Fuji Rock Festival 2011: The show must go on
By Christopher Johnson 20 July, 2011
Rain or shine, a hammock in the woods of Niigata is a great place to relax and watch the world’s top artists on the main Green Stage at FRF.
Spend time with Masa Hidaka, and you soon realize this is a man who enjoys putting on a show.
Sometimes, that consists simply of telling outrageous stories in his office in Tokyo’s Minato Ward, where he works in a T-shirt, track pants and slippers.
A more conventional take on his showmanship, however, would be the Fuji Rock Festival (FRF), where about 120,000 fans (roughly 40,000 per day) are set to invade the Naeba ski resort in Niigata Prefecture, about three hours’ by road or train north of Tokyo, for their annual slice of paradise on the last weekend of July.
A typhoon nearly blew the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine and thousands of freezing fans off a mountainside.
After the March 11 disasters, Hidaka says he never thought of canceling FRF; “not even for one second.” He was more worried about what tsunami survivors would drink.
So, he and a buddy drove right up to the 20-kilometer perimeter around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Perhaps accustomed to his all-access pass at FRF, Hidaka tried to go directly up to the main stage — the radiation-spewing reactors — but security (in this case, police and self-defense forces) wouldn’t let him in.
“I really wanted to go inside. 10 kilometers, five kilometers [away from the reactors] — it doesn’t matter.” Without a Geiger counter, he stepped out of the car to smoke a cigarette. “My friend looked like he was just frozen inside the car. I’ve never seen him so scared.”
Heading further northeast with a carload of supplies, they assisted fishing villages across the disaster zones of Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, though they also got turned away “backstage” near another nuclear plant, in Onagawa.
Masahiro Hidaka in his usual relaxed office gear.
And, with 25 employees in Tokyo and London, Hidaka’s company, SMASH, marshaled its logistical expertise into the relief effort. Volunteers, used to carrying in supplies and camping at Fuji Rock, headed to Ishinomaki to help.
Staffers also spent the first three weeks calling agents and musicians overseas to tell them that Japan wasn’t falling into the ocean, and that a Tokyo music club was not in fact a nuclear reactor as reported on American TV.
Hidaka expected many cancellations. But the overseas music community was eager to show solidarity with fans in Japan.
Only a couple of groups cancelled — fewer than other years, when acts would call off shows due to illness or personal issues, says SMASH director Johnnie Fingers, formerly the keyboardist with Irish legends The Boomtown Rats.
Following up on SMASH’s idea, London music impresarios looked for someone to lead a charity concert. The first to raise his hand, says Hidaka, was former Oasis vocalist Liam Gallagher, whose new band Beady Eye led a fund-raiser in London.
Fuji Rock is the most important event of the year for many Japanese artists, such as Kenichi Asai, who has played nearly every year since 1997.
This year’s FRF, spread over seven stages, will feature a campaign at the NGO village near the Avalon Stage to build awareness about tsunami survivors and nuclear issues. Hidaka also recently launched a campaign to plant trees in Niigata, and wants FRF to be carbon-neutral.
More on CNNGo: Down on the farm in Niigata
He says he isn’t searching for another location, despite Naeba’s reputation for mountain weather, muddy fields and sleepless nights in tents on a cold wet slope.
Indeed, harsh mountain conditions shaped Hidaka’s defiant character while growing up in Kumamoto Prefecture in Kyushu, where he refused to obey conservative locals who shot down his ideas for change.
Dropping out of school at age 14, he went to Osaka alone, quit high school after a week and drifted into the welcoming embrace of a factory, which in 1964 would hire anybody with ID, he says. “The factory had a bed and food. I didn’t complain.”
With a reputation as the cleanest and most orderly festival in the world, FRF aims to educate fans about eco-friendly lifestyles.Two decades later at the Glastonbury Festival in England, he saw thousands of fans romping in the rain and mud, and wondered if it would work in Japan. But few in Japan believed Japanese would pay to get dirty, and many worried about the dangers of 40,000 people standing — not sitting — at a concert. “I said it’s dangerous, a little bit, but we need it. We can control ourselves.”
But they couldn’t control the weather. At the inaugural FRF in 1997, a typhoon nearly blew the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine and thousands of freezing fans off a mountainside near the sacred Mount Fuji volcano.
More on CNNGo: First-timer’s guide to Fuji Rock
At 4:15 a.m. on a Sunday, Hidaka decided to call it off before the first trains would bring fans from Tokyo. Moving locations, though, he forged ahead with his vision to open up Japanese culture through outdoor music.
As a reward for promoting British culture in Japan, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 2004.
Rock ‘n’ roll
Hidaka accepted it on condition that he didn’t have to wear a suit and tie to the ceremony. The British Embassy in Tokyo requested he at least not wear blue jeans. So Hidaka wore black jeans and a green denim jacket.
While the ambassador, as the Queen’s representative, donned traditional attire, Hidaka sported a marijuana badge on his shoulder — a gift from his lifelong friend Joe Strummer of British punk icons The Clash.
Long opposed to nuclear weapons — he also launched “Atomic Café” music events in the 1980s — Hidaka says the growing anti-nuclear movement in Japan is “just the waking up of people to say ‘No, No, No more’” to the Japanese establishment on many issues.
Thousands march to find their tents on a crowded mountain slope. Many skeptics told Fuji Rock founder Masa Hidaka that Japanese fans would never pay to camp out in the muddy mountains.
Though disaster recovery will take at least five years, Hidaka says Japan will bounce back better than ever. SMASH, which continues to aid Niigata earthquake victims, will support Tohoku as long as they need it, he says.
“Maybe one day we can make a bigger festival for Tohoku.”
Full details are online at www.smash-uk.com/frf11