X Japan Is the Biggest Rock Band in Their Homeland -- Can They Finally Break Through in the States?

"Who are these guys, anyway?" a photographer standing next to me asks, firing his camera like a machine gun. In front of us, assembled on a small platform, is a five-piece band, glammed-out with feathered hair, studded collars, ornate crosses and skulls, and cloaks of faux fur.

I could tell this guy that he's looking at Japan's biggest rock band. I could explain how the show they are minutes away from playing is probably the most significant show ever played by a Japanese rock band. I could mention that only three years ago, even their most diehard fans wouldn't have dreamed of this performance. There isn't time, though. It's Sunday afternoon in Chicago's Grant Park and thousands of Lollapalooza 2010 attendees are clamoring for X Japan.

We rush to the main stage and arrive just ahead of the band. Thousands of fans press against the security barricade and squeal every time they catch a glimpse of one of the members. When all five take the stage, the crowd's roar is deafening. Many of these fans know the X Japan story. They're aware that despite the band's breakup 12 years ago and suicide of its former lead guitarist, X Japan has fought back to play its first show on U.S. soil. They're aware that they're watching a watershed moment.

X Japan, moments before taking the stage at Lollapalooza 2010, their first-ever U.S. show.
Photos by Jonathan McNamara
X Japan, moments before taking the stage at Lollapalooza 2010, their first-ever U.S. show.
X Japan loyalists invade Lollapalooza.
X Japan loyalists invade Lollapalooza.

A harpsichord melody introduces the opener, "Rusty Nail." A crashing cymbal ends the intro, awakening twin-guitar speed metal. Then, just as quickly, the vocalist switches from screeching rock to tearful ballad and the song freefalls into a quiet piano interlude. This blend of driving metal and raw, emotional pop — often within the same song — is what earned X Japan its status as Japan's biggest rock band. It's also won an intensely devoted worldwide legion of fans — fans willing to make necessary sacrifices to witness the band's hour-long set in Chicago.

Who knows? It also might be what wins X Japan mainstream status in the States.

The band is going after America with everything it's got, following up the Lollapalooza gig with a North American tour and a new album — the band's first in 12 years — with lyrics almost entirely in English.

And it may represent the best chance a Japanese act has ever had to make it in the United States.

But will it be enough?

Breaking into the American mainstream is a battle that Japanese bands have been losing for decades. In 1980, Yellow Magic Orchestra appeared in a segment of Soul Train that ended with host Don Cornelius telling the audience that, though the band members had just introduced themselves, he couldn't repeat one of their names if you paid him "a million dollars." That was the same year Yellow Magic Orchestra's Solid State Survivor won the Japan Recording Award for best album.

Shonen Knife, a trio of pop-punk princesses who sing sugar-coated songs about banana chips and giant kitties, played Lollapalooza in 1994 and even opened for Nirvana on the Nevermind UK tour. Shonen Knife continues to tour the States and release English-language albums, but after two decades, they have little more than cult following.

Arguably the most successful Japanese band in the States is Dir en Grey, whose album Uroboros peaked at 114 on Billboard. The same record made it to number 4 on Japan's charts. Polysics? Loudness? The list goes on, each act generating smoking embers of success that never quite catch fire.

Then again, none of those bands had the hype that X Japan and the band's leader, Yoshiki, have enjoyed in the weeks leading up to and following their Lollapalooza performance.


It's the day before X Japan's U.S. debut and Yoshiki is in a suite at the Ritz-Carlton, doing phone interviews and filming segments for an ABC World News piece. A couple of hours earlier, what was intended to be a panning shot of Yoshiki talking to a TV reporter while strolling down a Chicago sidewalk erupted into a frenzy as screaming X Japan fans mobbed him with cardboard signs and autograph requests. Yoshiki also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, and other outlets that fawned over the band's accomplishments, which include 30 million albums sold worldwide and 18 sold-out shows at the 55,000-seat Tokyo Dome. Time Out Chicago claimed that "the only act threatening to out-spectacle Lady Gaga [at Lollapalooza] is hair-metal über-group X Japan."

Outshining the queen of American pop? Hey, who knows?

"We were going to debut in America before the breakup," Yoshiki says with a faint Japanese accent. "But I dunno if we were ready at that time."

The idea of putting their Japanese superstar status on hold to "start over" in the States did not appeal to some of the band members, he says without naming names. A growing rift between him and X Japan vocalist Toshi ultimately caused the band to split after a sold-out 1997 New Year's Eve show — called "The Last Live" — at the Tokyo Dome. Five months later, the suicide of former lead guitarist Hideto "Hide" Matsumoto seemingly destroyed any hope for a reunion.

"When we broke up, I thought everything was over. Then, especially right after we broke up, Hide died, so, I didn't even think twice that we can reunite."

