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. 61
    Conrad on 22 Jan 2009 #

    Yes, #60 – Queen of the Rapping Scene! For that alone I can forgive Modern Romance (that and Geoff Deane’s pencil moustache).

  2. 62
    SteveM on 22 Jan 2009 #

    other classic/awfully drawn-out chart climbs of our times: 53-42-52-30-28-22-20-9-8-5-6-4-2-2-2 and then finally 1 so i can’t say which 90s chart-topper this was.

    more recently, Nickelback’s ‘Rockstar’: 64-58-45-34-20-21-19-22-25-25-15-8-4-6-3-3-2. even in these times this was quite distinct (see FT post on chart entries+D Lynskey Guardian article foofarah).

  3. 63
    Matthew on 22 Jan 2009 #

    Is this a thematic sequel to Shaddap You Face? I had a listen. Rubbish.

  4. 64
    AndyPandy on 22 Jan 2009 #

    Yes I meant Mark Reilly! That takes some doing getting both of someone’s names wrong!

    Further to Modern Romance I’ve always had a soft spot for ‘Walking In the Rain’ maybe partly because it seemed to be around forever (without being a massive hit) in 1983 and is synonymous for me with probably the best time in my life…

    I really wanted to go to Le Beat Route around the time of Chant No 1 too but was a bit too young and by the time I
    was old enough I thought the world revolved around the Goldmine, Flicks, Belvederes, Windsor Safari Club etc

  5. 65
    Crimson Cheeked King on 22 Jan 2009 #

    One funny thing was that Toyah kept her punk fanbase for ages. Especially in the Midlands where she’d hosted a noo wave music show called Look Hear in 1979. When I Want To Be Free was a hit I remember a post-youth club rant at an apologetic leather-jacketed mate who’d been to see her that week. She! Is! Not! Punk! was the gist.

  6. 66
    wichita lineman on 22 Jan 2009 #

    But she! is! punky! said your mate

    Cyndi Lauper. Punky. 99 R** B******s. Punky.

    I’m intrigued and frustrated that I can’t work out the 90s no.1 that took forever to get there…

  7. 67
    Matthew H on 23 Jan 2009 #

    I think I know the 90s No.1 that staggered up the chart. Female?

    ‘Japanese Boy’ sounded like our China Garden music box, oddly enough. Remember liking it, but I only ever cared whether a song was catchy or not. I’m possibly still the same.

  8. 68
    SteveM on 23 Jan 2009 #

    Yes, female…you wouldn’t have to consider this more than once…

  9. 69
    Doctor Casino on 24 Jan 2009 #

    Really baffled by the reception of this – bringing up the “Typically Tropical” thread only rubs it in more! How on earth is this different?

  10. 70
    Doctor Casino on 24 Jan 2009 #

    (Noting, btw, that I basically liked “Barbados” and was surprised at the vitriol of the reaction – so here I kinda dislike the song and am surprised at the detached discussion of it as a song/pop phenomenon rather than minstrelsy.)

  11. 71
    peter goodlaws on 24 Jan 2009 #

    I figured straight away that this woman was not Japanese but to answer earlier questions about whether people back then considered this act and song racist, the answer clearly is no and the reason is that in 1981, people were not charmless PC pillocks. Look, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this other than it’s daft, cheesy and as someone else has already said, instantly forgetable. Had this only hit 2 or 3, I doubt very much that many people would have remembered it at all. Harmless nonsense.

  12. 72
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 24 Jan 2009 #

    peter, waldo is really not a very alert or sensible guide on this particular topic: the battle against racism — which is to say the battle over what exactly constituted racism — was in actual historical fact extremely intense in the early 80s, when the organisation rock against racism was at its peak of influence; as it happens plenty of people then argued that this kind of thing was racist; that things which people were saying were “harmless” were exactly the things that’s WEREN’T harmless (not only was this kind of argument common in the early 80s, i dare say it was actually pretty typical of the form cultural and political debate then took!)

