One of the reasons I started studying Japanese all those years ago was because the things I wanted access to were not getting translated--movies, tv shows, books, magazine articles. Japan generates a lot of media but only a very small percentage makes it out to the wider world and much of what does make it out is specially handpicked by just a handful of cultural gatekeepers. What you find is that Japanese media available in English is either "world cinema" type stuff--Murakami, Kurosawa, etc.--or deliberately niche nerd stuff--Cowboy Bebop and Baby Metal. Neither of these things represents truly mainstream Japanese tastes or opinions. In order to learn more, I needed to be able to understand, to read Japanese. My grasp of the language remains far from perfect but in the process of studying the language I've learned a lot about the culture.
When the United States occupied Japan after World War II, they brought American pop culture with them. The Japanese absorbed the basic forms of this pop culture, sent it through a process of 日本化 (nihonka) or "Japanization," and the result is what we have today. Japanese pop culture appears very much like American pop culture at first glance. At first glance it seems easy to understand. Japan has rock music, comic book movies, sketch comedy... but despite some outside similarities in format, these things are really not at all like their American counterparts. Not in content and not in how the audience interacts with them. Take McDonald's. Sure, Japan has McDonald's like we do here in America. They are both inexpensive casual hamburger joins. BUT our McDonald's doesn't care about food quality, just in serving large quantities of whatever people will buy for the lowest price possible. Japan's McDonald's is also inexpensive but it doesn't fit the same market niche as the American McDonald's. Japanese consumers looking for cheap, quick meal like the type provided by American McDonald's have other options like ramen stands or convenience store bento boxes. Japanese McDonald's fits more of the Chipotle niche. The quality of the food, and of the experience is much, much higher than American McDonald's. And customers expect some novelty in the menu. Japan is obsessed with seasonal, limited edition foods. Even though they look the same to the outside observer, comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges--American McDonald's can't start serving seasonal, higher quality items and Japanese McDonald's can't start serving disgusting but very cheap, very large meals. They are both called "McDonald's" but are two different things, culturally.
But music (not hamburgers) is the area I'm most interested in when it comes to Japan. I adore music. I adore pop music. And Japan is the one place on Earth still making pop music the way I like my pop music: with professional song writers, studio musicians, and singers chosen for personality, not "talent." The top-line/beats generated by computer algorhythm model that dominating the American pop charts--the model John Seabrook wrote about--is not how pop songs are written in Japan. They still very much operate in the Brill Building, Carole King-Jerry Goffin mode. American pop is like American McDonald's, aimed at serving a lot of crap that goes right through you. Japanese pop is something different. The songs are still aimed at a mass audience but the relationship between the audience and creators is very different, what the Japanese audience wants out of a song is very different.
What do Americans value in music today? We want an "authentic" statement of who the artist is. We want a specific style of "good singing" as taught to us by shows like American Idol. We want a song that makes us yell, "THIS IS MY SONG!!!!" when we are drunk and in the club. These are most definitely not what the Japanese audience wants and Japanese pop shouldn't be judged on these criteria. They have an entirely different pop music culture. Instead of the club, they have the karaoke room. A hit song needs to be one that's fun for everybody to sing, not to booty pop to. Which means the American Idol style "good singing" is really beside the point. As is "authenticity". Japan is not a confessional culture nor did Japan adopt the post-Woodstock ideals of "authenticity" that polluted American pop culture. Americans demand the drama of a Taylor Swift writing about her exes. Coming from a Japanese artist, that shit would make a Japanese audience really embarrassed for them.
Japanese pop idols are even more different than what Americans are used to. From the outside they look like boy bands or girl groups. But a group like SMAP, who have dominated pop charts, television, movies, and more for almost 30 years, has very little in common with One Direction even if the format--"boy band"--is the same. Much like Indian heroes, Japanese idols have a relationship with the audience that stretches beyond a single release. There is a meta-narrative at work. The idol's fans, like a hero's fans, celebrate his successes, commiserate over his losses. The idol-fan relationship is a special one. He is their avatar in the wider world. Seeing their idol work hard for success, seeing their idol overcome challenges, the fan is inspired. Idol fans, like hero fans, have their own codes and traditions. They will see a movie multiple times, buy multiple copies of a CD single, all to help this idol they've become emotionally invested in.
