A woman is DJing while wearing a focused expression. She is wearing headphones and manipulating discs and knobs in a room illuminated by purple lights.

Hiroko Yamamura brings ’80s Japanese cyberpunk into the DJ scene

The DJ from Chicago tackles the music scene with a unassailable sense of humor and a peerless love of anime

Hiroko Yamamura tearing it up at a performance

Courtesy of Hiroko Yamamura

Words by Kelvin Mak

“The Pioneer DVD is the last good print of it,” house and techno DJ Hiroko Yamamura tells me over a recent Zoom call, talking about the cult classic anime film Akira (1988). “And if you know any old people, there's something called the Criterion Edition LaserDisc—I don't know if you even know what LaserDisc is, old-ass format—that is the best print of Akira in existence.” 

Yamamura’s knowledge of cyberpunk esoteria runs deep. Her Boiler Room set, garnering over 2.4 million views, is rife with the industrial, cyberpunk soundscapes of ‘80s and ‘90s anime and a scattershot of glitch pop sounds straight off a bootleg PS1 game. Listening to her sets is like riding a motorcycle down the pulsing neon artery of a towering concrete metropolis: overwhelming yet entirely hypnotic.

Listening to her sets is like riding a motorcycle down the pulsing neon artery of a towering concrete metropolis: overwhelming yet entirely hypnotic.

Growing up an introvert in the suburbs of Chicago, Yamamura gravitated towards the futurist aesthetic emerging in the ‘80s and ‘90s Japanese culture exported to America at the time, as well as other cornerstones of comic book culture. The Akira and Neon Genesis Evangelion posters on her wall and ceiling-high stacks of figurines from franchises and anime like Transformers, Batwoman, and Ranma ½ (still pristinely preserved in their original boxes) are all evidence of the profound influence these subcultures have had on her personality and music.

But despite her voracious appetite for early Japanese pop culture and speaking Japanese with her immigrant parents, Yamamura knows she’s more American than anything else. “There's always going to be that back and forth, right? I love Japan and there's always a connection there,” she says. “But you know you are an American when you are visiting Japan and it's very clear in etiquette. Even when you attempt to mime things to fit in, you still stick out like a sore thumb.”

Yamamura says she has friends who’ve lived in Japan for five to 10 years and are now much more Japanese than she is, but in some ways, that may have been the point behind her parents' decision to move to America. Her parents had an aversion to Japanese cultural norms and, in particular, some of the ingrained patriarchy and ideas of work-life balance. “The salaryman life [is] maybe what you do in Tokyo and that's your idea of success,” she says. But Yamamura’s parents did not think the work culture of Japan was suitable for their children and saw more opportunity in a life in the United States.

A woman looks off into the distance with her arms crossed.

Hiroko Yamamura

Courtesy of Hiroko Yamamura

This decision left Yamamura as one of the only Asians in her neighborhood growing up. Luckily, she remembers mostly funny things. “When you have parents that are not great at English, you don't realize you're saying things with an accent until your friends correct you. Even like popular chains, I was saying them the way my parents said them,” she says. “It takes a minute to know [McDonalds] is not called makudonarudo. You say that to your friends and they have no idea what you're talking about.”

From Yamamura’s perspective, it’s only human to be categorized. She understands she’s perceived as Asian American first before she’s American. “I can't necessarily be upset about it,” she says. “Sometimes, you’re not even Japanese based on how many Asians might be in your town. You’re just Asian at that point. So you almost never feel like you fit in. That's something people will always struggle with in various places, so I can't say I'm unique there. Personally I don't think I can ever be comfortable with it, so I don't think about it anymore.”

Although race played a factor in childhood anxieties about fitting in, Yamamura’s Midwest background has taught her to roll with the punches. “This is Chicago, where we are very bold with the way we talk,” she says. “We’re kind of picking on each other and pointing out racial differences.” Yamamura adds that poking fun at each other, as long as you have an appropriate social contract with that person, was in fact one way to get ahead of racism. “You actually learn some funny jokes you may have not thought of before…whether it's healthy or not, that's to be determined,” she says with a sly smile.

A black-and-white photo of a woman seated in front of a DJ set.

Growing up in Chicago has instilled humor into Yamamura's toolbox for dealing with life's challenges.

