Big in Japan

How does one tiny island nation create so much disposable pop?

Quick, name five Japanese bands. Chances are, some of the more intense music nuts out there might name-check the Boredoms, Pizzicato Five, and Shonen Knife, and some might even recognize Melt-Banana or Guitar Wolf. But the reality of Japanese pop music -- or J-pop, as it is referred to by its growing cult of Western fans -- is a very different story from the one told by the aforementioned groups, whose North American appeal is almost inversely proportional to that in their native land.

The actual soundtrack to the daily lives of the people living on this tiny island nation of 126 million is composed of music every bit as cheesy, every bit as slick as that offered up stateside. The youth-driven Japanese music industry, once dominated by gai-jinartists and producers, has turned disposable pop music into a homegrown art and, in the process, created the second-largest music market in the world.

To the distanced observer, the Japanese appear to be the world's most perfect consumers, or at least the most enthusiastic. High-tech vending machines crowd every corner, tree, bend and brook, dispensing everything from pantyhose and sake to CDs, often with no visible source of electricity. This gadget-happy corner of the world has turned consumerism into a science. It's not uncommon to see products triple-wrapped; fruit can be seen individually attired in little knitted cardigan sweaters. Seriously.

Hideo Matsumoto, known to his fans as Hide, was so popular in Japan that his fans did everything he did, with unfortunate results.
Hideo Matsumoto, known to his fans as Hide, was so popular in Japan that his fans did everything he did, with unfortunate results.
Namie Amuro dominates the Oricon charts in Japan, with the help of producer-Svengali Tetsuya Komura.
Namie Amuro dominates the Oricon charts in Japan, with the help of producer-Svengali Tetsuya Komura.

The extra mile that the Japanese put into their products is reflected in the almost uncontrollable waste problem that has developed in the past few decades. Just think, the Japanese -- who have embraced the bidet and really, really like it -- have no idea where to throw away their trash, whether it's mountains of garbage or disposable pop songs. It didn't help that other countries used Japan as a dumping ground for their own kitschy, catchy tunes.

As recently as 10 years ago, most of the music pumped out of the airwaves of Japan was from American and British sources. Japan, although cornering the market on cute, had yet to successfully export its brand of off-kilter pop to anywhere other than itself. For every Hello Kitty -- the enduring symbol of all that is hopelessly cute -- and Pokémon, there has always been a Pink Lady. (Remember them?) With the recent stateside underground popularity of such Japanese recording acts as Cornelius and Buffalo Daughter, not to mention anime, J-pop has benefited abroad from a certain awareness campaign that doesn't even truly hint at its magnitude.

Embracing everything from upbeat girl-group pop to spiky rawk anthems, the sound of young Tokyo is united only in its ability to shift units. At the center of the industry is a tightly controlled organization that exerts the same pressure on its artists as does the Japanese educational system on students, encouraging conformity and imitation not only among its practitioners, but in the youth market that consumes it.

Namie Amuro is probably the most popular female singer in Japan today. Her songs and image grace a wide range of TV shows and commercials as well as magazines and expensive calendars. A graduate of the infamous Okinawa Training School for young pop performers in Naha City (a breeding ground for many of the cute boy and cute girl groups in Japan), she was taken under the wing of prolific producer-Svengali Tetsuya Komura to become one of the top-selling moppets on his Avex Trax label. Kick-starting her career in teen band Super Monkeys, Amuro soon left to go solo, and by the middle of this decade, her CD singles were regularly selling more than a million copies.

In a country where it is as important that songs can be sung in karaoke boxes as it is that they're heard over radio and TV, Namie Amuro does very well, exemplifying the girl end of the J-pop spectrum. Switching styles and genre-hopping as it suits her, Amuro's success has inspired a cadre of like-minded artists such as Ayumi Hamasaki and Tina, whose Japanese urban-funk-soul fusion is almost indistinguishable from its American counterpart. Today's most popular Japanese vocalists have moved away from their Enka (prewar popular music) roots and adopted the clothing, styles and attitudes of Western music, especially modern R&B.

Tetsuya Komura is as responsible as anyone for bringing the sounds of the new world to Japan. Indeed, one of his projects, a French-Nipponese collaboration, is appropriately called Globe. After spending some time in England, Komura came back to his homeland with a vision: He would combine the two most popular forms of youth entertainment, karaoke and disco, into a hybrid, a radical idea for the time in Japan. Writing and producing for such chart-toppers as Kiss Destination and Hitomi, not to mention Namie Amuro and the entire Avex Trax roster, Komura encouraged his artists to adopt outrageous personae and adapt to modern production techniques in order to keep up with the sounds coming from Europe and the Americas.

His plan worked: Dominating the Oricon charts (the Japanese equivalent of Billboard) since the mid-1990s, Komura ushered in the million-seller era of J-pop. To this day, at least one song from the Komura family, as his artists are known, is in the Oricon Top 10 during any given week. Komura's ambitions also helped introduce hip-hop into the Japanese consciousness; a lot of the girl groups utilize a bit of it in most of their songs. Japanese rapping is almost head-swimmingly surreal in its nature -- Japanese mixed in with bits of almost pidgin English delivered in a rapid-fire, decidedly black dialect. Yet as the girls retreat from the upbeat, bubblegum sound of their recent past and move toward a more sophisticated urban feel -- imagine the leap from Debbie Gibson to Lauryn Hill -- it is the boy groups who have taken J-pop on a downbeat path while maintaining its marketability.

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