Sunday Blog Spotlight: The American Market For Japanese Music

Filed in American Wota 1.0

I missed Momoko’s fifteenth birthday this past Wednesday! (Well, as long as I don’t forget Shihono Ryo’s sixteenth in another few months, that’s okay.) Anyway, it’s been another busy week for me outside this site, though I’m just about set to start the Morning Musume PV overview project this coming week… There was a lot of good Jpop blogging this week by others, with some welcome surprises from old hands and some welcome appearances by new bloggers.

Before I forget, let me shill for the Feed: if you’re writing a blog about Japanese music and want more readers (how many more readers, I don’t know), then drop me a line and ask to be added to the Feed of Pop feedstream. Several of the longtime bloggers are also on the American Wota forum as well, though we don’t talk blog-shop so much as drool over eyecandy…


WOTA LIFESTYLE

EYECANDY EYECANDY EYECANDY

HELLO! PROJECT

AVEX TRAX

ALSO IN POP MUSIC

ROCK

RAP

OTHER MEDIA


A few things pop out at me this week – Santos’ amazing Duchamp entry, Go’s equally amazing review of Nightmare, and the appearance of four new (for me) H!P-focused blogs! But the one that has to be addressed is definitely Pata’s piece on the troubles of Tofu Records and the problems of getting Japanese music to break into the American audience.

Pata doesn’t write very often about Japanese music but when he does, it often makes me stand up and notice. He has a great style that manages to blend pop-culture erudition, snarky cleverness, and well-honed reasoning. Along with a select few, I’d count him as one of the writers in our corner of the Jpop blogosphere capable of professional-level work. Here, he’s firing on all cylinders and has written yet another piece that becomes mandatory reading for anyone who cares about international J-culture.

I want more of his argument and perhaps a clarification or two. At one point Pata argues that Tofu and Geneon don’t release enough beyond anime-related CDs. Then he turns on Japanese music fans in America for not supporting these labels and going straight to Japan for their goods. (That is, when we’re not busy downloading stuff for free.) Well, as a wota I don’t want most of what the American J-music labels offer. A quick peek at the Tofu website confirmed that for me. I’m not much for der kauz, I’m a selfish consumer who’ll pay to support what I like, not some abstract ideal.

Which brings up a related issue: though focusing the discussion on the American otaku market and the current American fans of Japanese music, Pata doesn’t explicitly consider the role Japanophile tendencies may play in buying habits with these groups in particular, though certainly it seems considered in how he approaches the topic. The issue of authenticity – that a cultural artifact from Japan is “better” and therefore to be valued more by the dedicated fan – often plays a role in buying decisions. And indeed, American otaku often buy untranslated art books of favorite series, as well as a variety of other goods.

So why don’t more American otaku buy the manga and anime straight from Japan? The answer’s obvious: many can’t understand Japanese and need that to appreciate the story in its original format. Which brings up the issue of narrative: manga and anime often require a bridging of the language to be properly enjoyed. Therefore, the American market demands translations that can best be provided by American companies like Viz and ADV. Japanese music relies a whole lot less on that level of comprehension – what the hell, I’ve stated time and again that I often prefer not understanding the lyrics, since pop songs are often lyrically insipid. (A whole other topic for a whole other day.) Songs and music videos and even some television show appearances can be enjoyed with little or no understanding of Japanese.

All that said, Pata’s two main points are impeccable and worth addressing in detail.

The idea that manga and anime are a unique gift to the world and Japanese music is more derivative of the West may be a tough pill to swallow – but let’s face facts, there’s more than a hint of truth there. I’d like to think that idols provide a unique way of appreciating the musical industrial complex with its heavy marketing of ancillary products as well as its idiosyncratic take on celebrity (and talent)… but idols of the Jpop variety seem aimed at a narrower demographic than their American equivalent, at least nowadays. Comparisons to the American comics market may be useful here, especially with the narrowing in breadth and deepening of commitment in the hardcore audience. Whether or not that translates to an expanded American market is debatable.

