Despite having played a major role entertaining Chinese citizens following the Cultural Revolution, Japanese musicians are finding it increasingly difficult to grab a toehold in the region thanks to government censors and somewhat militant netizens. 

This week, Japan Times contributing writer Patrick St. Michel joins the podcast to discuss notable moments in the two countries’ cultural exchanges, the intricacies of doing business in China and why Japanese music is having as tough of a time in the broader international market.

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Patrick St. Michel: Articles | Twitter

Jason Jenkins: Articles | Twitter


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Note: Deep Dive is made to be listened to, and we recommend this transcript be used as an accompaniment to the episode. This transcript has been generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcription, and may contain errors. Please check its accuracy against the episode.

Jason Jenkins 00:10

Welcome to Deep Dive from The Japan Times, I’m Jason Jenkins. 

Last month marked the 50th anniversary of relations between Japan and China, and despite the ebb and flow of geopolitical tension in the region, the two nations share a lot more common ground than you might think. 

Beyond historical and economic ties, the people in both countries today often enjoy the same music, movies and manga. 

In fact, there are many Japanese bands, actors and artists that become stars in China. But as Hollywood and the global entertainment industry has discovered, keeping your fanbase engaged and on your side requires navigating a minefield of taboo topics. 

Culture writer Patrick St. Michel is a regular guest on Deep Dive and he recently wrote about the challenges Japan faces in the Chinese market. 

Jason Jenkins  01:06

Patrick, welcome back.

Patrick St. Michel  01:07  

Thank you so much for having me.

Jason Jenkins  01:08  

Let's start with a short history lesson. Japan and China have been exchanging culture for centuries. But let's focus on the past 50 years or so, who broke down the door for Japanese artists and entertainers in China.

Patrick St. Michel  01:20  

So the story starts in 1978, with the Treaty of Peace and Friendship that the two countries forged together. That allowed an exchange of pop culture and entertainment, primarily with Japan bringing its own cultural exports into mainland China. Mainland China, of course, is coming out of the Cultural Revolution, they're sort of rebuilding at that point — starting anew, if you will. So early on, the first name that really pops in China is a famous idol singer-slash-actress, Momoe Yamaguchi. In Japan, she has all sorts of celebrated songs and starred in a plethora of TV shows. And one of those shows, a drama called in English Red Suspicion,” that really connected with viewers in mainland China. It was one of the first Japanese dramas to be aired on basic television channels and the story really just connected with people. 

And then you also had actors like Ken Takakura come over and make a splash…

Jason Jenkins  02:30  

Right. Takakura died in, I think, 2014, but Western audiences probably know him from films like “Black Rain” with Michael Douglas or “Mr. Baseball” with Tom Selleck.

Patrick St. Michel  02:40  

Oh, “Mr. Baseball” … a film that just celebrated, I believe, its 30th anniversary. I hope everybody took some time to revisit a Hollywood classic. 

But before Takakura was playing a NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) manager in the early ’90s, in China, he was getting a lot of attention for more hard-boiled roles, whether as a detective or more adjacent to the world of crime in films like “Manhunt,” the English title. Those movies, beyond just being super entertaining, especially to audiences who are just getting acquainted with this type of big-screen entertainment, it also helped introduce the idea of what being masculine was to China and even creeping in ideas of what individual freedom could be.

Jason Jenkins  03:30  

Ah yes, individual freedom. But what other impacts did this wave of culture have?

Patrick St. Michel  03:36  

At this point in China's history, the country is first encountering a lot of concepts that to Western nations, or just any sort of country not going through a sort of Communist revolution, were common at the time. So Japan was kind of presenting an idea of not just entertainment but what, for example, fine dining is supposed to be, what does a concert look like? It's all these ideas of how culture looks and even feels, I would say, and Japan being one of the first countries to come in with their entertainment, this is before the United States really finds a way in, they're able to sort of show what all this is and introduce it.

Jason Jenkins  04:22  

And then of course, there's manga and anime. Let's dive into that a little bit and tell us their impact in China.

