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It’s a rainy November day and young music fans are milling around the office buildings that surround Chiba’s Makuhari Messe convention center. Later in the evening, they’ll swarm the venue to see a performance by J-pop act JO1.

They’re a patient bunch, but fans in the COVID-era need to be. The 11-member JO1 (pronounced “jay-oh-one”) debuted in March 2020, right as the world was shutting down. Without stadium concerts and in-person meet-and-greets, fans had to make do with YouTube uploads and physical releases.

Tonight in Chiba marks the last date of their three-day solo debut concert “Open The Door,” originally envisioned as a nationwide tour but downsized to a trio of shows in a single venue due to COVID-19 safety protocols. It’s a full house each day, filled with fans toting official JO1 glow sticks, homemade sign boards and a lot of pent up excitement.

“Since we haven’t had the chance to see our fans for a while, this show needs to be especially strong,” JO1 member Junki Kono tells The Japan Times prior to the performance. “We want to show how we’ve matured since debuting, and we want to give something back to our fans.”

Kono and his bandmates — Takumi Kawanishi, Ren Kawashiri, Syoya Kimata, Sukai Kinjo (currently on a break to receive treatment for adjustment disorder), Issei Mamehara, Shosei Ohira, Keigo Sato, Ruki Shiroiwa, Shion Tsurubo and Sho Yonashiro — encapsulate all the pop music trends of the 2020s: the rise of televised talent competitions, the emergence of South Korean companies in the Japanese music ecosystem and a newfound interest in making it big overseas.

“Since we didn’t come out of a pre-existing system, this is the first time something like this has been done,” Kono says. “It would be great if JO1 could be remembered as a group that changed Japanese music, and opened the world’s eyes to the new culture of Japan.”

Made by TV

When I meet JO1 in October at an Odaiba warehouse-turned-photo-studio, the members — all in their 20s — are in good spirits. They tell me about their fondness for sushi (“Sushi tastes good … my favorite is shrimp,” Sato says) and anime.

They’re also happy to be around one another. Shiroiwa talks about himself as “a city boy” and “Japanese super idol” to laughs from his fellow members, who are also not afraid to engage in some light roasting. After Kawanishi expresses a love for baseball and appreciation for pitcher Shohei Ohtani, someone else yells out in English “Japanese Shohei Ohtani!” It doesn’t take long for his bandmates to bust him over the fact the newly minted American League MVP is, in fact, Japanese. Nothing about their interactions seems forced, JO1 are just a bunch of young dudes palling around.

Interactions like this partially helped draw viewers to “Produce 101 Japan,” a 2019 talent competition show in which 101 young men competed to debut in a new pop group. The program was a spinoff of the hit South Korean series “Produce 101,” with the Japanese incarnation being a joint production between domestic talent powerhouse Yoshimoto Kogyo and South Korea’s CJ ENM. The series, broadcast primarily on streaming site Gyao, followed contestants as they gradually improved their singing, dancing and rapping. Viewers — dubbed “national producers” — had the chance to vote on who would make the JO1 team.

J-pop act JO1 debuted in March 2020, right as the world was closing its borders in response to COVID-19. Twenty-one months later, the group’s three-day solo debut concert ‘Open The Door’ filled Chiba’s Makuhari Messe convention center with fans each night. | MARTIN HOLTKAMP
J-pop act JO1 debuted in March 2020, right as the world was closing its borders in response to COVID-19. Twenty-one months later, the group’s three-day solo debut concert ‘Open The Door’ filled Chiba’s Makuhari Messe convention center with fans each night. | MARTIN HOLTKAMP

TV talent shows have long been springboards for new pop stars in Japan. You could make a compelling argument that the very idea of “idols” as we know them today sprung out from 1971’s “Star Tanjo,” a broadcast competition that launched names like Momoe Yamaguchi, Pink Lady and Akina Nakamori among others. Late ’90s group Morning Musume formed out of a similar talent competition, while AKB48’s yearly election doubled as a televised phenomenon — to the point where the original season of South Korea’s “Produce 101” was accused of plagiarizing it.

“Produce 101 Japan,” however, signaled the arrival of the streaming-era talent show to this country. Since then, the marketplace has become oversaturated with similar offerings, from a second season of “Produce 101 Japan” to Hulu efforts focused on creating all-female (“Nizi Project”) and all-male (“The First”) outfits. Nippon TV is currently airing “Who Is Princess?,” another group-building exercise available on multiple streaming fronts aimed at creating a group geared toward the social media age.

