.
Recently maybe "kiyou bimbo". 器用貧乏
The equivalent of the "Jack of all trades…" phrase in English. People say it to me a lot, but I think the nuance depends on your outlook ;)

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