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Without a canon, Japanese pop won’t blast off

by Ian Martin

Special To The Japan Times

Exploring the world of Japanese music can be a baffling experience for those who don’t speak the language.

Where do you start if you’re new to the scene? Entry points are fragmented at best, woefully uninformed much of the time and actively damaging at worst. Attempts to promote and release Japanese artists have been consistently forced through the distorting lens of anime fandom; mainstream media coverage is inevitably filtered through hackneyed “wacky Japan” editorial biases; and the blogosphere is overrepresented by the shrill clamor of idol enthusiasts, filled out with a handful of specialist sites devoted to particular scenes. Each of these outlets contains a piece of the true picture, but all together they tell us nothing.

But why does music alone seem to suffer from this institutional tilt toward obfuscation? Bring up the subject of Japanese literature and people will instantly start reaching for names such as Natsume Soseki, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Osamu Dazai, Murasaki Shikibu, Yukio Mishima and Haruki Murakami. Mention cinema and Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, Masaki Kobayashi, Yasujiro Ozu and Nagisa Oshima are well-known and regarded, while there is increasing consensus over a number of important recent and contemporary directors. Talk about anime or manga and the chances are that in those fields, also, a handful of names will reappear on many people’s lists.

What these art forms have that Japan’s music world lacks is a canon: a central corpus of work widely agreed upon as important. A canon would provide an entry point to anyone looking to start their exploration of an alien artistic world and a context in which to begin to understand new works they encounter.

One of the problems is that Japan itself hadn’t really started trying to work out what Japanese music actually was until comparatively recently. Critics’ and readers’ lists of the “Top 100 Albums of All Time” and suchlike are the staple of British and American music magazines, and while they can be annoying at times, they’ve helped reinforce a loose narrative of rock history with key bands in each generation and genre that can give casual fans an overview and context, which will help them understand the discussion of Anglo-American pop and rock.

However, the first time anyone really tried this here was in 2007 when Rolling Stone Japan published its list of the 100 best Japanese albums of all time. The now defunct Snoozer magazine followed up with its own rival list of 150 albums. The rest of the music press never really took up the baton, though, so it has been left to books and mooks (hybrid magazine-books) to carry on the work, where they can publish critical rankings free from record company pressure or retribution.

While Rolling Stone’s list errs more toward 1970s golden oldies such as Happy End and Eikichi Yazawa, and Snoozer gives more prominence to ’80s new wave and ’90s indie and Shibuya-kei, you can nevertheless see patterns emerge from the lists. RC Succession, Cornelius, Fishmans, The Blue Hearts, Friction, Yumi Arai, Jun Togawa and the Boredoms, among others, come out as safe bets from both rankings.

This kind of enterprise is perhaps even more necessary in English, where the unspoken collective consciousness born from this music permeating down through culture over the years simply doesn’t exist.

For one thing, English-language blogs and forums devoted to Japanese music often seem to shy away from too much criticism in their approach to coverage, instead devoting themselves to simply acting as cheerleaders for their favorite stars — perhaps for fear of upsetting the apple cart of consensus within a fairly introverted fan community. Many fans also naturally object to the imposition of a corpus of classic rock texts from on high, but when most of Japanese music’s corner of the English-language blogosphere is just the translation and regurgitation of major-label press releases, that position seems less defensible.

The whole point of having such a popular-music canon out there is that it’s a mutable thing, subject to constant disagreement, alteration and updating as newly discovered greats come to light and fresh classics are forged. Different interest groups will have their own core works and there will never be full agreement, but, over time, the same albums will start coming up again and again, and out of that, an outsider will gradually be able to grasp a loose, general outline of Japanese rock and pop.

To make a start, one place worth looking is Michael Bourdagh’s book “Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon” (named after the Happy End song), which does a valuable job of chronicling and contextualizing the development of popular music in Japan up to the emergence of J-pop in the 1990s. However, as its subtitle, “A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop” suggests, Bourdagh’s book is an academic text and doesn’t pretend to provide any real critical assessment of the music.

Compared to just 10 years ago, there is more information on Japanese music available in English via a handful of books. In addition to Bourdagh’s offering, there are more specialist tomes such as Julian Cope’s hilarious if notoriously unreliable history of ’70s underground rock “Japrocksampler” and David Novak’s dense, academic “Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation.”

There are promoters of varying sizes trying to bring Japanese music to English-speaking audiences, and journalists and bloggers chipping away at the lonely, herculean task of bringing the best the country has to offer into the light. However, until there is some sort of collectively established canon, Japanese music will always remain mired in obscurity, its promotion and media coverage channeled down the route of gimmickry, and to all but the most dedicated new acolytes simply not worth the bother. All of this, of course, needs to go hand in hand with the availability of the music itself, which often remains jealously guarded by its labels. Here again, having some sort of widely agreed-upon corpus of Japanese pop and rock classics might provide the impetus these labels need to start releasing the nation’s hidden greats into the world.

