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"Love Never Dies": Romance and Christian Symbolism in a Japonese Rock Video
8 ‘Love Never Dies’
Romance and Christian symbolism
in a Japanese rock video
Carolyn S. Stevens
Christian symbols are commonly used in Japanese popular culture to express ideals
such as romanticism and Occidental exoticism. This concept fuels the imagery in the
video at hand: ‘Love Never Dies’, by the Alfee, features Christian architecture,
Caucasian models, crosses and, most significantly, a guitar in the likeness of the
Virgin Mary. Here, as in the wedding, Christian icons are used to convey a
perceived modern version of romance. In this case modernity is set in an indeter-
minate past, conflating the traditional and the modern into one visual concept that
exists in opposition to the present. The present and future encased in the past is
the dominant trope, engaging the notion of modernity (and postmodernity) as
something necessarily sequential, as is most often the case in Eurocentric definitions
of modernity (Sakai 1989).1
Miller notes anthropologists’ and other social scientists’
concern regarding the application of theories of modernity to other societies, fearing
the ‘pretensions of a particular European tradition and history being assumed as the
relevant account for areas as diverse as Latin America or Japan’ (Miller 1994: 67).
The argument for the application of ethnographic methods to studies of modernity
in non-European societies is, however, a compelling one, as cross-cultural analysis
can further our understanding of globalisation and its processes.
Despite these theoretical considerations, there may be more particularistic
explanations for this example of symbolic manipulation. The Alfee repeatedly use
Christian symbolism in their stage sets, instrumental design and stage costumes.2
The band’s tendency to employ Christian symbols may be attributed to their
education at Meiji Gakuin University, one of Japan’s oldest Christian universities.
The use of these symbols evokes little religious sentiment but creates a sense of
nostalgia associated with one’s schooldays. Christianity also symbolizes the ideo-
logical purity of youth and one’s first love. Christianity’s secular presence in the
Japanese context allows its symbols to be freely manipulated and adapted in popular
128 Carolyn S. Stevens
Methodological and analytical considerations
Cross-cultural analysis is helpful to dissect meaning. In the Western case, we see that
[m]usic video draws our attention simultaneously to the song and away from it,
positing itself in the place of what it represents. As a genre, its formal structure is
based on a paradox, which is unravelled here through the trope of the guitar.
(Berland 1993: 25)
Plate 1 ‘Maria’ guitar, as featured in the ‘Love Never Dies’ video. Designed by Toshihiko
Takamizawa for ESP Guitars. Photograph by Makoto Kurosawa.
Courtesy of Time Spirit Co. Ltd.
Symbolism in a Japanese video 129
The visual space represented in the video at once becomes the place where the
music is performed as well as consumed, and the guitar (here, drawing on Christian
signs to create a new guitar trope) is still at the forefront. However, differences in the
function and the consumption of Western and Japanese videos are worth noting.
The study of music videos is necessarily a postmodern phenomenon; though
Plate 2 Baroque guitar, as featured in the ‘Love Never Dies’ video. Designed by Toshihiko
Takamizawa for ESP Guitars. Photograph by Makoto Kurosawa.
Courtesy of Time Spirit Co. Ltd.
130 Carolyn S. Stevens
visual records of musical performances predate MTV’s appearance in 1981 (Negus
1992: 93), the music video of the 1980s changed the way producers, consumers and
scholars alike viewed music as a commodity to buy, sell and analyse. This change
affects the way audiences perceive music; in fact, it has been noted that ‘the songs
themselves have become less important as conveyors of meaning than have the
visual images that accompany and sell them’ (Bradby 1992: 73). Bradby rightly
points out the ‘semiotic problem in attempting to read music video as a purely visual
text’ (1992: 74). Negus also notes the tendency for music video analysis to ‘ignore
the music’ (1992: 93) and finds that it does little to illuminate the video production
process with the larger music industry. He claims that the appearance of videos has
caused great change in the industry. Videos have transformed the production
process and created new specialist roles that thrive solely on the production of
videos (director, stylist, choreographer, etc.). This new industry changed the way an
artist is presented to the public: not merely through the eyes and ears of a live
audience or the eye of a still camera (Negus 1992: 94–6).
Though the technology to produce videos is similar, the function of the Japanese
video is quite different. MTV did not start broadcasting in Japan until 1991, and
MTV-type shows are not as pervasive in Japan as they are in other Western and
Asian countries. There is not an immediate and wide-reaching context in which
music videos are viewed in their entirety. Japanese music television shows rarely use
video clips in their programming.3
If video clips are used, the audience only sees
about 5–10 seconds of it. The Japanese music video is produced primarily as a short
sales pitch – literally, a visual sound bite – for programmes broadcast on the half-
dozen or so commercial (not satellite) networks. After the release of a single and
subsequent album, several clips might be edited together as a video collection sold to
fans in retail shops. These videos are not as widely viewed as MTV videos are;
rather they are produced in the short term for a quick shot of mass PR and in the
long term for a smaller connoisseur market.
