The Trouble with J-pop: Revolutionizing the Western Community of Criticism

I wish that the concept of serious Japanese pop and rock criticism was, on the whole, more prevalent. I might even venture to say I wish it existed at all. There are of course, numerous problems with why criticism of Japanese music is in absentia, the most important which is obvious: everything about music criticism has stemmed around the Western world of music. The arguments are clear: (1) a lot of people speak English, some people speak Japanese; (2) if analyzing involves deconstructing the music within a cultural context, the Japanese culture is too far removed to do any of the analyzing unless you were born and raised within that culture. I’ll share an example.

In the introduction to Chuck Klosterman’s heavy metal odyssey Fargo Rock City, Klosterman claims that music criticism has been largely restrained to pop, blues, jazz, and the like, while intellectual criticism about heavy metal has been pretty moot. So he thought, well, I’m fairly intelligent and I like heavy metal, why don’t I write about it? So he did. It’s at this point I thought about pursuing the same thing in regards to Japanese pop. Hey, I’m fairly intelligent and I like J-pop. I could even narrow this down and do an entire study on Ayumi Hamasaki, considering I know more about her music and persona than any other artist I’ve listened to and researched. If I followed Klosterman’s example, I would then delve into how she affected my culture, my friends, and my life. But that’s the problem: Ayumi Hamasaki never affected my culture, she never affected the people around me, and so can she really have affected my life?

On a personal note, absolutely. Hamasaki’s music and persona seeped into every inch of my existence since I was a twelve year old kid listening to “Boys & Girls.” But Ayumi is not a part of my culture, no matter how much she sounds, looks, and acts the part. I have never walked down the street and glanced at billboards advertising A BEST. I have never stepped into a CD store with the knowledge that I would easily obtain her latest single. I have never turned on the radio and heard her songs on Top 40. I have never turned on the television and seen her advertising Visee Kose or a Panasonic camera; Ayumi is part of a culture, but it’s not mine.

But even if I did choose to write serious criticism on contemporary Japanese pop regardless, where could I even hope to be published outside of my own blog? Just who is the largest demographic of English-speaking Japanese pop and rock fans? And I’m left with the (sad) realization that it’s probably anime fans.

In 2003, a short year after the first incarnation of my (largely Japanese pop oriented) music blog appears was born, I received an E-mail from a representative of Tofu Records asking if I would help by advertising the releases of their albums, to which I politely declined on the basis that I believed (and still do) that their mission statement was outrageous. Tofu Records had a simple, albeit ambitious goal: to bring Japanese music to the United States by releasing Japanese pop artists’ albums in North America. A brilliant idea, except that the angle was to connect Japanese pop to anime. The idea was that kids and teenagers who watch anime are already primed to appreciate a facet of Japanese culture that would enable them to transition and be the likeliest foundation audience, hence, getting Japanese artists to perform at anime-cons. Well OK, some people who watch anime do listen to East Asian pop. The problem is that they are only a tiny fraction of people who listen to music in general and to say the two have any business being singularly attached at all is like using a Flaming Lips song to promote Mitsubishi. Using this approach, Tofu Records closed in 2007, less than five years later. So how do we successfully market a country’s musical oeuvre while allowing it to keep its integrity? How do we make it accessible and appealing to those not completely taken with Japanophilia, who just enjoy music without the anime attachment that may give them reason to judge before even hearing something they probably weren’t even aware existed? How do we get serious students, listeners, writers, and critics of music to pay attention in a country not very open to musical imports?

The cultural imperialism analysis puts things into a bit of perspective – Western culture influences everything and therefore, everything seems to be Western, if not simply American. But what Eastern countries like Japan have (amazingly) done is invite these ideologies without submitting their culture: the Oricon charts (similar to Billboard) feature both Western and Eastern artists, they eat at Western fast food restaurants, but their primary staple is still rice, they wear jeans and T-shirts, but don kimonos during formal events. These are just a few of the shallow aspects I’m pointing out – there is a lot of self-preservation within the country. Ayumi Hamasaki is a product of this unique culture and after all that, Ayumi can come to America, study our culture, and even speak our language fluently, but does that really make her a certifiable authority on our culture? If she chose to write criticism on say, some movie like There Will Be Blood in relation to our culture, would we take it seriously? Well, forgetting the fact that she’s a pop star, maybe.

First of all, America is built on that sort of acceptance; anyone can be American because our culture reaches beyond our borders and influences every aspect of non-Americans. But second of all, while Ayumi can conceivably “become” American, an “American” can never conceivably become “Japanese.” You can study the language, you can visit the country, you can live there for twenty years and make it your home, but if you weren’t raised there, can you really embody the true spirit of someone who’s gone through the cultural process of growing up in a country that, though very Westernized, is still undeniably different? Will you ever be more than just a gaijin oddity?

But this is the big question: can I legitimately dissect and analyze the influence of Ayumi Hamasaki on culture (or in general) when her culture is not my culture? When I have not been to Japan, have not exhaustively studied the language and only have a deeper understanding of the culture…to a certain extent? To just say it’s impossible is of course both stupid and short-sighted. But then there’s the question of who would read the analyses anyway.

The Japanese pop and rock culture is almost exclusively based on the Internet. For argument’s sake, the Internet is a concept and not a reality (I’ve read the phrase “in the real world” so many times on blogs, I find this argument beyond justifiable). That’s not to say it doesn’t exist at all – there are a handful of genuinely superb Japanese pop and rock blogs or web sites (but again, just a handful) and even a few “communities” that discuss the music in general, but I have yet to find any sort of transcendent, intellectual, and serious agenda on said subject matter. Pleasure Principled attempted this with its “revealingly articulate idol worship,” but the site hasn’t been updated in a long time, and even when it was, it focused almost exclusively on the “idol” community instead of embracing the full spectrum of J-pop. That’s not to say these casual fan blogs are somehow wrong or useless; personal journals are meant to be conduits of very personal, emotional, and unprofessional reactions and opinions, many of them launched to have fun with no serious aspirations attached. They allow fans to come together to discuss and interact, no matter what they have to say and how they choose to go about saying it. But where is its academic counterpart: the all-encompassing, articulate, savvy prose on all things Japanese pop, ie; where is the English-speaking J-pop version of Pitchfork? Hell, where is the English-speaking J-pop version of Rolling Stone or NME?

