From concerts at Madison Square Garden to appearances on Letterman, U.S.-based Japanese music fans have had a lot to celebrate lately. No, we probably won’t see Japanese artists pull off a “Gangnam Style” craze like Korean pop artist Psy did back in late 2012. But for a fandom reliant on YouTube to catch shaky glimpses of live performances, any Japanese artist playing on American soil feels like a win. And the fact that Japan Nite is celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year feels like a jackpot.
Japan Nite is the official Japanese music showcase at SXSW Music. Each year South By brings half a dozen bands to the Japan Nite stage, most of whom continue on to a full-fledged U.S. tour.
But J-Pop this is not.
“Most of the bands to play Japan Nite, they’re outlaws in the Japanese music scene,” said Japan Nite organizer Hiroshi Asada.
In its twenty-year history, Japan Nite has stayed out of the limelight for the most part, preferring to fill its stages with up-and-comers that defy genres or mainstream musical conventions. Sure, there have been a few Japanese music scene-makers like The Pillows and Scandal, but for every mainstream act there have been dozens of oddities. In 2013, for example, Japan Nite exposed the U.S. to Pirates Canoe, a three-piece bluegrass band with a Japanese vocalist inspired by time spent in the Appalachian Mountains. Then there was Omodaka, the Vanilla Sky mask-wearing electronic musician who toured with music-generating Nintendo game systems and a television that sang for him in 2010.
This year’s line-up includes a chillwave band with dreamy, half-conscious synthesizers called The fin., a self-described “party music” group that leans heavily on accordion and saxophone called Samurai Dynamites, and an alt-rock group called Mahou Shoujo Ni Naritai—Japanese for “I want to become a magical girl.”
Most of the bands that play the Austin showcase will embark on a tour of the U.S. This year’s tour includes stops in nine U.S. cities including Athens, GA for the Slingshot festival and San Francisco for a performance at a music venue called the Independent.
Production Manager for the Independent and self-described Japan Nite evangelist, Jeff Drudge, hasn’t missed a Japan Nite showcase since 2007.
“Japan Nite is my favorite recurring night of the year,” Drudge said. “We’ve had ukuleles, we’ve had punk bands, we’ve had big pop acts. We’ve had just all sorts of stuff, and the players are always so good.”
Austin is the only place to see Japan Nite in Texas. This year’s showcase happens on March 20th at Elysium on Red River in Austin, TX. If you’d rather save a few bucks, you can see most of the Japan Nite bands for free on March 19th during the Japan Preview Day Show at The Grackle in Austin.