Thus one can argue that the audience for small portions of Japanese video clips is
wide but when considered as an entire work, the range of viewers is narrower. The
latter audience is a group of consumers who are well versed in the semiotic and
musical discourses the artists regularly employ. However, its first function as a
promotional instrument is still important and Japanese video clips must use visuals
that are considered effective in only five to ten seconds. Plot development is not as
important as visual impact. Therefore, this chapter attempts to embed the visual
aspects of the video in a larger cultural system of meaning focusing on the notions of
romance, nostalgia and modernity.
The Alfee in the larger pop music scene
The three members of the Alfee (Sakurai Masaru, Sakazaki Kohnosuke and
) met while students at Meiji Gakuin University in the early
1970s. Sakurai and Takamizawa both attended Meiji Gakuin’s affiliated high school,
while Sakazaki entered the institution as a college student. They formed the group in
1974 and originally presented themselves as an acoustic folk trio. At that time,
Symbolism in a Japanese video 131
Japanese folk music was developing into its own genre, separate from the US
tradition, with acts such as Moriyama Ryo¯ko, Mike Maki and The Folk Crusaders.
Sakurai, Sakazaki and Takamizawa first signed with Victor under a different name
and recorded one album that did not dent the national charts; not long after, their
contract was allowed to expire. They debuted again in 1979 as the Alfee with Pony
Canyon Records, and for the following four years they recorded a series of albums
and singles that found limited success. After a few folk releases with Pony Canyon,
the band changed their strategy and instrumentation. Like Bob Dylan in the 1970s,
they ‘went electric’, and the Alfee’s rock/pop sound at last made the charts in 1983
with the single ‘Marie Ann’. Their tireless performing schedule had eventually paid
off, and they were able to establish a fan base across the country. A string of hits
followed, labelling them as one of Japan’s premier rock groups. This is reflected in
their record of opening concert venues (kokera otoshi), such as the Tokyo Dome in
1988 and the Tokyo International Forum in 1997. One reason that they have been
able to achieve such status in the industry is the fact that other super groups of the
1970s and 1980s such as Off Course and YMO have disbanded. To stay successful
in the quickly changing Japanese market is a major coup. Thus the Alfee are often
referred to as the ‘Japanese Rolling Stones’, because of their decade-spanning
success. Other long-running acts in Japanese pop/rock include the Southern All Stars
(who formed one year after the Alfee, in 1975), Chage and Aska (debuting in 1979),
Plate 3 The Alfee, 2003. Photograph by Yoshiaki Sugiyama. Courtesy of Project III Co. Ltd.
132 Carolyn S. Stevens
Matsuto¯ya Yumi (debuting in 1972), Nakajima Miyuki (debuting in 1975) and
Yamashita Tatsuro¯ (active in 1970s, but debuting as a solo artist in 1980). All of these
artists, including the Alfee, are categorized as ‘new music’ performers. This term
refers to the ‘new’ synthesis of Western-style folk, pop and rock that emerged from
the folk movement around 1975. These performers wrote their own music and often
produced themselves, making them independent of hierarchically structured talent
agencies and music publishing companies. These artists were not ‘manufactured
stars’; their music was seen as ‘authentic’, similar to the original folk movement. The
most important difference was that ‘New Music’ artists were not as vulnerable to
consumer trends, and once successful they were able to enjoy longer careers (such as
the Alfee). Also, some of the artists went on to create their own record labels,
consolidating their power in the music business (Yoshida Takuro¯’s ‘For Life
Records’, which he created with fellow artist Inoue Yo¯sui, for example).
In 1998 the Alfee’s members were aged 43 and 44: old by Japanese pop standards.
They are no longer at the peak of their success; they are considered a 1980s band by
many rock critics. Thus their current hits, though new, may be seen as nostalgic.
The Alfee have been able to sustain their fame by constant touring; their reputation
as a live act still draws in audiences in their tens of thousands during their annual
outdoor summer event. They perform an average of 94 live shows each year, out-
performing many other more trendy acts. The Alfee are living symbols of nostalgia
in the Japanese pop music scene.
Video ethnography and analysis5
The structure of ‘Love Never Dies’ includes an introduction, verses A and B, a
chorus, and an instrumental solo section which repeat for the 5:44 minute duration
of the song (see Table 8.1 for details). At the end of the song, the final chorus is
repeated approximately three times; the first final chorus is followed by a key
change. CD liner notes (LOVE 1996) state that the album’s instrumentation
includes ‘electric and acoustic guitars’, ‘mandlin’ (sic), ‘bass’, ‘acoustic piano and
synthesizer’, ‘synthesizer manipulate’, ‘drums’ and ‘percussion’ (see Table 8.1).
The song starts strongly with full orchestration but quickly fades to a more
restrained arrangement of voice and piano, later building in mood and emotion to
the instrumental solo, the most dynamically intense (both emotionally and
musically) section of the piece. There is another dynamic retreat in the A4 section,
leading to a second building of dynamics and mood in the final chorus. There is a
Western classical influence to the arrangement, evidenced by the acoustic guitar’s
harp-like arpeggios and the staccato background vocals (‘la la la’). Sakurai, the
bassist, takes the vocal lead with his clear tenor while the other two provide
background vocal harmonies. The electric guitarist is also featured at different times
in the video as pianist, showing his range of ability. The drummer and keyboard
player, reflecting their subordinate status as ‘support musicians’ and not full band
members, do not appear in the video.
