J-POP IDOLS, TALENT AGENCIES, DIGITAL IDOLS AND IDOL OTAKU

JAPANESE IDOL SINGERS

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idol singer
---Pop idols are often discovered by talent scouts, then undergo training in singing and dancing before making their debut either as a solo artist or in a group. In most cases, they appear in TV commercials and shows for a short time before retiring or disbanding. But some pop stars endure, like Matsuda Seiko who continues to release new hit songs more than 30 years after her debut.

Japanese pop music is dominated by idol singers, who are usually teenage girls with wholesome, cute, good looks and limited talent that are molded into pop singers by producers who get most of the profits from their recordings. Most idols sing and dance even though they can’t sing and dance One idol group producer told the Yomiuri Shimbun, that an idol must be a girl “we perceive as being familiar and close when we see her on the Net or on DVD. Mysterious is no good’she had ro be like the girl next door.”

Takamasa Sakurai wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: Japan is flooded with idol groups, and the phenomenon is dubbed an idol "sengoku jidai" (era of war). Although the atmosphere of tough competition is common in Japan, it remains novel overseas. As a result, Japanese idols are seen as representative symbols of Japan. One young Thai I met. "We don't have figures like Japanese idols in our country." [Source: Takamasa Sakurai, Daily Yomiuri, November 23, 2012]

Most idol singers have one or two hit songs, written by song writer who specializes in idol music, and fade in less than two years. Idol singers sometimes set fashion trends (but usually they follow them), and both girl and boy groups are primarily oriented towards the schoolgirl market. In the last few years interest in idols has waned.

Entertainment Agencies, Talents and Idol Singers

Yoshimoto Kogyo is Japan's largest entertainment agency. Founded nearly a hundred years by a woman named Sei Yoshimoto, it began as a theater for traditional storytellers and comics and now sponsors a large number of the acts that appear on nightly variety shows.

Teen-age pop idols are often chosen in talent contests sponsored by talent agencies. The selected girls and boys, who are usually around 14 or 15, are given voice and dance lessons and tips on posture and make-up. Famous idol singers over the years have included Hikaru Genji, Wink, and Miho Nakayama.

Tarento (from the English word “talent?) are a celebrities who sing, dance, and act and are very visible in the media. Tarento usually begin as pop singers and then later appear regularly in television dramas. See Television

Some of the idol groups are quite large. O-Nyanko Club , a group popular in the 1980s, had 50 members. Morning Musume, a group that endured form the late 1990s into the 2000s, had two dozen members when it was at its peak. AKB48 which, appeared at te New Year eve show in 2008, had 48 members divided into three groups. The mega-member formula gives individuals a chance to show off their skills while being able to hide their shortcomings in the group. It also allows otuka (Japanese geeks) to find at least one girl to like and raises all kinds of possibilities for spin offs. One of AKB48's spin-offs, Idolling!!! had a hit with the Shokugo: Idol (?My profession: idol?)

Johnny's Entertainment

There are an increasing number of boy bands that are very popular mainly with young girls, especially groups such as SMAP, Kinki Kids and Arashi which are promoted by the agent Johnny and Associates. Johnny & Associates, Inc. (Kabushikigaisha Jani-zu Jimusho) is a talent agency formed by Johnny Kitagawa in 1962. Johnny & Associates trains and promotes groups of male idols, collectively known as "Johnny's" (Jani-zu) in Japan. [Source: Wikipedia article]

In 1962, Kitagawa launched his first group called Johnnys. However, it was not until 1968 did he see his first real success with Four Leaves. Since then, Kitagawa has formed many successful acts such as solo artist Masahiko Kondo, whose song "Orokamono" ( Fool) won the Japan Record Award at the 29th Japan Record Awards in 1987, and Hikaru Genji, which became the first Johnny's group to achieve the rare feat of having three top-selling singles on the Japanese Oricon yearly charts in 1988.

Beginning in the 1990s, Johnny & Associates adopted a policy that they would decline the nominations of awards from organizations such as the Japan Record Awards and the Japan Academy Awards partly due to a dispute with the accurate music genre of one of their groups in the 32nd Japan Record Awards. Another reason was that the nominations would cause competition between Johnny's groups and other nominees.

1991 saw the debut of SMAP and their expansion into many other areas of entertainment such as hosting their own regular television and radio shows, appearing in commercials and acting in dramas and movies. Due to their omnipresence on television, SMAP gained popularity and their 2003 single "Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana" ("A Flower Unlike Any Other in the World") sold over 2.57 million copies and became the ninth best-selling single in Japan. In 1997, the agency started its own record label "Johnny's Entertainment".