  • Warren Lauzon

    Over the years I have watched as K-pop went from “K-what??” to now almost totally dominating most of Asia and having millions of fans around the world. But what I could never figure out was why J-pop all this time just sat back and acted like a neglected wallflower hiding in the corner.
    This is part of it “.. which often remains jealously guarded by its labels..”. I can go online and watch hundreds of k-pop and even a lot of c-pop (or more accurately, Taiwan-pop) videos on YouTube. I can go to Amazon or iTunes and purchase thousands of different K and C-pop titles, but very few j-pop. I can order K and C movie, TV drama, and music CD’s from many places at a reasonable price. But if I want to buy a Japanese music CD, the price is often 2 to 3 times as much, if it is available at all.
    Until very recently, most Japanese movies and TV shows were unavailable subbed into other languages (except pirated versions), while I have seen some Korean dramas subbed online (legally and licensed) subbed in as many as 55 different languages.
    So while it might seem like the “canon” (or lack of one) is the problem, I would suggest that the music labels themselves, along with their totally insular attitude is the real problem.
    Just one example – I am looking at Amazon music downloads, and there is not ONE single title available from the Japanese group AKB48 except for one anime score. Yet I look at the Korean group “Girls Generation” and I see over 1,000, including 56 albums – and that is just ONE k-pop group. I can look up S.H.E (Taiwan group), and can purchase every song and every album they have ever made. It is almost impossible to find any Japanese groups there except for a few indies.

    • goatonastick

      Makes perfect sense as to why it would be so restricting to their outreach, shame it isn’t mentioned in the article.

    • Ian Martin

      These are all very good points. At the same time though, this really deals with the availability of current hit groups. For someone who knows nothing about Japanese pop in all its rich history, how would they even know which artists to even start looking for? Of course information and availability would ideally go hand in hand, but given how wary Japanese labels still seem to be about making their artists available and how the first move is apparently not going to come from them, perhaps being able to focus demand through the creation of some sort of canon like this might be one way of giving them the kick in the pants they so obviously need.

      • Warren Lauzon

        Not knowing any of the artists is one of the main problems. Japan has done an extremely poor job of making those names well known outside of Japan, and not sure why. Perhaps part of it is that many popular groups in Japan, such as AKB48 are aimed at the pre and low teen markets. There seem to be very few “adult pop” Japanese groups that anyone outside of Japan has ever heard of. And the fact is, a lot of j-pop is way off the scale in the “cutesy” department, hard to take it seriously.

      • Ian Martin

        There is a whole other article to be written about the idol-dominated contemporary J-Pop model and its “Galapagos complex” and the reasons behind that, that’s for sure. Japanese pop is certainly not an issue that’s going to be “fixed” in a single flurry of righteous concepts and ideas. Hopefully though, a conversation can be started that all kinds of fans can take part in.

    • http://neotokyoproject.com Edric Koh

      Japanese content is not readily available in every country. It is frustrating when the local music stores have all but closed down or down sized with a pathetic inventory, usually old stocks they couldn’t get rid off. It gets worst when iTunes don’t sell them in a particular region and it cost two three times more trying to import the CD for a couple of songs. Even if you know the name of the artist.

      There are a lot of Japanese content on YouTube, but most of them region locked. It is hard to get consumers to notice products when they are obscured from publicity. I believe every artist wants to get their name out there beyond their country, but Japan is doing the opposite.

      • Warren Lauzon

        The cost is a big issue. I can get almost every K and C pop song ever published on either Amazon or directly on CD from the country of origin, for roughly $1 to $1.30 per song. But to buy a Japanese album with 10 songs could run up as high as $40.

      • Ian Martin

        It might be helpful if more of it was available on Spotify, or at least on iTunes.

  • Warren Lauzon

    I don’t really agree with that. While true to some extent among the “mainstream” journalists that seem to be stuck in the 60′s, they are hardly the only source. Perhaps part of it is because so many people don’t even bother to look beyond what is handed to them from the latest top 40 charts. In my own music collection (songs that I actually listen to) I have music ranging from the late 50′s up to yesterday, and from dozens of groups from around 20 countries, including C, K, and T-pop. But when others hear some of it, most have no clue it ever existed.

  • michichan

    Don’t forget internet radio stations such as J1 that are exposing the world, especially America to JPOP. Hopefully soon, JPOP will be on the air on Los Angeles area terrestrial radio. We are working on it.

