One of the more innovative developments in Japanese radio broadcasting is the sound of wood burning.
Nippon Cultural Broadcasting devoted blocks of airtime during the week of Feb. 16 to the sound of bonfires. Listeners could tune in at certain times of the day to listen to kindling crackling away. Save for a few interludes from hosts — including the president of the Nippon Takibi Kyokai (Japan Bonfire Association) — the only noise anyone would hear was a fire burning itself out.
But what sounds like low stakes radio filler had already proven to be a surprise hit in 2019. The Nippon Cultural Broadcasting special site says the idea came from Norway, and it was tried out in December too. It proved popular, and was expanded into a longer bonfire bonanza.
The 2020 special gained solid attention, generating articles and a tight-knit community on Twitter. There’s nothing too deep in why people are drawn to this programming, though — it’s soothing, and requires way less work than starting your own bonfire.
But it also represents the slow and steady mainstreaming of autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) content in Japan. Mostly bubbling up online over the last few years, this field finds creators (sometimes referred to as ASMRtists) making videos emphasizing sounds that trigger a physical sensation that can help people relax. If you want a sense of how popular this auditory world has become, you can check out “6 types of Ear Cleaning Sounds” by Japanese ASMR star Hatomugi, currently boasting more than 4.9 million YouTube views.
In Japan, ASMR videos made by independent creators range from whispered vocabulary lessons to barber visits. While Nippon Cultural Broadcasting might cite the Nordic region for the bonfire idea, it’s not too surprising to find multiple uploads from Japanese ASMRtists offering hours-long fire sessions to help people to relax.
Like all independent communities that end up attracting outsized attention, major brands in Japan have started trying to market ASMR to more general consumers, bringing the concept to familiar channels.
This can include ASMRtists getting the chance to reach new ears and make them tingle. Take Hatomugi, who released an album of sounds (including computer keyboards and scratching) for those not tuned in to YouTube (or looking for ASMR on streaming sites). Even Nippon Cultural Broadcasting’s bonfire week represents something that can be had online and on-demand moving to a less convenient medium, requiring listeners to tune in at a specific time to hear wood burn.
Nikkei Trendy magazine predicts ASMR will be one of the top 10 trends of the year, with fast food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken setting the stage last year with an ad campaign playing on this phenomenon. The folks behind Pokemon, meanwhile, have released several YouTube videos focused on noise, including a somewhat revolting slime upload and their own take on the campfire slow burner.
The radio-centric ASMR bonfire represents one of the more quaint stabs at taking this online idea mainstream. Soon enough, corporate attempts at soothing sounds will become unbearable, so it’s best to enjoy the soft sound of flames now while it’s still comforting.