Sonic Practice as Commercial Enterprise in Urban Japan

The Journal of Musicological Research has just published an article arising from the Sonic Japan project, part of a special issue on street music around the world.

Street music in Japan is often associated with the performance of one’s shōbai, translated as one’s trade, business, or occupation. An examination of sonic practices in the public perfor-mance of retail work in Japan traces the links and departures between premodern, modern, and postmodern expressions, focusing on the affective interpretation of work songs and chants through the notion of gambaru (striving for achievement).

While recorded music has mostly replaced live performances of street music in contemporary urban Japan, recordings that sell certain everyday products still reference traditional practices, creating a sense of nostalgia and renewed longing for these products. This strategy, however, can also fail when consumer expectations do not match the nostalgic vision. These sonic expressions (yobikomi, the “calling in” of customers) can serve as an index for the workers’ sense of engagement with their trade, but in post-recessional Japanese society, the sound of customer service can also be linked to the workers’ relationship to the workplace and consumers’ expectations about value for money.

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