Japan’s pop culture can sometimes draw a feeling of shock and awe from foreigners. We hear about vending machines that dispense used panties, boyfriend shaped pillows, and creepy humanoid robot receptionists. In truth, these are not examples of Japan’s pop culture, but instead an illustration of the bizarre undercurrent flowing beneath the mainstream. Japan’s pop culture is actually benign and devoid of risk.
The perfect case study is J-Pop. Imagine a musical landscape filled with an infinite number of One Direction(1D) boy bands, but those bands are even less talented and more effeminate. Instead of Miley Cyrus becoming overtly sexualized upon her eighteen birthday, you get a sea of idol groups that are high school aged(or marketed as such) being displayed as sex objects well before they can legally buy a pack of cigarettes. They all appear to be coming from the same corporate source and any competition for their placement in Japan’s pop culture is likely suppressed.
Practically all cultures in the world suffer from corporate (and sometimes cultural) forces limiting the quality of popular music. Japan’s issues are both interesting and disturbing because of how stark and obvious they are, yet change is sluggish at best. The Johnny & Associates company is responsible for j-pop boy bands Arashi, Sexy Zone, TOKIO, and SMAP to name a few. Anyone living in Japan or familiar with J-Pop knows that those bands make up a HUGE chunk of the mainstream music scene. Did I mention that almost none of these boy bands can dance or sing? Exile is a more manly boy band (think Backstreet Boys) and they can dance. Their popularity is a slight break from the crap being thrust on people, but they too have formed their own company and will be flooding the market with clones of themselves.
AKB48 is the most popular idol group and over the last five years an influx of clones like SKE48 and NMB48 have been poisoning the airwaves as well. Almost all of these groups come from the same source, just like the boy bands. Seeing a theme? Not even a small attempt at hiding how one or two companies are essentially controlling what music is going to be popular. Competition based on quality in Japan is less than an afterthought.
The truly sad thing is that interesting music is being created in Japan. As it stands, the music industry has no pressure to deliver quality. No real fuss is being made about change. It kind of feels like the Japanese public is content on accepting this garbage on a whole. Talk with any independent artist in Tokyo and you are likely to find frustration. It must feel pretty hopeless for real musicians in Japan. All they see are production companies raking in the dough with talentless mannequins and no sign of creativity being valued. J-Pop as currently constructed is a scourge on Japan’s pop culture and it needs to be stopped. A grass roots movement to alter how music is fed to the public would be nice to see, but any optimism should be tempered. Acceptance looks to be the status quo for the foreseeable future. I have yet to see a panty vending machine or a robot receptionist, but I have definitely seen a more disturbing thread to Japan’s pop culture and its J-Pop.
* Check out the Shimokitazawa article for suggestions on venues for real music.