The reason I'm boring you all with this, half-finished thoughts I'm working through for my J-Pop primer, is I was sent a link to a shitpile of an "opinion piece" from one of THE WORST OFFENDERS of what I'll call the "Last Samurai" school of cultural criticism, in which a white guy of middling talents swoops in to tell a foreign culture what they're doing "wrong" and how to "fix" it by, coincidentally, appealing more to his specific ideas of what their culture should be. Yeah.
I am REALLY grateful for Japan's language barrier because means it's almost certain that nobody in the industry is paying attention to what English-speakers are saying.
Mr. Last Samurai has this idea that Japan is doing music "wrong" because what mainstream audiences want doesn't appeal to him, the international fan, despite the fact that the government has been running a half-assed "Cool Japan" advertising campaign. AND he is butthurt that he can't have access to much of Japan's music output via streaming services.
Now, the list Mr. Last Samurai is bitching about is Music Station's list of the 100 songs Japan is proud to show the world. Here are the top 5:
1) "Sekai Ni Hitotsu Dake No Hana" (The One Flower in the World) SMAP (2003)
2) "Ue wo mukaite arukou" (Known in the West as Sukiyaki) Kyu Sakamoto (1961)
3) "Kawa no nagre no you ni" (Like the winding river) Misora Hibari (1989)
4) "Sakura (a capella)" (Cherry Blossom) Moriyama Naotaro (2003)
5) "TSUNAMI" The Southern All Stars (2000)
It's essentially a collection of sentimental favorites from the man on the street, not a scientific marketing study. This list does not imply that Japan is seriously trying to take on the Hallyu wave with the last song recorded by beloved enka singer Hibari before she died in 1989.
In fact, despite the noise made about Cool Japan in English-language press releases, the Japanese music industry is not after our sweet international dollars and has no desire to change in order to get our sweet international dollars. And why should they? Japan's music industry is far healthier than its American counterpart. You can make a living as a professional bass player in Japan. Think about that.
Here's the thing about the easy consumer access model represented by streaming services: IT DOESN'T DO SHIT FOR THE ARTISTS. It's all well and good to say we as consumers are entitled to this or that but what good has it actually done to serve up a big pile of streaming garbage directly to our ear-holes? What all these Last Samurai types forget is that when the average Shintaro listens to music, he's not just judging a song in isolation based purely on the aural quality of the recording. None of us are.
The Japanese music industry understand this which is why they still selling CDs. So we have a tangible connection to our favorite act. Cover art, music videos, styling schemes, the visuals are important. As are the intellectual and emotional aspects. Give us some fucking lyrics sheets. Give us meaningful LYRICS! Japanese pop, like American pop in the old days, is meant to be digested slowly, on repeat. The reason the old acts are trotted out again and again to sing, yes, "Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana" year after year isn't because there are no other songs but because a song develops a deeper emotional resonance with age. The more times you hear it, the better it becomes. What's the last American pop song you could say that about?
Of course there are exceptions. Japan has it's equivalent to Katy Perry's "California Girls" and America can still put out good quality stuff like "Let it Go" and "Happy". But for the most part American pop has resigned itself to being like American McDonald's. Serving low-quality to billions.
Put it this way. Last week, my favoritest idol group A.B.C-Z released their very first CD single. It was titled "Moonlight Walker" and I bought 3 copies. And I know quite a few girls who bought all 9 different versions of the release. The PV isn't available for streaming. The special features aren't on youtube. The song isn't on iTunes. In order to hear it, I HAD TO BUY IT. And why would I do that? Why did girls buy 9 copies in order to get all the special features? Because A.B.C-Z has built up a relationship with their fanbase. They invested in us and we returned the favor by showing up when they needed us. A.B.C-Z sold 80,000 copies of their single... of which the top selling version sold only 13,000. Imagine that. Imagine what 13,000 streams on youtube would pay. Certainly not the money generated by 80,000 CD singles. So why would Japan want to trade it in for our model? So we, too, can have a small handful of mega-selling acts like Katy Perry and a bunch of "authentic" artists making confessional music in their bedrooms for pennies? No, thanks. I like A.B.C-Z.