5 Reasons Japanese Mainstream Music Has No Teeth (and probably never will)

Japanese mainstream music has no teeth. It is nearly impossible to find a group, artist, album, or song that can truly be called both “controversial” and “popular”, especially if we are defining “popular” by the standards of the J-pop industry. Nowhere will you find subject matter that is anything except sterilized, de-fanged, and above all safe as defined by a board of middle-management suits that have all been working in a firmly regulated industry for decades.

Please bear in mind that this state of affairs does not exist because Japanese listeners wish it to be so. They are not afraid of a little controversy. They enjoy just as wide a variety of music as any other nation, and their music underground is as rich and diverse as one could hope to find anywhere. The sad depletion exists soley within the mainstream, and this is because there are literally dozens and dozens of people working hard to ensure that the lyrical content of any music broadcast in Japan on television or radio is completely neutered of anything even remotely controversial. The result is a musical landscape full of attractive mirages that, upon closer inspection, reveal that they have very little depth or substance. Imagine a desert populated only by thousands of Taylor Swifts. Or Baby Metals, for that matter.

Editor-in-Chief Jim Broadly has demanded that we begin this article, just as we began the Baby Metal article, by again reminding everyone that enjoying Baby Metal doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t make you stupid or worthy of being mocked, and it doesn’t mean you have bad taste. Their lack of anything resembling real substance doesn’t transfer to you personally, because that’s not how enjoying music works. We all enjoy light stuff! Not every meal is a huge steak. Sometimes we just want a Slim Jim, just like sometimes we prefer cheap beer to powerful liquors. The problem is that when it comes to Japanese mainstream music, all you’re ever allowed to have is Slim Jims and cheap beer and damnit human spirits cannot be nourished by Taylor Swift and Miller Lite.

This may sound like rank hyperbole from an ignorant foreigner, but you don’t have to take our word for it. Kaala staff writer Jharrod was recently in the audience at a lecture given by Noriko Manabe who is, among other things, the author of the fascinating book The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Protest Music After Fukushima, and during the lecture Manabe was addressed by an older gentleman who had been a student in the sixties and had once taken part in a protest against the US/Japan security treaties and who claimed to have been employed in the past by one bureaucratic ministry or another. He referenced Pete Seeger, the outspoken and politically active musician who had been subpoenaed and testified before the House Unamerican Activities committee in 1955 and was thereupon blacklisted, and who also performed at the presidential inauguration party for Barack Obama in 2009.  He wondered if Japan would ever see the mainstreaming of political and/or protest music in the manner seen in the US.  Manabe’s response was a flat denial: “I don’t see that ever happening”.

The reasons why and how this state of affairs came to be are complicated and deeply rooted in Japanese culture and history. It would take more space than we have here to do the topic justice, but what we can do is give you a rundown on the primary obstacles any mainstream musician with a controversial message will face in trying to express themselves.

5. THE RECORDING INDUSTRY

Back in the postwar days the Recording Industry Association of Japan, or RIAJ, formed the Recording Industry Ethics Regulatory Commission (“Recorin” for short, I have no idea why they don’t use an acronym like everyone else), and with a name like that you’re probably not imagining a bunch of loose, fun-loving guys who like to unbutton their collars and let their hair down. Since 1952 they’ve been inspecting the lyrics of every record prior to its release, searching for and blocking any lyrics that they suspect capable of doing the following:

1. Disturb the national public order

2. Are “disrespectful of life or justice, or make drug use and antisocial or criminal behavior look appealing”

3. Hold individuals in contempt or are discriminatory on the basis of circumstance, beliefs, sex, nationality, occupation, or phyiscal and psychological handicaps

4. Damage the honor of a nation, ethnicity, or organization or international goodwill

5. Are sexually obscene

6. Have a negative impact on the youth

You may recognize that last one from its starring role in “literally the thing they killed Socrates over”, which I think we can all agree was a truly classic moment in human history.

