It's an irony. Sony Music Entertainment is one of the biggest record companies in the world; Yamaha is the largest manufacturer of musical instruments in the world; Japan has the sixth-largest population in the world; the music industry generates billions and billions of dollars worldwide every year. Yet how many Japanese artists have had a No. 1 hit in the US or European charts? One. Yes, one - and that was way back in 1963 (Sukiyaki by Sakamoto Kyu).
So what's the problem with Japan?
Several things - record companies are happy with the huge domestic sales racked up by the bands under their control (literally); the language barrier is a problem, with few Japanese feeling comfortable speaking or singing in English; and the fact that there is no market for the vast majority of Japanese pop music outside of Asia (other Asian countries have a strange admiration for all things Japanese, including the music).
There have been a few bright spots over the years but they're few and far between. Bands with musical talent, like Southern All Stars, Chage and Aska or Dreams Come True turn out records with some songs that stay with you but nothing that would break them in the US or Europe. In the 90's, other bands, like Shonen Knife, Pizzicato Five, Cibo Matto and Buffalo Daughter have a cult following abroad but little commercial success.
THE JAPANESE MUSIC SCENE (1958 - 1990)
The pop/rock music scene has gone through a few different stages over the years. The rockabilly sounds of the late 50's became popular in the cities of Japan just after they revolutionised the US music scene. Young guys and gals flocked to see the stars of the day do their best impersonations of Elvis and Gene Vincent at the Western Festival in Tokyo in Februaury 1958.
In the 60's, it was the Beatles and the Rolling Stones who inspired the imitation of local groups. Ereki (electric) guitar music was the in sound of what became known as the Group Sounds phenomenon. The best known local bands of the decade include the Tigers and the Spiders. The Tigers were the first band to play the Budokan, then the biggest indoor arena in the country. 1965 saw the first successful tour by US surf-sound band the Ventures, who have retained their huge popularity to this day. Record industry overkill finished off the Group Sounds era and the seventies saw the arrival of New Rock and the Idols.
Aidoru (idol) was the word used to describe cute, girl-next-door singers who were designed, controlled and marketed just like any other product. In fact, for the talent agencies, having these starlets chosen to be the face of a candy bar or instant noodles in a TV commercial was as much part of the plan as selling records. The 70's and 80's saw hundreds of these idols come and go, such as Pink Lady, Yamaguchi Momoe, Tanokin Trio and The Candies. Pink Lady had nine No.1 hits in a row between 1976 and 1978 before disappearing without trace.
The 80's saw a degree of international success for the techno-pop of YMO (Yellow Magic Orchestra). Band member Sakamoto Ryuichi went on to become the best known Japanese musician in the world but with little commercial success outside of movie soundtracks. The decade also saw the peak of so-called New Music, a fusion of folk, rock and pop typified by singer/songwriter Matsutoya Yumi, or Yuming. The top rock bands of the 80's included Southern All Stars, Kome Kome Club, Checkers and Princess Princess.
THE 1990's AND BEYOND
Although the heyday of the idols was in the 80's, the musical artists of the Johnny's Jimusho talent agency such as SMAP, V6 and Kinki Kids have ruled the airwaves for the best part of the decade. Having their own TV shows keeps them in the public eye even when they're between singles or tours. Together with artists 'created' by producer Komuro Tetsuya, they have ensured that bland pop music by youngsters who can't sing or play has been the hallmark of the genre known as J-pop. The mid-90's saw Komuro make it as an artist with the groups TM Network and globe. He then moved up a gear to exploit aspiring singers and fans alike to become one of the richest men in Japan. In his breakthrough year, 1995, Komuro's music made some 27 billion yen and the following year he had 5 of the top ten singles. His many creations include the Avex Trax label and artists trf, Amuro Namie and Kahala Tomomi.
Another former musician turned producer is Tsunku. He 'temporarily' retired from his position as frontman for the group Sharan-Q to become an 'idol-maker'. Few expected the huge success he pulled off with Morning Musume. This ever-evolving girl group literally took the J-Pop scene by storm following their TV creation in 1997. The 'Tsunku family' has continued to grow into a financial and promotional monster, with the Musumes and gaggles of other young starlets in what is called the Hello! Project constantly changing places, forming new offshoot groups and advertising everything under the sun. The sheer money-making capacity of this operation ensures that it will be with us for some time to come.
Hamasaki Ayumi was something of a new breed in the late 1990s - a young female singer with drive and ambition... and a good nose for marketing. This reputed ego-centric diva caught the fancy of the all-important high-school girl market, and became their unofficial fashion leader. This coupled with the income from her royalties - she writes her own material - helped her establish her position of power in the industry. In recent years, that position has been largely usurped by Koda Kumi, ironically also on Ayu's Avex label. She made good use of her sexy image and bubbly Kansai personality and rose from being a club singer to the country's biggest selling artist in 2006 and 2007.
Lest you think that Japanese popular music is all commercialism and void of any artistic merit, I should mention that there are some the more talented artists who have made the big time. 1999 saw the group Glay play to a crowd of 200,000, surely some kind of record. The 4-man group from Hokkaido play fairly standard J-Rock but they've built their succes through hard work and a solid 'rock n roll' image. The late 90's also saw some more western-style artists, such as Dragon Ash and Utada Hikaru explode onto the scene. Dragon Ash play a mixture of rap and rock and show that - at least when they manage to turn out a good single - Japanese can rap with the best of them.
Born in New York, the 16-year old Utada debuted in 1999 and though she looked just like another idol, she was clearly something completely new. She wrote and sang her own songs with a soulfulness beyond her years. Her good looks didn't do any harm and 'First Love' became the best-selling Japanese debut album, with almost 8 million copies sold. Like other artists, there were immediate tie-ins with commercials and TV appearances but Utada's experience of life outside the Japanese music scene helped her to rise above it. At the age of just 18, she became the youngest artist to appear on MTV's Unplugged show. Utada's success plus the growing power wielded by Hamasaki Ayumi paved the way for other independent-minded young women, such as Koyanagi Yuki and Shiina Ringo to get their break into the big time.
I'm not too au-fait with what's going on in current Japanese alternative, indie and club music. But some of the artists that I've been impressed with are: Thee Michelle Gun Elephant (a kind of Japanese Ramones), The Mad Capsule Markets, Buffalo Daughter, Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her, Boom Boom Satellites and Captain Funk.
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