Patrick St. Michel  04:30  

Based on interviews I did with people who grew up in China — whether it was in the ’80s, sort of the heyday of the arrival of all this Japanese entertainment, or even more like ’90s kids — anime and manga had just a massive impact on everyone … is the vibe I got. Starting in the ’80s, there's a small arrival of these sorts of pieces of entertainment from Japan, and some would be broadcast on Chinese television. So everyone's that's kind of like what you're exposed to. But there's also, of course, an entire, like, black market of bootleg copies of these shows from Japan.

Jason Jenkins  05:08  

Yes. And this was the era of VHS tapes, but soon the internet came in and then we had Bilibili. Tell us about that. 

Patrick St. Michel  05:17  

Bilibili marks a real epoch shift in how Chinese and Japanese entertainment intermingles. So when the site starts in the 2000s, it's a video site somewhat similar to YouTube. That's kind of the most, like,  straightforward comparison. But in reality, it has way more in common with the Japanese video site Nico Nico Douga, which, most notably, allowed comments to kind of scroll on the screen. So you had to see what people were saying about these videos. Bilibili started as a tribute/message board/community center for fans of Japanese vocaloid music, which is songs created using a singing synthesizer software, you probably know it because Hatsune Miku is the most famous character associated with it. That's its origin story. So it's just kind of like online otaku (nerdish obsessive) central for Chinese netizens.

Jason Jenkins  06:16  

You mentioned a similarity between Bilibili and YouTube, which is pretty easy to see when you look at them side by side. But one big difference is that when Bilibilli started, it wasn't really open to the public as YouTube was, is that correct?

Patrick St. Michel  06:32  

That's right, maybe owing to its otaku nature, its nerdy origin, you had to pass a 100-question quiz to post on Bilibili.

Jason Jenkins   06:42

What kind of questions?

Patrick St. Michel  06:43

Mostly anime questions, or even just Japanese pop culture, like uh, here's a good one for you Jason: What planet was Ultraman from?

Jason Jenkins  06:53  

Hold on. Let me pull up my phone and look up Wikipedia … oh no!

Patrick St. Michel  06:56  

Bilibili will stop you from that rampant cheating. Anyway, that's a sign of just how niche and closed off and really quite exclusive Bilibili was at the time. But as China's economic fortunes and ambitions grew in the 2010s, Bilibili itself opened up to try to take advantage of this and the site as it had existed changed drastically.

Jason Jenkins  07:33  

OK, now we've covered the past, now let's look at today's entertainment landscape. What are some recent examples of Japanese culture hitting it big in China?

Patrick St. Michel  07:43  

Japanese anime, in particular, has really enjoyed financial and cultural success in the country in recent years. That ranges from classic Studio Ghibli movies like “My Neighbor Totoro” — getting rereleased in the late 2010s to huge box office draws — to newer works like the anime Your Name., which was extremely popular, and even had the effect of boosting Japanese rock band Radwimps, who did the music for that, to mainstream status in the country and giving them the chance to perform at festivals, which have become a big place for Japanese rock bands — both indie and mainstream — to enter the Chinese market.

Jason Jenkins  08:26  

So if all these things were so popular, it would seem that it would be easy for them to get a foothold in the market, but it's just not as simple as that, is it? Modern China can be quite, shall we say, sensitive about certain topics and viewpoints?

Patrick St. Michel  08:40  

I'd say that's an understatement. Yeah, as I'm sure it’s quite well known just how Western entertainment enters the country as well, it has been well-documented, the Chinese government has to approve of any entertainment that is sort of broadcast to its citizens. So given the rocky history between Japan and China, there's an amount of scrutiny that is applied to things entering the country from there. And of course, if you bring up topics that are already going to cause problems, whether they be Taiwan, Hong Kong, just to name a few, honestly. And you don't even have to mention them in your art, if you kind of just tweet about them or mention them in some other outlets, even in a non controversial way, you will get in trouble from Chinese censors.