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29 comments
Walter Tully
Walter Tully

XJapan is actually the founders of Visual Kei - a stereotypical look for bands, where they dress flamboyantly with bright and big clothes and hair during their concerts. They're not dressing up like this because it was cool 2 years ago, rather it's something that gives them identity. Ever since the reunion though, they started dressing a little bit more casual. I kinda expected Sick's reaction that they're just another wanna-be *insert typical US rock star* - it's the typical reaction of people who only thinks that our country's culture is the only culture the world should treat as "standard". If they were 2-years late in fashion, then why does half of the fashion industry hail Japan as the best venue in Asia in terms of fashion?

Anyways, I hope they have a live TOUR here this summer 2011! I'll be super happy if they decide to play here in Denver!

Ai Therapy
Ai Therapy

I found out about X Japan in 2006 by accident on Myspace. It's unbelievable that in 4 years not only has Yoshiki reunited with Toshi, but X Japan has reunited and Sugizo has been added as a new member! I'm pretty sure that back then, anyone even mentioning X reuniting was shut up because it was too good a dream that it just seemed impossible.And now they are getting so much press coverage! They've appeared as X Japan in the US, played their first American show (without postponing??), and are launching into an American tour?

It's so amazing!!! Never would I have thought in 2006 that anything like this could happen! Thank you so much for such a true article. I wasn't able to make it to the Chicago show but will be travelling from MD to New York for their US Tour!

Tess
Tess

Very accurate article. I discovered X Japan with the Clamp X OVA as well. Going to see them play in LA is my DREAM come true. I am so proud of them and so glad that I can be part of their adventure in America. We are X!!!!

Tori
Tori

Thank you for the article. I really hope they do well. I never dreamt I'd ever see them live because they disbanded, but I'm so happy I'll be seeing them in Oct. I really think they have so much potential to make it big in North America, no matter what happens, I'm rooting for them.

helentroy4
helentroy4

One of the reasons that bands from Japan haven't made a dent in American music or ingrained themselves in American music is because most Japanese bands have come off as cartoonish clones of what was considered great... two years before they adopted it.

I've never thought that anything much out of Japan was original or "new" - it was already passe' in the US. And as far as girl groups, they so often come across as Japanese businessmens' fantasy school girls - complete with teeny puffy skirts and pig tails.

I do have an open mind despite all that I've said. I have not seen X-Japan so I'll wander on over to youtube and see if it's really something new and not a retread of Metallica or Judas Priest. I would like to be amazed.

Cyrilsgrrl
Cyrilsgrrl

*sigh* I love X-Japan and hope they do well in the US, but everybody knows there weren't 8,000 fans at that video shoot in Hollywood -- not even 1,000. Why do they keep perpetuating the lie? That set of audience photos X-Japan released to the press showing the badly photoshopped pasting of the same groups of people filling in the crowds was the joke of the internet for weeks.

Also if the writer is a fan shouldn't he know it's "hide" not "Hide"? Meh, I'm happy they're getting press, scatological references and all.

Eric Tsetsi
Eric Tsetsi

There was not sufficient room to explain this in the piece, but what I've read indicates that the Japanese authorities ruled it a suicide even though the rest of the band and fans feel that it wasn't. There are many, competing theories about what really happened. Taiji (the band's former bassist) said Hide's death was the result of passing out while performing a stretching technique that involved tying a towel to a door knob. I've even heard a theory that it was a practical joke gone bad. The one thing we know for certain is that the authorities ruled it a suicide.

- Jonathan McNamara

Guest
Guest

Hide did not commit suicide. It was an accident.

Xe Blogarismenos
Xe Blogarismenos

fantastic article!! i hope they make it because they deserve it!

Mmassarao
Mmassarao

I really hope see them in South America too. And soon.

X\Viky/X
X\Viky/X

Thank you for the article! It's really nice to read it ^^ *esp I liked the 2nd paragraph*Whether X Japan can make progress in US market or not, they ARE certainly one of the best bands ever. But I have no doubt, this band will be able to fulfill its potential and achieve succes in US and worldwide.And yes, Art Of Life is one of the world's greatest masterpieces. One has to be extremely, unbelievably talented to create such incomparable work of Art..... REAL Art, that expresses such different emotions, strikes you, moves your heart and makes you think and feel.. Watching it live is probably the most impressive concert experience ever, I'm happy for those who managed to do this ^^

David Barrios
David Barrios

They are going to make it. they have a huge fan base that just keeps growing and growing .

Riana
Riana

Thank you for the excellent article. I am glad that you continue to write about X Japan.I hope you continue to do so as time American tour.I think ahead of us waiting for a lot of interesting and exciting events.

