Central Tokyo is a notoriously unfriendly place for busking. It’s illegal in subway stations and train stations and anywhere else a single complaint from the public about the noise will bring the cops around in a downbeat.
Not only that, stories abound of Yakuza hanging around to see how well a busker is doing and then taking a percentage of tips as “rent” for using their turf, and since Japan does not have a tipping culture the hat is not always all that full of cash to begin with.
Yoyogi park on Sundays used to be a mecca for buskers and street performers until there was a massive clamp down prior to Tokyo Governor Ishihara’s bid to push Tokyo for the 2016 Olympics. Now only sparse remnants of that colorful street culture remain in the wake of his attempt at “cleaning up Tokyo”.
In theory busking permits are available but they are notoriously hard to get and strictly regulated – and forget about busking as a way to fund your travels in Tokyo, if you are caught soliciting money on a tourist visa you are breaking the law and face severe penalties or even possible incarceration.
Despite these setbacks though it doesn’t mean there isn’t a thriving busking scene, just that it tends to be very sporadic, spread out and short lived – you enjoy the good stuff while you can. The most active busking site on a day to day basis is probably the area around the museums in Ueno park but this exists more as a tourist distraction rather than bona fide street culture and when the crowd gets too big the police often come and disperse the audience anyway.
So a few weeks back when I heard a jazz band busking in front of the Q-Front Building on Shibuya crossing I was amazed that they were there at all and even further amazed that no-one seemed to be stopping them from playing anytime soon – despite the presence of a police box across the street and a sizable crowd gathered around to listen and watch.
Buskers in Shibuya generally set themselves up away from the crossing and main crowds but these guys had set themselves up smack in the flow of one of the busiest pedestrian crossings in the world – and that takes balls in and of itself.
I had to check them out and boy am I glad I did.
They call themselves Ethnic Minority, Hiroyuki Yokota on saxophone and Kazuki Shimano on drums and though they’re usually accompanied by a bassist he was absent on this occasion. I asked them a few quick questions in a break between sets about how they were getting away with such brazen noise within earshot of the police on a Saturday night – in Shibuya – and according to drummer Shimano-san, with whom I spoke, the police themselves do not usually intervene until a specific complaint has been lodged – usually by an anonymous phone call – and up until that point they are pretty much left to their own devices.
They give the impression of being seasoned buskers – he tells me that they play in various parts of Tokyo regularly and on some occasions they barely finish their first song before being politely told to go away and sometimes they go entire sets without any interruptions at all.
The subject of Yakuza never came up but it rarely does in polite conversation anyway.
With their permission I recorded three songs they played – no idea if they are original or not – and I have posted them here for you to check out.
Part One – Ethnic Minority, Live at Shibuya Crossing March 5th, 2011
Part Two – Ethnic Minority, Live at Shibuya Crossing March 5th, 2011
Part Three (Encore) – Ethnic Minority, Live at Shibuya Crossing March 5th, 2011
I would like to remind you that because this is such a busy place there was a constant stream of people walking between me and the microphone and the band so the sound dips in and out on every now and then. That said I think I captured the essence of the vibe these guys were creating, on a very crisp and cold evening in March, and by the end they had quite a big audience cheering them on.
These guys were really rocking out, it was a pleasure to watch them and I have been listening to these tunes for a few weeks now and though it might not be everybody’s cup of tea they really tear it up.
Please check out the links I have provided to their website. It’s Japanese only but easy enough to click around and watch some videos and see some pictures.