SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Robert Simpkins

BA (Hons.) Archaeology and Anthropology, MA Social Anthropology (Migration and Diaspora Studies)
  • Overview


Robert J Simpkins
Mr Robert Simpkins
Email address:
Thesis title:
Playing in KĊenji: making street music in a Tokyo neighbourhood (working title).
Year of Study:
Internal Supervisors


Anthropology of Performance, Urban Space, Marginality, Music Cultures and Youth.

PhD Research

Building upon fieldwork conducted as a visiting researcher at Waseda and Meiji Gakuin Universities, my current research follows the lives of buskers that perform in Kōenji town in central Tokyo. The majority of these musicians self-identify as “freeters” (underemployed freelancers) and move to Kōenji or a nearby part of Tokyo from furusato (hometown) that lie beyond the metropolis. Buskers’ status as both street performers and part-time workers set them apart from deeply engrained societal norms regarding lifetime employment and render them the subject of a debate and moral panic about freeterism. In Kōenji, however, the deviance associated with underemployment and appropriation of public space is challenged by performers through structures of play and a sense of agency distilled in the notion of (worker) mobility. Indeed, historically Kōenji is known for its underground musical circles, political demonstrations and visible presence of marginal groups. Street performers assimilate this discourse into self-management, self-promotion using social media, and to facilitate camaraderie. More often than not they also create clear strategies for ‘progression’ in the musical world. ‘Play’, in both the ludic and performative sense of the word, should therefore be considered as something taken seriously by buskers that come to Kōenji; By knowing how to play in the right way they avoid the attention of police, attract crowds, make friends and fans, and ‘progress’ in their chosen scene. My research thus far has revealed that, whilst it is tempting to frame the story of those I have come to know in Tokyo as one of subculture, youth deviance and spatial tensions in public areas in the city, 路上ライブ (rojō raibu or ‘performance on the street’) is an activity capable of compromise and dialogue with mainstream cultural and economic values, as well as established norms regarding work ethics and hierarchical structures. Participation in such discourses through embeddedness in the music scene makes ‘Playing in Kōenji’ as much about the neighbourhood’s role in the bigger picture of modern Tokyo life as it is the story of its most conspicuous characters.     


  • Waseda University, Tokyo: Visiting Researcher - JSPS Summer Programme 2011.
  • Meiji Gakuin University, Tokyo: Visiting Researcher - MEXT Postgraduate Scholarship 2012-2014.