The Internet is already primed for this community; with no one else to talk to in the immediate, real world vicinity, English-speaking fans of Japanese pop found their allies through the Internet back in the day when the word anime still returned hollow, questioning stares. In fact, one can make the claim that Japanese music in America is a total Internet phenomenon; almost no one I’ve ever met who listens to it has discovered it without a decent ISP. This has bourgeoned into today’s mélange of blogs and message boards that post and discuss everything from Namie Amuro’s latest commercial endorsement, to the cutest member of Morning Musume. But if this is supposed to be “my” community, why does it sometimes embarrass the hell out of me? I would be loathe to claim superiority, intellectual or otherwise (though it can be argued that my entire stance in this essay stems from at least a certain type and degree of elitism), nor do I claim some sort of encyclopedic knowledge of all things J-pop; if anything, exposure to these blogs has taught me how much I have yet to listen to and learn. However, it’s also taught me how shallow, inhibited, exclusive, and unstimulating the core collective of English-speaking Japanese pop writers are; a lack of critical thinking, analyzing, and perceptive discussion plagues the very community I have never truly felt a part of. I’ve been listening to Japanese pop for eleven years now, during which my tastes have grown, changed, expanded, and matured, and yet it seems all of my peers have remained perpetually thirteen years old. How they can expect anyone else to take it seriously if they don’t either?

Again, there are huge exceptions here; it’s not my intention to cut down a community that, though never truly wrapping its arms around me, has always acknowledged my interest and ambition, even when they call my opinions “biased” as if they’re not, you know, opinions. There are great blogs out there with insightful comments and worthwhile niche communities: there’s jrockynyc, a veritable goldmine of humor, knowledge, and experience; Pink Wota, a witty, stream-of-consciousness take on pop; unchained, an intellectual oasis for some of the more obscure, indie titles; and International Wota, a community that connects all of these blogs with a feed keeping readers abreast of the salient topics du jour. But though there are a few more I don’t have the space to include, I’m still left with a plethora of blogs that recycle the same singles and albums from J-pop .rar blogs, most of who write reviews as if to recreate songs using uninventive, poorly stringed words after one or two listens, and never place any of the music in cultural or artistic contexts, let alone elude to a bigger picture. The poorly written comments that lash out in juvenile, unconstructive ways is a whole other beast. Plus, most of the writers are relatively young; I’m young myself, but that’s kind of the point. There are thousands of records I haven’t heard and books on music journalism I haven’t read and it’s only with time that I can hope to get through some of them and gain a more well-rounded understanding that will contribute to the way I listen to and analyze a piece of music, not to mention the way I choose to express that. Shouldn’t our community strive to be defined by just as much maturity and experience as Western criticism?

But then, I guess my aim has always been bigger. I’m not content to see Japanese pop and rock straddle the fringe, barely hanging on. I’m not willing to rest on the laurels that it’s the best we have, this J-pop community that’s content to remain a sort of cult hobby, that expresses horror and jealousy when a favorite pop star deigns to be just as accessible as Britney Spears. Shouldn’t our ambitions be higher? Shouldn’t we be aiming to put Eastern pop and rock on the same wavelength as its Western counterpart, without compromising it like, say, Dir en grey, without stripping it of its unique Japan-ness that causes us to love it so much or rob via the same impulse that wants the accessible, kitschy aspects of Japan only with the cute or eccentric filters on? Shouldn’t we be pushing it to be just as important, just as canon-worthy? Hell, to create a canon in the first place? To make sure Yellow Magic Orchestra and Happy End one day stand in the same hall of fame as Yes or The Beatles? I’m not saying it will be easy. I mean, even this desire to amass a legion of English-speaking J-pop savants forces Japanese music to succumb to the words and phrases of Western taste. Even something as simple as an album review requires filtering it through the Western mouth and spitting it out into some sort of ersatz reality, the one that claims any of us Westerners can truly be conduits of Eastern music culture when most of us have not been born, raised, or visited Asia, let alone speak any Asian languages; yes, music is a universal language, but it takes a lot more than just an I-like/I-don’t-like approach to write about it.

But I believe it’s possible. To look at something like a Buono! promotional video and critique it on the basis of talent and originality without submitting to cheap, easy shots at its sheer cuteness, or the sometimes endless Western desire to bemoan an utter lack of irony (hipsters, steer clear), and instead, see the unblemished sincerity not as a sign of ignorance, but, simply, as a whole different style of accessible, radio-friendly music contingent on the people in its culture is not easy, but it’s certainly reasonable. And we can’t take for granted the sheer amount of rock and indie that pervades the island either; the Kinks and the Rolling Stones shouldn’t  be (and aren’t) the only progenitors of rock music. And as countless have studied their influence on counter and youth cultures, we, too, should look at the way a uniquely influenced country like Japan has managed to craft rock without use of as much blues as its Western contemporaries and what it meant for its listeners. Or the outcome of what a lack of a Western definition of a minority has on the emergence of Japanese hip-hop.

In the September 2007 issue of the Japanese version of Rolling Stone (which is barely three years old!), Kawasaku Daisuke compiled a list of the 100 Greatest Japanese Rock albums of all time – an absolute, groundbreaking first.

“The Japanese music magazine industry resembles what existed in America before the rise of Rolling Stone. That’s to say, record companies – the main advertisers – see their wishes strongly reflected on every page, and because of this, magazines’ main job is to praise new releases. Is that why we’ve never seen one of these lists? It’s a strange situation, almost like the entire industry is infected with the idea that they should not rank releases because it would “make the record companies angry.” […] We must change this ridiculous situation into something more normal.” (Daisuke)

That was in 2007. Has anything changed since then? Well, when Yasutaka Nakata, a prolific Japanese producer, songwriter, and DJ was interviewed for The Japan Times Online in August 2009, he said, “The power of music critics is less in Japan now. […] And partly this is because they’ll talk about music saying that ‘this’ or ‘that’ is really fashionable, but the [sic] themselves obviously have no sense of style, so people react like, ‘What? Why should we listen to this guy?’” No. Nothing has changed at all. Albums are reviewed with praise and high ratings so they sell well, when let’s be honest – not every album is worth buying, or even listening to. It’s time to make the big leap in establishing the canon with well-written, researched reviews, articles, and essays by professional, critical listeners and writers who live and breath music, while remaining sensitive to our own handicaps and restrictions, cultural or otherwise.