The original “Produce” went down in flames in South Korea due to vote manipulation, while similar shows have been banned in China due to government concerns, and Japan has emerged as a bastion for this sort of televised talent scouting.

JO1, though, was first. The members say the experience shaped their attitudes toward pop music and taught them to never stop working on every aspect of their performance. It also tightened their bond.

“It’s like a family,” Kono says, with Sato adding that when the show started he was only focused on how he himself could win. “Now I think as a member of JO1,” he says, “and how we are a team. I think of us as a whole.”

Riding the wave

JO1’s YouTube page features a slew of non-music content — from “eye contact challenges” to cola taste tests. Some of the most interesting uploads find the members attending language school chain ECC where they learn English, Chinese and Korean.

“All of the members focused on studying languages over the past year,” Kono says in English, demonstrating his progress. “This year there has been a lot of learning.”

Company Lapone Entertainment oversees JO1, along with subsequent “Produce 101 Japan” group INI. Founded just ahead of the reality show’s premiere, it’s a long-term joint venture between Yoshimoto Kogyo and CJ ENM: The prior brings domestic knowledge, while the latter offers an approach to going beyond proven success by the boom in K-pop, especially over the past five years when the possibility of making it big in America became a reality.

“The managers and most people on staff can speak two or three languages,” Kono says, adding that they hear bits and pieces of other languages almost every day. The members are eager to flex their skills in front of me, whether that means dropping in a Korean greeting when they introduce themselves or Sato saying in perfect English, “Now, I’m studying Japanese.” This earns him a lot of laughs from the others.

JO1 was formed through ‘Produce 101 Japan,’ a 2019 talent competition show in which 101 young men competed to debut in a new pop group. | MARTIN HOLTKAMP
JO1 was formed through ‘Produce 101 Japan,’ a 2019 talent competition show in which 101 young men competed to debut in a new pop group. | MARTIN HOLTKAMP

This approach to band-building has become more prominent in J-pop, as Korean companies — and their PR methods — enter the Japanese market. NiziU, the resulting girl group from “Nizi Project,” is under South Korean powerhouse JYP Entertainment, and their first full-length album topped the Oricon Charts this past week. INI might be even more worldly than JO1 in its construction; the group features a Chinese member to include different backgrounds, an approach K-pop groups have been using to great success in Asia.

“Since our third single, we’ve been trying to incorporate English into the lyrics,” Kawashiri says. “We’ve been practicing singing in English along with speaking, even though it’s one of our biggest challenges.”

Break the door

Those international dreams might have to wait until the whole pandemic situation calms down, but for now the group still has its home turf to conquer. After hours — or perhaps 21 months — of waiting, the thousands of fans in Makuhari Messe stand up as the lights dim. JO1 emerges on stage performing the upbeat “Born To Be Wild,” a song zipping from dramatic verses to rapped interludes and a funk hook, all done to precise choreography. The glow sticks burst into blue as the beat kicks in, as in sync as the 10 men on stage.

While JO1 has the support of a South Korean music industry that sits on the top of Asia, the members don’t want to simply sail off the back of the Hallyu wave.

“I want to make Japanese a more universal language in music,” Sato says, after the group talks about how they listen to pop in English, Korean and Chinese, even if they don’t understand the lyrics perfectly. He likens it to Japan’s most successful pop culture export anime, which spreads Japanese to the world and is embraced even if the viewer doesn’t get every detail.

I ask the group what kind of career they want for themselves, bringing up BTS as an example of aiming high globally.

“You mention BTS, but there’s many great groups from all over the world, including from South Korea, but imitation is something we don’t want to do,” Shiroiwa says, seeing his group as taking elements from K-pop and J-pop in search of something different. “JO1 wants to find a unique style from Japan. We want to bring a new wind from Japan. It would be amazing to be looked up to by the younger generation of artists coming up as, like, a pioneer.”

By the end of the final show of their tour, JO1 is simply caught up in the feelings of the moment. The final 40-some minutes of the three-hour concert finds the members expressing their emotions about the weekend, with nearly every person breaking down into tears, overwhelmed by something nearly two years in the making. It’s a moment of reflection shared with fans, before they turn to face a new era of pop.

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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