Jason Jenkins  09:34  

Yes, I think Hollywood has also discovered that and we don't have time to get into all the “Top Guns” and “Red Dawns” of Hollywood, but there's definitely some sensitive topics you can't talk about. But it's not just political hot topics, is it? You write in your piece that Beijing tends to crack down on overly sexualized anime, for example.

Patrick St. Michel  09:56  

Yeah, this is a recent development, especially over the past year-and-a-half. China has edited a lot of popular anime series — most notably “Demon Slayer,” extremely popular worldwide at this point — to sort of cut back on the figures displayed by female characters in the series. You also had a big incident that didn't only apply to Japanese pop culture but had a massive impact on Korean pop culture, for example, and even domestic Chinese culture where the government wanted to crack down on, sort of, unmasculine men, more feminine-presenting men, you would kind of find in a K-pop style group, let's say, an idol outfit. And that has huge impacts for Japan's idol market, which has a lot of you know, Johnny & Associates groups that want to break into the China market. And now they have to kind of rethink how they do that.

Jason Jenkins  10:54  

Now let’s talk a little bit more, just to get into the nuts and bolts of censorship in China, walk us through it a little bit, what do Japanese artists and bands have to go through, how easy is it and how do they navigate that system? 

Patrick St. Michel 11:09

I’m most familiar with the music side of this. So in general, whether a Japanese artist wants to play a festival, wants to release a CD, wants to maybe perform on some sort of livestream, they usually have to submit the songs that they will feature in advance, and they have to include translated lyrics for government officials. And the officials will go over it and decide whether that's OK or no good, “get that out of the set.” And we talked about how we always think of political controversies but, in reality, Chinese censors are looking for anything that kind of goes against their entire philosophy. 

A great example of this I learned about was the Japanese band Sekai no Owari. They have a song called “Antihero.” It's a pretty, like, all things considered, a pretty cheesy song, where the central hook is just, like, “don't follow the rules!” like “Be an antihero!” It's like a real pre-teen rebellion. But you can't even introduce the idea of not following the rules in China, so they can't perform that song at all.

Jason Jenkins  12:21  

So we've been talking about the government forces involved in censorship but that's not the only problem that artists face in China. In your piece, you talk a lot about the “patriots,” as they're called, who are almost like cultural vigilantes that push their own societal norms. Can you explain a little more about that?

Patrick St. Michel  12:41  

Sure. So netizens in China are just as focused on finding wrongdoings committed by non-Chinese entertainers and artists who are trying to enter the market — or even ones who aren't entering the market, honestly. A great example of this was on a music reality competition called “Chuang 2021.” There were a bunch of Japanese artists taking part in that, which really shows kind of like the ambitions of Japanese music companies. One of them was a group called Intersection from the prominent entertainment company, Avex. They were doing really well on the show. They were getting a lot of attention, a lot of buzz … but then people online found, not the current version of the Avex website, but an older version, where it listed like select your region, it listed Taiwan as a separate region. Which, as you could imagine, is no-go with the “One China” policy. So suddenly, everyone turns against them and it becomes, like, “How dare you do this?” “Get off the show!” “Avex what have you done!” Avex handled it in a way where they could kind of move on and it was okay. But this kind of pressure from internet users — where all pop culture flows in 2022 — that really has a huge impact on what gets into the country and what gets attention.

Jason Jenkins  14:06  

There were several examples I thought were interesting. We talked about one before we started recording about table tennis. Could you mention that?

Patrick St. Michel  14:13  

Yeah, yeah, yah. So last year at the Tokyo Olympics, the gold medal in mixed pairs table tennis went to the Japanese team. Big moment for Japan, it was I want to say the first gold for a Japanese …

Jason Jenkins  14:30

It was. 

Patrick St. Michel  14:31  

There you go. So, huge deal, people were excited. On Twitter, people were celebrating, tweeting “Hooray! Japan did it!” And that included a lot of like idols and entertainers kind of just expressing a very generic “Whoo-hoo! We won!” 

The problem is they beat a prominent Chinese table tennis team to capture the gold medal. And on the Chinese internet, it was kind of like, “Oh, this was rigged against us” “This is shady!” 