After all, to speak of LUNA SEA or Dir en grey’s influence is to speak of the culture they have affected – those hundreds of visual kei/metal/lolita/what-have-yous – of which I have never partook of and thus know very little of, regardless of the fact that I have been listening to Dir en grey for eight years, from its VK infancy, to the bastardized riffs of American nu-metal mimicry. Here’s that socio/anthropological question again: does analysis of art in a particular culture require cultural participation? And if it doesn’t, if we agree that Western fans of Japanese pop have just as much valid insight into the Japanese musical landscape as Japanese music writers who were born, raised, and live/publish in Japan (and again, the idea of actual Japanese music criticism by the Japanese vis-à-vis the Western paradigm is extremely, ridiculously recent, if at all), is the message really genuine, or like Namie Amuro’s Queen of Hip-Pop, can it simply reflect the culture to which it aspires?

Like any art, music is not made in a vacuum. In fact, if the purpose of art is communication (of ideas, of feelings, of shared values), music speaks directly to the social environment in which it was begat. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it and discuss it on a (relatively) superficial level (as many J-pop blogs do), but as Americans living across the ocean (even with really reliable Internet access), does it mean we’ll never be able to truly grasp its central conceit? And if it’s feasible, does it mean we repair, from the ashes of so many trivial Hello! Project and Johnny’s fan blogs, this unique community to which all J-pop fans belong? Or do we break off and revolutionize the way the world perceives Japanese popular music forever?

(Special thanks to Mike for helping me work out and edit the ideas here.)

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51 thoughts on “The Trouble with J-pop: Revolutionizing the Western Community of Criticism

  1. Vee September 12, 2009 / 10:05 am

    Amazing. If I weren’t rushing to get to work right now, I’d tell you more. I’ll make it a point to come back to this…but really, what else is there to say? This is an amazing read, like your whole blog.

    • Anna September 13, 2009 / 8:15 pm

      Thanks for reading this, I really appreciate your thoughts and the time it took to read it (I realize it’s a bit longer than what most people are used to). Thanks for the comments, it means a lot coming from someone who’s blog I read religiously.

    • Anna September 13, 2009 / 8:13 pm

      I suppose it’s difficult to reply when you haven’t read the article; I think you may be surprised to see the issue I’m really attacking. As for Maki Goto’s video, I have seen it, but I’m still compiling my thoughts and am eager to hear the album coming out this week.

  2. aikorin September 13, 2009 / 5:25 pm

    I enjoyed reading this! Although my blog actually is powered by “candy-fueled excitement,” I’m happy with it that way, though I love reading serious reviews too. I’m most certainly someone who blogs purely for fun, and I’m pretty content with the way things are blog-wise, though I would love to see Jpop have some recognition from American critics however the idea seems so impossible for some reason.
    That bit about Tofu Records is very interesting – if only people could see Japanese pop culture beyond anime!

    I was also wondering if we could exchange links – I’m at discomunication.wordpress.com. I think our blogs are both named for Ayumi Hamasaki songs! Nice to meet you 🙂

    • Anna September 13, 2009 / 8:10 pm

      I guess it does sometimes seem impossible, but I think that’s only because it has a long way to go. I think Japanese music would benefit hugely from having a circle outside of anime, giving it more room to breathe outside its comfort zone and hopefully getting a larger number of people interested.

      It’s wonderful that you’re blogging, I pop in occasionally to read your stuff; regardless of what your intentions are or how high you’re aiming, it’s important that you love what you do. Thanks for reading!

  3. ChaosAkita September 13, 2009 / 5:37 pm

    “Our community.”

    “Our community.”

    Why in the world is this entitled to having “mature”, “intellectual” viewpoints and the whatnot? On average, is it any better or worse than the American music criticism “community” or the European “community?” (I’m taking this is what your spiel is about) Are Ayu and Namie more entitled to have just as deep reviews compared to whatever people are saying about, I don’t know, Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, or some more “influential” artist like Madonna?

    Why?

    It’s just music~

    And lol, hipsters. Always.

    • Anna September 13, 2009 / 8:07 pm

      Ayumi and Namie aren’t “more entitled” to anything, they’re JUST AS entitled.

      To some people music is more than just a string of connected notes and paparazzi shots. To talk about music is to discuss its influence and connection to subcultures, attitudes, fashion, and trends, among many things. For casual listeners, casual blogs are fine. But some are looking for more, and I’d like to think I’m not the only one.

      Thanks for reading, your response is very appreciated.

  4. ladybird September 13, 2009 / 6:34 pm

    First things first. This post makes a highly compelling reading and a great point for discussion. Since your post is long it would be only fair to treat some points you made separately.

    1. Culture.
    I’m Polish and I see myself in the middle of American and Japan. I have some distance to the English-speaking community so I can tell you that I see mostly positive points. I’m not sure whether anime fans are more eager to go into jmusic than other groups (it wasn’t the case with me) but there is a strong connection that cannot be denied and I don’t quite understand why it should be in the first place. I think that anime fandom is the easiest target for jmusic. Anime fans are more open, more eager to understand Japanese culture. And what do you mean when you say ‘serious’ students? Those watching anime aren’t?
    Furthermore, there are certain cultural boundaries that I think are impossible to cross for the masses. E.g. I’m pretty sure that shows like Yorosen wouldn’t bring many fans.
    2. Criticism.
    I got the feeling that you made 2 contradictory statements in your post (or is it just me). You regard, as you said it, ‘trivial’ blogs as useful, personal etc. But later write about ‘ashes’, ‘superficial’, ‘unprofessional’ and ‘trivial’. It seems that you’re against them in general or at least regard them as less valuable than more sophisticated blogs. It’s unfair. You can’t compare a professional journalist with a jmusic fan writing a blog for his or her pure enjoyment. To be honest, I prefer these blogs. Why? Because they are fun to read and entertaining.
    2. Revolution.
    “Shouldn’t our community strive to be defined by just as much maturity and experience as Western criticism?” (…) Not really. It’s good that there are blogs which talk more seriously about music. But my point of view is that music is all about personal and not proffesional. You don’t need to be a journalist to enjoy it. Critics might argue that Momusu music sucks in general and if sb seeks a serious review they might read it. But what’s the difference between a blog saying : ‘Momusu rocks!’ or a blog stating that ‘Momusu sucks’ and a blog providing a ‘professional’ review employing the background, the context and all pros and cons and whatsoever? It doesn’t change anything.

