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by Dan Grunebaum

Heaven Artists

Musician Masahiro Tatematsu says Tokyo’s street performance program is providing a decent living for a lucky few

The Australian outback almost got the better of Tatematsu
Credit: Masahiro Tatematsu

Once a city without a street life, where workers bustled from the station to the office with nary a pause, Tokyo has over the past decade evolved a street culture that begins to approach that of New York or London.
In the ’90s, street performers both Japanese and from as far away as Peru began to tap into the country’s new disposable income and newfound interest in street life. But as the performers multiplied, they began to clog Tokyo’s narrow sidewalks and congested station areas and parks.

To bring order to the situation, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government took two steps. The first was to close down areas where street performers were blocking traffic, such as Harajuku’s much-mourned hokoten (pedestrian paradise), once a worldwide tourist draw described in guidebooks.

The second step was to bring order to the burgeoning numbers of street performers. In 2002, the government launched the Heaven Artist Program, which licenses musicians, mimes and other artists to perform in designated public locations.

Modeled after a similar plan in New York, the system requires candidates to first submit a paper application and audiovisual sample, and then undergo a rigorous audition. Of the 647 individuals and groups that submitted applications in the first round in summer 2002, only 140 passed, including 12 non-Japanese.

Among them was Masahiro Tatematsu, 43, from Fuchu in Western Tokyo, who plays a unique set of folding wooden xylophones that he designed specifically to fit onto the back of his bicycle.

Tatematsu says for the lucky few who pass the auditions, Heaven Artist can provide a decent living. He works 20-25 days a month, and has been able to bring in as much as nearly ¥70,000 in a two-hour stretch in the museum district of Ueno Park.

“My income is higher as a street musician than when I was working in live houses and cabarets,” says the former professional drummer and onetime salaryman. “In live houses, income depends on how many people come. But as a street musician, you have a ready audience.”

Tatematsu began his career as a street musician less by design than necessity. In planning a bicycle trip across Australia in 1999, he wanted to bring an instrument. He needed something light, but at the same time wanted something that would satisfy his muse. The result was an extremely light, but versatile kind of wooden xylophone, that he created based on an African instrument.

Tatematsu plays a motley assortment of instruments including some he designed himself
Credit: Dan Grunebaum

Tatematsu spent a year busking his way across Australia. When he returned to Japan he decided to continue this way of life, doing it illegally at first, but now as a registered Heaven Artist. Every day he loads his instruments—now expanded to include cymbals and other more traditional percussion instruments—onto his bicycle and sets off on a 20km-plus trek to the downtown Tokyo spot he has reserved for the day.

Some places can be far more lucrative than others, and Tatematsu says that competition for the choice locations out of the about 50 designated is fierce. “If you can get through by telephone, you can get a good place. Sometimes you have to try for an hour, and if you can’t get a good spot like Ueno, then your earnings suffer.”

The best spots, like Ueno with its museums, provide a steady flow of people who aren’t hurrying to and from work, tourists, and people interested in the arts. Catching people’s attention also demands a good shtick, something Tatematsu has perfected in his years as a street musician.

“Not everyone can relate to my music. I don’t play well-known songs, and to some people it may not even sound like music,” he explains. “I have to talk a lot to the audience to make them understand what I’m doing.” Tatematsu says that good speakers draw larger crowds, and that street performers with a strong visual aspect to their show do the best.

Historically, daidogei (street performance) was an essential part of Japanese street life as cities grew in the Edo period of the 17th-19th centuries. According to Kodansha’s Illustrated Encyclopedia, some 300 different types of entertainers flourished, ranging from musicians to illusionists and trained-animal acts.

But these tabigeinin (itinerant street performers) died out, and remain in their original form only in a few areas such as the saru mawashi (monkey show) of Yamaguchi Prefecture. “Street performers vanished in the Meiji or Taisho eras,” says Tatematsu. “Today’s performers are a different breed than the tabigeinin of the past.”

One thing hasn’t changed however. Today’s street performers are still looked down on, much as the landless and outcaste tabigeinin were in days past. “The average person probably views street performers as below the ranks of performers that appear on television,” says Tatematsu. “People encourage me to go for it, to get to a level where I can appear on TV. But really, even if I appeared on TV, my income probably wouldn’t increase—
I would just be busier.”

More concretely, Japanese society, like many others, is not kind to those without a regular address and place of employment. “In Japan, if you don’t have a job and address, you can’t get a loan, or a credit card. For us street performers, this can be a problem. I have a credit card from when I was a salaryman, but if I were to apply for one now I would be refused.”

Notwithstanding, Tatematsu says people have been kind to him in Japan, Australia, and other places such as South Korea and the Scandinavian countries where he has also busked. And despite the difficulties in procuring a lucrative spot, he intends to continue his life as a Heaven Artist. “For people like me who passed the audition,” he concludes, “it has worked out well.”

Masahiro Tatematsu plays in Ueno Park, 2-4pm on August 24, 26, 27, 29.

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