Dropping Knowledge – Half a Cent on J-Pop

The following is a response to an article posted on NyNyOnline. The writer of that site happened to ask us to share our knowledge of the Japanese Pop music industry in a recent comment.

Since that is a rather momentous task I have decided to just throw in my two cents in this response instead of blowing up the comments section on the original article with a massive diatribe.

I cannot speak for the other Selective Hearing staff but if you are reading this (and I know you are) feel free to post your own responses if you wish. For now I will drop the usual disclaimer:

Any opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the other Selective Hearing staff or affiliates of the site.


Most listeners of mainstream Japanese music are probably highly familiar with J-Pop, a very loosely defined genre that encompasses many different types of music. Its current status today can possibly be attributed to the popularity of a diverse group of artists in the 1990’s such as B’z, Kome Kome Club, Mr. Children Dreams Come True and Namie Amuro.

Instead of becoming more specific over time, the term became blanketing over all the music coming out of Japan and the result is that for the common foreign consumer J-Pop = IDOLS.

That might piss off a few of you who are more enlightened to the many varied styles of music in Japan but that appears to be the general perception to an outsider who knows nothing other than what trickles out to them via filtered sources.

We could blame the transition into the new millennium for that. As the 90’s came to an end the rise of the popular girl groups such as the Hello! Project collective who were lead by the flagship group Morning Musume started. Their rise to success had many others riding the coat tails of the wave in an effort to cash in the next big thing.

These days it’s all about that AKB. If you are older perhaps it might have been Pink Lady, Onyanko Club or the countless number of Johnny’s groups that might have been your gateway drug into the idol world. So what you blame for the downfall of society and musical integrity is dependent on when you were indoctrinated.

Dig a little deeper in to Japanese music you’ll see that there is just as much variety as anywhere else in the world. Go to any record store in a major Japanese Urban center and you will be amazed at the amount of stuff you can find outside of the bubble that many overseas fans enclose themselves in.

For example, Japan has a thriving Hip-Hop, R&B and Club music scene that is comparable to the ones in America and South Korea. Unfortunately a lot of that music gets very little exposure because of the current musical climate but if you put in the effort you can find a lot of cool stuff.

The point here is you can either bitch that J-Pop sucks or you can ignore the mainstream, find what you like and promote it to the masses.

Take a look at m-flo’s Taku Takahashi’s rant about J-Pop and you’ll see this side of the coin. Some of you may find his arguments a little harsh but he does have some valid (and somewhat flawed) points.

Japanese Music Industry

What about the industry in general? Well I really don’t know too much about the ins and outs to be honest. I have heard of underworld ties but I am unsure of whether some is hearsay, scare tactics or the truth. I’m not that hardcore about finding out so… Yeah.

It is well known that Japanese record companies, labels and agencies have the tendency to be very controlling. I’m sure that most of us who have attended conventions where a Japanese artist has appeared can attest to the validity of that.

From my own personal experience, these companies and agencies are also hard to get in contact with if you don’t have some level of Japanese proficiency or if there is no English language liaison. But for the most part, they are fairly co-operative when you do have an inquiry about an artist on their roster. Just don’t expect any instant gratification.

When it comes to the digital era the Japanese industry is pretty slow to pick up on the convenience of it all. Physical sales still outnumber digital ones and the industry is doing everything it can to protect its cash cow. Unlike in North America, digital purchases in Japan still fall under DRM. If you were an early adopter of digital downloads you knew how shitty that was and had workarounds until retailers like iTunes got their act together.

The reluctance of major labels such as Sony Japan to release their catalogs digitally has also become a stumbling block. Even though there have been changes to that sort of thinking through label’s own ventures into the the digital realm, third parties like RecoChoku or services provided by telcos like NTT Docomo and KDDI; Japan’s digital downloads are still limited compared to the candy store that North Americans and Europeans are used to.

The Idol Boom

As mentioned above the current trend is the idol boom. These artists can either be home grown or imported from other countries such as those from the South Korean Hallyu wave. They also can be either be organic or manufactured and come a dime a dozen to please every part of the idol fan base. Really, there are idols for just about anything you can think of.

Idol music is easily created and disposed of and relies on slick marketing gimmicks to hook fans into buying as much product as possible. This has catapulted sales of the more popular groups into astronomical numbers regardless of the actual quality of the music produced.

Style over substance as the saying goes.

The whole aura surrounding idols outside of music can be a whole series of articles by themselves. But for the uninitiated I’ll just say that it’s not not an easy job. In J-Pop, members of female idol groups must live under a “love ban”. Meaning they sacrifice their own personal needs for love for the sake of committing themselves to their job and their adoring fans. Many girls are able to cope with this, while others manage to scandal themselves out giving in to carnal desires.

Males get it a little easier and don’t get scrutinized for sowing their wild oats as much. Unless they happen to be a Johnny’s member. Then you have to kotow to a creepy old guy and do unthinkable things behind closed doors to move up the ladder. Or it is said. I am not a fan of Johnny’s groups so don’t take my word for it. Perhaps some of you JE fangirls/fanboys might want to chime in on this to provide clarification.

In recent times the issue of relationships for idols male or female has been addressed and the “love ban” is more like “don’t fuck up and get caught rule”. It’s only natural that labels and agencies cut their artists some slack, especially if the more popular ones who generate them money are the ones involved in what is considered taboo by some hardcore idol purists.

The idol boom itself is rather polarizing and you either love what is happening or are absolutely against what is bandwagon jumping to capitalize on the next big fad. Either way, its bubble has not burst as of yet.


How music is ranked is usually through the Oricon charting system. The data for this system is compiled through sales rankings based on weekly tabulations. The results of these tabulations are the chart, which is posted every Tuesday. Billboard is another popular charting system that uses SoundScan to track sales and compile data for their charts.

The majority trusts the Oricon charts more than Billboard but either are a fine way to gauge what is popular amongst the masses. Of course these do not come with a bit of controversy as the numbers can be manipulated just a wee bit by hoard purchases of the many multiple versions of each single and album that idol groups release. There is also the fact Oricon does not recognize digital purchases and does not plan to anytime soon.

If you look at the 2011 year end Oricon charts they’re dominated by AKB48 and Johnny’s groups. Is that a true representation of what was the best of the year? Not necessarily, but sales numbers are king right?

Sometimes the best music out of Japan is in the bottom end of the charts or doesn’t chart at all on the Hot 100 or whatever the equivalent is on Oricon. The numbers show one thing, but don’t take that as the be all and end all when it comes to Japanese music. You’re limiting yourself a lot if you do.


That’s about all I know about the Japanese music industry in short form. I could probably go on longer but I don’t feel like writing a college level essay. I think you all got the gist of it. Feel free to throw in your pennies on this subject if you like.

About Greg 1001 Articles
Greg is the creator, administrator, editor, code monkey, overlord and general jack of all trades at Selective Hearing. He can be found lurking among the overseas Asian pop fandom and bumming around Japan every year for some reason or another.