Despite years of child molestation accusations and deep financial difficulties, Michael Jackson could always count on one nation for unquestioning fan loyalty and lucrative advertising deals — Japan.
His death in Los Angeles on Thursday at age 50 shook the country. Many Japanese TV channels switched to special programming, and a major online retailer was flooded with orders for Jackson’s recordings. The government’s top spokesman and other ministers expressed their condolences.
“He was a superstar. It is an extremely tragic loss. But it is fantastic he was able to give so many dreams and so much hope to the people of the world,” said health minister Yoichi Masuzoe.
Jackson chose Japan — the biggest pop music market in Asia — as the place to make his first public appearance since being acquitted of molestation charges in 2005, a delicate period in his career when his marketability began tanking.
At a ceremony in Tokyo in 2006, Jackson choked up before fans screaming “I love you” as he accepted the Japan MTV “Legend Award.” He later visited an orphanage on a trip largely untarnished by the bad press he had received back home.
Japan has long been famous for the royal treatment it gives visiting foreign musicians, and the courteous and deferential coverage it gives to American celebrities. Reports of Jackson’s court proceedings didn’t fascinate the Japanese as much as his high-spending late-night shopping spree at an electronics store and his visits to Tokyo Disneyland after the park had closed.
Steve McClure, the former Tokyo bureau chief for Billboard magazine, said Japanese fans are fiercely loyal, even with stars who have fallen from grace elsewhere, and that was likely an attraction for Jackson.
He often visited Japan and showed a lot of affection for his fans there; he often became tearful when met with emotional displays from cheering Japanese crowds.
Jackson definitely saw Japan as a good source of income. He sold 4 million Top 10 records, making him the top-selling foreign male artist in Japan. He also appeared in TV commercials for Suzuki scooters and Sony TVs.
Fans displayed the depth of their love — and pockets — for Jackson in 2007 by hosting a ¥400,000 a plate buffet dinner for the star, who appeared but did not perform at the event. Four hundred fans took in performances by several Japanese Jackson impersonators and got their pictures taken with the man himself.
“Japan is one of my favorite places to visit in the world,” Jackson said when he appeared on stage at the end of the six-hour party just long enough to express his gratitude. The fee for his appearance was never disclosed.
Perception — however unfair and condescending — is widespread in the music industry that Japanese audiences are unsophisticated and will pay big bucks for any music, including that produced by acts that have failed or lost popularity in the West.
“He was milking Japan for what it was worth because he still had these pretty dedicated fans who apparently didn’t mind parting with money to just have the privilege of being in the same room as him,” said McClure, who now produces an online music industry magazine, McClure’s Asia Music News. “He couldn’t do it in the States.”
Tatsuro Yagawa, spokesman for Tower Records Japan, which set up special areas to showcase Jackson’s music Friday, said sales of Jackson’s music contributed greatly to the success of his business.
“We have scored massive sales thanks to him. He is one of the greatest artists in history,” Yagawa said.
The retailer said CD sales began picking up following news of his death.
Upon hearing of the King of Pop’s death, 44-year-old office worker Michiaki Koiso rushed out to buy a Jackson compilation album.
“I couldn’t do anything else,” he said sadly in Tower Records in downtown Tokyo.
Jackson was to embark on a comeback tour next month in London. No Japanese dates had been announced.
“I was hoping he would come again to Japan someday,” Koiso said.