So let’s say that you’re a musician in Japan trying to record a new album. Maybe you’re already famous or maybe you’re just starting out, but either way here’s what’s going to happen to your recordings as soon as you complete them -- first, your director or producer will probably scan the lyrics since, as Manabe writes, “some record companies like Universal distribute information concerning songs that Recorin has rejected to all directors, pointing out the types of lyrics that are seen as problematic and they’re not going to waste their time producing music that’s going to be rejected.” Then they’re going to send those lyrics to a committee within the record company well in advance of release so that the committee can inspect them, and then the lyrics finally get sent to Recorin. If Recorin finds a problem the following dispute will be between Recorin’s members, the original producer, the label staff, and in the end a record label executive will write up a response and send it to Recorin, who will then discuss it at their next inspection meeting, which are held only once a month.

If the lyrics are judged to be running counter to any one of the six rather broad points listed above, the companies involved are required to re-record vocals and change the lyric sheets. Since this takes both more time and more money it has a way of encouraging producers and labels to fix the problem on their end before it becomes a potentially expensive issue, and this, the top-down scrutiny and multiple inspections, is how industry self-censorship begins. Soon producers and artists decide that the struggle isn’t worth it. As evidenced by the fact that in 2012 only eighteen of the nearly ten thousand albums subjected for inspection ended up being discussed at the monthly inspection meetings, it’s pretty clear that the record companies themselves are generally unwilling to fight this kind of battle, and it’s hard to blame them.

But whatever! You can simply find an independent studio to record your new album. Or maybe you’ll just do it yourself with Garage Band! That’ll show those recording industry dickheads! Now you just have to find a way to get it on the radio -- or rather television, since TV is far and away the primary consumption source for new music in Japan -- and the recording industry won’t help you because they heard you call them “dickheads” mere seconds ago. “I’ll just release it online,” you say to yourself with a smug grin. “I’ll use SoundCloud or Bandcamp. I mean, who even buys CDs anymore?”

Good question! The answer is “Japanese people”.

4. CDs STILL DOMINATE THE JAPANESE MARKET

According to the Japan Times, who are in turn quoting the New York Times, in 2014 a full 85 percent of music sales in Japan came from CDs. In that same year, CDs accounted for only 57 percent in the US and 64 percent in the UK. When that statistic was released a lot of people started inquiring about the reason, and the answer could be as charmingly simple as described in the previous link -- Japanese people just seem to prefer things you can see and touch. And this preference extends beyond music. Any westerner living in Japan can tell you the difficulties one runs into attempting to use just plastic instead of cold, hard cash. Japanese people certainly have credit cards but they’re rarely used because most prefer hard currency, something you can hold in your hand, something that exists in the real world.

The digital marketplace has grown in Japan since those statistics were first published, but as you can see in the Recording Industry in Japan Statistics and Trends handbook, digital sales still lag far behind CDs. Strangely, it seems that Japanese people don’t have an intrinsic distaste for digital music, they just don’t like paying for it. From the Japan Times:

In 2015, however, the Japanese music industry started to fall in line with other markets worldwide and began to push paid music-streaming services. In early summer, two such services launched: Line Music and AWA. Line Music is jointly run by popular text-messaging service Line and Sony Music Entertainment Japan, the country’s biggest record label. AWA is led by second-largest label, Avex Group Holdings, and the IT company Cyber Agent.

Line is, first and foremost, a messaging service that has more than 200 million active users and is popular among teenagers throughout Asia. This gave Line Music a decent head start in the streaming race here, with its app reportedly downloaded 8 million times within eight weeks. AWA boasted 1 million downloads in its first week, but both Line Music and AWA stopped disclosing figures several months after launching.

“Most of the free-trial members of both these services didn’t move on to the premium paid service when the trials expired,” Enomoto explains, stressing that conversion rates from “free” to “paid” subscribers remain a problem. Indeed, Line Music began with a free two-month trial that asked users to choose between two plans after the period ended. The basic plan costs ¥500 for 20 hours per month, while the premium plan costs ¥1,000 with no limitations.

