Thomas and I met at fashion school in Paris in 2012.
He was that dark brown-haired, tall and quite attractive young man with an alluring dark sense of style. My intuition (that is always on point) told me something about his overall
brash attitude and allure told me he was into Japanese Visual Kei, suspicion that got confirmed as soon as I overheard him have a phone conversation in fluent Japanese. It piqued my interest and we engaged in a discussion and then we ended becoming friends.
I remember having a lot of fun discussing with him about all this Japanese culture thingy since, as you may guess, not much fashion students were into that kind of stuff. It was really enjoyable to get a teaser of his huge knowledge about the Japanese music industry since he already had some professional acquaintances there (especially within the Visual Kei scene). A few months later, he dropped out of school to pursue a modeling career in Japan.
We remained in contact fairly well the following years, which is quite miraculous since he didn’t come back in Paris until the last few month for a few weeks vacation. The occasion brought up the chance for me to ask him few questions about how his professional life went during all these years and his personal outlook about the Japanese music industry and especially the Visual Kei scene.
Check out the interview below!
Hasawa : Hi Thomas! Could you please tell us why you left France to live and work in Japan?
Thomas : I was already into J-music here in France, but at the beginning I didn’t have any ambition to learn Japanese or to live in Japan someday. I tend to think it’s a bit ‘cliché’ for any ‘Japanese culture fan’ to think that way. I ended up in Japan simply because opportunities came up for me and things led to another naturally. I felt like it was a good timing for my career.
Hasawa : You went to Japan a few times before living there definitively. How was that?
Thomas: I had already been in Japan twice. First time for 3 weeks before going definitively to live there. I rented a room in a guest house. I was like “I want to know more about Visual Kei (especially at a time when there wasn’t many information available about that music genre, even on the web) Let’s go there and see what I can find“.
But since I had no specific purpose of coming into Japan other than music and wasn’t in the mood to do touristy stuff, I was a lonely White dude roaming around aimlessly in Tokyo. Besides, the informations I got about Japan from a friend before my trip, especially about the weather, were all wrong (thanks man, haha!)
I was totally unprepared about a lot of things. I didn’t have a phone or a laptop. I was bored… In one word: a noob. For a few days, I really hated Tokyo.
Hasawa: So you traveled 9000+ kilometers and went to Japan for 3 weeks all by yourself…for no reason..?
Thomas: I already had professional contacts in Japan. It had already been 2 years since I began working into the J-music scene in France, such as organizing events, concerts, translating articles, creating spaces and forums on the web for Visual Kei fans to gather up, etc… The scene was booming at the time. I only came to Japan for the music. My background was metal and goth music, and like most of the fans at that time I came to Visual Kei because I found something that seemed close but different in the same time.
I was interested in Visual Kei as a music subculture and I was really motivated to get to know the whys and wherefores of this scene on the spot.
After 1 week in, I finally met up a woman for whom I already worked for a translation piece and was actually one of the biggest writer of the Visual Kei scene. She brought me in at a concert of Nightmare who was at their final date of their tour. Usually in Japan after a gig, especially on final dates, there is an after show speech and sometimes a party with all or part of the band crew and some friends. It was an occasion for me to go full-on insider in the scene and meet a lot of people like editor-in-chief of the magazine SHOXX at that time. I also remember sharing some words, with the help of my friend translating, with Tatsuro the vocalist of MUCC. It was pretty awesome. Finally me and my friend ended up in a very Japanese kind of street restaurant having a very passionate talk about Visual Kei.
Hasawa: So by the end, your first stay in Japan wasn’t that bad?
Thomas: Yeah. This experience brought a drastic positive change in my experience in Japan. And a bunch of other good experiences ensued. I’ve had the opportunity to meet other musicians, some staff members and to get a precious knowledge from them.
I came back the following year for 2 months. With the realization that if I didn’t speak Japanese I couldn’t do anything there, I had learned Japanese by myself. I attended a lot of gigs, especially from indie bands, and deepened my whole knowledge concerning the Visual Kei scene through expanding my professional network.
“I only came to Japan for the music”
Hasawa: Could you tell us more about the indie scene in Japan?
Thomas: Throughout my experience in Japan I didn’t deal with THE Japanese indie scene, but rather the indie scene INSIDE the Visual Kei scene.
I’m no expert about French indie music, but I think there is the same amalgam here; when we say “indie scene” we think about “independent artists,” but in my opinion not all small artists are necessarily “independent” and they don’t necessarily belong to the same scene. “Indie scene” doesn’t mean anything. Each scene has its own actual independent artists and each indie scene has its own major. But yeah, I’ve spent a lot of time inside the Indie Japanese Visual Kei scene.
Hasawa: Did you feel like there were a difference between how Visual Kei was perceived in France and how it actually is in Japan? Once you experience it yourself, did you ever think “Oh I didn’t expect it worked that way“?
Thomas: Certainly, but I don’t remember that well. It’s been so long since I made sure to correct these false ideas.
Maybe how many bands that were considered major here in France were actually indies. The music industry system in Japan is more complex than in the West.
Hasawa: What’s the difference between an indie and a major band then?
Thomas: The main difference is that you’re either get signed on a major company (only three remaining in the world currently), an entity that is independent of these majors, or you are independent as an artist and not signed anywhere. You probably have advantages in each of the status, and even combine some of them. For example, Dir en Grey are indie because their label (Freewill) is independent, but they are distributed by a major. Honestly, this is quite complex and messy…
In Europe and US we tend to use only the term ‘label’ most of the time, and sometimes ‘record company’. I think that’s not wrong at all. In Japan, in most of the cases, it’s a bit more complicated. There are 3 different entities: the ‘Production’ (or jimusho / agency), the ‘Label’, and the ‘Record kaisha‘ (record company). The production is in charge of the management of the artist, the label produce the CDs and the record company distributes and sells the CDs.
Debating whether who is major and who is indie is in my opinion only a matter of point of view. Some people will think in term of production while other in term of distribution.
But to sum up things, I realized the term “indie” was way more vast than I expected and that being in major didn’t really mean anything in the way I thought about at that time.
Now I remember another thing that I realized only once I settled in Japan.
In the Visual Kei scene, there is a term called “kote kote” which means “bold”, “heavy” or “fat”. The subgenre that ensued is called Kote Kei which is often affiliated to the ‘old school’ look of old Visual Kei bands, with vinyl, colored hair, SM-inspired accessories. However, a bunch of other bands from the late 90s’ to the early 00s’ like MALICE MIZER, LaReine, Moi Dix Mois, are widely assimilated to this visual subgenre despite their blatant baroque and romantic imagery, which is pretty disconcerting first since both style were very different. But once you acknowledge the etymological origin of this term, it made sense actually.
There is also another subgenre called Oshare Kei. In the West, the most famously known band said to be embracing this style was An Cafe, which is absolutely not true.
Thomas: When I talked to someone who was into the Visual scene for a long time about Oshare Kei, he answered “Oh, like Plastic Tree?” Taken aback I replied “No, like An Cafe“, and then this is him who got confused.
Actually Oshare means “being on trend“. It doesn’t imply any particular style, while in the West this word has been used to describe a very colorful rockish style. We don’t have the same definition here in Japan.
I’m not sure if one could consider An Cafe as ‘fashionable‘, whereas Plastic Tree‘s ‘dark fashion’ sticks better with the accurate definition of Oshare.
Hasawa: Well, that’s up for interpretation.
Thomas: Thing is, fashion comes and goes. A band that is ‘on trend’ at a time, will be ‘out’ later. Thus its representation is pretty fluctuating.