Fab in the Far East for ever

In Japan, Beatlemania never went away, and now Tokyo has plans for the first ever John Lennon museum. Richard Lloyd Parry heads down to the city's Abbey Road club
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
FFor the Parrots, the greatest Beatles tribute band in all Japan, 1999 is already promising to be the most intense and exciting year of their careers. Five nights a week, they will be putting on their regular three-hour performance at Abbey Road, Tokyo's premier Beatles venue, as well as a parade of special events. This Thursday, the club will be mounting a special party for the 56th birthday of George Harrison; last month, there was the task of judging the annual Beatles "Varsity Match", between local student Beatles (a Fab Four from Tokyo University triumphed over moptops from four other campuses). Mornings and afternoons bring appearances at Beatles parties and Beatles wedding receptions, as well as outside engagements such as foundation ceremonies for new businesses. Two years ago, the Parrots performed at the annual Beatles Convention in Liverpool, the first Asian Beatles ever to be honoured with such a billing, and now even more ambitious plans are afoot.

"At the beginning, people were a little perplexed, but by the end we were treated very warmly in Liverpool," remembers Mamoru Yoshii, the band's founder and John Lennon-alike, taking a break between sets last week. "We've achieved our ambition of being house band here. But now we're looking for international recognition. We're thinking about overseas tours. We want to make a success in Britain and the US." On weekends 180 people pack the basement room, with more queuing hopefully outside, but the Parrots and Abbey Road are only the most successful among countless Japanese Beatles soundalikes, Beatles bars, clubs and performance venues.

Just a few hundred yards away, in Tokyo's seething Roppongi district, their rivals The Stomps keep the crowds entertained at The Cavern, which also has branches in Osaka and Kyoto. Then there are the scores of Beatles shops selling current souvenirs and period memorabilia; the numerous Beatles fan clubs and "study groups"; the 270,000 Beatles CDs sold every year; and the ubiquity of Beatles melodies - yodelled by drunken salarymen in karaoke bars, piped into supermarkets and hotel lounges, and warbled at waiting callers by automatic telephone switchboards.

Last week it was announced that the world's first John Lennon museum will open next autumn in Saitama, an hour's train ride north of Tokyo. It will form part of a giant new 35,000-seater sports and concert venue, 2,000 square metres of which will be given over to Lennon relics, many of them on loan from Yoko Ono's personal collection. Few details of the project have been released, but reports in Japanese newspapers speak of plans to display instruments, clothes, manuscripts, drawings and books. The one disappointment is its location - an inconvenient and charmless prefecture, though the Japanese might prefer to see it as a symbol of something else.

"I think that the choice of Saitama must have been led by the spirit of John Lennon," says Testsuo Hamada, a friend of Ms Ono who is a consultant to the project. "His spirit is part of the future, the heritage of all mankind. Bearing in mind the approach of the 21st century, this may be why she chose Saitama." Word in the Tokyo Beatle community, however, is that the decision may have been guided by financial, as well as spiritual, considerations, and that Taisei Construction, the firm behind the project, is paying a large sum for the loan of the material.

But even in the worst recession since the war, Japanese are still spending on the Beatles. Until the economic decline of the past two years, Japan exceeded even Britain, coming second only to the United States, as the world's biggest market for Beatles memorabilia. Nowhere else, certainly in the non-English-speaking world, does Beatlemania take such varied, extreme and endearing forms.

In a crowded field, the most eccentric of all Japanese Beatlemaniacs is Yasuhiro Honda, a man who permanently lost his perspective on life while still in primary school. "It was at the house of a friend of mine," he remembers. "He played, 'I Want To Hold Your Hand', and at that moment, the Beatles DNA entered my body and I was damaged for ever. The truth is that I have 'Beatles cancer', and ever since then it has been my dream to share 'Beatles cancer' with everyone." Capitalising on his condition, Mr Honda has since established himself as the country's leading dealer in Beatles memorabilia, spending four months of the year in Britain, and operating out of a cramped shop in western Tokyo. Prospective customers must prove that they are worthy by answering a brief questionnaire. "The first question is, 'Do you like the Beatles?'," he says. "If there is any doubt: no membership. The second is: 'When you are reborn in the next life, will you still like the Beatles?'" Nineteen-hundred people have sworn that they will, from the tropical island of Okinawa in the south to the snowy northern mountains of Hokkaido

In personal appearance, with his little round glasses, shoulder-length locks, and droopy moustache, Mr Honda's look is that of late-Sixties Lennon, but his emporium contains objets touching on every conceivable aspect and period of the Four. By the door, individually wrapped in Cellophane, is a pile of British tabloids, marking significant dates in Beatles and post-Beatles history - such as the Sun's "Sir Macca" front page from the day that Paul was knighted. A newspaper seller's billboard from the early 1970s bears the Evening Standard headline: "Paul Not Leaving Beatles Yet". A glass cabinet contains a brick from the original Cavern Club (price 58,000 yen - about pounds 320). There is an original 1968 Corgi model of the Yellow Submarine for 170,000 yen (pounds 940), a demo single of "Please Please Me" for pounds 1,000, and numerous autographs, worth as much as pounds 10,000 each.