So even by celebrating the success of the Japanese team, a lot of artists, I was told, were suddenly, like, victims of online harassment of just like, “How dare you do this!” “It was rigged!” blah, blah, blah, blah, and then their chances to sort of make inroads into the country takes a hit. So like, it can totally be something you're not even thinking about. If you really want to be in China, you have to always be thinking about, like, “Is this going to make them angry?”

Jason Jenkins  15:27  

Yeah, and not just the government, but the fans themselves. Your fans!

Patrick St. Michel  15:32  

Your potential fans, at least. 

And of course, that also applies to Bilibili itself, which is every bit as powerful. People I talked to were almost more afraid of Bilibili — like, making them angry — than the government, because they've become a legitimate operation online. And it's one of the top places to go for any entertainment. And if you get on their bad side, they'll be like, “OK, you can't have an official channel,” and then you just don't have a shot in the market.

Jason Jenkins  15:59  

We would be remiss if we didn't mention the other pop superpower in the region: Korea. Let's talk about K-pop’s role here, how is K-pop doing in China?

Patrick St. Michel  16:09  

It's complicated. Right now, it's probably doing a little better. But something that is very different between the K-pop industry and, for example, J-pop, Japanese entertainment, is for a little bit there. Korean entertainment was banned in China. 

Jason Jenkins  16:24


Patrick St. Michel  16:25  

Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was like 2016, 2017-ish, this was after the United States installed the THAAD missile defense system in South Korea, and in retaliation for allowing this to be put in their country, China did a ban of sorts on all South Korean entertainment. So not just Kpop, but also movies, dramas, sort of all the major foundations of the current Korean wave. 

Jason Jenkins  16:54 

Right, right. 

Patrick St. Michel  16:55

It's improved a bit, more recently, and you can see, like, for example, Korean movies started to screen in China again recently. But it is interesting given how hyped up Korean entertainment is globally, that China is one of the few places where that didn't really reach the same level, exactly. Fans can still find a way to support their favorite acts, of course, but it was different than the rest of the world.

Jason Jenkins  17:22  

That really surprises me. I thought for sure you were going to tell me that Korea was eating Japan's lunch, at least in the pop music landscape. Because I think of K-pop just being this global phenomenon where J-pop may be something regional. Are there any particular differences in the approach or the style that may have played a role here?

Patrick St. Michel  17:44  

What K-pop does really well — and it translates especially well in the Chinese market — is it's great at creating personalities or even brands, if you want to go in that direction. 

You can look at a group like Blackpink and a member like Lisa, originally from Thailand. She has 9 million followers on Weibo, which is akin to Twitter, for example. And she appears on some of those super popular singing reality shows as a judge, which allows her personality to come through more, it helps introduce her main group further. All around it just turns Blackpink and Lisa into a sort of household name in the country.

Japan has the opposite problem. Lots of individual songs will break through, whether that's through anime or some other, perhaps a TikTok trend — or a DouYu trend, as they call it there. And it will kind of become omnipresent but the artists themselves can't really turn that into more sustained success. 

There's just these bits and pieces scattered across pop culture, which are still hits, but the sustainability of it — building something bigger — hasn't truly happened yet.

Jason Jenkins  19:14  

Why don't we talk a little more about the state of Japanese music abroad? What are some trends or other venues that J-pop and other artists are trying to get their foot in?

Patrick St. Michel  19:24  

It's interesting, because China has actually served as a good testing ground perhaps? Or it offered a hint at how Japanese music and entertainment really could go further outside into the world. I would say J-pop in particular is having the same issue globally, as it is in China. 

In recent years, there's been a lot of isolated hits — whether it's through TikTok trends or something we're seeing this year, there's a lot of anime songs that are going massive on, like,  Spotify charts. And it's really neat seeing how those get embraced by users all over the world and turned into these sort of online hits. 