Courtesy of Hiroko Yamamura

Yamamura has brought this unique Midwest humor to the strange, absurd ways race has popped up in her DJ career—notably, having been misidentified on tour as another Asian female DJ several times. “Even maybe last year,” she says, “There was a show and three people were like, ‘Peggy Gou, you really killed it!’ And I was like, ‘Forreal!’” Although she went along with it, her friends were appalled and wanted to correct it immediately. “But I thought it was funny enough—and what a compliment to be called Peggy Gou!” she says. Even when she’s in Los Angeles, people will mistake her for the comedian Margaret Cho and ask her for her autograph, so she does what anybody would do and signs her name.

This sense of humor has carried over to her Instagram, which amassed a following driven by her curation of ironic and self-deprecating memes. When asked where her sense of humor comes from, Yamamura cites growing up in a family that likes to banter, but also says she’s a product of an early, pre-corporatized internet. “So you know, day one shitposter,” she says. “Growing up on chat boards and playing online video games, my relationship to the internet is probably different than a lot of people's now. This was in the time of Friendster and MySpace where you didn't actually share your picture or your real name, so you would say the craziest stuff and try to be an edgelord and offend everybody.” But, she adds, jokes are ultimately a way to make people feel comfortable. “It's a way to talk to people. And it's a really good way to deflect any kind of serious conversation,” she says. “It’s an outlet. It's a good and a bad thing.”

A black-and-white photo of a woman having a drink with three friends.

Yamamura shares a drink with friends.

Courtesy of Hiroko Yamamura

Still, despite her penchant for ironic memes, Yamamura takes her duty to entertain as a DJ seriously. She sees it as her responsibility to do so and believes that she has no right to charge a cover at the front door if she doesn’t at least try to put on a good set. “Listen. This could be someone's worst night and they're going out with their friends and they just want to have a good time,” she says. “And you have to, at a minimum, check that box for that person.” To make sure her audience enjoys themselves, Yamamura is constantly making decisions about what journey she wants to take her listeners on—something especially tricky given that she only has the music in her USB at her disposal. “Are you trying to take them on a long journey? Or are you trying to drop the Drake song that everybody knows? Nobody actually wants that, I think,” she says. “You can get that anywhere.”

It’s these established parameters that allow Yamamura to express her repertoire and skill as a DJ by reading the atmosphere and choosing specific songs or mixes accordingly, though it can be a hard balance to strike. “You’ll doubt yourself, right? But at the same time, the song is ticking down,” she says. “You need to make a decision on where things go next. And so sometimes you make the wrong decision, sometimes you make the right decision. Sometimes you execute it poorly, sometimes you do it in a way that is cool. You cannot control that. And that’s part of what makes things fun.” Nowadays, Yamamura moves with the moment and doesn’t overthink things, believing that her musical choices don’t need to be too deep of a decision. It doesn’t go beyond simply thinking that a song is cool and that the crowd might enjoy it.

A magazine cover featuring Hiroko Yamamura. Yamamura is wearing sunglasses and taking a large disc out of its case.

Yamamura is finding success in joy.

Courtesy of Hiroko Yamamura

Yamamura’s next big event will be Fuji Rock Festival, a music festival in Japan that will take place this July. In doing so, she’ll be fulfilling a life goal of hers. “I used to watch videos of Oasis playing at Fuji Rock,” she says. “So being able to play something like that is a crazy opportunity that I'd never thought I'd even mention.” 

Until the festival, she’ll be finishing up the music that she hasn’t had a chance to work on during her last tour. “I'm so incredibly lucky for things to be where they’re at right now,” she says. “But things come and go, right? Music and people's interest in you can disappear tomorrow. It’s a lot of gratitude. What a crazy, crazy thing to be able to do: You get to play music, and people are like, ‘Oh, that's cool!’ And you’re like, ‘What? This is a thing? My God!’” Though her parents may have thought she was wasting her time watching anime, listening to music, and playing video games, Yamamura doesn’t bat an eye. “Now you can go back and be like, ‘You know what, I did something with it!’ Yeah, not a waste of time.” 

Published on April 10, 2024

Words by Kelvin Mak

K.K. Mai is a writer and high school English teacher residing in California's Bay Area. When he's not furiously planning for the next day's lessons, he often finds himself stuck in Wikipedia rabbit holes, wandering around his neighborhood at night, and neurotically cycling through his memories before he sleeps. Sometimes he writes, too. Follow him on Substack or on Twitter at @radishgalaxy.