Second, the argument that non-otaku overseas fans of Japanese music aren’t geeky enough is intriguing and worth exploring further. Having devoted a great deal of my waking hours on men in tights punching other men in tights, I’m sure my comic book bona fides more than passes the geek test. Further, I like to think I actually approach my love of Japanese music with the same brazen attitude. My Comics Journal column was called “Fanboi Politik”, this blog is called “American Wota” – I’m big on self-labelling. I like underage idols as much – perhaps even more – than homoerotic superhero hunks.

And there’s so much more to consider from what Pata wrote. The most obvious extrapolation I could think of: Sony owns Tofu and Sony also owns Zetima, the home of many Hello! Project acts. (I don’t know if the same applies to Hachama or Piccolo Town, the other two H!P labels.) So why not exploit that connection? At the very least, it’d lessen the burden on my own wallet (though yeah, I’d still get the Japanese versions of CDs and DVDs if it included special treats like sandals and

Finally, there’s one assumption that needs to be addressed: why even bother with spreading Japanese music more aggressively to an American audience – even ones that seems primed for it, such as the anime / manga otaku market? What’s the overall benefit, especially since many Japanese acts seem more interested in breaking the rest of the Asian market and don’t even consider the West? As fans, is our interest in more Western fans of this music working at cross-purposes with what our idols desire?

I remember being a comic book fan and wanting to spread the word when I was younger – dreaming of an ideal world when everybody in America read comics and accepted it for the artform that it is, where Harvey Kurtzman and Will Eisner and Jack Kirby all got the recognition due them. Time passed, though, and I realized that a wider market isn’t necessary to enjoy comics the way that I did, nor did it better validate my own appreciation of the medium. It would just make comics more popular, which would be both good and bad for the medium. In my pseudo-maturity, I don’t hide what I like (and often read comics in public without caring what others think) but I don’t evangelize either…

(Not unless thoroughly provoked, that is. I got my boss at my full-time job hooked on some Vertigo comics, and currently burn Japanese music DVDs for a co-worker who’s from Japan but now lives in Hawaii. However, in both cases these grew naturally from interests that were shared before we ever met. I don’t go storming around Oahu waving 100 Bullets and SweetS’ first album into people’s faces. Though for a small amount of money, I may be persuaded to do so on a dare.)

As result of my geek past, I feel similarly about Japanese music: I don’t hide it, nor do I make a big deal of it; I enjoy it as much as I can, but don’t believe that expanding interest in it is all that important. Part of being a geek is accepting that one’s choices inhabit a fringe of the mainstream: not everyone plays D&D, not everyone can recognize Steve Ditko’s artwork, and not everyone cares if Bounceback wrote a song for some idol. I don’t even tell most Japanese people that I encounter (and I work part-time at a Japanese company in Waikiki) about the music that I listen to, since Hello! Project and SweetS and Perfume are such niche markets in their own country, never mind around the world.

There’s so much more to cover on this topic – in many ways, it’s one of the Big Topics about being an overseas fan of any kind of foreign culture. (European comics, for example – I suspect Enki Bilal would be an easier sell to America than Morning Musume will ever be, but the European comics market in America has flatlined even as manga continues to grow here.) I definitely understand the implicit benefits of a stronger American infrastructure for Japanese music, but those benefits are of course unproven and still debatable. Pata has opened up the conversation, I’m responding in a rather hurried if long-winded fashion, and am sure others hold strong opinions as well. (I can think of two distinct proposals I’ve read about bringing Morning Musume to America.) So let the ongoing debate continue, and I hope more such opinions surface in the near future.

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3 Responses to “Sunday Blog Spotlight: The American Market For Japanese Music”
  1. I’ve been waiting for this invite for quite some time: Please add Radicalpatriot’s Blog (http://www.writingup.com/blog/Radicalpatriot) to your Feed list. My blog is designed for newbies with some news and views mixed in. Many thanks!

  2. Ray Mescallado says:

    You’ve been on both AmeWota and IntlWota’s blogroll for a while now, RP!

  3. Thanx brother. I’m just a sponge soaking up knowledge at this poiont.