    “And if it’s feasible, does it mean we repair, from the ashes of so many trivial Hello! Project and Johnny’s fan blogs, this unique community to which all J-pop fans belong? Or do we break off and revolutionize the way the world perceives Japanese popular music forever?” Ashes? Trivial? C’mon. Do you honestly think that serious, professional and so on so on blogs can REVOLUTIONISE anything? Should I stop blogging my silly full of snark blog and star studying journalism in order to be a part of a ‘better’ world? Does my sillyness throw back potential fans? I don’t think so.

    • Anna September 13, 2009 / 8:00 pm

      Thank you so much for taking an interest in my essay.

      It was never my intention to say those into anime are not “serious,” more that my ambition for J music is to somehow become just as prevalent as Taylor Swift and Kanye West are right now, and marketing this music exclusively to anime fans could potentially create a divide that would be very hard to bounce back from. This also relates to my point about creating a more “serious” atmosphere, one that would get the attention of educated critics and writers. I’ll admit I’m a bit biased in this regard; there are those who hate critics and don’t see the point of passing “judgement” on music that someone spends a lot of time creating, and then there are those who believe that critics bring music alive by providing and starting conversations with eloquent essays and observations. These people are a subset of or include writers who function as music writers, providing what later becomes our official musical literature (culture studies, profiles, biographies, etc) that are extremely important in preserving music culture in general. Japanese pop and rock doesn’t have the luxury of this literature. Music journalism helps us remember what was good or awful, what people really liked, or the stories behind albums or songs and what inspired them, written by people who have had access to people and places casual fans can only dream of.

      I may have seemed a bit contradictory in my opinions about these casual blogs, but I’d like to stress that again, I believe these personal expressions of opinions and reactions are important in gathering members of a community and sharing what they love. But without its counterpart, J music may be doomed to stay on the Internet’s backburner without allowing the rest of the world to experience how wonderful it is. I happen to think that the difference between a fan’s opinion that “Momusu rocks” is very different from someone who provides the context, background, or research, who has studied music of all cultures in all eras and whose opinions are somewhat more credible: if you don’t know about indie rock, how can you talk about ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION’s music? If you don’t know about the origins of hip-hop, how can you talk about where Japanese hip-hop comes from or fits in? You don’t necessarily need to be paid for what you do (and it’s worth noting, music journalists pretty much make next to nothing and simply do it for the love and passion of it), but your knowledge should leap off the writing and speak for itself.

      I don’t know if bloggers can revolutionize anything. But there has to be a beginning to everything. Casual fan blogs have set the foundation, next we need more serious, educated writers and critics – and it doesn’t matter if they don’t deride a single thing, as long as they craft well enough to show they care in the way they express themselves to allow serious music students who DO have the power to revolutionize to start showing interest. With enough of an audience showing a demand, bigger places start to take notice.

      I would never tell anyone to stop writing, nor would I ever call it “silly.” You should do what you love to do.

      Thanks again for reading.

  5. sljinu September 13, 2009 / 8:18 pm

    Amazing article. While I don’t think it is necessary that every blog should aspire to a class as prestigious as the Rolling Stones Magazine (even if all they do is praise the latest albums as mentioned), I really believe we need more writers willing to run this extra mile. I wouldn’t consider myself elitist or superior, I just would like to see people put a little more effort into their articles. That means research and a study into what a well-crafted article should sound like. Just read =)

    • Anna September 13, 2009 / 8:26 pm

      Thanks a lot for taking the time to read this!

      I agree that casual blogs are important for the people that create them, whatever their level of ambition is, but I think it’s equally important to have people seriously dedicated, who wish for a larger and wider audience then a much smaller, private community; without those wishing to be published and bring J music to the Western world, it’s doing Japanese pop and rock a disservice. Reading other music writing is a great way to become familiar with what professional musical prose sounds like. I admit Rolling Stone is no longer a beacon of flawless journalism, but it’s a good start.

      Thanks again!

      • sljinu September 16, 2009 / 4:54 am

        I was just thinking, the lack of aspiration within the blogging community breeds casual blogs. The fact that this has become the standard for many blogs seems to merely perpetuate this growth. Any pre-teen could come up and see a blog and think “Wow, this isn’t so hard. I bet many other people read this blog too. I can make my own mark.” Without setting an example to pressure serious bloggers into making an effort, this problem will only continue. Hence, if you ever do decide to create the complete J-pop website, I would be interested in being a part of it (that is, if you think I’m worthy enough xD)

  6. CJ Marsicano September 13, 2009 / 9:48 pm

    I try to review J-music CDs whenever I can at my blog (my other writing activities have slowed that down somewhat), and when I do, I don’t even worry about the music being from a different country because quite honestly, that’s a moot point. Music with me is an even playing field and I don’t listen to or review, say, Morning Musume or SCANDAL any differently than I would cover any Western artist.

    • Anna September 13, 2009 / 9:56 pm

      Exactly; I’ve always taken a similar approach in my own blog, hoping that people see the two not as something that needs to seperated but two things that share the same need to be looked at and discussed seriously. It’s my hope to bring Eastern pop and rock onto the same plate as Western pop and rock; to see reviews of a Koda Kumi album next to Lady GaGa without being pegged as “the Japanese album,” but as just another piece of music.

      Thanks for reading!

  7. Matt_D September 14, 2009 / 6:52 am

    Curious, do you discern between sties that critique and sites that are just put together by fans who want to ramble on about things that they’re fans of?