Users took to Twitter to vent their frustration over the move. “What!? They want money from us?” tweeted one user. “I’d use it if it kept being free,” said another.

I have a lot of sympathy for this perspective. My buying habits are remarkably similar, so I can't offer any judgement. I hate buying things online, even music, so it’s very fortunate that the music I do purchase is usually found at a live show. That works fine and dandy for me personally but it’s not a terribly effective distribution route for bands, and I can say from experience that groups here in Tokyo work hard to get their albums in CD stores (I can hear younger western readers asking themselves “what the hell is a ‘CD store’?” so let me assure you, young reader, they are a thing that exists here in Japan).

Making an album in Tokyo isn’t cheap -- you have to rent studio space, buy/rent recording equipment, and if you don’t have experience with this sort of thing you’ll need to have an engineer or producer around to help make sure the track recording goes smoothly. Then, if you want it to sound clean and professional, you’ll probably need someone to mix and master the tracks for you. No part of this process is cheap, and at this point you still haven’t even made a physical compact disc yet. You’ll have to burn dozens or even hundreds of the things and distribute them yourself. Labels typically help with these costs, but you can’t use a big label with money to burn because they’re all part of the RIAJ and bound by Recorin rules.

But let’s say you manage to make an album and you’re ready to distribute it to the people, which means putting it on television because that’s where the vast majority of Japanese people first hear new music. As this handy guide to music promotion in Japan states, radio promotion of music doesn’t really happen in Japan. There are only a few major radio networks, and as Carolyn S. Stevens writes in her book Japanese Popular Music: Culture, Authenticity and Power, daytime radio broadcasting is mostly focussed on DJs and banter, and even when songs are played they are played in the “short form” with intros and outros and often entire verses omitted.

Okay, time to get on TV!

3. JAPANESE BROADCAST LAWS

Japan has an ostensibly free press and indeed the portions of its constitution referencing freedom of the press were based on the US constitution, so if you hadn’t read this article no one could blame you for thinking their broadcasting laws and standards are roughly the same as they are in the US. For instance: Article 1, Section 2 of the Broadcast Law states, its principles are "to ensure freedom of expression through broadcasting by guaranteeing the impartiality, truth and autonomy of broadcasting". Sounds great, yeah?

But since you have been reading this article and know the direction it’s going, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the National Association of Commercial Broadcasters has an even more detailed list of rules and guidelines than Recorin. The effect is best described in The Revolution Will Not Be Televised:

As any record needs television and radio for promotional purposes, major labels generally heed the broadcasting guidelines, as well as their own. In addition to echoing the general concepts of the Recorin standards, the “Laws and Politics” heading of the broadcasters’ guidelines includes a prohibition against attempts to “disgrace the authority of the Government or its agencies” and says that topics under national deliberation shall be handled “prudently”, in a way that would not “interfere with nor influence deliberation”, Under “Human Rights,” it notes that “the dignity of individuals and groups shall be respected.” While this statement is a prohibition of slander the general practice within the record industry has usually been to avoid naming individuals or companies in songs in general. The Japanese equivalent of Neil Young’s classic song about the Kent State shootings, “Ohio” (1970), which begins with “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,” would most likely be withheld from release at a major Japanese Label.”

Not only would “Ohio” never have been released, but any song about, say, the police shooting an unarmed black civilian or a Confederate flag being flown at certain states’ Capitol building would also be withheld. The scope of this restriction is staggering. Enormous swathes of American mainstream music would not exist if the US recording industry operated under similar restrictions.

Yet there are reasons to believe the situation is changing, albeit at the same rate anything changes in Japan, i.e. very slowly. Falling CD sales means record companies don’t have as much power over artists as they once did, and the director of Fuji Rock’s NGO Village and Atomic Cafe, Okubo Seishi, holds the belief that the situation now is more permissible and open than it was in the 80s, during the bubble days when everyone thought powerful zaibatsu were going to eventually run the entire country of Japan, if not the world.

But on the other hand...

