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Why Japan's 'Beatles moment' still matters, 50 years on

The Beatles arrive at Tokyo's Haneda airport in June 1966.

It was 50 years ago today -- more or less. In late June 1966, the Beatles landed in Tokyo to play five concerts at the Budokan, the home of Japanese martial arts. Two months later, they stopped touring entirely. That November, they recorded the groundbreaking "Strawberry Fields Forever."

If the Beatles were moving fast, so was Japan. Like China today, it was at the tail end of a turbocharged period of economic growth that had generated massive urbanization and a vibrant consumer culture. The population was young and thirsty for the latest overseas trends, while the student movement was becoming increasingly militant.

Into this maelstrom came the Beatles, a symbol of youthful hedonism and the crumbling of traditional values. Prime Minister Eisaku Sato objected to their presence on the hallowed ground of the Budokan. On TV talk shows, the kimono-clad Ryugen Hosokawa, a former Asahi Shimbun journalist, dismissed the Fab Four as "beggarly entertainers."

At the time, terrorist threats from the extreme right were still a reality. Six years earlier, the head of the Japan Socialist Party had been murdered by a fanatical rightist. In 1970, famed novelist Yukio Mishima was to commit seppuku during a theatrical attempted coup d'etat. So it was no laughing matter when threats were made to assassinate the Beatles.

The group was confined to the Tokyo Hilton (now the Capital Hotel Tokyu), although John Lennon did manage to sneak out for a brief shopping trip. There was heavy security for the concerts, with 3,000 police marshalling an audience of 10,000. Many celebrities attended, including movie director Nagisa Oshima, later to direct "In the Realm of the Senses," future Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara and Yukio Mishima himself. Mishima was not impressed, spending more time observing the hysterical girls behind him than events on stage. "Illusion is a frightening thing," he concluded, ironically in view of his own grisly denouement. Another great writer, Shusaku Endo, likened the audience response to religious ecstasies seen in some churches in the American South.

The generation in its formative years back then came to adulthood in the inflationary 1970s, experienced Japan's extraordinary 1980s boom and the subsequent years of stagnation and financial crisis. Many hold influential positions today. As Shigeharu Suzuki, the Beatles-loving chairman of Daiwa Securities Group, puts it, "The Japanese economy has been on a long and winding road." According to Ryuichi Isaka, president of retail giant Seven & i Holdings, the Beatles' music is "more of a universal language than English." He should know, having won over skeptical employees in Hawaii in 1991 by singing "All My Loving."

The Beatles continued their relationship with Japan on an individual basis. Lennon met an avant-garde Japanese artist who was to have a dramatic impact on him and the Beatles. In his remaining 14 years of life, Lennon visited Japan with wife Yoko Ono several times, probably encountering the katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes) that supplied him with the album title "Shaved Fish."

Paul McCartney remains a huge draw in Japan, with many three-generation families attending his 2015 concerts. His arrest at Narita Airport for drug possession in 1980 is now a distant memory. The only time George Harrison toured after 1974 was in Japan, in 1991. Ringo has played in Japan many times and appeared in TV commercials for "chu-hai" canned cocktails.


In 1966, Japan was primed for the Beatles. Elsewhere in the world, they stood for challenges to tradition and authority. In Japan, there was another dimension, which was national rather than personal. The four young Liverpudlians symbolized possibility, the triumph of the outsider and escape from history. The fact they were not citizens of the American superpower, yet were world-beaters in such an essentially American form of expression as rock 'n' roll, conveyed a powerful message of hope to Japanese in many fields of endeavor.

Japan took the Beatles to its heart, spawning dozens of Beatles' tribute bands. At the Abbey Road club in Tokyo, you will find a Japanese "John Lennon" who has been playing Beatles songs for three times longer than the original Lennon managed. Film critic Donald Richie drew a wry parallel with gagaku, eighth-century Chinese court music that persists in Japan long after disappearing from China. Likewise, Richie predicted, 1,000 years hence, Japan may well have "something called the Beatles. It'll be four people with guitars, and nobody will know exactly what it is, but it will be the only place in the world that will have it."

Peter tasker is an analyst,author and long-time Beatles fan.

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