Pre-eminent Japanese jazz chronicler and archival jazz producer Kiyoshi Koyama died on February 3, 2019. He was 82, and will be remembered by many as the most important Japanese jazz journalist of our time. The cause of death was stomach cancer.
For the uninitiated, Mr Koyama was the editor of Swing Journal, a pivotal publication in the earliest years of Asian jazz. Much of his work involved covering the rise of jazz in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and he often traveled between Japan and the U.S. He interviewed legendary jazz talents including Miles Davis, Albert Ayler, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Sadao Watanabe, and John Coltrane. In fact, the Japan Times recalls how Koyama was responsible for one of Coltrane’s most famous lines. During Coltrane’s 1966 Japanese tour, Mr Koyama asked the saxophonist, “What would you like to be in ten years?” Coltrane’s answer to the question was succinctly iconic: “I’d like to be a saint.”
After being a rock star journalist in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Mr Koyama began working for record labels in the ‘80s. His massive knowledge of jazz came in handy when record labels hired him to mine archives for recordings, producing box sets like The Complete Keynote Collections and Brownie: The Complete EmArcy Recordings of Clifford Brown. Considering Mr Koyama’s contributions to the global jazz movement, it can be argued that he’s partially responsible for modern Japanese culture spreading in both Asia and the west. His work in chronicling and later producing the global jazz movement showed the world just how much the Japanese love the genre.
Mr Koyama’s love of jazz reflected the growing awareness of American culture in Japan after the war, and how it helped shape future generations. Today an appreciation of Japanese culture is growing in the U.S. driven mainly by those involved in the arts. In literature, writer Haruki Murakami is in every major western bookshop, and he himself was brought up on American jazz (he even owned a jazz store at one point). His novels on Japanese life have become international hits. This increased interest has also been reflected through a demand for Japanese related culture on digital platforms. Online gaming provider Expatbets has a range of games inspired by Japanese culture including the title Sakura Fortune, which uses both the lone warrior and blossom tree motifs from Japan. Other examples are the recent remakes of popular Japanese anime, two videogames released this year based on the samurai, and the increasing number of dedicated Japanese festivals in the U.S.
Kiyoshi Koyama is not as famous as revered filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, celebrated international DJ Steve Aoki, or even Japanese experimental jazz musician Kei Akagi – but he should be. The man’s contributions to jazz, journalism and the prominence of Japanese themes in modern culture puts him right up there with the greats. He’s gone, but his contributions will resonate for a long time across modern history.