Jan 09

ANEKA – “Japanese Boy”

FT + Popular102 comments • 7,856 views

#484, 29th August 1981

Inscrutable indeed is the train of thought that led Mary Sandeman to get up in a kimono and transform into the mysterious and bewitching Aneka. It was to prove an unrepeatable flash of inspiration – the dress-up box wouldn’t stretch to a second hit. And to be fair, nothing much about “Japanese Boy” suggests ‘career artist’ – the public’s appetite for syndrums and chinoiserie was briefly immense but always likely to be finite.

I quite like “Japanese Boy”. In an early draft of the Freaky Trigger Top 100 Songs Of All Time it occupied the #2 slot by general, hearty and drunken acclaim. Sadly we lost that particular list: justifying its position would have been intriguing. But it’s one of those records which has lost its lustre through doing the Popular project. As a memory from the dawn of my pop life it had an allure – helped by the fact that it’s very catchy and Aneka has a piercingly pretty voice – but coming at it chronologically, having worked through the late 70s and early 80s, it’s uncomfortably clear that “Japanese Boy” is subject to grievous diminishing returns. The syndrums are especially grating – telegraphing the singalong chorus like an unpleasant nudge in the ribs, and draining away any feeling or empathy that might have carried over from the more heartfelt (“a word of explanation – that’s all!”) verses. Plus the orientalist arrangements don’t really mesh with the galumphing rhythm: the overall impression is of a record on the nasty end of cheap, slapdashery defeating an otherwise jolly bit of bubblegum.



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  1. 1
    Tom on 21 Jan 2009 #


    i. I will hold up my hand and admit that, age 8, I thought Aneka was actually Japanese, and remember being quite shocked on learning the truth.

    ii. What a ghastly sleeve!

  2. 2
    Geoff on 21 Jan 2009 #

    6 year old me also thought she was Japanese, and it was a long time before I was disappointed. I have very similar feelings to you on this all round – it’s one of my earliest very clear TOTP memories, probably because I liked it so much.

    Listening to it again now and it indeed sound very cheesy, and not in a great way.

  3. 3
    Billy Smart on 21 Jan 2009 #

    Strange is the impotance of cheap music.

    I did like this when I was eight – the combination of an easily grasped narrative, striking image, playground chorus and exotic signifiers of orientalism making a fizzy pop package.

    This enthusiasm has, alas, not survived into adulthood.

  4. 4
    Billy Smart on 21 Jan 2009 #

    I observe that there was a follow-up hit of sorts, number 50 smash ‘Little Lady’. I wonder if there was any chance of image to go with it?

  5. 5
    Billy Smart on 21 Jan 2009 #

    TOTPWatch: Aneka performed ‘Japanese Boy’ on Top of the Pops on two occasions.

    13 August 1981. Also in the studio that week were; Duran Duran, Soft Cell and Shakin’ Stevens, plus Legs & Co’s interpretation of ‘Startrax Club Disco’. Simon Bates was the host.

    27 August 1981. Also in the studio that week were; Startrax, Soft Cell, The Nolans, Ultravox and Genesis, plus Legs & Co’s interpretation of ‘Hold On Tight’. Richard Skinner was the host.

  6. 6
    Tom on 21 Jan 2009 #

    #4 according to Wikipedia, yes! Aneka dressed up as a Victorian lady.

  7. 7
    Erithian on 21 Jan 2009 #

    From time to time the western public are suckers for a bit of eastern exoticism – that hook in the chorus made it a winner the way a Japanese flavour had taken Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki” to number one in the States in 1963, and “Tokyo Melody”, the BBC theme for the 1964 Olympics, was also a big hit. It didn’t exactly grab me but you could see why it was a hit.

    You didn’t mention it, Tom, but Mary Sandeman was indeed a “career artist” in the sense that she was a successful mezzo-soprano with the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra and a folk singer as well, so she was obviously slumming it a bit with this.

  8. 8
    Billy Smart on 21 Jan 2009 #

    ‘Tokyo Melody’ is the business! Anthemic, expansive and utopian: That’s how to do an Olympian theme.

  9. 9
    Tom on 21 Jan 2009 #

    #7 something that occurred to me writing this, though, is that despite the occasional success of orientalist western pop, yer actual Japanese, Cantonese etc. pop has NEVER (as far as I know) crossed over into the UK charts. Unless I’m missing someone blindingly obvious?

  10. 10
    Billy Smart on 21 Jan 2009 #

    Yellow Magic Orchestra went top 20 with ‘Computer Games’

  11. 11
    LondonLee on 21 Jan 2009 #

    Christ, this one had been completely wiped from the old memory bank. Watching the video just now the first thing that came to mind was an oriental Black and White Minstrel Show, especially her comedy Japanese accent.

    Still, it had a good beat. I can imagine enjoying it without that voice over the top.

  12. 12
    Glue Factory on 21 Jan 2009 #

    Does anyone know if this was part of the phenomenon of the summer holiday hit (such as Ryan Paris’ Dolce Vita or Spagna’s Call Me, where a hi-nrg/Eurodisco/Italo record that wouldn’t normally bother the UK charts, gets bought by punters returning from holiday having heard it every night in Valentino’s in Benidorm) ? It’s always struck me as fairly hi-nrg sounding and I just noticed it’s August release date.