  • pk@fire

    That doesn’t make sense though. K-pop has become ridiculously popular even though there is no select “canon” – ask a Korean person in Korea what are some good examples of K-pop and you will get an incredibly different answer than if you ask people overseas. That alone does not describe why J-pop is lacking in popularity.

    • Ian Martin

      I think a distinction needs to be made there between “K-Pop” and “Korean pop”. K-Pop is a marketing category that describes a pretty narrow field of essentially manufactured idol music, and it’s been marketed very aggressively and effectively. Someone whose entry point into Korean music is K-Pop won’t get very far, and the body of information it provides won’t equip a new listener well to discover the work of, say, Shin Jung-hyeon or someone. Similarly, knowledge of K-Pop won’t equip a listener very well to understand or contextualise the music of a young indie or underground band from Korea. In that sense, a Korean pop and rock canon that places K-Pop in the context of a wider world of Korean music would probably be very useful.

      • pk@fire

        Doesn’t that kind of refute your point then? For all intents and purposes, what is popular and selling in East Asia right now across the board is idol music, and its success essentially argues that Japanese music can be marketed without a canon.

      • Ian Martin

        Coming back to this point late because I’ve been away in the Czech countryside with very limited Internet access for the past few days, but sure, I guess any kind of music can be marketed if you can find a way, but does that contribute to a better understanding of the music? Does it contribute anything to a better-informed discussion of the music that comes out? There are now millions of people around the world who think Korean music = K-Pop and there’s no easy way for them to explore beyond that and any foreign journalist looking to get a context around which to discuss Korean music only now has K-Pop as a reference point, which just perpetuates the narrative that the marketers want. Part of what I was talking about in this article is that information about music shouldn’t be left solely to marketing types, and new fans and music as a whole would be better off with a broader sense of the historical context in which it sits.

  • toak

    Well alternatives like Pitchfork are built on the same set of values and look at ‘best of the year’ lists in newspaper and on sites like it, ie young mainstream music journalists of today, the demographics of artists charting show an overwhelming majority of white men with guitars. The alternative voices are only loud enough to make a difference in their own camps, in hip hop mags, electronic music communities etc. And when new sounds do cross over they do so at the mercy of the old guards – re: the introduction of hip hop to Rolling Stone some decades ago and the appreciation of ‘punk’ hip hop over ‘gangster’ hip hop to fit in with the magazine’s standards (w first cover hiphop ever being the Beastie Boys).

    Anyway I’m ranting here (partly because I wrote about it in Uni some years ago (not in English)) but I see this as the ugly legacy of Melody Maker and NME laying down a set of rules based on the fancies of a very narrow set of similarly brought up journalists that still rule the day.

    Of course you’ve got a point in that making the canon NOW is a different experiment but I’m still much worried that if you let for example music journalists do it then the end result will not be. Simply as a bounty of recommendations or collections for foreigners to understand japanese pop’s past it could of course do a lot of good as long as all sides of it are given a serious treatment. As a RS style ‘all time 500 best’ I’m more sceptical.

  • Kai Ito

    This article has very good point, I agree with it.
    But even with a canon or canons things wouldn’t change because, Japan is just far-east still at least for Western people. They don’t want Japanese good pop music. They sometimes let us come into avan-garde, psychedelic, or some underground club music, something edgy field. But not into simply good pop field including general rock music. Western people knows good Japanese pop music are only freaks. So are yours. -I love them of course.-
    *Happy End and YMO are exception.
    We need canon is true. It would works good for other Asian countries, Central or South America and Mid East. It should be good that listening Tatsuro Yamashita while driving in Saudi desert or singing along Yosui Inoue with Argentine people.

    • Ian Martin

      You’re right in that it probably wouldn’t have much commercial impact. It would improve discussion, might have an impact on the quality of some media coverage, and as an adjunct to that, it might have some small commercial impact. There are of course other, much bigger impediments to Japanese music’s mainstream acceptance abroad. You’re absolutely right on that.

  • Morgan

    Hey Ian, just wanted to let you know I’m a huge music fan that has travelled to Japan a few times.

    I’m not sure if it’s a canon that Japan really needs. In all honesty, cool music doesn’t need a language or a country to represent it. Cool people will always find cool music, and in turn share it with similar cool people. You will recall the Napster days for a moment, and remember what it was like sharing with your friend the new Eminem demo that didn’t make the album but has been circulated hundreds of thousands of times. There wasn’t a canon involved in those days, but rather people sharing with one another.

    My point? Don’t be like America and have the same 5 artists represent your entire music scene. Be proud of the incredible talent within Japan and celebrate as many different artists as you can.

    P.S.
    To everyone saying that content isn’t as readily available than in other places……my friends, that is called the hunt. And if you don’t put in the work, you will never find what you’re looking for….it’s part of the fun!