The only thing that money can't buy you is the contents of Mr Honda's personal collection: his gold disc of the Let It Be album (presented to Phil Spector - worth about pounds 33,000), his sample of Yoko Ono's calligraphy (bearing the Japanese motto, "Cherish Our Dreams"), and his framed photo of the band, hanging just below the ceiling. "When I sit at my desk," Mr Honda says, "there they are: the Beatles are watching me. When I am sitting on the toilet: the Beatles are watching me. I cannot do a bad thing, because always the Beatles are watching me." As another collector, Ichiro Yoneda, of the Glass Onion memorabilia shop, said in an interview with the Daily Yomiuri, "In Japan, people have a tendency to turn things into 'Ways': like the way of aikido, the way of judo, the way of the tea ceremony. For some people, there is the Way of the Beatles."

What accounts for this kind of devotion, in a country which, culturally and geographically, is about as remote from Sixties Liverpool as you can get? From the beginning, the Beatles were a phenomenon in Japan, and their first and only live appearance in 1966 was one of the highlights of the decade. The venue was the Nippon Budokan - the Hall of Martial Arts, built for the Tokyo Olympic Games two years before. That in itself was a remarkable thing, involving delicate negotiations between the British embassy and the Japanese government, for the hall had never before been used for anything so frivolous as a pop concert. In the end, the fact that the Fab Four had been honoured by the Queen with MBEs carried the day with the doubtful Japanese authorities.

The Beatles arrived at the tail end of a typhoon, and played five short concerts, amid the kind of security usually reserved for visiting heads of state. Helicopters and patrol cars were on hand to transport the stars, and an American air base was put on standby in case the civilian airport became blocked by fans. Eight thousand police were mobilised to manage the crowds. "Thousands of overzealous young persons, mostly female, were taken into custody," records a history of the period, "but no further punishments were meted out." In Mr Honda's shop an original ticket for the concert sells for pounds 555.

The concerts made a hundred million yen, and the security measures cost 90 million, but it was a pivotal moment in recent Japanese history. The mid-Sixties marked the end of the austerities of the post-war period, and the beginning of Japan's ascent into the ranks of the major powers. In hosting the Olympics, and with attendant unveiling of the Bullet Train, new first-class hotels and a crop of gold medals, Japan had proved it could compete with the First World, less than 20 years after abject defeat and destruction. With the Beatles at the Budokan, it had shown it could enjoy itself as well.

"The late 1960s were a wonderful time," says Mr Honda. "In traditional Japan, old men had the power, and for the first half of the 1960s we just endured. But at the time the Beatles came, young people took power. That's why almost everything in this shop is from the 1960s. No key rings or T-shirts or CDs. Even the owner and manager looks like 1960s." But, reluctant though he is to disclose his exact age, it is clear that, like many of today's Japanese Beatlemaniacs, Mr Honda was a young child at the time of the Budokan gigs.

Of the 70,000 members of the Beatles Club, the biggest of the fan organisations, only half were alive in 1966, and the average member is in his or her mid-30s. Post-war Japan has generally looked to American rather than European popular culture. What then is the source of this trans-generational appeal? Most seem to agree that the Yoko Ono connection has little to do with it, since the band were well established in Japan before she even met John. But the peace-and-love message had much in common with the Japanese peace movement pioneered in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "Don't you see?" asks Mr Honda. "The Beatles were perfect! For a start they came to Japan - Elvis never did, and it was years before the Rolling Stones and all these big stadium bands did so."

Back in Abbey Road, Mamoru Yoshii of the Parrots (inexplicably he is known to everyone in the club as "Chappy") suggests another reason. Even if the 42-year-old vocalist is more of a rughead than a moptop, his vocal impersonation of John Lennon is eerily accurate, and it comes as a surprise to realise that he speaks and understands only a little English. In mastering 130 of the 216 songs in the Beatles oeuvre, the Parrots live up to their name, spending days memorising and practising each song.

"British English is very different from American English, and has more in common with Japanese pronunciation," Chappy explains. "The distinction between syallables is more distinct - there's less drawling than in American songs." Ironically, given their reputation at the time as slurring Scousers, the Beatles are honoured at Abbey Road as custodians of linguistic clarity.

Indeed, as the patrons of the Abbey Road settle down for the evening (the dessert menu features, among others, "Savoy Truffle"), it becomes clear that there is more to this than meets the eye, and that the Parrots' appeal is complicated. "It's all in the melodies - I don't understand the words at all," says Rumi Kaneko, a 35-year-old housewife (favourite song: "Please Please Me"). Ms Kaneko edits the Parrots Times, a monthly fan newsletter distributed in the club, along with her friends Shoko "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" Sakakibara and Maki "You Really Got a Hold on Me" Kataoka. The ladies' devotion is intense, but it is directed not towards the Beatles, but their imitators. As a collector, Mrs Kaneko has dozens of discarded plectrums, photographs and autographs - but they are from Chappy, not John Lennon. Ms Kataoka admits that she likes listening to George Harrison singing, because it reminds her of the Parrots' handsome young bassist, Akira Kaneko. "It's true that a lot of our fans like us more than they like the Beatles," muses Chappy. "I have mixed feelings about that."

In an extraordinary twist of post-modern irony, it turns out that the Parrots have their own imitators - a band called the Carrots, who operate out of a club called Liverpool, in the distant suburbs of Tokyo. "The Carrots have been going a while now," says Chappy. "Their singer looks very like me, and he always tries to talk the way I do, and imitate the way I play my guitar. Not like John Lennon - like me. People say he's quite good."

Beatles, Parrots, Carrots. Copies of copies and mirrors in mirrors. In the world of Japanese Beatlemania, as a great poet once wrote, nothing is real ...