OXZ were the first Japanese punk band to take on the patriarchy
Mika, Hikko and Emiko on confronting their country's conservative values and paving the way for women punk rockers in the 80s.
Photos courtesy of Captured Tracks.
G.I.S.M, Gauze, The Stalin, Guitar Wolf; these are some of the bands responsible for exposing Japanese youth to punk music in the 80s. All of them had a familiar taste for chaos that closely aligned with hardcore punk in America — hard, fast and heavy riffs formed the basis of their music. Nudity, nihilism and violence were often part of their live performance. You can see it for yourself in some of the grainy archival footage that’s been uploaded to YouTube. But among those early pioneers of Japanese punk was another group, OXZ (pronounced Ox-Zed), whose legacy you might be less familiar with. That’s because they were a band of three women, who weren’t offered the same social capital as their male counterparts at the time.
Formed in Osaka in 1981 by Mika (vocals/guitar), Hikko (bass) and Emiko (drums), OXZ was one of the first bands to challenge the mechanics of Japanese punk and ensure it wasn’t simply defined by machismo and the male gaze. Mika and Hikko went to the same high school, they met Emiko at a venue in Osaka, and soon realized they all had the same desire to play in a punk band. However, at the time it was almost unheard of for women and young girls to embrace the more aggressive style ascribed to punk. While they often played in high school cover bands, there were few allowances for women who wanted to write and perform their own original music, especially during the boomer-era. It simply wasn't acceptable to trade having a family and keeping a tidy home for the looks, lifestyle and ideals of punk rock.
In a booklet that accompanies Along Ago: 1981-1989, a new retrospective of the band’s material that’s being released this month by Captured Tracks, music historian Kato David Hopkins writes of the band’s beginnings: “there were very few women in the underground music scene at that point, and none of them dressed like punks or dyed their hair, or showed much interest in declaring complete independence from the usual rules. So in 1981 when Hikko, Mika, and Emiko first appeared together as OXZ, they were an intentional shock.”
While they often played with many of the country’s leading hardcore bands, that tag is perhaps a little misleading when applied to OXZ. The trio had a more melodic, beat-driven and often shaggy sound that leaned more in the direction of bands that were big in Britain at the time — X-Ray Spex, Sham 69 and The Raincoats provide clearer points of reference — though they also incorporated elements of grindcore, no-wave, psychedelic rock and what would later become known as grunge. OXZ was not only one of the primordial Japanese punk bands, but they were also one of the first to transcend the genre.
Ahead of the reissue of OXZ’s first three EPs, a single, and several of the band’s unreleased demos, we caught up with Mika, Hikko and Emiko to learn more about being in one of Japan’s first all-female punk bands.
Who are some of the bands that inspired you to play punk rock music?
Mika: I was inspired by Siouxsie and the Banshees, Patti Smith, Johnny Rotten and by PIL. But when I began to play with OXZ, I thought we were the best.
Hikko: The Clash, Sex Pistols, The Damned and other Japanese underground bands around OXZ. I also like Mick Karn from [the band] Japan.
Emiko: For me it was Led Zeppelin. I love the drumming of John Bonham.
Can you describe how you came up with your own personal style?
E: I would buy things at vintage shops and I would cut and sew them and make my own clothes. My parents had an avant-garde clothing shop, so I naturally made up my own personal style.
Who was the first punk that inspired you to dye your hair and change the way you looked?
E: It was not from punk. I didn’t like the discipline at school. It was forbidden to dye your hair, everybody had the same length hair and the same uniform, we had to have the same look. I grew up with parents who looked avant-garde, so I naturally started to change my hair color when I was fourteen.
How did people react in 1981 to seeing three women on stage playing punk rock?
M: We were people of interest, so they looked at us with curious eyes.
E: They were either attracted to us or afraid of us.
Why were they afraid of you?
E: Because my looks were very different from everybody else's. People were not coloring their hair or wearing innovative clothes.
Can you describe some of the places in Kansai where you used to perform?
H: Eggplant, Studio Ahiru, Bares, Donzoko house, Kyodai Seibu Kodo were some of the places. It was different at each event, but there was often a lot of hardcore punk bands.
E: Hardcore punk style meant black leather jackets with pen drawings on the back, rivets, etc. The audience was wearing the same kind of clothes — tight black jeans, chains, piercings. There were also many people in T-shirts and jeans.
What was the social climate like in Japan in the 80s. Were women expected to behave a certain way?
E: The Japanese education system and the social climate had a lot of conservative values in the 80s. Some people would spit and shout “dirty girl” at me because of my look. In terms of women’s behavior, you were expected to keep your mouth shut.
Where were you when people would spit and shout at you, and how did you respond to that?
E: It happened in the streets when there was nobody around. I was just sad, without really having much of a reaction to it. But most of the time when people saw us in the subway or at supermarkets they were afraid of us.
Were there other women making punk music in Osaka in the early 80s?
E: There were some girls playing the bass or the keyboard, but not in all-girl bands.
H: There was an all-girl band a few years after us, Sekiri, in the Kansai area.
What was it like playing in other parts of the country, were people as open to your music as they were in your hometown?
E: Our music was a bit different to other punk bands, so it was strange music in our hometown, too. Many punk bands were playing eight beats with major chords, whereas OXZ was influenced by other kinds of music — psychedelic, new wave, hard rock and the blues. We got the same reaction when we played in other parts of the country.
Shonen Knife is another well-known Osaka punk band from the early 80s. How were they different to OXZ?
E: Shonen Knife’s members were Mika and Hikko’s school mates, but they were playing poppier songs, with cute looks. I much later realized OXZ's genre was more no-wave, the beginnings of grunge music.
Did you remain friends with Shonen Knife after you finished school?
M: Shonen Knife’s drummer, Atsuko, was a good friend of mine in high school, but we didn’t play in the same band so we eventually got more and more distant. When I met her by chance at a venue last year we were happy to have some time to talk. I also ran into Naoko, Shonen Knife‘s guitarist, two years ago at an event in Japan and we talked a lot.
A big part of American and British punk culture in the 80s and 90s was creating hand drawn posters and fanzines. Were people doing a similar thing in Japan?
H: I don’t think there were many fanzines. There were some flyers from each venue with a written schedule, some stories, and Manga [comics]. We didn’t have much money, so no computers or typewriters.
M: I remember everybody was making posters and flyers by hand, one by one. It was very interesting, each flyer had its own character.
How did you get around, did you have a tour van?
E: We didn’t have a tour van, we just used a standard car whenever we toured. I used to get around on my motorbike. There weren’t many girls that had permission to ride motorbikes.
Why did the band break up?
E: Our music was getting more complicated, we were mixing with other genres of music, changing rhythms, etc. Hikko didn’t want to keep going and Mika and I didn’t want to keep OXZ going without her.