    Most blogs in total arn’t great and don’t have any asperations to be great, just a personal patch on the internet where you raise a flag pole and say “this is what I like, this is what I don’t like.” It’s no different from Western music fans to Eastern music fans, to anything else spoken about on the internet.

    It’s just the same in IT blogs, there are a few awsome useful ones, alot of okay ones, and a vast number of rubbish ones, but the actual IT news and commercial websites often have the most useful information.

    If people want to do it seriously they should make an Eastern Music Magazine site, with a bunch of writers, editors, reviewers, designers, promoters, and reporters.

    Blogs wont ever be significant popular motivators as you’ll only find a blog via another blog and you’ll only find that if you’re already interested.

    But interesting essay, I’d say start organising the solid writers and designers then get working on a professional(esque) project instead of loitering in “blogosphere” obscurity.

    • Anna September 14, 2009 / 10:20 am

      I agree with you about the limitations of the blog medium in accomplishing what I’m talking about. When I picture what I’d eventually like accomplished, I picture something with more of a general web site format that you describe. Blogs can only go so far, and they hardly allow for the broad sections I’d imagine a full-fledged site would need (news, reviews, essays, interviews, etc).

      You’ve provided a lot of great suggestions here. Thanks for taking the time to read and respond!

  8. wu-san September 14, 2009 / 8:10 am

    hmm, there’s a lot I could say, but I summed it up in an article I was going to write on you on IW before I realised – I’m slow – that it was already taken by my friend pengie. so without repeating myself here it is pasted – I’m lazy.

    ”I wrote a review on it for IW, but didn’t realise you already had bibs on it on the todo list. So I deleted it from pending. But if you don’t mind I was wondering if I could take it? you can say no of course lol. I’m just wondering. Here’s my write-up

    ”A must read for anyone wishing to wet their lips with something more substantial than their usual. A heavy, sometimes tiresome post redeems its better self by prosing eloquently, showing intelligence and a certain dignity to the chosen subject. Perhaps not something I entirely want to get involved in – I rarely succumb to trying to fry big fish these days – but there’s enough hook and jab in the article to justify prolonged debating. I’ll leave it to you lot.

    To make this quite simple for you, and perhaps I’m doing the bones of this post an injustice, is that the writer is asking whether or not an outsider can really succumb, integrate, and befit the context of Japanese culture and its music. We’re also dealing with discussions of western blogs who deal with Japanese music, how they go about their business, and what may be lacking from a critical point of view. It gets deeper and wider than that, and in my long absence from giving a shit about the ‘bigger picture’, I admit I fail to grasp some of the scope to this article, or perhaps I just don’t want to. But in light of that, the read is highly enjoyable.

    Long, stretching on boring for some, but put in the time, thought and consideration – regardless of where you stand – and there’s a lot to mull over. The right amount of restraint stops the tone from feeling like a personal attack – as a few may want to see it – and we can all thank the heavens that its not ridiculously preachy. Recommended reading.”

    it’s great to see an article handling the issue quite calmly. I can think of many bloggers who’d use their time and effort to turn it into a big, self-serving, one-sided rant. Although I can’t be bothered to talk about j-music on my own turf these days, I still enjoy a great post when I read one. thanks for the enjoyment, and the trails of thought you left me with thereafter :P. and to turn off my brain now. I thought the read was just ace lol.

    • Anna September 14, 2009 / 10:30 am

      I’m happy to see you liked my essay a lot, and thank you for trying to get people interested in it as well as crafting such a great response. I realize that it’s quite a long read that can take some time to get into (particularly parts of it that may have seemed long-winded) but I’d like to think there’s some valuable bits in there, particularly for those who, like me, desire something grander from the J-pop writing community. I encourage readers to respond, negatively or positively, perhaps with where they’d like to see Japanese music journalism head, or what they picture it looking like five or ten years from now.

      Thanks again for reading and I’m really glad you enjoyed it.

  9. wu-san September 14, 2009 / 8:15 am

    yeh, seems like I can’t even paste properly anymore. you can go ahead and take out the ”I wrote a review on it for IW, but didn’t realise you already had bibs on it on the todo list. So I deleted it from pending. But if you don’t mind I was wondering if I could take it? you can say no of course lol. I’m just wondering. Here’s my write-up” part.

    anyway, with that out of the way. *goes off into the land of kitchens and orange juice and watching cartoons because I’m a man child lol*

  10. Hanachan September 14, 2009 / 12:03 pm

    While I don’t agree 100% percent on the whole J-Pop in the US thing, and it does sound like you are talking down to anime fans (which I am), I do agree that I’d love to see more intelligent J-Pop blogging. I love when blogs discuss the technical aspects of the music- I think it helps to appreciate the music beter if you actually know what is going on, not just “it sounds good.” Some bloggers do that and I appreciate it, and I don’t expect everyone to, but it’s always something that interests me as someone who doesn’t know much about music. I like to look at the music in the context of culture too, I think it important to realize that music doesn’t exist in a vacuum protected from the outside world. Like it’s one thing to appreciate Morning Musume’s music, but one also has to understand that they are a manufactured idol group and what cultural baggage comes with that to fully be able to appreciate what they are. I’m sorry, this comment sounds like rambling…

    • Anna September 14, 2009 / 1:31 pm

      I think you make a lot of excellent points. It’s one thing to talk about how much one loves Morning Musume’s latest single but it’s a whole other thing to step back and look at what kind of social environment it’s being created in and what it says about its culture, its fans, and its producers. I also agree that I would love to see more technical aspects of the music being discussed; I admit it’s definitely one of my own handicaps, so it’s always fun to see when others are capable of doing that. J music would greatly benefit from it.

      Thanks for your response!

  11. Rad September 14, 2009 / 12:37 pm

    Outstanding essay. The main reason for lack of Western critique and analysis of Japanese is lack of access, primarily through Sony’s long-term practice of blocking (or stifling) Japanese CDs and DVDs from the U.S. marketplace. How can music be critiqued when audiences are not even made aware of it?