The video setting has a romanesque architectural style. The band members
are dressed in white, as are the female models (one adult, one child) who appear
Symbolism in a Japanese video 133
throughout the video. Other objects within view during the video include a white
piano, white roses and white sheet music. The white imagery reflects the lyrical
winter atmosphere (coinciding with the single’s January release). No other colours
intrude on the dual scheme of white against a sky-blue background. The acoustic
guitarist sits on a white bench, reminiscent of a church pew, as he placidly strums his
guitar. The models and band members are primarily photographed looking up, to a
source of light. The young woman, who weeps at the start of the video, soon smiles
Table 8.1 ‘Love Never Dies’ song structure
Structure Instrumentation Vocals Lyric imagery
Full instrumentation — —
Acoustic piano and bell Solo Love, tears
Add drums, Solo Miracle, light from
synthesiser (strings) darkness, sorrow,
and electric guitar promise to relieve
Add acoustic guitar Solo Only one love in
solo and organ flourish vocalist’s life
Full instrumentation Main vocal sung in The promise of
unison and harmony, protection, a love
in Japanese and English that will not be
defeated; ‘my love
will never die’
As in I1
As in A2
Solo Winter imagery: her
as ‘frozen’ wings
As in B2
but with more Solo ‘rest on my shoulder
pronounced drums if you are tired’
As in C1
As in C1
As in C1
, plus ‘I’ll
make your dreams
Instrumental Full instrumentation, Background vocals
featuring electric guitar during acoustic guitar
solo and acoustic guitar solo
solo (harp like arpeggios)
As in I2
but with — —
intricate drum fills
Acoustic guitar and Solo Love, death, eternity
synthesizer (strings) ‘I would not let go
only of your hand’
Chorus to fade As in C1
; electric guitar As in C1
As in C1
(repeat 3+ times) slide precedes key the adversity of
change for second rough winds and
repetition long roads
134 Carolyn S. Stevens
as she contemplates the light above her. A child, with similar features and dress to
the adult model, appears sporadically. She holds a white balloon that also eventually
takes our gaze upwards as it floats above her. During the course of the video, as
emotions intensify, objects in the video are either upset or literally blown across the
set: we see rose petals, water and sheet music scattered.
The lyrics also employ religious images that emphasise the singer’s devotion.6
the first verse, he equates his love with ‘a miracle’ (kiseki), and claims that his love
will fix everything in his beloved’s world, allowing her peace. Furthermore, his love,
like that of Christ, transcends life itself: ‘if you were to sleep for eternity / my love
would not die’ (eien no nemuri ni tsuko¯ tomo / boku no ai wa shinanai).7
devotion of this man represents a romantic ideal, especially for those who have been
hurt by the instability of real relationships. Several issues trouble the woman in the
song: insomnia, an uncertain future and the rough road ahead of her. Yet the
vocalist promises to shield her from these adversities. The lover acts as a buffer
between the woman and a harsh world of reality, much like one of the psychological
functions of Christianity, as a comfort to those in distress or pain.
The centrepiece of the video is the virgin guitar, played by an androgynous man,
dressed in vaguely old-fashioned, European-style clothing. He is also the only band
member pictured in a non-musical performing role. He displayed as a romantic
object as his image is repeatedly shown during the phrase, ‘my love will never die’.
Takamizawa plays two guitars: the first the ‘virgin’ guitar with its neck formed in a
cross; the other is designed after his ‘Flying A’ series, decorated in the style of an
Austrian pipe organ. Both guitars are made by the manufacturing company ESP,
with whom the lead guitarist has a contract to produce his own line of regular and
speciality electric guitars.
The virgin guitar becomes a metaphor for the woman’s hope for the future; the
faults of her past relationships are excised, cleansed by the flowing water. She is
given the prospect for a new romantic future as a virgin, ready to meet a new prince
(probably in the shape of the lead guitarist). This message is further reiterated in the
appearance of the child version of the model; the adult is returned to an unsullied
state, but lets go of her childlike concerns (symbolised by the balloon that she releases).
The inclusion of the child model is not necessarily a device to sexualise her;
rather, the presence of the child ‘de-ages’ the adult model, making her more attrac-
tive not just to male viewers but also to female viewers. Since the 1970s, femininity in
Japanese popular culture has been expressed in ideal forms as adolescent, or kawaii
(cute). This follows the debate on sho¯joron, or theories regarding Japanese ‘young
girls’ (who are young in body and/or in spirit only; see Kinsella 1995, and Treat
1996). Treat (1996: 281) summarises the sho¯jo as
attractive, and thus valorized, but [she] lacks libidinal agency of her own. While
others may sexually desire the sho¯jo . . . the sho¯jo’s own sexual energy . . . is an
energy not yet deployable in the heterosexual economy of adult life in Japan.
