British/European/American Music in Japan

From time to time you come across magazines and articles suggesting that a particular British/European/American (hereafter referred to as ‘Western’) act is big in Japan. Although, through my various trips to Japan, I’ve never really had the impression that (m)any Western acts were successful there, I also had no particular reason to question it. At least not until recently.

Having completed my third novel (FOUR), I am now working on a book related to Frankie Goes To Hollywood. When I started to plan this book, I was doing so on the basis that it would, like my novels, be done as a hobby and there would be no particular relationship to my academic work (in reality, I often bring some of my academic research into my novels – see, for example, a post where I discuss this in relation to Aokigahara). But in the past week that has changed.

As my plans for the new book evolved, I decided that it would be good to have a chapter that looks specifically at Frankie and Japan – after all the Japanese releases of Frankie singles and albums are popular collectors’ items, Japan was one of the countries that Frankie toured in, and I was aware that there are Frankie fans still in Japan. And that is when I got a bit of a wake up call in relation to Western pop music in Japan.

When starting to think about how I could frame a chapter about Frankie in Japan, an obvious place to begin, I thought, would be to discuss how successful they were there. So I started checking chart records and statistics. And discovered that not only was there no Frankie, there was little in the way of any Western acts. Somewhat surprised, I contacted a friend who works in the Japanese music industry. He confirmed that, other than a few exceptions, non-Japanese acts just don’t have much success in Japan.

By now my academic brain was kicking into gear more with a range of questions. Why aren’t more Western acts successful in Japan? Why does Western media make out that some are big in Japan? Why do Western acts do special Japanese releases if they aren’t going to sell well? If Western music isn’t popular in Japan, how do those who do like Western acts find out about them? Are there any distinctive ways in which Japanese fans follow these Western acts? And so on.

Next job, look for any academic work on this subject.

I discovered that in 1995, Guy De Launey had an article ‘Not-so-big in Japan: Western pop music in the Japanese market’ published. It’s an excellent article and answers many of the questions that I had. I also discovered that, although over 25 years have passed since the publication of De Launey’s article, there has been little, if any, additional academic study on this subject, with studies about pop music in Japan focussing on Japanese acts. This is not a major issue for me since the focus of my interest is the time period which De Launey’s article considers, but was a bit of a surprise.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of chatting to De Launey and that helped to further confirm certain details from the article and address some of the additional questions that I have.

But for now, the research on this area will continue. As well as looking at the issue specifically in relation to Frankie Goes To Hollywood for my book, to help add context I will be looking at Western acts more broadly, but keeping a particular eye out for other groups that I am aware have had some success in Japan, done special Japanese releases of their albums, or where there appears to be a Japanese influence to some of their work – this will include Berlin, Pet Shop Boys, Roxette, and Thompson Twins.

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