In 1999, the Japanese weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun ran a series of articles alleging that adolescent boy clients of the agency had been sexually abused and coerced into drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco. In response, Johnny's agency sued the magazine's publisher, Bungeishunju-. In 2002, the Tokyo District Court awarded the agency ¥8.8 million in damages from the publisher. Bungeishunju- appealed the decision to the Tokyo High Court. The high court reduced the damages to ¥1.2 million, concluding that the allegations of sexual exploitation were true, but that the reports of drinking and smoking were defamatory.

On November 19, 2010, Masahiko Kondo was elected as the winner of the award for the "Best Vocal Performance" at the 52nd Japan Record Award, becoming the agency's first winner of awards from the Japan Record Award in 20 years since Ninja, which rejected a live performance for an award in 1990.

On February 28, 2011, it was reported that Johnny's Entertainment had lifted the picture ban on their official website. Johnny’s Company is known to be the most strict company of not allowing any of their Johnny’s celebrity pictures in any sites. But recently, pictures of Johnny’s celebrity has appeared at their own site “Johnny’s net?. From the tab “Artist?, you can choose the Johnny’s artist you want to see and click “Profile? to go to the profile page. Though the pictures are small, they definitely have pictures of the artist from Smap, Arashi, V6 to Hey Say Jump on the pages.

On September 18, 2011, it was revealed that Johnny Kitagawa has been presented with two Guinness World Record awards, making him one of the most successful music producers in the world. The first award is for the “most No.1 singles produced by an individual”. He has accumulated an astounding 232 chart-topping songs (1974-2010). The second award is for the “most concerts produced by an individual”. Between 2000-2010, Johnny produced 8,419 concerts. He has produced shows for many of his groups; the concerts have an estimated attendance of 48,234,550.

Johnny's Entertainment Groups

Johnny & Associates' major bands and artists are subjected to Johnny's Family Club or Johnny's Artist Circle with popular ones in bold: Masahiko Kondo (1980); Sho-nentai (1985); SMAP (1991); Kenichi Okamoto (ex-Otokogumi) (1994); Tokio (1994); Human (1995); Atsuhiro Sato (ex-Hikaru Genji) (1995) ; KinKi Kids (1997); Arashi (1999); Tackey & Tsubasa (2002); Hiroki Uchi (ex-NEWS ex-Kanjani8) (2003); Hironori Kusano (ex-NEWS) (2003); NEWS (having two members of Tegomass) (2003); Kanjani8 (2005); KAT-TUN (2006); Hey! Say! JUMP (2007); NYC (2009); Jin Akanishi (After Jin's departure from KAT-TUN, he became a solo artist under Johnny's much like Masahiko Kondo is now. (2010); Kis-my-ft2 (2011); Tomohisa Yamashita (made his debut solo single in 2006, was originally the leader of NEWS until his departure to become a solo artist in 2011); Sexy Zone (2011).

The trainees of Johnny & Associates are collectively called Johnny's Jrs., and they have yet to debut. Jrs. typically perform both their own songs and the songs of debuted groups on variety shows such as The Sho-nen Club as "training" and serve as backup dancers for the agency's debuted groups. Recently some groups released their works while remaining as trainees and they also sometimes collaborated with non-Johnny's Jr. debuted artists.

Reviews of Japanese Boygroups

On the video of Arashi’s Kitto Daijoubu the reviewer on Okay Musume Time wrote: “The video is definitely playful, and I laughed a few times because of the cute playful tone that the video showed me, however the song was the main problem - it didn't interest me at all, and bored me a little. It was the song that killed it for me, sadly, but the video was wonderfully camp and funny, and makes me want to see what other videos Arashi has to offer. That, and the one who was in Hana Yori Dango has suddenly peaked my interest. [Source: Okay Musume Time, October 11, 2011]

On the video for Hey! Say! Jump!’s Magic Power, Okay Musume Time reported: The video is seriously quirky, and I was instantly reminded of the Arashi video I had previously watched. They are both so camp, so enjoyable, and so colourful. I really really like it! Lord, I don't want to, but I do! And Oh my god, this song! Magic Power is gonna be a new crack addiction, I swear! The song is crazy catchy, and the front guy, the one in red - Fuck. YES. PLEASE! He rocks one of the worst costumes ever, seriously. Camp makes him look so good! Fuck, you turned me guy in red, I love you. Damned song. Makes me so damned happy! How dare it turn my opinions so freakin' quickly! PS all of them are pretty cute, especially my new bitch, Yamada Ryosuke. Fuck, I wanna hug him and steal him!