But as a master sign for mass consumption, the sho¯jo is indeed of immediate and
Symbolism in a Japanese video 135
The child/adult heroine in the video is not only consumed by the viewers, but also
represents consumption, making it even easier for the audience to identify with her
as they share the same role in society.8
The use of the Virgin Mary guitar contrasts with other cases of Christian
symbolism in Western pop/rock music, the most notable case being Madonna’s mid-
1980s personage as seen in the album and videos of Like a Virgin (Bradby 1992: 90)
where Madonna, as the Virgin herself, is presented as traditional discourse to be
interpreted and reinterpreted.9
The Virgin is still a symbol of femininity, as tradi-
tionally noted, but with a twist:
women today can choose to be neither virgins nor mothers . . . Without
reverting to the traditional constrictions that virginity and motherhood placed
on women’s lives, it seems important not to give up the strength of these positions
. . . What Madonna’s work in Like a Virgin shows is that these strengths are
available and can be appropriated at the level of discourse . . . Visual meaning
certainly enters in here. How could it not, when one considers the whole
history of the Madonna as a silent visual representation? . . . In sexualizing the
Virgin, Madonna has also allowed her to speak.
(Bradby 1992: 94, emphasis original)
The Alfee’s Virgin is, however, silent. She does not speak, nor is she empowered to
free herself from her demons. She relies on a man to shelter her and bring her peace.
The Alfee video text allows us to comment on theories of modernity in a non-
Western context. Miller’s concise treatise on Hegel, Habermas, Simmel Berman and
others sets out an ethnographic approach to these theories (1994: 58–81). Miller
notes certain characteristics of modernity: the ‘new concept of presentness, one
which takes its sense from an opposition to the past and the future’ (1994: 61).
Furthermore, he notes the rising romanticism in Europe during the emerging
modern period as an anecdote to the anomie and disenchantment felt when modern
society, following the route of rationality, rejects tradition and custom (64). In the
Alfee video, the opposing of past and future is collapsed and the future is seen as
Westernised, while the pastness of the European symbols romanticises meaning.
However, the disenchantment with the world is not merely a rejection of capitalism
and bureaucracy; more precisely, it is a disillusionment with the way women are
treated in the public sphere. This song concentrates on women’s emotional reaction
to the world and their need for comfort (‘No matter how hard the wind blows, I’ll
shield you with my hand / . . . No matter how faraway tomorrow seems, or how
rough the road may be’ (donna ni hageshii kaze ga yuku te saigiro¯ to . . . / donna ni ashita ga
to¯ku tsurai michinori de mo). The singer proclaims that he will ‘protect only you with an
unshakeable love’ (dare ni mo makenai ai de kimi dake o mamoro¯). These lyrics are rather
conservative: women out in the ‘real world’ need and want consolation from a male
protector. Traditional male patriarchy clothed in Western raiment appears modern
(one can imagine that the impact of the band dressed in kimono, playing a guitar
shaped like a bodhisattva, would be quite different!) but the message is essentially
the same: romance is firmly rooted in a patriarchal system, located in the past. The
136 Carolyn S. Stevens
avoidance of traditional Japanese symbolism allows the concept to free itself from
negative stereotypes of patriarchal oppression; the Western symbolism allows it to
move forward as moral. Romance gives women the best of both worlds: access to the
public sphere and comfort when this environment is too harsh.
Behind the scenes analysis
Despite the abundance of religious symbols, the video’s message is primarily
emotional: despite one’s unluckiness in love, belief in the Alfee will take away one’s
sadness and give one hope for a new future. In interviews with a manager of the
Alfee in 1997, their production views are expressed:
[The video] reflects the ideas of [the songwriter and leader of] the band,
Takamizawa. Anyway, the lyrics . . . love . . . never giving up on one’s dreams. .
. never dying. . . and then, that guitar, ESP’s masterpiece. They built it at the
request of Takamizawa who is interested in European art. In Japan, [this kind of
video] could be seen as religious, and people could have criticized us, so
precautions were necessary. I guess in a Western country this would have been
even more so.
The guitar as the main image in the video. . . [The camera passing from] the girl
to the woman, from one member to another, shows images changing one by one
(there aren’t any shots of the three members together). [We did that to show]
even though time passes, the love between people and their dreams don’t
change – all the regular stuff! From the technical viewpoint, to get the full
contrast between the true hues of blue and white, we shot it using 35 mm film,
and I think the colors really came out well. Even though it is a low-key video, it
was unexpectedly expensive to make!
[When asked about ‘precautions’] Anything the Alfee produce that has to do
with religion could be misunderstood. That’s because in a country like Japan,
there are great differences in individual religious opinions, and there is a high
possibility that we could become targets of criticism. This is especially true in
recent years, because of the proliferation of new religions, and this developed
because of ‘that incident’ [the 1995 Aum Supreme Truth Cult’s sarin gas attack].
[Because] Christianity is so embedded in Japanese popular culture (as
fashionable), I believe it is unlikely that [the Alfee] would be criticized for using
a cross. Even though there may be strange Christian sects abroad, I think it’s
just a case of Japanese people longing after things western? There’s an old
saying: seiyo¯ kabure [anything western is good]. Well, that’s all it is.