    declaring that this period of history was FREE from this argument compared to the present is particularly daft coming from someone claiming to be aged six (or however old you think you were): the debate — which is still unresolved, since racism obviously still exists and still infests politics and culture, albeit arguably in different forms these days, was very raw and very fraught in the early 80s, when the threat of actively racist politics still seemed very present (enoch powell not only alive but acclaimed by the party in power, and etc)

    the fact is that this kind of statement — “japanese boy, despite being obvious silly nonsense, is racist; such racism must be challenged” — was pretty common in the early 80s, given the very real tensions and fears of the times… you can argue if you like that such a statement was wrong, and even pernicious, but this is a very different kind of argument: and in fact, as an argument, it depends PRECISELY on the manoeuvre you’re smearing the “charmless PC pillocks” with; that of projecting current values thoughtless back into the past — every time that kind of phrase pops into your head, you are EXACTLY projecting current values and debates back into the past

  13. 73
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 24 Jan 2009 #

    “when the threat of actively racist politics still seemed very present” = “when the threat of actively racist MAINSTREAM politics still seemed very present”

  14. 74
    Tom on 24 Jan 2009 #

    #69 – I think one difference is that the content of “Barbados” is kind of insidious – it’s a song about a black immigrant longing to go home where he can lounge on a beach, presented as just a bit of fun at precisely the time when a lot of right-wing forces in British politics were behind repatriation as a policy. “Japanese Boy” doesn’t take its stereotype beyond the dress-up box: even Aneka’s accent doesn’t register as “Japanese” much (well, it doesn’t to me).

  15. 75
    Tom on 24 Jan 2009 #

    Not that I think Typically Tropical were actually HARMFUL or anything! But that’s why they leave a nastier taste in the ears than Aneka does. (Also, I like the tune more)

  16. 76
    Mark M on 24 Jan 2009 #

    Re 74: Indeed, it’s not as if Japanese Boy was about those crafty foreigners stealing our jobs and swamping us with cheap but irresistible electronic gizmos…

  17. 77
    peter goodlaws on 25 Jan 2009 #

    # 72 – I can see sense in a lot of what you say, especially with regard to the counter-racism activities of the period, about which I am clearly ignorant. The problem I have with all of this is that the word, indeed accusation of, “racism” was and always has been levelled exclusively at white people, and not, incidentally, by those who are the perceived targets of such attacks, whether they be verbal or physical, but by a core of white, middle class, and generally well-educated liberals who have their own political agenga. Squealing “racism!” at the drop of a hat (and being offended by this record is a good example) actually imho demeans the fight against the poison which acually IS rascism rather than advancing it. This stance plus other contributory factors have only served to alienate many white working class communities, which are now festering grounds for the BNP. These are not my words. They are the words of the current Labour Home Secretary.

    I should also like to say this. This country is far from perfect. But in race relations it is in pretty good shape (even Diane Abbot has said this), despite your comment “racism obviously still exists and still infests politics and culture”, a sentiment with which I profoundly disagree (well, certainly about the politics and culture). This is particularly apparent when you consider what goes on on the Continent. If we were to use football supporters as a barometer, I suggest you must look further east for your racists, as the behaviour in these countries towards visiting black players (English included) has often been despicable. “Monkey taunts” in England, meanwhile, are now happily non-existent. Alas, the generally rosy picture of life in the UK (where someone recently has suggested that it is the best country in the world to live if you’re not white) is often disavowed by the aforementioned white, middle class liberals, who, sadly, garner no currency in admitting that this country is generally very tolerant to everyone, which explains why so many people desire to settle here.

    As for Waldo not being “an alert or sensible guide on this particular topic”, I take this to be a rather clumsy euphemism for him having negative attitudes towards race. This suggestion is as ridiculous as it is, I’m afraid, unsurprising.

  18. 78
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 25 Jan 2009 #

    no, what i meant about waldo was that, amiable fellow as he generally seems, has a rather silly bee in his bonnet about present-day “PC-ness”, as the Worst of All Possible Modern Crimes Ever, always to be instantly and slightly self-importantly identified and denounced, which meant he didn’t talk generally much sense on this particular topic when discussing the 70s and 80s, because he always saw them first through the lens of his present aggravations — it’s also possible to be squealing “PC!” a bit quickly and unthinkingly, and retroactively misdescribing the past as a result

