Will Fee, for JAPAN Forward

The owners of the Tin Toy Museum in Yamate, Yokohama, keep a big friendly Ukrainian Shepherd Dog. He likes to lie like a rug in the center of the exhibition, casting a sleepy eye over the amassed collection of 3,000 tin toys dating back to the late-19th century.

Skirting carefully around him, conscious not to step on his long tassel-like fur, I peer through the window of a scaled-down tin replica of a United States gas station, replete with an Edward Hopper-style diner scene. A song plays quietly from a speaker overhead.

Slowly, I tune mentally to its frequency. A somewhat unorthodox medley of Beatles B-sides and rarities up to this point, it both intrigued and annoyed me — I consider myself something of a Beatles aficionado, after all — that the song now being played is one I’ve never heard before.

Sheepishly, I Shazam the song. It is a 1977 John Lennon-penned demo called “Free as a Bird.” Following Lennon’s death in 1980, the three remaining Beatles added instrumentation and backing vocals to the track before releasing it as a posthumous single in the mid-1990s.

Discovering this song in a year that is both the 60th anniversary of The Beatles’ founding, the 50th anniversary of their breakup, and the 40th anniversary of John Lennon’s death, I considered this something of an auspicious sign.

Not only has this excellent, and for me at least, hidden gem of a song now become the latest soundtrack of my daily life in Yokohama, it has also prompted me to do some research on the enduring popularity of The Beatles’ music in contemporary Japan.

I encounter this all the time here: the experience of slowly becoming cognizant that the tune — to which I have been absent-mindedly humming along while waiting to be served in a café, or while standing in line at Don Quixote — is a Beatles song.

In fact, I would like to wager that it is almost impossible to go a whole day in a major city in Japan without hearing at least one song written by The Beatles.

I first noticed the apparent ubiquity of the group’s music while working in Fukuoka a number of years ago. I was reading Murakami Haruki’s 1987 novel Norwegian Wood. The title is an obvious homage to The Beatles track of the same name, and various references to the song recur as a frequent refrain throughout the work.

As I read Norwegian Wood, internalizing the significance of The Beatles music for the novel’s central characters, I began noticing something uncanny. It was as though the band’s entire back-catalog had started following me around.

Inherently familiar melodies suddenly appeared wherever I went. As muzak in the lift up to my friends’ apartments. As background noise in the local bars. As musical accompaniment to my weekly purchases of fruit and vegetables.

By - Ben K.