There’s nothing quite like a hometown crowd.
Our Man in Tokyo (The Ballad of Shin Miyata)is my short documentary about the struggles and obsessions of Shin Miyata, a Tokyo-based record label owner and promoter who specializes in the difficult task of distributing Chicano music in Japan.
Shin’s goal has always been to bring authentic and diverse representations of Chicano and Latinx culture to Japan. He has done so with a purity of intention that hasn’t brought him financial gain, but has instead delivered a wealth of understanding that has educated, enlightened, and actually changed the lives of many people.
As we were planning our first screening in Tokyo, set for April 7 at an event space called Hare-Mame, Shin was nervous. Not only was he reluctant about promoting a screening of a film about himself, he was also worried that not many people would show up.
He wanted to add more entertainment—more films, maybe even a band. We decided to include Tad Nakamura’s poignant short doc about a little-known slice of Los Angeles’ Crenshaw District, Breakfast at Tak’s, plus a few of Shin’s favorite DJ’s -- the Trasmundo crew and DJ Holiday.
Regardless of the additional entertainment, when the night of the event arrived, Hare-Mame was packed to the gills. It was full of Shin’s friends and followers, all eager to watch the documentary about him.
As the film played, the crowd’s reaction was amazing to see. It was much different from audiences in LA and Mexico City, the two cities where the film had previously screened. I don’t know if it was because of cultural differences or personal knowledge of Shin, but the Japanese audience burst into laughter at unexpected moments and actually cheered (!) during a section of the film where other audiences had remained silent.
As the credits rolled, they erupted into a sustained applause—not just for the film, but also for Shin himself, who has impacted their lives in a deeply meaningful way for many years by introducing them to the art, culture, and politics of Chicanos and Latinxs from the US. It was an acknowledgement of all the tireless work he has done for Chicano/Latinx artists and the people of Japan.
Many people thanked me afterwards for telling Shin’s story, but I was just grateful that they had shown up and were open to Shin’s mission of cultural understanding and unity. As I write this, I know that he is already on to a new project—searching for the next band to take to Japan, digging up a long-forgotten album to re-release, or planning another live event. His struggle continues and countless people are better off for it.
East LA currently has the best music scene in the world.
I’ve come to this conclusion because of its sheer number of top-notch, high quality acts that play an amazingly diverse array of musical styles. These groups exist on the edge of Hollywood -- ground zero for the American music industry. They’re rooted in deep musical traditions, mixed with contemporary influences. They benefit from a strong sense of community, mutual support, and slightly cheaper rents than the rest of hyper-gentrifying Los Angeles.
Yet despite their immense talent, these artists remain largely overlooked by mainstream tastemakers in the entertainment industry. Why? Probably because Latinxs are still not understood by those in power, despite the fact that they make up half of the city’s population. It comes down to the same reason why we don’t see many Latinx (or Asian) faces in Hollywood movies or TV shows, which is, essentially, racism.
Though he lives an entire ocean away, Shin Miyata has a better grasp of what’s happening musically in East LA than countless other record label owners and promoters who live just a short drive away. Because he is so steeped in the history of Chicano music, he can easily identify talent, links to tradition, and new musical directions. For the past 20 years, he’s been introducing authentic and diverse Chicano artistic expressions to Japan, helping the Japanese public understand the complexity of Chicano culture.
Not many people have the ability to act as cultural ambassadors between groups that are seemingly so different. Shin understands that our similarities already provide a baseline for interaction and connection. He chooses to highlight and celebrate the differences between us, in order to expose others to qualities that he deems admirable, inspirational, and beautiful.
It’s this sort of international interaction between groups of people done on a local, grassroots level that is the best aspect of his work. He proves that it’s possible to build mutual respect, understanding, and solidarity between people from different cultures -- and have a really good time doing it.