    i’m not going to fight about where racism is worst in current culture and politics — i didn’t mean and don’t think it only exists in britain, or indeed that it’s obviously worst in britain, i just meant it hasn’t gone away in the world; i don’t think it’s gone away in britain, but yes, it’s true there are much worse places to be… i agree that britain is routinely a pretty tolerant place, in its silly, always class-ridden and etiquette-obsessed way (PC, far from being a modern problem, is really a resurgence of Britain’s endlessly serpentine historical obsession with etiquette, modes of speech that avoid confrontation) — i’ve lived since the 80s in a part of the east end which where turks and vietnamese and west indians and more recently poles and russians all live as londoners side by side with the variegated east enders of earlier influx, and i dare say some families which could trace their roots back to the london of a thousand years ago, if they chose; and i love how well everyone gets on, on the whole — london is one of the oldest multicultural cities on earth that’s still a major world hub, of trade and transit, and i don’t think it gets enough credit for the richness of this particular aspect of its heritage, welcoming, mingling, crackling with nervous excitement; sometimes there are fights but mostly there’s neighbourliness…

  19. 79
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 25 Jan 2009 #

    a record this compares pretty badly with — and may have been inspired by — is lori and the chameleons 1979 “touch”: which has a lovely light synthbeat framework, much more delicate than this, begins as a fairytale of erotic, exotic escape and yearning (“once upon a time in the far far east”); it’s similarly shaped (tho much more groundedly) by the naive touristy allure of the other, but is full of concrete detail (lori’s manchester accent; the sense this is a real time and a real place)

    there’s actually a pretty long tradition — back to the age of cylinders — of records that people like because they hint at other ways to sing; non-western tuning or harmony being faked up by some near-at-hand light entertainer– it’s often pretty clumsy minstrelsy and mimicry (early jazz and rock and rock fall a little into this category) but sometimes heartfelt than mocking, and intended as generous even when (with more travelled ears) you can hear how clumsy and inaccurate the (as here) “fake japanoiserie” is… so the attraction is like kids trying to be grown-ups and not knowing how (with the queasy bit any sense that what’s being mimicked is itself some from innocent or unspoiled or “childlike” culture)

    in the early/mid-80s, i was listening to a ton of non-western music — reviewing it professionally as well – and having to think a LOT (in some senses probably too much) about my responsibilities as a half-educated filter for 80s african pop in particular, when i loved loved LOVED the sound and knew a fair bit about it for an ordinary punky record-buyer) but obviously also knew that there was tons more i didn’t know than i knew; i didn’t and don’t speak any african languages, or example, and was almost certainly making millions of mistakes factual and in terms of judgment of quality

    haha and in the 00s i’ve been working at a mag which covers the history of arts&crafts, and has a whole other traditional of orientalist fascination and distortion that has to be tiptoed round

  20. 80
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 25 Jan 2009 #

    “the naive touristy allure of the other” — yuk i meant the cap-O “Other” rather than the other record; a less wanky way of putting it is “the naive touristy allure of this other culture”; phrases like “the Other” are the kind of sneery bullshit psychology i actually really came to dislike when ploughing through critiques of why western listeners liked eg African pop, so i should NOT use them myself

  21. 81
    Doctor Casino on 25 Jan 2009 #

    “it’s a song about a black immigrant longing to go home where he can lounge on a beach, presented as just a bit of fun at precisely the time when a lot of right-wing forces in British politics were behind repatriation as a policy.”


    That honestly never clicked with me in the “Barbados” thread but it certainly makes a lot of sense when you put it that way. Thanks.

    I once was working on a demo for my silly little musical hobbies; this song had a sort of “pirate” vibe” and so my placeholder lyrics had to do with boats hence “get on the boat and go back home,” etc – a friend was startled by it and pointed out the worrisome resemblance to contemporary US racism (re: Mexico but in the case of “boats” mainly Asia and Africa). I ended up coming up with something much better though not a pirate story.