The above quotation is a composite of three consecutive e-mail messages from the
manager. Interesting is the flow of ideas. When first asked about the video’s produc-
tion, he was more concerned with articulating the aesthetics and the technology
Symbolism in a Japanese video 137
involved. The potential for religious meaning was ruled out, as ‘Japanese people
view religion differently than Christians: except for funerals and New Year’s, we
don’t attend religious functions regularly’. The focus is on love and hope, which,
when pressed, he later admitted to be ‘Christian-like’. He did not see those concepts
as integrally opposed to any other love song produced by other Japanese artists.
Only later did he admit that there were other meanings attached to those symbols,
and he then attributed the distancing of meaning to a developing distrust in the
Japanese religious sphere, as illustrated by public reaction to the Aum case. There
appears to be a demarcation between Japanese religions (which might be dangerous)
and Christianity (which is exotic, but established and ‘safe’). This is particularly
interesting when juxtaposed against ideas of past, present and future. Japanese
religions do not address the troubled woman’s needs. Instead they represent, and, in
light of the Aum incident, even accentuate, the instability of postmodern life. The
placing of Christian symbols in the past further neutralises them, stressing the
romantic image and playing down the normative aspects of organized religion.
Orientalism and Occidentalism
In the past, Westerners have found Asian expressions of art and music exotic, and
translated them as Orientalist elements in their own traditions. In this video there is
a borrowing of European symbols to conjure up an emotional atmosphere that is far
removed from the immediate world of the viewers. After Japan’s self-imposed (but
only semi-complete) isolation from international exchange from the 1600s to the
mid-1880s, anything from the West was seen as ‘modern’. Though Japan has been
steadily importing ideas, technology and objects from the outside world, one may
argue that the long period of isolation contributed to the nineteenth-century notion
that accompanied seiyo¯ kabure: ‘Japanese = traditional; western = new’. However, in
this video the western symbols are not contemporary, removing the milieu from the
present. Historical and foreign elements here serve the function of distancing the
video from current society, making it a more accessible fantasy for viewers.
Marilyn Ivy seeks to find ‘remainders of modernity within contemporary Japan’
(Ivy 1995: 8), and notes that this exercise contains a ‘recognition of continuity that
is coterminous with its negation’ (Ivy 1995: 10). In other words, the search for
modernity automatically brings out concepts of tradition. Interestingly, this video
makes use of tradition to convey ideal romantic fantasy, yet it is not a Japanese
tradition. The European tradition represented in the video is equally powerful in
defining Japanese modernity, as it not only juxtaposes past with present but also the
‘Occident’ with the ‘Orient’. Viewers of this video not only take a step back from
reality in penetrating another culture but they also transverse epochs, symbolising
the ultimate in modern escapism: travel both through space and time.
To explain the utilisation of Occidentalist symbols using the argument that rock
and pop music are Western traditions, and therefore the association with European
symbols is appropriate, is too simplistic.10
There are more subtle combinations of
meaning to consider. For example, one highlight of the Alfee fan’s cultural calendar
is their three-day concert series held at the Budo¯kan, on 22, 23 and 24 December –
138 Carolyn S. Stevens
Christmas Eve. The concert on the twenty-fourth is rife with Western Christmas
tropes such as angels and Santas; one year the Little Match Girl made an appear-
ance. The choice of venue, however, is always the same. The Budo¯kan, traditionally
an arena for martial arts, is commonly used for popular music acts, both from Japan
and abroad – another interesting juxtaposition of past and present, and East and
What accounts for Christianity’s success in penetrating the Japanese market?
Christian-styled romance as business has proved a success, as the bridal market is
currently valued at five trillion yen (Minami 1996: 9). It can be argued that it is
merely fashion that has spurred the trend, but one may also read this choice as an
expression of partial if not total liberation from patriarchal, collective models
reflected in Japanese traditional ceremonies, if even only for one day. The focus is,
arguably, more on the individual. The Western observer may scoff at this interpre-
tation, when viewing the ceremony from the perspective of Western feminism, but a
Christian wedding is a radical change from the Shinto wedding, where words such
as love are not uttered; furthermore, the Shinto pledge unites two families, not two
individuals. While the groom does read aloud from a ‘prepared text’, the bride
simply ‘speaks her own name’ (Japan 1993: 1694). The more active role of the bride
in the Christian ceremony had an impact on the creative imagination of young
Japanese couples. This reprises Hegel’s characterisation of the rise of modernity as a
‘quest for freedom’, but Miller notes that there is a complex struggle between
‘freedom from’ something and ‘freedom to’ do something else (Miller 1994: 72). The
‘modern’ Japanese bride may be ‘free from’ certain traditional rites of collective
expression, but Edwards notes that despite the postwar legal changes that
theoretically allow the Japanese to consider themselves more autonomous and
individuated, concepts of gender inequality have not been completely erased from
the ritual vocabulary (Edwards 1989: 144–5).
