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Quick, name five Japanese bands. Chances are, some of the more intense music nuts out there might name-check the Boredoms, Pizzicato Five, and Shonen Knife, and some might even recognize Melt-Banana or Guitar Wolf. But the reality of Japanese pop music -- or J-pop, as it is referred to by its growing cult of Western fans -- is a very different story than the one told by the aforementioned groups, whose North American appeal is almost inversely proportional to that of their native land.
The actual soundtrack to the daily lives of the people living on this tiny island nation of 126 million is composed of music every bit as cheesy, every bit as slick as that offered up Stateside. The youth-driven Japanese music industry, once dominated by gai-jin artists and producers, has turned disposable pop music into a homegrown art and, in the process, created the second-largest music market in the world.
To the distanced observer, the Japanese appear to be the world's most perfect consumers, or at least the most enthusiastic. High-tech vending machines crowd every corner, tree, bend, and brook, dispensing everything from pantyhose and sake to CDs, often with no visible source of electricity. This gadget-happy corner of the world has turned consumerism into a science. It's not uncommon to see products triple-wrapped; fruit can be seen individually attired in little knitted cardigan sweaters. Seriously.
The extra mile that the Japanese put into their products is reflected in the almost uncontrollable waste problem that has developed in the last few decades. Just think, the Japanese -- who have embraced the bidet and really, really like it -- have no idea where to throw away their trash, whether it's mountains of garbage or disposable pop songs. It didn't help that other countries used Japan as a dumping ground for their own kitschy, catchy tunes.
As recently as 10 years ago, most of the music pumped out of the airwaves of Japan was from American and British sources. Japan, although cornering the market on cute, had yet to successfully export its brand of off-kilter pop to anywhere other than itself. For every Hello Kitty -- the enduring symbol of all that is hopelessly cute -- and Pokémon, there has always been a Pink Lady. (Remember them?) With the recent Stateside underground popularity of such Japanese recording acts as Cornelius and Buffalo Daughter, not to mention anime, J-pop has benefited abroad from a certain awareness campaign that doesn't even truly hint at its magnitude.
Embracing everything from upbeat girl-group pop to spiky rawk anthems, the sound of young Tokyo is united only in its ability to shift units. At the center of the industry is a tightly controlled organization that exerts the same pressure on its artists as does the Japanese educational system on students, encouraging conformity and imitation not only among its practitioners, but in the youth market that consumes it.
Namie Amuro is probably the most popular female singer in Japan today. Her songs and image grace a wide range of TV shows and commercials as well as magazines and expensive calendars. A graduate of the infamous Okinawa Training School for young pop performers in Naha City (a breeding ground for many of the cute boy and cute girl groups in Japan), she was taken under the wing of prolific producer-Svengali Tetsuya Komura to become one of the top-selling moppets on his Avex Trax label. Kick-starting her career in teen band Super Monkeys, Amuro soon left to go solo, and by the middle of this decade, her CD singles were regularly selling more than a million copies.
In a country where it is as important that songs can be sung in karaoke boxes as it is that they're heard over radio and TV, Namie Amuro does very well, exemplifying the girl end of the J-pop spectrum. Switching styles and genre-hopping as it suits her, Amuro's success has inspired a cadre of like-minded artists such as Ayumi Hamasaki and Tina, whose Japanese urban-funk-soul fusion is almost indistinguishable from its American counterpart. Today's most popular Japanese vocalists have moved away from their Enka (pre-war popular music) roots and adopted the clothing, styles, and attitudes of Western music, especially modern R&B.
Tetsuya Komura is as responsible as anyone for bringing the sounds of the new world to Japan. Indeed, one of his projects, a French-Nipponese collaboration, is appropriately called Globe. After spending some time in England, Komura came back to his homeland with a vision: He would combine the two most popular forms of youth entertainment, karaoke and disco, into a hybrid, a radical idea for the time in Japan. Writing and producing for such chart-toppers as Kiss Destination and Hitomi, not to mention Namie Amuro and the entire Avex Trax roster, Komura encouraged his artists to adopt outrageous personae and adapt to modern production techniques in order to keep up with the sounds coming from Europe and the Americas.
