‘Japan Says Western Pop? No, Thanks, Don’t Do It’

On 10 September I gave a presentation at the British Association for Teachers of Japanese (BATJ) annual conference in Cardiff. I spoke about ‘Western’ pop acts in Japan.

In 1995, Guy De Launey’s article ‘Not-so-big in Japan: Western pop music in the Japanese market’ was published. It sought to explain some of the reasons why the overwhelming majority of Western (by which that article implicitly and this paper more explicitly takes to mean those acts from North America, Europe and Australasia that release songs in the English language) do not enjoy great success – in terms of sales of CDs especially – in Japan. 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.

On the face of it, the reason why Western acts would want to crack the Japanese market is obvious – at the time (De Launey’s study and this one focus on the 1980s and early 1990s due to the focus on physical sales), it was the second largest market in the world. Yet, the data shows that other than some exceptions – primarily big stars from the USA – most acts did not manage to sell huge quantities of albums and the share of Western music continue to shrink during this period (to about 24% of total sales). So why was it that Western acts not only released albums in Japan, but many offered special versions of the CD or additional remix versions? What does this teach us about the nature of the music market and its fans in Japan?  What was the relationship between the acts and Japan? How and why did some Japanese people follow certain Western acts? These are some of the questions that this paper addressed.

Additionally, this paper considered the reasons why the Japanese release of Western acts’ CDs have been collector’s items, looking at issues ranging from rarity through to the importance of nostalgia as these CDs continue to sell at prices many times higher than their original retail price.

To do all of this, the paper focusses upon the case of Frankie Goes To Hollywood.

This presentation was an opportunity for me to wear an iconic Frankie T-shirt at a conference – though I don’t start off by showing it, revealing it at the appropriate point during the presentation.

Discussing some of the origins of the phrase ‘Big in Japan’ (photo by Madoka Thomas)
Discussing Frankie’s concerts in Japan (photo by Madoka Thomas)

This presentation ties into the book, Frankie Fans Say Welcome to our World, that I am writing. Although I had been aiming to finish the first draft of the book by summer (and had originally planned to have it completed in 2021), it is taking longer than expected for one reason or another (including preparing for this presentation), but it is now about 80% done and I hope will be published in early 2023. A version of this presentation will also be published in the BATJ journal in 2023.

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