Another desirable aspect is display: the bride’s act of walking down the aisle was
appealing to many young women. Though display is part of the Japanese wedding
reception, the actual ceremony is performed in private, with only the family
members of the bride and groom present. A public audience is appealing to those
who are looking for external recognition of their new roles as married adults.
Previously, display in the Japanese wedding had to do with community presentation
of family resources; today’s wedding still consumes publicly, but this time, with
narcissism, in line with hyper-consumptive patterns in Japan that are concerned with
the body and the self.
However deeply the Western concept of the white wedding has penetrated
Japanese popular culture, the idea that it is a comparatively foreign practice still
remains. Edwards notes that he was warned by an informant: ‘“What you should
do”, he said, on hearing my plan to study weddings, “is find some remote rural
village where they still have the real wedding . . .”’ (Edwards 1989: 143, emphasis
original). However, I would argue, this idea does not prevent the Christianised
wedding in Japan from further permeating Japanese culture; instead, I would
suggest it allows it to co-exist without threatening tradition. Its existence reifies
traditional customs by serving as ‘other’.
Symbolism in a Japanese video 139
Nostalgic Christianity in Japan
Nostalgia can also trigger romantic feelings. Marilyn Ivy’s statement (1995: 26) that
modernity in Japan rests on a recognition that ‘we Japanese are modern but we have
kept our tradition’ is important to understanding the function of the emotion of
nostalgia in Japanese culture. It is vital to the construction of continuity between and
within generations during a time of tumultuous social and technological changes. It
maintains a status quo, if only in people’s memories and not in reality, which is of
comfort to those troubled by alienation in an urban, industrialised society.
Not surprisingly, sentimentality about the past is a common theme in Japanese
popular music. Christine Yano (1995: 20) has discussed at length the role of
nostalgia in the Japanese musical genre of enka, and claims that nostalgia has been
used in popular culture as ‘an affective shaping of nationhood in Japan in the 1990s’.
Boundaries are put on the past by both spatial and temporal means in the name
of furusato, or one’s home village. In doing so, furusato becomes a safe locus
for pastness, with nostalgia the buffer between then and now, between there
To the Alfee, furusato means Meiji Gakuin University, the institution all the band
members attended in the early to mid-1970s. This university is one of the oldest
Christian universities in Japan. Its campus contains several Western-style
nineteenth-century structures that have recently been designated as national trust
buildings. Though Christian imagery continues to dominate the campus landscape
through chapel towers and daily lunchtime sermons, the university has dropped its
requirement that academic staff profess to be Christian, and currently about 1–3 per
cent of the Meiji Gakuin students proclaim to be Christian (in line with national
averages). Meiji Gakuin retains its Christian heritage without transferring it to its
community. Yet its advertisements in the local subway and train stations quote
the Bible as an appropriate slogan for the institution (the English phrase ‘and the
truth shall set you free’ is set against the background of the college chapel spire).
Christianity is part of the school’s marketing appeal.
Romanticised memories of the Alfee furusato, Meiji Gakuin, make up much of the
symbolism in their self-penned lyrics. Longing for the past, the idealism of youth and
a lost love: these are themes reminiscent of indigenous Japanese music, plus the
purity of devotion that characterises Christian movements. The Christian univer-
sity in Japan becomes a locus for intersecting images of youth’s expansion of intellect
and consciousness, self-reflection and first love. Further examples of explicit refer-
ences to the emotions of schooldays can be found in Alfee compositions such as
‘Kaze ni Fukarete - Rockdom’ (Blown by the Wind - Rockdom, 1986). Other songs
such as ‘Swinging Generation’ (1986), ‘Owari-naki no Message’ (Endless Message,
1987), and ‘Sprechchor ni Mimi o Fusaide’ (I Close My Ears to Sprechchor, 1992)
make explicit references to campus life. In general, sad memories of lost teenage
lovers tend to outweigh happy recollections in these songs, but youth is not wasted.
140 Carolyn S. Stevens
The composer treasures this part of his life for its purity of feeling and freedom of
expression. Youth, not yet bound by the social obligations of adulthood, are told to
make the most of this special time, and to remember it always as the one period when
a Japanese person is unfettered enough to be ‘blown by the wind’.
Marilyn Ivy (1995: 56–7) contrasts certain forms of nostalgia in Japanese popular
culture as having no ‘explicit appeal to return, no acute sense of loss, and no
reference to embodied memory’ with a Jamesonian ‘properly modernist nostalgia’,
with its associated intimation of loss and the desire to recover what has been lost.
What are the Alfee mourning in their treatises on nostalgia? Adolescence is painful,
thus not an emotional state that should be prolonged; yet youth is the one period in
an individual’s life where intellectual, moral and ethical issues are addressed with
vigour and sincerity. It is valued for its lessons learned but the future calls one
forward. Purity is lost, but the dulling of the senses in maturity (and modernity)
makes for an easier transition into adulthood. The video addresses nostalgia in this
way. The return of the woman to virginity is one device that brings her back to the
pure state as created and maintained through nostalgia. But the lover who will
protect her from harm manages any lingering dangers of adolescence. Like a
Christian convert, all the woman has to do is believe in her lover’s power to make
every thing right.