His plan worked: Dominating the Oricon charts (the Japanese equivalent of Billboard) since the mid-1990s, Komura ushered in the million-seller era of J-pop. To this day, at least one song from the Komura family, as his artists are known, is in the Oricon Top 10 during any given week. Komura's ambitions also helped introduce hip-hop into the Japanese consciousness; a lot of the girl groups utilize a bit of it in most of their songs. Japanese rapping is almost head-swimmingly surreal in its nature -- Japanese mixed in with bits of almost pidgin English delivered in a rapid-fire, decidedly black dialect. Yet as the girls retreat from the upbeat, bubblegum sound of their recent past and move toward a more sophisticated urban feel -- imagine the leap from Debbie Gibson to Lauryn Hill -- it is the boy groups who have taken J-pop on a downbeat path while maintaining its marketability.
But its newfound success hasn't always had positive effects. When superstar Hideto Matsumoto, known to his fans as Hide (pronounced hee-day), hung himself in the bathroom of his Tokyo mansion in 1998, he inspired a wave of copycat suicide attempts that resulted in the deaths of two girls. Hide's music and fashion were hugely influential throughout Japan, inspiring imitators and rocketing up the charts in the clubs as well as in the karaoke parlors. After signing with Sony in 1988, Hide played the part of a rock god in several bands, including X Japan, Saber Tiger, and the obscenely monikered Spread Beaver. A KISS and Aerosmith fan since the '70s, he took Japanese glam beyond heavy metal, infusing it with the grunge that had become popular in the United States in the early '90s.
Hide's hair, clothes, and makeup launched a thousand breathless Web sites dedicated to describing it in almost pornographic detail. Fans kept records of each of his concerts, and his funeral in Tokyo's Honganji Temple was well attended, with 12,000-plus young Japanese queued up to pay their last respects. In the past year since his death, Hide's shadow remains large. Groups such as GLAY -- which recently played to 200,000 people in Chiba, making it Japan's largest concert ever -- and L'arc~en~ciel have carried his torch, continuing to push the moody sounds popularized by the doomed young star into the homes of Japan through commercials, movie soundtracks, and television appearances.
L'arc~en~ciel's (a French term for "rainbow") current tremendous popularity with young Japanese people may be related to the vacuum left by Hide's death. Fronted by another Hyde, L'arc~en~ciel -- or Luruku, as they're commonly know by the Japanese -- sing about half of their lyrics in a sort of broken, nonsensical English. After suffering an almost unheard of drug bust in 1997, the band saw their CDs being pulled from store shelves in moral indignation. Defying public criticism and armed with a slightly more American-friendly sound and new drummer, Luruku rebounded in the past year to chart success but were bitterly denounced by some longtime fans for abandoning their more traditional, romanticized sound.
The group's ties to the still-practiced Enka tradition is more apparent than in the slippery disco of girl group SPEED (who owe more to the Spice Girls than anything), Namie Amuro, or even the boy groups such as SMAP or Kinki Kids. Enka, a highly emotional song form, relies on a baroque vocal arrangement that deals in themes of lost love and nostalgia, and L'arc~en~ciel's Hyde is recognized throughout Japan as perhaps its greatest rock vocalist, with an emotional range that belies the flashy trappings of the wild hair and clothes the band favors.
And those trappings fit right in with Japan's consumer culture. A walk through Tokyo's hip Harajuku district reveals photoclub booths where you can get your picture taken with members of some of J-pop's biggest stars, and vending machines offer the top 20 CDs for your ultimate shopping convenience. Groups such as L'arc~en~ciel make numerous appearances on the tube, sometimes to sing their latest hit, sometimes providing theme songs to popular sitcoms and cartoons. All the while, certain producers and publishers such as Tetsuya Komura are making a killing repackaging American pop and selling it to their own people with Japanese lyrics.
The ruthlessly structured Japanese music industry, however, is squashing the smaller indie-music scene by keeping it out of sight of the masses, flooding the market with singles and compilations of performers who have been rigorously coached in the science of pop superstardom. Perhaps it's the final irony that the only inroads being made by Japanese musical groups into America are by acts who find themselves virtually blacklisted from the national media in their home country. But while Buffalo Daughter and Cornelius wow the hipsters in New York and Los Angeles, groups such as SPEED (with its collective average age of 16) and MAX continue to capture the imagination of Japanese teenage girls with a mixture of innocent sexuality and almost unbearable cuteness. Coming soon to a tiny backpack near you.
T. Erich Scholz is a member of The Tomorrowpeople, a band that occasionally likes to think of itself as the enduring symbol of all that is hopelessly cute.