Yui714
Yui714

It all depends on if people choose to accept them. Can't exactly say mainstream fans have the best taste these days, they got everything backwards. I downloaded an X Japan song because I thought it was a cool name for a band (and I was looking for more music) 7 years later and I have their records, CD's, DVD's, VHS, and even their Sega Saturn game xD Traveled to LA for the Hollywood video shoot, then after getting my mind melted just by the sheer awesomeness of X, I decided to purchase and commit to learning a Fernandes guitar (I'm a huge hide fan as well). Can't wait to see them live October 3rd in Vancouver!!WE ARE X !!

cleveryummy
cleveryummy

Well done Jonathan. It is worth waiting for.

Well some extra infos. Maybe YMO is pioneer for US launch Japanese artists. But don't forget, Japanese metal band LOUDNESS. They debut in US I think 80's. Also YOSHIKI, TOSHI, PATA, HIDE's solo activity had started while their prime time, before they started in trouble to split up. YOSHIKI's project S.K.I.N and PATA's RAIN were after sprit up.

Yeah, 'Art Of Life' is one of the greatest songs YOSHIKI has created. This song should have part of 'Jealousy' album(double album, first plan was). But the time run out for recording (Sony Record forced YOSHIKI to). I've translated 'Art Of Life's liner note by producer Naoshi Tsuda. You might interesting in what Naoshi described this song. http://www.last.fm/group/ART+O...

You are right. I'm long standing die-hard X Japan fan. I couln't imagine after those years, they would re-united and do live in US. After HIDE died, I thought impossible. But somehow YOSHIKI managed to do so. As always I believe once YOSHIKI said so, how long take it, he will do it. Just prove my trust to YOSHIKI is right.

YOSHIKI has established his status in LA as film music producer very well. I'm glad they made their long dream come true. And beyond. I was going to attend their meant be world debut Paris live two years ago. I was waiting final announcement for ticket sales. Booked hotel and Eurostar. Then two days before tickets was due to sell, they canceled it. Still I went to Paris. Although concert was canceled, on the concert day there were 20 plus X Japan fans were outside of Bercy. I'm still waiting. I was told they are planning to do Europe tour from next January. But they will come to Europe or not is depend on how much audiences they would attract in US. So please US X Japan fans go to see their lives. European X Japan fan's future depends on US X Japan fans!

Volucre
Volucre

Thanks for another wonderful article about X Japan. I can't wait for their NYC show this October.

helentroy4
helentroy4

OK. Went on over to youtube and watched the rooftop performance of Jade - right down to the sunglasses, the lead singer is just another wanna be Bono. Sorry, been there, seen them, got the U-2 T shirt.

Watched a couple more on youtube and one in particular just seemed to try to do "Lost in Never Never Land" one better. FAIL.

Roseofpain84
Roseofpain84

Japanese newspapers reported that the police said 'suicide' at that time. It's ambiguous anyway. I guess anyone can chose what they want to believe.

Riana
Riana

Thank you for your comments/I very much love "Art of Life" ... This is a work of genius/In this music all our life with its pain and joy ... And with her beauty ... Beauty will save the world, I believe in it .Special thanks for the translated 'Art Of Life's liner note by producer Naoshi Tsuda. He wrote about the wonderful Art Of Life

iceman
iceman

Try watching others.X-Japan is a technical rock band.They are so different from the wannabe rock bands nowadays.

Jack Connell
Jack Connell

Because if you're a rock singer and you wear sunglasses, you're clearly trying to be Bono. It doesn't matter if it's just superficial similarities, it's obviously Bono. What sterling logic. Next you'll be telling me I'm the Last Son of Krypton because my profile picture happens to be Superman.

Actually, that'd be pretty cool.

Volucre
Volucre

Of all the X Japan comparisons I've heard, Bono is most absurd. I mean, really? Do Rusty Nail, Week End, Rose of Pain, Kurenai and Endless Rain remind you of With or Without You and Sunday Bloody Sunday? X Japan gives us alternative-metal theatrics, balanced against delicate ballads and existential musings. If we have to play the comparisons game, X Japan could be a more reflective Guns n' Roses, or a more sophisticated and melancholy Metallica, or a gentler and more theatrical Led Zeppelin -- but Bono? Did you listen to more than 10 seconds of Jade?

You accuse X Japan's vocalist, Toshi, of being a "wanna be Bono" "down to the sunglasses." Why don't you list the other similarities? Is it Toshi's ultra-high vocals and occasional screeches? His gentle and humble personality? His delicate gothic clothing? His utter lack of political involvement? The fact that he's not the band's frontman and never was? You were just looking for a reason to dismiss X Japan, saw Toshi's new sunglasses, and used them as your convenient excuse.