If Meiji Gakuin represents nostalgia and romance to the band and their followers,
Christianity as a theological tradition plays a small part in the creation and
consumption of the Alfee’s metaphors – as small a part as the practice of Christianity
plays in the lives of the majority of Meiji Gakuin students. In both cases, Christian
symbols and ideas are presented to the public but consumers are not enjoined to
internalise them. If this is the case, then how is Christianity in Japan viewed by non-
Christianity can be seen as romantic in many ways. One of the most romantic
images is a legend from Aomori Prefecture, where after the Crucifixion, Jesus came
to Japan, ‘married, died and was buried’ on a grassy knoll (Picken 1983: 19).
Another such image of Christianity is ironically rooted in an unromantic history of
More than 3000 Japanese Christians are believed to have been
martyred in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Japan 1993: 199) and this is
passionately recounted in modern literature such as Chinmoku (Silence) and ‘Unzen’
by Christian novelist Endo¯ Shusaku. In the short story, Endo¯ relates a contem-
porary tourist’s visit to Nagasaki (where many Japanese were martyred). The reader
is moved by the narrator’s impression of the 1629–31 torture of Japanese Christians
by the city magistrate. The tourist’s own faith is tested as he imagines those who had
to choose between death and apostasy. Explicit in the author’s accounts is the
admiration for the historical figures’ purity of spirit and devotion, perhaps unattain-
able in the postmodern age where opportunities to prove one’s spiritual worth are
not so easily come by. This notion was echoed in my own experience visiting the
site. In 1991, I found the souvenir shops next door to a memorial to the 26 Japanese
Christians (martyred in 1597 by order of Toyotomi Hideyoshi). They sold salt and
pepper shakers and toothpick holders shaped like smiling nuns in pastel-coloured
habits: Christianity on sale. One’s faith is not only tested but also decorates the home.
Symbolism in a Japanese video 141
In the late nineteenth century, Christianity was at first celebrated, and then
discouraged and persecuted. Conversion in the Meiji period occurred mainly in the
elite classes: those who had contact with Western diplomats, educators, industrial-
ists and financiers. Christian institutions of higher education established after this
period include: To¯hoku Gakuin, Meiji Gakuin, Aoyama Gakuin, Kanto¯ Gakuin,
Kwansei Gakuin, Doshisha, and Jo¯chi Daigaku (Sophia University), among others.
Christianity developed an artistic and intellectual image: almost all literature in the
Meiji period was published by Christian publications, including books, magazines
and periodicals (Kishimoto, 1956: 293). This subtle and erudite image is supported
by the claim that ‘at present, Christianity in Japan is characterized by unobtrusive
activity, with an emphasis on education’ (Japan 1993: 200).12
Politically, Christian churches in Japan traditionally opposed the ‘cultural
hegemony’ of the imperial system and the Shinto nationalist religion (Powles 1987:
10). This is not unimportant to the discussion of interpersonal relationships, as the
traditional ethical system, based on Confucianism and patriarchal modes, was
firmly rooted in this ‘cultural hegemony’. However, there were similarities between
the church and the Japanese state, as both were ‘authoritarian, paternalistic and
male-dominated’ (ibid.). Yet somehow this new set of ethical rules was thought to be
less repressive than the old, perhaps for the only reason that they were ‘new’, giving
a new twist to the concept of tradition and modernity: even the same ideology,
clothed in foreign dress, could be seen as ‘modern’.
Japanese Christianity in contemporary popular culture has incorporated some
aspects of the religious tradition (art, music, and concepts of love and hope), while
omitting expressions of political identity and self-reflection. These social and politic
issues are not completely disassociated with the image; the morality behind the
image reinforces its romantic power.
The Alfee and their fans may be interested in modernity, but they are not modern-
ists. This video does not present a conscious creation of a modernist fantasy. Rather,
traditional Japanese views, encased in traditional Western guise, become a com-
forting, ill-defined and vague modernity promising hope for a brighter future, as
characterised in Miller’s statement: ‘Modernity is more often evoked than
described’ (1994: 291).
We can surmise that romance is, more often than not, first experienced as a
student. For some Japanese, including the performers of this video, the campus was
a Christian one. This leads to a conflation of images and emotions: nostalgia for
one’s youth, the campus chapel inevitably calling forth the image of a wedding –
using these images makes for the construction of a powerful message. But if
Christian symbols are used to convey a perceived ‘Western’ or ‘modern’ version of
romance, what is this ‘Western definition’ of romance? It is a protective, forgiving
love, for those that have been hurt or damaged in some way. It is for those who don’t
fit into the mainstream: like Japanese Christians, they are ‘off the beaten track’.
They may be ‘old-fashioned’, unable to keep up with changing cyberspace trends.13
142 Carolyn S. Stevens
Or they may just be unable to sustain or establish a relationship. Either way, there is
something in going backwards in time that resolves conflict in the present. Romance
remains something distant from the present but it is something desirable today. It is a
conflation of both tradition (but not one’s own) and modernity (anyone’s). There is
hope for the future in romance with someone who looks like a foreigner, but who
sings in Japanese. This represents an escape from a disappointing Japanese society,
yet it is a safe one. It is pure, unsophisticated and you do not have to speak a foreign
language to go.