    Further, tours of Japanese bands in the U.S. are often restricted to small venues. Glay at the Fillmore in SF? Puffy Ami Yumi at the Key Club in Hollywood? SCANDAL at The Independent in SF? How ridiculous is that? (the claim is lack of ticket sales, but the real culprit is the strangling of these excellent bands’ promotional efforts by U.S. music industry interests who don’t want the competition a large-scale invasion of Japanese music would most certainly bring).

    Great topic. I’m bookmarking thois blog for sure!

    http://www.bloggerparty.com/blog/radreview

    • Anna September 14, 2009 / 1:35 pm

      Thanks for your interest! You most certainly bring up one of the biggest problems: the lack of promotion. It’s really sad that Western markets feel threatened by East Asian music, but I can see the need for worry, after all, it’s the second largest music market on the planet. That being said, I think it’s time for U.S. record companies to get their head out of the sand and look at all the positive aspects a large interest in the market can do to boost dwindling profits. Musical imperialism should not be acceptable.

  12. octocoffee September 14, 2009 / 8:19 pm

    What a fantastic article. It was thoughtful and straightforward, and the points made were supported well. The bit about Ayu is part of your life, but not your culture, in particular, impressed me. But the whole piece was fantastic. Nice work.

    I often read the blog http://thegrandnarrative.wordpress.com/
    which offers intelligent and often surprising commentary about Korean culture through its pop culture and advertisement. The author himself, majored in gender studies, I think, so he has an education to back him up. But it’d be really great to see a blog or community website that offered similar content for Japan. I’ve always thought about it, writing things like an analysis on PVs and the portrayal of men and women within them, but I don’t have the time to produce such articles on a consistent basis.

    Anyway, this is just a great, great essay. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Anna September 15, 2009 / 10:51 am

      Thanks for giving me a heads-up on The Grand Narrative, that is a fantastic blog that I’m going to have to spend some quality time with soon. I would love to see something similar about Japanese culture, as well, there would be so much to analyze. If it was done with the same care, diligence, and research as the writer of The Grand Narrative, it could be spectacular.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

      • James Turnbull September 16, 2009 / 9:19 am

        Thanks for the compliments Octocoffee and Anna, and especially for the link, as otherwise I would probably never have found your blog!

        I’ve only had a chance to read skim this post unfortunately, but in all seriousness I have it printed out on my desk to be pored over thoroughly later, and I expect to be repeatedly referring to it on my own blog in the future, as so many points raised in it easily echo the situation for English-language critical analysis of Korean pop-culture. Or rather the relative lack thereof, as now that this post has prompted me to think about it, I’d struggle to think of any blog on the subject expect…well, my own really.

        Not that I mean to give myself airs with that of course, and just off the top of my head I could refer people to dozens of excellent critiques of various aspects of Korean pop-culture by various bloggers that far outshine anything I’ve ever written, but unfortunately none of them consistently write on the subject. Michael Hurt at Scribblings of the Metropolitician probably came closest, and I very much modeled my own blog on his, but unfortunately its effectively moribund now. Other than that, I’d highly recommend Javabeans for a rare popular Korean pop-culture blog that doesn’t seem written by and for 13 year-olds, and I have the greatest respect for the author (although I wish she’d write more analysis more often!).

        By the way, I’m a father of two and the sole income-earner for them, so justifiably I’m known more as “the gender guy” in the Korean blogosphere rather than “the K-pop guy”…I just don’t have time to keep up (although I do think I can lay claim to being “the advertising guy” too). So feel reassured that the grass is indeed always greener, as I am very envious of and look forward to reading all your reviews and so on from now on!

        • Anna September 16, 2009 / 9:31 pm

          James Turnbull: I’m really flattered that you’re taking the time to read my essay (I’ve taken the time to study your blog a bit more closely and am absolutely floored – with the language, tone, and style of your writing, as well as all the points)! I hope to provide something more of what you’re looking for in the way of consistent pieces on the music culture aspects (and although I’ll admit I’m much more knowledgeable about Japanese music and culture, I do take the time to write once in a while on Korean pop – whether or not I’m as spot on, you’ll probably be the best judge).

          Thanks again, I really appreciate your interest!

  13. Sakurakessho September 15, 2009 / 8:10 am

    Wow.. what an amazing read.

    I would love to see any record label pick up a Japanese artist and promote them just as they would Britney Spears. I don’t know if it’d work, but it sure would be something interesting to follow.

    • Anna September 15, 2009 / 10:53 am

      Thanks for taking an interest in this essay. I, too, would love to see that. BoA’s latest album comes to my mind immediately when I think about that. I really do believe if that album had been marketed more aggressively, she would have had the chance to make an impact. Hopefully someday…

  14. LoKi September 15, 2009 / 10:32 am

    After reading through this and seeing all the responses you received and constructive criticisms, I’d like to know if you’d be willing to discuss this on our (jmusic) podcast some time in the near future. You bring up a lot of good points that I’d like to discuss on the show, but it’d be a lot better if you could weigh in as well. Please contact me if interested. Gaijin Kanpai (dot) com

    • Anna September 16, 2009 / 8:54 pm

      I’ve sent you an E-mail concerning the podcast. Thanks for taking an interest and I look forward to discussing this essay further with you.

  15. Delirium-Zer0 September 15, 2009 / 1:18 pm

    I found this article via a tweet by the previous commenter, Sakurakessho (by way of my cohost LoKi retweeting it).

    I’ve felt the same as you about J-music for YEARS. It’s driven me crazy how few & far between high-quality blogs and reviews are. Just looking up album reviews to see what other listeners thought is a chore. And it occurs to me that the chief audience of Japanese music is young otaku who like the pretty clothes & cutesy videos. Either that or self-important hipsters who only listen to independent stuff. Neither group has opinions that you can take seriously.

    And while I agree that it certainly is difficult to write about music when you don’t fully understand the cultural context, it isn’t impossible – and if you’re honest about your opinions, you can at least convey a westerner’s real opinion of it. Granted, we’re more forgiving of some of the Japanese pop culture conventions (i.e. the cutesyness, the recycling of melodies, the random unintelligible english) but we’d still be able to tell you that B’z are obvious fans of The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, having borrowed shamelessly from “Hey Jude” (in “farewell song”) and “Trampled Underfoot” (in “BAD COMMUNICATION”).