  13. 13
    Tom on 21 Jan 2009 #

    Even the hardened regulars are mostly staying away from this one I see :)

  14. 14
    AndyPandy on 21 Jan 2009 #

    Ryuichi Sakamoto had a minor hit or 2 with David Sylvian.
    Tomita had some charting albums in the 70s.

  15. 15
    SteveM on 21 Jan 2009 #

    This is undeniably naff but just about tolerable with production values and quality akin to ‘Feels Like I’m In Love’. What about the origin of the song? Inspired by ‘China Girl’ (I mean Iggy’s version of course)?

  16. 16
    lonepilgrim on 21 Jan 2009 #

    I remember her prancing about on TOTP with a wig that looked as if it had been cut using a wok rather than a pudding bowl. It seemed embarrassing that this was number 1.
    I think I spent that summer working a night shift at a 24 hour petrol station listening to Capital Radio. I got hooked on Rickie Lee Jones’ ‘Woody and Dutch on the Slow train to Peking’ which got played a lot and bought the ‘Pirates’ album on the strength of a glowing article by Ian Penman in the NME.

  17. 17
    and everybody elses Mark G on 21 Jan 2009 #

    #13, I’ve been trying to post but they’ve all been sunk into the ether!

    Now I’ve logged in, maybe things will start to work more!

  18. 18
    and everybody elses Mark G on 21 Jan 2009 #

    #9: The NME was trying to launch JapPop on us all, around this time.

    The Plastics got a free gold flexidisc covermount. Susan’s “24000 kiss” on a NME compilation tape.

    Of course, “Japanese Boy” killed off the whole scene.

  19. 19
    Lex on 21 Jan 2009 #

    So I had never heard of this…thing before, but Tom’s commentary piqued my interest, and um wtf is this awful racist song? Was it seen as racist at the time? It has sort of blown my mind.

  20. 20
    Pete on 21 Jan 2009 #

    I actually remember Little Lady, and rather like it. It all makes a lot more sense if you think of Aneka as a cut price Toyah (which then leads to cut price Kate Bush and Hazel O’Connor allegations being thrown around which I would not be able to adjudicate). There is part of Japanese Boy which makes sense from a kiddie brought up on Radiophonic effects, its effeXor are very Swap Shop.

    But no, its low down on Japanesed themed hits of the era for me even.

  21. 21
    AndyPandy on 21 Jan 2009 #

    Also Satoshi Tomiie’s (and Frankie Knuckles) ‘Tears’ pretty massive on the pirates, the newly legalised Kiss, in the clubs etc but I don’t know if it was a big pop hit too.

  22. 22
    Tommy Mack on 21 Jan 2009 #

    Racist performance surely, not racist song? Nice, keening hook, but a bit naff even for me and, yes, Jap-ing up somewhat racially queasy

  23. 23
    AndyPandy on 21 Jan 2009 #

    I’m not sure it’s racist at all – quite affectionate really unlike the Vapors’ ‘Turning Japanese’…

  24. 24
    LondonLee on 21 Jan 2009 #

    Lordy, lordy “Tears” was an incredible record. Don’t think it was a hit outside the clubs or radio though, unless you count in my living room.

  25. 25
    Tom on 21 Jan 2009 #

    The performance is doubly weird because the song is surely sung from the perspective of someone who ISN’T Japanese – why would a Japanese girl sing “he’s my Japanese boy”?? I don’t think there’s any particular “Japface” going on in the singing – she’s pitching the voice to work with the off-the-shelf orientialisms, so it’s more like Sting’s slightly faux-JA accent when the Police were doing reggae.

    The performance tho is somewhere between Mikado and Minstrels.

  26. 26
    SteveM on 21 Jan 2009 #

    the wonderful ‘Tears’ actually made #50 in ’89, so v nearly a hit

  27. 27
    calumerio on 21 Jan 2009 #

    A testament to pop subjectivism: all of the reasons that Tom dislikes this song – the galumphing, the syndrums, the disjointedness – are the reasons while I love this ramshackle juggernaut. That said, Sandeman’s voice is probably also a big part of it, as her crystal vowel sounds are identifiably part of the Scottish Folk/Gaelic singing tradition and completely incongruous (to these ears) within the context of the song.

  28. 28
    Conrad on 21 Jan 2009 #

    #22 and #23 – I don’t think it’s a rascist lyric (it’s certainly a nonsense lyric), but as for Tony Blackburn “…well that certainly puts a different slant on things” the week this entered the Top 40…

  29. 29
    The Lurker on 21 Jan 2009 #

    I had thought that this one of the last handful of number ones of the 80s that I didn’t know at all. Having youtubed it, it does stir very dim memories (I was six when this came out)… However, I wonder if I’m just picking up a slight resemblance of the chorus to “Live It Up”, by Mental As Anything (it was on the Crocodile Dundee soundtrack). Is it just me?

    As to the song itself, it does sound cheap to me, and I’m not sure I can agree on her voice being “piercingly pretty”.

  30. 30
    Tom on 21 Jan 2009 #

    Cover version watch: Shanadoo – a Japanese Eurodance group from Germany, it sez here (Spotify link).

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