Fiske writes that most music videos are made with
no meaningful connection to the words of the lyric, but are cut to the beat of the
music. . . Style is a recycling of images that wrenches them out of the original
context that enabled them to make sense and reduces them to free-floating
signifiers whose only signification is that they are free . . . Of course, their
images are images of patriarchal capitalism, but they are also signifiers
distanced from their ideological signifieds.
(Fiske 1987: 250)
Christianity’s specific contributions to the educational system and its teaching of
social equality are two historical reasons which allow its symbols to be manipulated.
Japanese Christian history is viewed romantically for its past persecutions and as
exotic for its association with technologically and artistically advanced societies. Its
affinity with the past (a ‘golden era’ over 400 years ago), with the West and with
freedom, and with the difficulties and rewards of youth, not surprisingly makes
Christianity a workable ingredient in a pop song recipe. And it worked: this single
reached number four on the national charts in February 1996, and was the Alfee’s
twenty-eighth single in the top ten since they first hit the charts in 1983 (Oricon
I gratefully acknowledge the helpful comments of Ned Rossiter, Allen Chun, Shu¯hei
Hosokawa, A. Kimi Coaldrake and Christine R. Yano. I also thank former and current staff
at Project III Co. Ltd for their cooperation. Lastly, I am grateful to Takamizawa Toshihiko
for giving his permission to reproduce his lyrics and images of the Alfee, and for arranging
copyright permission from Mr. Yo¯suke Miyake of Pony Canyon.
1 Sakai argues for the possibility that non-Western modernity may differ in its expression
and tone without falling into the trap of Nihonjinron-style Japanese uniqueness. Historical
context is utilised to illuminate the ‘geopolitical configuration’ which permeates defi-
nitions of modernity (Sakai 1989: 93).
2 See Stevens (1999) for further investigations of the Alfee’s manipulation of symbolic
3 For a detailed history and analysis of Japanese music television, see Stevens and
4 Names are given in the Japanese style: family name first, given name second.
5 This structural analysis is adapted from Bradby (1992: 80–1).
6 Words and music by Takamizawa Toshihiko.
Symbolism in a Japanese video 143
7 All translations are by the author.
8 While Treat believes the sho¯jo’s sexual energy cannot yet be ‘deployed’ and it is therefore
redirected into capitalist consumption, empirical research shows that some are already
‘deploying’. Merry White (1994: 170) notes that about 60 per cent of Japanese teenagers
are sexually active by the age of fifteen; therefore high school or college students are, more
often than not, involved in romantic and sexual relationships. The success of television
dramas such as Ko¯ko¯kyo¯shi (High School Teacher, TBS, 1993) further highlights the
sexualisation of students, suggesting that Treat’s perceived non-sexuality of the sho¯jo is a
larger societal ideal. Meanwhile, the active pursuit of romance and sexual relationships by
Japanese youth represents an ‘on-the-ground’ phenomenon, not necessarily condoned by
mainstream society. Though it has been argued that sexuality in Japan may be deemed
unconnected to ‘romantic’ relationships, this kind of emotional separation is increasingly
irrelevant to young people: the close association of sexuality (sometimes hetero-,
sometimes homo-) with romance seen in ‘girls’ comics’ or sho¯jo manga, shows this is no
longer the case for young women.
9 Fiske is more cynical regarding Madonna’s early image: ‘Postmodern style asserts its
ownership of all images. As Madonna steals lacy gloves and crucifixes, so postmodernism
“plunders the image-bank”’ (1987: 254).
10 Christian symbolism is seen most often in Japanese popular culture on two occasions: at
Christmas and at weddings. Though the practice of a family Christmas (focused on gift-
giving to children) does exist, for the most part popular focus is on the romantic
Christmas, where presents are exchanged between lovers on Christmas Eve. Apart from
the date, few sacred symbols find their way into the Japanese Christmas vernacular.
Christmas trees and Santa Clauses far outnumber creches and crucifixes in Japanese
department store displays.
11 In 1600 Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun, prohibited Christianity. To consolidate his
power he used religious themes borrowed from Buddhism, Confucianism and other
indigenous religious traditions to enshrine his own dynasty alongside the imperial line as
natural leaders of Japan. The second period of persecution of Japanese Christians
occurred in imperial Japan. Christians were persecuted for their quiet but steady criticism
of Japan’s role in the Pacific War, the imperial system and their potential ties with the
‘enemy’. Despite the fact that the other two Axis powers were also Christian nations,
many of the missionaries and Christian activists in Japan at that time were North
American and British. The postwar ‘de-deification’ of the Japanese emperor and the
constitutional separation of church and state were major steps forward in allowing free
expression to Japanese Christians.
12 For a more detailed contemporary overview of Japanese churches, see Kumazawa and
13 This is not so incongruous with public images of Alfee fans. They are seen as consumers
who cling to a pop group that has seen better days. For a less than flattering picture of
ageing Alfee fans, see Arashiyama (1998).