But we haven't seen any artists themselves rise up to that international level, really. It's still very much like: here's a hit, here's a dance trend, here's a weird algorithm-generated surprise. But the challenge is figuring out how to do that next, and I do know that Japanese labels are trying to — both in China and abroad — figure out how do we build a sustainable industry out of this, globally?

Jason Jenkins  20:35  

Just to clarify, it sounds like that's something from TikTok where songs get picked up. I mean, there was a city pop resurgence a while back, and that was completely TikTok, right? It was somebody played a song, and then it was copied and repeated over millions and billions of people. Is that a fair assessment of how some of these songs are getting popular?

Patrick St. Michel  20:55  

Oh, definitely. That's how all music is getting popular now, and Japanese music is just benefiting from that. That ties into actually the biggest change in the Japanese music industry, which is companies that were once reluctant to share things digitally have finally opened up to that with the pandemic kind of accelerating that process. And once something's out in the world, like, it's up to the users to make it huge, like it's out of your hands. 

So that's been really interesting to see. The other side of that though, is just as anime becomes sort of a mainstream force globally, like, having a song attached to a really popular anime series, that's enough, at this point to actually boost certain things up the charts as well. Though, you will see a lot of like, TikTok crossover with people making fan tributes to their favorite “Attack on Titan” character, and then that pushes it even further.

Jason Jenkins  21:51  

Going the other way, how is Chinese entertainment doing in Japan?

Patrick St. Michel  21:54  

Right now it's very … fledgling, I would say. China has long been trying to figure out how to export its pop culture to the world. And for the most part, it hasn't had much success. However, there's a few prominent examples. And in Japan, in particular, the video game Genshin Impact, that one has been a massive hit — not just in Japan, but globally. 

But it also is a great example of how China has learned from Japanese pop culture. It's a game where everyone looks like an anime character — anime is clearly the artistic basis of the design here — and it takes a lot of cues from popular anime and popular Japanese video games and sort of finds a new angle on it and sells it back to the country that introduced these concepts in the first place.

Jason Jenkins  22:45  

Near the end of your piece you write about “Detective Chinatown 3,” a Chinese movie that shattered a lot of box office records at home but it's really an ode to Japanese pop culture in many ways. Tell us a little about that. 

Patrick St. Michel  23:00  

As the name implies, “Detective Chinatown 3” is the third installment in the extremely popular “Detective Chinatown” series, a kind of Chinese take on the “smart cop, dumb cop” dynamic so prevalent in Hollywood. The third version — which came out a couple years ago, at this point — is set entirely in Tokyo. And besides being kind of a fever dream celebration of tourism in the capital, pre-pandemic, it's also full of homages to Japanese pop culture. You have nods to anime, you have references to J-horror, you even have moments that take you back to those ’80s hard boiled yakuza films we were talking about at the very start, that kind of introduced the whole concept of masculinity to the country. 

It's a really loving tribute to Japan's pop culture and how it's been absorbed by people in mainland China over the past 50 years. 

Even with all the difficulties that Japanese artists have had getting into the Chinese market, “Detective Chinatown 3” is a really good example of how much of an impact they have when they do find a way to break through. 

Jason Jenkins  24:20  

Patrick, thank you so much for coming back on to Deep Dive.

Patrick St. Michel  24:23  

Thank you so much for having me.

Jason Jenkins  24:31  

Once again, special thanks to Patrick St. Michel for another encore set on Deep Dive. If you want to learn more about the Japanese arts and entertainment scene or read more of Patrick’s work, we’ll put links in the show notes.

In the headlines, Economic Revitalization Minister Daishiro Yamagiwa has resigned over his connections to the controversial Unification Church. Also in The Japan Times this week, Will Fee breaks down Japan's My Number personal identification card system. Gabriel Dominguez outlines what signs would indicate a future Chinese invasion of Taiwan and Tomoko Otake reports on the recent “femtech” expo in Tokyo. For these stories and more, please consider a subscription to The Japan Times.

This episode was edited by Dave Cortez. Our theme song is by LLLL. And our outro song is by Oscar Boyd. See you next week, and podtsukaresama!