2. MEDIA CENSORSHIP IS ON THE RISE IN JAPAN

The form of censorship Japanese media takes most often is self-censorship, but there are many articles detailing how, under Prime Minister Abe, political pressure toward broadcasters has increased and that this attempt at censorship has been more-or-less successful. The most chilling lines come from the New York Times:

The prime minister [Abe], who arrived in the United States on Sunday for a weeklong visit, has also appointed a new chairman to the national public broadcaster, NHK, who has declared that the network will not deviate too far from the government’s views. Members of the Abe government have openly hinted at revoking the broadcasting licenses of overly critical networks under a law that requires that TV news reports not intentionally twist facts.

I probably don’t need to tell you how essential a free press is to any democracy, but just for giggles: remember the earthquake in March of 2011, the one so big it shifted the entire planet a couple inches off its axis and shoved the entire nation of Japan a couple meters further into the Pacific? I do, and I know Kaala’s owner Matt Ketchum sure does because he had a literal front row seat when the ensuing tsunami erased his house, and I think everyone in the world knows the words “Fukushima Daiichi reactor” and the nuclear whoopsy-daisy within it. At the time of the quake and for many months after there were understandably a lot of questions about how dangerous the area was and how long it would remain dangerous, and the government’s response to these very reasonable questions was “hey, relax, we're on it. Don’t worry about it”. Follow-up questions were met with thinly veiled threats. Remember, these were questions that concerned the safety of citizens, and getting a straight answer from the government, an answer you knew you could trust, was nearly impossible.

Those living outside Japan may view its residents as generally quiet and orderly and unwilling to engage in confrontation. This is certainly the stereotypical view of the Japanese, but this stereotype is reinforced by the Japanese media simply not reporting on things like large public protests. When PM Abe revealed his plan to “re-interpret” article 9 of the constitution (the one limiting military involvement abroad) the public did not just sit around and sadly shake their heads, they went out and tried to make their voices heard. One guy even made his point by setting himself on fire in front of the world’s busiest train station, which Japanese media largely ignored because reporting on anything even remotely critical of Abe’s government is strongly discouraged.

1. COPING WITH THE PROBLEM: ALLEGORY AND METAPHOR

As a result of all this, artists have been forced to developed strategies to steer a controversial message through the gauntlet of censorship. How do you sing about a hometown lost from the tsunami and spilt nuclear radiation when the latter is a taboo subject in the recording industry? Noriko Manabe explains in detail how musicians attempt to express something controversial without actually saying it outright:

Long story short, artists end up using a lot of allegory and metaphor. To take an example from the video, an artist may write a song in which they hint toward and allude to a home that does not exist, which they intend as a reference to all the homes lost to either the earthquake or the tsunami or to radiation danger, but they never actually spell out that idea or explain why the cause of the absence. The artists Manabe references, Saito Kazuyoshi and Kung Fu Generation, use not just coded language but even more vagueries that are nearly impossible to interperet unless you already know the meaning. Kung Fu Generation, for instance, has a song titled “N2”, which is a reference so occult that Manabe had to go to a Kung Fu Generation concert and hear a member explain it to the audence before she was able to figure out its meaning. “N2” opens with a riff taken from U2’s song “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” and the song “N2” is both a tribute to U2 and a very subtle hint at the meaning of its lyrics, which, by themselves, seem vague unless one already knows the band’s intention.

It’s hard to argue that the strategy of burying meaning underneath layers of metaphor and allusion is particularly effective. Manabe had to actually go to a concert and hear Kung Fu Generation explain the meaning behind the naming schema and I’d wager that if you hadn’t just been told all about it you would listen to the song and remain completely ignorant as to its meaning. I can’t help but feel that this is essentially preaching to the choir, that the practice of using such coded language obscures the meaning beyond recognition to all but those who are already hip to it anyway. Where is the benefit? Whose mind is being changed? Does it even count as “expression” if the message is so scrambled that, by the time it reaches an audience, its impossible to distinguish any signal in the noise?