Watch Yoshiki's Art of Life piano solo from 12-31-1993, and tell me what Western band he's imitating. Watch Without You and Week End, and tell me what Western band has so broad an expressive range. Watch Rusty Nail, and tell me exactly which Western songs it derives from.

You remind me of 1980s Americans who insulted Japanese cars out of some misguided patriotism, deriding them as cheap imitations. Meanwhile, less prejudiced people realized, "These are pretty damn nice." I hope my fellow Americans will be open-minded enough to give X Japan the same consideration.

Bloody_jack
Bloody_jack

X-Japan is not a wanna be anything. Many X fans will tell you that X Japan's new stuff has nothing on their old stuff... Check out Art of Life (34 minutes performed live), Sadistic Desire, Weekend, and the classics. X!

cleveryummy
cleveryummy

Riana, thanks to your kind comment. I didn't realise that 'Art of Life' is such a popular song.

Yes, it was amazing incrediblly long (29 minutes) song when released. Because YOSHIKI wondered why all songs were only 3-4 minutes that time? Sony Records said to him because of radio or TV on air time for each songs were limited. YOSHIKI wanted to challenge for that. Obviously, no chance to be on air full length of this song on Japanese TV or radio. But I've been first 'Art of Life' live performance at Tokyo Dome. I thought impossible to play this song as live. But they did. It was shivering feeling when I saw and listened 'Art of Life' as a live.

This song's first idea came from while YOSHIKI was resting after collopsed on the stage. I don't remember which live was, could be Yokohama Arena one? While he was laying the bad, his idea came out. This is his life story. I suppose not concluded yet.

I've met Naoshi Tsuda once. If I have an another chance to meet him, I'll tell him how great work he has done with YOSHIKI. At least I could tell his father. Naoshi's father is my friend.

Ai Therapy
Ai Therapy

And regardless of whatever influences you say they've stolen, sick, X Japan has probably come before them. Comparing music to "classic" artists and saying they're wannabe's is about as pointless as saying that you'll only eat plain pancakes because the ones with syrup are ripoffs.Now that's pretty fucking stupid isn't it.Yoshiki is an original composer. They are all musicians of their own style, influences, likes and dislikes. They all have different looks and have the right to. So shut the hell up about something as stupid as sunglasses and clothing and listen to the damn music.

ming zhong
ming zhong

Very well said, Mark R.

He (sick) never wanted to give X-Japan their deserved credits from the start. I wouldn't insult American rock music even though i never devoted in them too much, because i respect the different styles they have. But you (sick) going as far as to measure them in the 'copycats' issue and a more superior measurement are seriously very shallow views.

If you do have an open mind in the first place, you wouldn't list out various things in details, as well as not looking at more songs of theirs, but i think it's not necessary. You will just find every single reason to judge and compare them to your personal bands preferences and at last using those 'forced' similarities to accuse they are imitating American bands.

Well, all i can say is, you are vain enough to not notice the differences, as well as using your prejudiced points to prove the superiority of your own likings. To me, even though there are a lot of great rock music out there, there is no one like X-Japan that can manage to pull off both rock and ballad so well. To me, they are doing the best of both world, that's why they will forever be my favorite band.

Makowashi Mai
Makowashi Mai

I agree X Japan is a classic of all time when it comes to rock. If you really consider it they were the FIRST to do Visual Kei which is one of the BIGGEST music industry in Japan right now. They were the ones that paved the way for bands like Malice Mizer (Gackt was the lead singer to this band) and an even newer band known as Nightmare. (who's guitarist both claims to being big X Japan fans and hide fans)

I got my mom who is 57 years old to listen to their stuff and she is a big X-Japan fan now. A woman who use to turn and look at me and tell me to not play punk music IS an X-Japan fan! None of the stuff that X-Japan does imitates anything that the western music does. And to call Toshi a Bono wanna be is an INSULT to Toshi. I agree with you completely Mark R that X-Japan is something different then anything the west has developed.

I personally have stopped listening to american music. I now only listen to Japanese music simply due to the fact that everything out of America has become a carbon copy of music. EVERYTHING that comes out now has to include something that has rap in it in American music even the country scene. I'm tired of the dry dull sound of every song sounding the same. That is why I switched over to Japanese music. And I truly believe that X Japan will be able to bring the Japanese invasion of music to the States. We need it, for the sake of our musical sanity we NEED it.

Riana
Riana

Thank you for your interesting answer. I was always interested in the history of creation Art of Life. Always interesting to know what thoughts and feelings invested a great artist in his work of genius.If you are able to meet again with Naoshi Tsuda, I beg you to tell him thanks from Russian fans X Japan for his book "Beginning of All about X".We read it with great interest. Unfortunately, we have available only a few chapters of it that we found on the web. It's an amazing book. No one is no longer writing about X and Yoshiki, as Tsuda Naoshi. A huge thank him for it.

 
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