  22. 82
    Doctor Casino on 25 Jan 2009 #

    (“put ’em on a boat and send ’em back home” of course not being the kind of thing one can say out loud in contemp. American political discourse, but it’s certainly something you’ll hear from grouchy oldsters at family reunions or hotel bars)

  23. 83
    Mark M on 25 Jan 2009 #

    Re 77: As Lord S says, absolutely nobody is accusing Waldo of racism. What he does make is an entirely unsubstantiated claim that what he would describe as “middle-class liberal” involvement in the racism debate has made things worse, not better. I’m not convinced by this at all: it can be clumsy in places (and yes, in one or two cases possibly counteractive), but active anti-racism was pretty necessary considering the behaviour on football terraces, police stations etc 30 years ago.
    This goes along with a pure fantasy that most MCLs live in comfortable, safe all-white enclaves (it used to be Hampstead) and therefore are considering these questions from an aloof distance. To which I say: want to meet my neighbours?
    I agree with you that this is a basically tolerant country, which is one of the reasons I think that Enoch Powell* was not just morally wrong but completely misread the situation. But equally, that is why we shouldn’t put too much stress on what are actually absolutely tiny electoral inroads by the BNP.

    *It’s easy to forget that Powell was absolutely bonkers in ways that had nothing to do with his politics – “I should like to have been killed in the war”.

  24. 84
    lonepilgrim on 25 Jan 2009 #

    my musical knowledge is minimal, but IIRC tunes played on the black notes of the piano end up sounding either scottish or oriental so may be, given the singers background, this may be part of the genesis of the song.
    I find this no more racist than those Japanese lads who used to (and who possibly still do) dress up as some hyperreal version of American rockers. As I suggested earlier it’s just embarrassingly mediocre.

  25. 85
    Malice Cooper on 26 Jan 2009 #

    I don’t recall this ever being referred to as racist, but then I didn’t hang out with people who find racism in “chalk boards”.I guess nobody wanted to date Japanese boys after this, such a shocking story !

    Just say you were a puppeteer in 1977 and suddenly you lose bookings because Mr Punch was on Top of the Pops trying to hit Joy Sarney with a stick ! No way could he attack our Joy and expect to get away with it.

    All said this is actually a very good pop song, sung by a very capable vocalist who clearly had a much stronger vocal range than this required. I remember Aneka turning up on the David Essex showcase in 1982 with “Ooh shooby doo do lang” in which she claimed “Paul McCartney calls me all the time”

  26. 86
    peter goodlaws on 26 Jan 2009 #

    #78 and #83 – I am grateful for these reasoned responses. Just one final point. I wonder how many of my fellow commentators who feel that “Japanese Boy” is racist would also make similar claims against “Kung-Fu Fighting”? Somehow I doubt that these are thick on the ground.

    Waldo’s Aussie tennis bet is seriously knackered, btw, both tips in his “win double” getting stuffed. Hur! Hur!

  27. 87
    Les Tennant on 26 Jan 2009 #

    People disagree with this?
    – “racism obviously still exists and still infests politics and culture”, a sentiment with which I profoundly disagree (well, certainly about the politics and culture)

    Wow…it just seems really obvious to me that it’s true.

    Not that it’s really relevant to this song but: Peter, monkey chants may have pretty much disappeared but this is more down to the minority of culprits knowing they will be punished for doing so rather than genuine socio-cultural enlightenment and progression. The point is, equivalent jibes still go on in many pubs on match-days. I know from conversations with a friend that several of the people he has associated with for England matches home and abroad still harbour troubling views re the stereotypes often attributed to black men (but it’s much more complicated and damaging than inane name-calling).

  28. 88
    peter goodlaws on 26 Jan 2009 #

    There’s something in what you say, Les, but I don’t agree with you entirely. I’ve personally not had, in the last few years, any of the experiences watching footy in pubs that you seem to have had and suffer even now, you say. It surely would appear to even the most empty-headed individual that racially abusing a guy on the opposing side but cheering on the inevitable black guys on your own team to be something of a double standard as well as being completely fucking moronic.

  29. 89
    Les Tennant on 26 Jan 2009 #

    I believe some people solve that by abusing the black players on their own team too. A friend of mine witnessed this exact scene only a few years ago. But I was thinking of less blatant attitudes and how they manifest really.

  30. 90
    Malice Cooper on 26 Jan 2009 #

    Football fan mentally is primitive so nothing surprises me there. Opposing players get abused for anything in a playground bullying way so if one is black or has ginger hair, they will get the odd moronic comment.

    I’ve always felt TV comedies such as “Goodness gracious me” that fulfill all the racial stereotypes, do much more damage within everyday life than a pop song ever could.
    I guess Billy Ocean is lucky that “Caribbean Queen” isn’t being discussed on here as any black and/or gay person would be absolutely disgusted by it.

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