This park, called “Kaeru Koen” (“Frog Park”), is a colourful and quirky playground that’s popular with small children in the neighbourhood, but what not many people know is that it’s also a fascinating little insight into the development of pop and rock’n’roll music in Japan. The whole park has been constructed as a sort of diorama based on the pop song of the same name, which was popular at the time it was built in the late 1980s thanks to a 1987 version by idol singer Michiko Nakahara. However, less well known is that the song was originally a minor hit in 1969 by the Japanese band The Phantasms. The Phantasms formed in 1964 as an instrumental surf-rock band influenced heavily by The Shadows and The Ventures, but quickly leaped onto the bandwagon of Beatlemania after recruiting charismatic frontman vocalist “Moon” Hibari. The song “Kaeru Koen” was an attempt to recreate the playful psychedelia of songs like “Yellow Submarine” (and perhaps also with a nod to The Faces’ “Itchycoo Park”) with lyrics about the happy garden of frogs who, when they sing, send rainbows “cascading across the blue mountains”.
Unlike many of the British and American songs whose influence The Phantasms were channeling, “Kaeru Koen” was never understood in Japan as containing references to drugs — even the band themselves denied having consciously intended any such connotations, although it’s telling that guitarist Asa Tonbo was involved in a high profile arrest for possession of stimulants in the 1990s. By that time, though, the song existed in the public imagination purely as a children’s song, with fresh-faced Nakahara’s version being the one most people knew. It’s interesting that the location of Koenji was chosen for its construction though, with nearby live venue the UFO Club also opening in the 1990s and becoming a haven for a new generation of Japanese psychedelic bands who were revisiting acts like The Phantasms’ legacy in a way more hedonistic and subversive than even the original band intended.
Ian (F) Martin (Call and Response Records)
PM24+5V Suginami City, Tokyo