    But it’s not as though we’re completely separated from J-pop culture after a decade of listening to this stuff. We can hear when Ayu borrows from B’z, we already know “Pepper Keibu” whenever someone like Mizrock or Morning Musume covers it, and, speaking of Pink Lady, we remember “Pink Lady …and Jeff” and can easily comment on why it was a bad idea or a good idea at the time. If we watch TV dramas, we can see how music sells better with a tie-up. We can also see what songs have withstood the test of time over the past 40 years. Westerners have the very unique position of understanding the both Japanese culture that this music comes from, as well as the Western culture & music that influences J-pop and J-rock so greatly.

    Having been a music fan my entire life – Everyone from Bjork & Tori Amos to Led Zeppelin & Fleetwood Mac – and having been a fan of Japanese music since early 2000, I know how frustrating it is to find “grown up” J-music reviewers, to find something akin to the Rolling Stone or NME articles I’d gotten accustomed to. You’re right that it’s a very strictly internet-based community and, as such, anyone can write about it – and usually, they write about it very poorly. I’ve looked through your blog and it is just fantastic. I wish I’d seen it before today.

    Sorry this post is so long. But basically, I just have to say that I completely understand what you’re getting at here, and I thank your blog for existing!

    (Apologies for this, but can I shamelessly promote our podcast now? We’re trying to be a bit more grownup about J-music reviewing too. http://www.gaijinkanpai.com – swearing happens sometimes, prolly shouldn’t listen to it with kids around.)

    • Anna September 16, 2009 / 9:04 pm

      I really appreciate your taking the time to read my essay and responding so enthusiastically. I’ve been very excited that it has received so many positive reactions because it means that I’m not the only one who desires something a little more from the J-pop writing community.

      You bring up a lot of really excellent points about how much the Western world has to offer when it comes to writing about J-pop; we are already so familiar with our own trends which have influenced music around the world that applying it to the J-pop paradigm is a lot easier. I think the hard part is learning about Japanese popular music before the 1990’s, but only because there isn’t as much information available as what we have concerning current music due to the Internet. Again, it might take a little work, but I think it’s worth it; once we see how much music is a continuing dialogue around the world, the less we’ll see J-pop and Western pop as two seperate entities to be treated differently.

      Thanks again!

  16. Michelle (Michi-chan) Eyre September 15, 2009 / 3:08 pm

    I have been operating a J-POP on-line radio station for the past 8 years. I was very intrigued by this article and the various issues raised in it.

    The lack of acceptance from the American (and in some ways overall Western) audience has always intrigued me over the years. I believe the language barrier (or perceived language barrier) is one of the primary reasons. Look at the US and think about over the years, the various songs that were not in English that received radio airplay. One example I use is “99 Luftbaloons” by Nena. This song was originally released in German on US radio. It was such a powerful song with the German lyrics. Then the song is released in English. To this day, the “retro” 80’s radio stations play the English version and the original German version is forgotten. Another example of would be “Macerena” by Los Del Rio. This song was very much sold on it’s promotional video and the dance that was associated with the song and not the song itself.

    We need to also look at the Japanese recording industry. They continue to do things that prevent the distribution of music outside the country. Some of the major “legal” download sites such as the one operated by Sony Music puts geographic restrictions on the sales of MP3s outside the country.

    When an artist does finally break into the West, the release turns out to be some kind of watered down English song which makes a first rate artist in Japan appear as third rate in the West. An excellent example is Hikaru Utada’s English disaster “Easy Breezy” (“You’re easy breezy… and I’m, Japaneezy”) while overlooked were the great English covers of “Passion” (“Sanctuary”) and “Hikari” (“Simple and Clean”) which some will discount as a result of their use in a Disney backed video game.

    While there has always been a fairly small (in comparison) otaku population in the west, the increase in awareness of Japanese culture can be attributed to the “Pokemon craze” several years ago. While there has always been “dubbed and diced” anime showing up on American TV, many rushed to get card game animes (Digimon, Yuu-gi-Oh, etc.) on the air here. Many of these fans grew up and discovered the rest of the anime world.

    I recently did a format and image change on my station, J1. One of the goals of the new J1 is to better reach out to our listeners and find out who they are. Of my English speaking listeners, while I do have many who are in the stereotypical “otaku” stereotype, I also have many who are into the fashion and don’t care about anime or even the cosplay aspect of it. I also have a large number of listeners who are learning English listening to the station and using the website. While J1 operates both an English and a Japanese website, virtually all of our website revenue comes from the English website. We also have a significant group of listeners in the Latin American region, many of whom are young girls who are fans of boy bands such as Tohoshinki and Arashi.

    What I have noticed about Japanese pop culture is that it reflects a very closed society. There is not a lot of openness and there’s a lot of resistance to “gaijin” interest in this great culture. This can be best demonstrated by the actions of Up Front Works at this past summer’s Anime Expo when members of the western media were refused interviews with Morning Musume.

    On the association between JPOP with anime. I agree that there is definitely a big association between the two and that is mainly because of the influence that popular music in Japan has on not just anime but all television programs. Compare the opening and closing theme songs of Japanese anime with American cartoons, and the difference is night and day. I originally had an anime station, a very successful one. I started broadcasting JPOP on a separate channel to demonstrate that there are more songs by the artists who performed the anime themes that should be noticed. The JPOP station, Hardcore J had a slow start but really started to take off and to this day, we are still one of the biggest “all-JPOP” stations on the net. Our main competitor claims to be a JPOP station but mainly focuses on anime first. We focus on chart JPOP first.

    Myself, as much as I would love to see Japanese artists appear in the Western mainstream, I don’t feel that they should be subjected to the torture of some in the Western music industry (the very recent debacle at the VMAs is fresh in my mind). I refuse to watch award shows, but I will give anything to watch the Kohaku Uta-gassen, even the enka artists. (Don’t tell anyone, but I am a closet fan of enka)

    With that, the argument that is being made here for the exposure of Japanese artists and JPOP in the United States can also be made for Chinese pop, Korean pop or even German schlager music.

