Chindonya – Traditional Music
One of my earliest memories of total culture shock in Japan was just a few days after first arriving in the country: I was walking through Shinjuku on a Saturday morning and suddenly saw a small group of gaudily dressed up people, from young to old, men and women come skipping out of a pachinko shop, playing a tune that did not make sense at all and in a total cacaphony of drums, cymbals, clarinets and banjos. To call their makeup pancake would not offer the thick layers of white paste and bright red lipstick they were wearing justice . Lopsided huge wigs, massive flower decorations, wearing hats, kimonos and costumes, plastic toys and banners on their backs it looked like they had been styled by a dozen clowns high on acid. The spectacle was amazing and mesmerizing. Now this was something we did not have in the the rest of the world. Welcome to the world of Chindon!
It all started in 1845 when a ambulating candy salesman in Osaka discovered that he had somehow turned into a local tourist attraction due to his unusually strong voice, calling out his list of goodies to make a racket that even other Osaka street vendors were unable to match. He figured out that he could make more money advertising the businesses of other people than he could from selling candy. This being Japan, people are not slow to see an opportunity and soon he had competition. In 1885 a businessman from Osaka started hiring performers to advertise in Tokyo. The Tokyoites were not easily impressed by a shouting street vendor, but they were impressed with the military marching bands that were introducing western music and marches to the Japanese, so the businessman hired large groups of performers that mimicked the popular marching bands and wore loud garish costumes playing a strange mix of military marches and traditional Japanese folk tunes. These bands were so popular they started performing in cinemas (movies at that time were still silent) and their big break came when Kirin hired them to go back to Osaka and advertise their beer. During the 1920s, the roaming advertising bands went into decline as other forms of marketing, neon signs and street lights reduced the need for noisy musical advertising. The final death blow came in 1929 when sound films became popular and over night thousands of performers were made unemployed. Striking did not help, and by the time of the war they were banned. After the war many shops had no way of advertising as newspapers, radio (and later TV) was far too expensive for the little shops that grew out of the black markets. Out of these noisy street performers came the Chindonya (chindon being a made up word that basically means “bing-bang”, or “a noisy racket”) we see today.
The chidonya today are hired by small businesses, festival, companies, parties and weddings to perform and if you are lucky you can catch them here and there as they perform in the street, most commonly to advertise pachinko parlors (at least here in Tokyo), but there are even politicians using them in their campaigning. The bands all have at least one person on a drum set up with cymbals, and at least one wind instrument (most commonly a clarinet). Apart from those you will find almost any instrument imaginable. This chindonya, the Donchiya group from Shimizu City in Shizuoka prefecture performed at a city festival in Fuji City’s Yoshiwara district that I attended. This group is probably one of the most serious I have ever seen, very professional! My favorite chindonya though is the Neochindon Kabocha Shoukai (ネオちんどん かぼちゃ商会) from Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa, formed in 1991. I even have their CD!
Here is a video clip from a 1963 movie with a Japanese chindon band performing in Hong Kong, and naturally, getting arrested by the police. Here’s a wonderful old newsreel from 1960 showing one of the few remaining old-style chinodonya, in Kawasaki City.