On April 21, 2011, the actress and singer Yoshiko Tanaka, aka Sue from 1970s idol group the Candies, died after a relapse of the cancer that she had been living with for 20 years. A tragedy, at the relatively young age of 55, and one that comes during a period of deep soul-searching for the Japanese music business.

While the music industry now struggles amid declining sales, dynamic Korean imports, and the uncertain conditions following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, Tanaka and the Candies, despite only being active for five years between 1973 and ’78, have become icons of what is commonly regarded as the “golden age” of Japanese pop music — kayoukyoku, as it was then known.

Of course every generation paints the past in rose-tinted nostalgia, but it would be a mistake to dismiss music that made enduring stars of the Candies, as well as contemporaries such as Pink Lady (who continue touring to this day) and Momoe Yamaguchi. Naive as it may sound to modern ears, the golden age has much to teach the current J-pop generation — mired as it is in ’90s knockoff ballads and ever-expanding massed dragoons of cheaply produced all-girl idol confectionary — about charm, character and songwriting craftsmanship.

To understand what made the ’70s what they were, you must go back to the postwar roots of the modern Japanese entertainment industry, and two key influences: the U.S. military and the yakuza.

The full extent of the relationship between the Japanese entertainment industry and the U.S. military is unclear, but military bases were certainly the primary venue for touring Japanese singers and musicians, and control of access channels to performing on those U.S. military bases meant control of the pop industry.

Japanese journalist Takayuki Teruyasu, former editor of ’80s music magazine Yoiko no Kayoukyoku, explains: “Basically, in the 1950s, concerts were run by very unreliable people, and even a famous singer like Hibari Misora wouldn’t be guaranteed any money from a show. It was really Kazuo Taoka of the Yamaguchi-gumi (crime syndicate) who first treated artists in a professional way. He was a kind of impresario and, most importantly, he always paid on time.”

The constant honing of musicians’ and singers’ skills in the live environment meant that, for all the murky backdrop of the business, Japanese artists of the ’50s and ’60s were often seasoned professionals by the time they made it big, and the company that benefitted most from this arrangement was Watanabe Production (Nabepro), which dominated the music scene in the ’60s. “In the industry at the time,” explains Teruyasu, “it was said that, ‘If you’re not Nabepro, you’re not human.’ “

Nevertheless, the sound of the ’60s was still primarily a Western-influenced one, and it was a confluence of various changes in the postwar music environment at the end of that decade that created what we can call a fully Japanese pop scene and ushered in the golden age.

The first of these changes was the decline of the student radical movement and the emergence of a more depoliticized, bohemian youth culture. The Japanese run of the rock musical “Hair” was produced by hippy scenester and music producer Shourou Kawazoe, who brought together a collection of rock and jazz musicians in a climate of shared musical ideas. At the same time, a slew of creative types were gathering in an Italian restaurant called Chianti. They included artists, novelists such as Yukio Mishima, filmmakers such as Akira Kurosawa, and a precocious young songwriter named Yumi Arai. It was in this environment that the “new music” and yojohan movements arose, creating a stream of new folk music and modern, fashionable pop, as well as providing the corporate music industry with a pool of fresh, able songwriters.

Another seismic shift in the structure of the industry came in 1971, when Nippon Television first broadcast “Star Tanjou!,” (“A Star is Born!”) an audition show that used the magic of TV to create stars without the need for all the grubby touring and military bases. Nabepro was furious and boycotted the station, but there was nothing they could do. Touring was still profitable, but from this point onward, you made your stars on TV first.

“Star Tanjou!” brought to the fore a new generation of talent agencies, with Nabepro’s dominance broken by companies such as Sun Music and Hori Production, who shared out artists such as Junko Sakurada and ’70s icon Momoe Yamaguchi through a series of back-room deals and gentlemen’s agreements.

The key to the success of the ’70s pop generation was the combination of a vast pool of professional musicians, honed through hard touring during the ’60s, coupled with a vibrant generation of young, creative, yet (the odd drug bust aside) largely harmless and unthreatening songwriters — not to mention a fresh delivery format that gave Japanese audiences their own music free of the cultural filter of an occupying military force.

All-girl idol trio the Candies were a textbook example of the classic ’70s pop act. Debuting in 1973, the Candies were a fading but still powerful Nabepro’s last big throw of the dice, and they epitomize the attributes of the decade. Songwriters Koichi Morita and Yusuke Hoguchi came from eclectic musical backgrounds, the former a classically trained musician who had played in jazz and chorus groups, and the latter a former Group Sounds (Beatles-influenced pop) musician and arranger for folk-rock group RC Succession. The backing band were a specially selected group of musicians, who had a successful post-Candies career in their own right under the name Spectrum.

The result was a series of pop hits that combined stirring harmonies (“Anata ni Muchuu”), catchy pop melodies that demonstrate familiarity with Western forms, but were unafraid to mess with the formula (“Sono Ki ni Sasenaide”), imaginative and occasionally baroque arrangements (“Shochu Omimai Moshiagemasu”), and slick, ultra-professional musicianship (everything).

It couldn’t last, of course. Despite some great pop music from the likes of Kyoko Koizumi and Seiko Matsuda, the ’80s saw the rise of new centers of power, and also sowed the first seeds of the industry’s current creative malaise.

Advertising giants Dentsu created the “CM idol,” a multipurpose “commercial media” star whose fame would be manufactured through strategic placement in advertisements and TV commercials, and for whom singing was only part of a larger media product. Meanwhile, the agency system largely fell under the sway of Ikuo Suho and Burning Production, a secretive organization about which there is still very little known and even less written, but who are widely acknowledged by insiders as the single most dominant power in Japanese entertainment.

By the early ’90s, kayoukyoku was a dead term, replaced by “J-pop” as the brand name du jour for Japanese music, although Kashiko Takahashi, editor of the 1998 book “Konnichiwa Idol,” puts the end of kayoukyoku in 1985.

“That was the year (AKB48 founder Yasushi Akimoto’s first mass idol group) Onyanko Club appeared,” he states, “and Onyanko Club member Sonoko Kawai was the last Nabepro singer.”

“Onyanko Club was a revolution,” agrees fellow music writer Hiroki Iwakiri, while Teruyasu adds, “Since Onyanko Club, and more recently Morning Musume and the others, music has become so intertwined with TV that it can’t really be appreciated outside that context. Professional musicians aren’t really the creative driving force behind the music anymore.”

Perhaps due to the more settled nature of the talent agency/TV/advertising axis, and perhaps also due to other external factors, it seems that J-pop has become increasingly stagnant.

“Forward movement has always been driven by imports from outside,” believes Teruyasu, “In the ’40s it was jazz; in the ’50s, rockabilly; in the ’60s, rock. Since the ’90s, there’s been no newly arrived music. Eurobeat and hip-hop were the last.”

As for how to revive Japanese pop, in some senses there is nothing that can be done; the factors that have led to its downfall aren’t going to be undone, after all. In fact, as music sales decrease and reliance on advertising increases, the soulless drones at Dentsu are only going to dig their claws ever deeper into the creative process.

Nevertheless, the ever-shrinking Japanese music market and the success of its Korean rivals may also force the industry’s power brokers to re-embrace genuine musicians once more. After the Candies split up in 1978, their manager Yokichi Osato formed his own talent agence, Amuse, which has recently found success with the electro-idol trio Perfume. Featuring the songwriting and production talents of post-Shibuya-kei duo capsule’s Yasutaka Nakata, Perfume are in many ways a modernized reconfiguration of the Candies template, and demonstrate that there are still creative and commercial rewards out there for those willing to take a chance.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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