Musician Masahiro Tatematsu says
Tokyos 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 countrys new
disposable income and newfound interest in street life. But
as the performers multiplied, they began to clog Tokyos
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 Harajukus
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
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
|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 instrumentsnow
expanded to include cymbals and other more traditional percussion
instrumentsonto 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 cant 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 arent hurrying to and from work,
tourists, and people interested in the arts. Catching peoples
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 dont 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 Im 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 Kodanshas Illustrated
Encyclopedia, some 300 different types of entertainers flourished,
ranging from musicians to illusionists and trained-animal
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. Todays performers are a different
breed than the tabigeinin of the past.
One thing hasnt changed however. Todays 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 wouldnt 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 dont have a job and address,
you cant 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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