A first-time visitor to Japan wouldn’t need long to figure out which pop stars were biggest at the moment. Stroll through Tokyo’s Shibuya district then hop aboard the Yamanote loop line, and you’ll see a swathe of billboard ads and posters featuring the likes of idol group AKB48, boy band Exile and singer Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Switch on the TV and you might catch the members of Arashi, currently the country’s most popular boy band, starring in the latest TV dramas or hosting their own weekly variety shows.
In Japan – the world’s second largest music market, and biggest consumer of CDs and music DVDs – you’re seldom just a pop star. The most in-demand artists are often prodigious multi-taskers, finding time for acting careers, regular TV appearances and product endorsements in between the day-to-day business of making million-selling pop hits. Makes you wonder how they manage to get any sleep.
It’s been this way for decades now. Veteran boy band SMAP first gained a fanbase not via their music, but from a popular weekly variety show called “I Love SMAP.” Back in the 1970s and 1980s, pop idols such as Momoe Yamaguchi and Hiroko Yakushimaru were also bankable movie stars. Most bizarre of all was Masahiko Kondo, a chart-topping singer in the 1980s who went on to become – wait for it – a full-time racing driver.
You might not see today’s J-pop stars competing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans like Kondo did, but they seem to appear just about everywhere else. The girls of AKB48, for instance, can be seen fronting everything from public service announcements to their own line of pachinko slot machines. They’re also constant chart-toppers: the group snagged all of the top five biggest-selling singles of 2011, while their 2012 album “1830m” shifted over a million copies in its first five weeks on sale.
When you talk about album and single sales in Japan, too, it’s generally not about downloads. While the iTunes Store is gaining ground and mobile downloads are fairly popular, many listeners still prefer to buy their music on good ol’ shiny plastic discs. The Shibuya branch of Tower Records, the world’s biggest record store, is worth including on any tourist itinerary. Even CD singles – a format that’s practically obsolete in many other countries – still sell in huge volumes. Japanese fans bought over 44 million of them in 2010.
AKB48′s extraordinary sales figures are partly due to hardcore fans buying multiple copies of their singles. The group’s annual elections, where fans vote for their favorite member, have become a huge media event in Japan – and you’ve got to buy a CD single in order to get a ballot. This year, overseas audiences could also follow the election in real-time, via an English-language page on Google+ (spoiler: 2010 winner Yuko Oshima regained the title by a huge margin).
Although AKB are the biggest idol group right now, there are plenty of others vying for the public’s affection. Long a neglected corner of the J-pop market, idol pop is suddenly big news again. Fans can take their pick from AKB48 sister groups like SKE48 and NMB48, rivals such as Nogizaka46, or the delightfully OTT Momoiro Clover Z, who take their inspiration from pro-wrestling and the men-in-suit monster movies of old. Liking these groups is no longer a guilty secret either. There’s a surprising amount of crossover with the indie music scene, and up-and-coming idol units like BiS and Dempagumi.inc have shared stages with noise and psych rock acts in the past.
Thanks to the explosion of anime conventions overseas, you no longer have to book a flight to Tokyo in order to see these acts either. AKB48, Morning Musume and Vocaloid virtual singer Hatsune Miku have all performed at L.A.’s Anime Expo during the past few years, while Momoiro Clover Z and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu both appeared at the 2012 Japan Expo in Paris. It’s an ideal arrangement for everyone involved: International audiences get to check out some of their favorite acts, while established Japanese artists can use the events as a springboard for international careers.
One of the biggest success stories in recent years wasn’t a J-pop group at all, but veteran rock group L’Arc-en-Ciel. The quartet had been huge in Japan for the best part of a decade before a series of anime soundtrack gigs including “Fullmetal Alchemist” put them on the international map. And they’ve just kept getting bigger. In March 2012, they became the first Japanese act to headline at New York’s prestigious Madison Square Garden – no small feat.
They might not be the last, though. After years of focussing on the lucrative home market, more and more Japanese artists are turning their attentions overseas. These range from metal bands like Dir En Grey and X Japan to electro-pop trio Perfume, who started releasing their music internationally after hit song “Polyrhythm” was featured on the “Cars 2″ soundtrack.
On a far smaller level, the Internet is allowing bands from niche scenes – be it indie rock, hardcore, IDM or harsh noise – to make connections overseas. Where geography and language used to present considerable barriers to Japanese artists looking to broaden their audience, Twitter, Soundcloud and online translation tools have made life a lot easier. Want to get your music released in the U.K.? Dubstep producer Goth-Trad did it by making contacts on MySpace. Want to enlist fans around the world to appear in your promo video? No problem – just look at Sour’s “Hibi No Neiro.”
So you can probably expect to hear more from Japan’s musicians in the coming years, whether it’s an underground band from Osaka playing in your local gig venue, or a big-name pop star headlining at somewhere far bigger. Just don’t expect them to appear in any public service announcements – for now at least.
Photo Credit: Flickr/Guwashi
Well, this seems to be a new MTV website dedicated to Japanese music. Idk what to tag this under