    I would love to see American radio be more world focused but as long as radio airplay is controlled mainly by a small group of large corporations and the record companies do not want to take a risk on a non-English act, we will not see Japanese music reach the American mainstream.

    But it is assuring to know that if you do want to hear the Japanese, Chinese, Korean or many other “homeland” genres, it’s nice to know that there are internet radio stations, like J1 and our counterparts in the other languages bringing this music to those who would otherwise never be able to experience it.

    Myself, I am very turned off by the Western/American genre of entertainment. My eyes and ears are pointed to the east when I want to be entertained.. and I like it that way.

    Michelle A. Eyre (Michi-chan)
    J1 Radio – Pure JPOP

    • Anna September 16, 2009 / 9:18 pm

      Thank you for taking the time to write such an informative and intriguing response. You bring up a lot of really excellent points.

      When you brought up singles like “99 Balloons” and “Macarena” I automatically think of the fads these songs have become, more one-hit wonders that are only good for moments when one is feeling nostalgic. That is definitely not what I want to happen to J-pop! I think it’s going to take an extremely delicate process of initiating American listeners and acclimating them to the music and culture. I picture a Morning Musume performance on a VMA and even I’m aware of how bizarre that would be following a Taylor Swift performance (although infinitely saner following a Lady GaGa performance). There’s a certain subset of artists that I think would do particularly well to trigger an interest in Eastern pop, namely, artists who already mimic a lot of Western popular music, and then allowing more light into the shutter of East Asian music (the idol groups, the eccentric solo artists). I know I’m beating a dead horse here, but I’ll reiterate: BoA’s album would have been a wonderful way to get the ball rolling. Not only was it a fantastic, uncompromising album, but it was a sound that I think a lot of Western audiences could genuinely get into. Unfortunately, the album received almost no marketing and didn’t even make a dent. Utada’s album was similar, except, like you pointed out, the album was a lot poorer than her previous albums and begged the questions: was steered into making a more mainstream album that might have gotten her a bit mixed up, other than being able to have more freedom and with less pressure, creating some of the East’s finest music?

      Again, thanks for taking the time to respond so thoroughly and I’m happy to hear of your J-pop radio program.

  17. clockface September 16, 2009 / 2:03 am

    For such a well thought and written article, I just had to say something, even when I’m so late for the party.

    It does feel like the level of criticism you’re talking about no longer has a place in the mass market appeal of a product. My friend once told me that he does not read the opinions of film critics because they can be elitist. I never did understand this mentality of not listening to people who generally knew more about a particular topic. Now, people are more drawn into opinions written to look like they came from someone you know; the everyday guy. I do like you’re championing of elevating the criticism of J-pop from what we have now. Hopefully that cry reaches the ear of some fanblog author and he/she will stand up and lead the way.

    • Anna September 16, 2009 / 9:21 pm

      Although I can see it both ways (the need for an opinion from the everyday guy vs. the opinion of someone more informed) I think both have their merit and thus, must both exist. I think where critics fit in now is not so much to guide listeners’ choices, which no longer matters in a world where you can download a copy faster than it takes to read a few sentences about it, but to start discussions in really intuitive, unique ways. Writing is an art and J-pop music deserves to be treated just as eloquently.

      Thanks for reading!

  18. Charlie September 28, 2009 / 9:05 am

    Excellent piece of writing! I’m yet to find anyone in “the real world” who has found Japanese music without anime but the idea that a Japanese music fan must like anime annoys me a lot.

    I also struggle to understand just why a Japanese artist should change their act to fit in with the western world. Enough westerners like them as they are and appreciate the culture, in changing themselves they would be giving in to people who aren’t really interested and thus selling themselves short, losing the people who loved them in the first instance.

    I don’t think you need to be part of the culture in order to give good criticism, if it’s known you’re viewing through different eyes all’s good. It’s useful to have the opinions of people who all respect it but are vastly different.

    • Anna September 28, 2009 / 10:49 am

      I agree; one example of an artist changing to fit the demographic would be Hikaru Utada and her English albums, EXODUS and This Is the One. Her Japanese albums are so good, why try to fit a mold and mess up a good thing?

    • Anna October 27, 2009 / 11:16 am

      Thanks for sharing this, I appreciate it. I didn’t have a chance to look at it until today, but it seems like a lot of what’s in here speaks to a lot of the stuff I was talking about in another essay I wrote about music criticism and its largest, most convenient medium. He makes a lot of good points and the one about how music criticism is needed now more than ever to weed through the sheer volume of musical material struck me the most as earlier I was having a debate with a friend about analytical music writing versus simply “this is good” or “this is bad” style reviews. To be blunt, there’s no escaping the latter, but I do prefer the former.

  19. Kurisu January 31, 2010 / 10:15 pm

    I didn’t born or raised myself in Japan, but I’m a Master in Japanese Studies that have the knowledge and the ability to analyze, cultural or semiotic, any commercial music production of Japan. Specially, the Idol music genre.

    Your point of view are prejudiced by the ideas of the Orientalism:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orientalism

    You try to divide, culturally and geographically, “Orient” from “Western”, and that is a really mistake.

    Anybody could criticize or analyze the Japanese commercial music, just they need to know the cultural and political connections behind this industry.

    Ex. Hamasaki Ayumi steals everything from Madonna to Shakira:

    http://hellowota.blogspot.com/2009/02/ayumi-hamasaki-una-idol-artificial.html

    Ex. Tsunku had rivaled with Glay:

    http://hellowota.blogspot.com/2010/01/sharan-q-glay-matsuura-aya-p.html

    Don’t be stupid. Deconstructionism is an old fashioned way of thinking.

    Greetings.

  20. longzijun June 20, 2010 / 8:58 am

    Hi Anna, congratulations on the nomination. Are you expecting a little too much, though? J-Pop is growing in popularity, but it still commands a much smaller market share than pop from the US or UK. Serious critical analysis of mainstream western pop is already a niche activity; serious critical analysis of J-Pop is bound to occupy an even tinier niche. Don’t sweat it. You have something to say. You like writing the articles. People are reading them. Everything’s good.

    Anyways, keep up the fight.

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