On Kat-Tun’s Yorokobi no Uta Okay Musume Time wrote: Don't they look a little too delicious?... I really like this song. This is actually my favourite song out of all of the songs I have listened to today, surprisingly. And I have barely watched the PV to it, so yeah... I like the song enough to want to listen to it without having to force myself to watch the video to it. Actually... this song has been on about 6 times already, so I've been looping the damned thing!

I've decided I have watched enough of the video to know that they are all gorgeous, and that I want at least one of them. But I love the song so much, I don't care about the video - it's actually too dark for my liking, one of the reasons why I don't really watch Nanchatte Renai by Morning Musume much. I hate Dark PV's, give me rainbows and Beatles styled costumes any day....PS Love the raps in the song, I dunno why, but Raps always strike a chord in my heart... despite the fact that my most hated song is a rap (Salt5's Get Up Rapper, to be exact), however this song is just really... awesome, and I really like it.

Okinawa Icon Factory

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product of Okinawan
idol factory
Okinawa not only produces some of the best folk music in Japan. It also produces some of most popular J-pop. Many of the most popular Okinawan J-Pop artists have been trained at the the Okinawan Actor's School (OAS), an idol factory founded in 1983 by Kyoto entrepreneur Makino Masayuki.

Masayuki said he decided to found the school in Okinawa after it was revealed to him that "Okinawan children are superior to children from other prefectures in the arts of singing and dancing. The entertainers' blood runs through their veins."

OAS has produced some of Japan's most successful J-Pop groups and has earned such a reputation that hundreds of children from all over Japan now try to get into the school and some kids even commute from Tokyo by plane with their mothers for classes.

Some 50,000 wannabes have tried out for a position in OAS. Those that get in often drop out of high school under the belief that conventional education will stifle their creativity. and pay about $2000 a month for tuition.

OAS is located in the corner of a shopping mall in Naha. Describing the scene at OAS, Hannah Beech wrote in Time, "The brightly painted school revels in controlled chaos. Students belt out scales to pounding rhythms of techno-music. Posses of hip-hop dancers groove in a strobe-lit studio surrounded by graffiti murals and flashing videos

Johnny and Associates is the management group of SMAP and other groups.

Idol Otaku

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Mari Yaguchi
an otaku favorite
Otagei, derived from otaku-gei (“geek performance”), is a set of bizarre dances performed by otaku (Japanese geeks) at concerts for girl idols. The trend reportedly originated in the early 2000s among fans of the all girl group Morning Musame who were so far from the performers they couldn’t see them so they decided to amuse themselves by dancing and then took this a step further by gatherings hours before the concerts and doing their dances then. Hardcore fans are sort of like a nerdy combinations of Dead Head and Rocky Horror Picture Show fans. The dance spread to fans of other groups when Morning Musume began to fade in popularity.

Otagei also describe steh men who do the dances. Ofte they gather to dance at performances by Fice---a pair of girl idols who dress like manga characters and say they are “androids manufactured in 2001.” During their shows the girls battle costumed monsters on stage while their male fans men dance in the audience. Some otagie-shi go to Fice concerts every weekend and several days a week. Some even go to three or four shows a day.

Describing a Fice performance Mayumi Saito wrote in the Asahi Shimbun: “When Fice emerges on stage dressed in matching pink and blue anime-style costumes, the group goes wild...In T-shirts and aprons that echo the style of the Fice outfits, the dancing men spread out across the floor to demonstrate their choreography. Some wave around fluorescent “light sabers.”...Drenched in sweat these fans are right in sync with the girls on stage. They swing their arms for the fast pop songs, then kneel and clasp their hands in prayer during the ballads.”

In a dance called the “the high speed romance” dancers “point to the upper left and upper right in rapid succession. Moving their arms with amazing speed and precision.” In a move called the “sledie-in kecha” the otagei “back up a few meters and then run down full-speed toward the stage with their arms outstretched and their hands stretched out in worship.” it is said t be inspired by the Balinese monkey dance.

Otagei enthusiasts often go by nicknames such as Candy and Junk-De-Papa. They are often not welcome at concerts of conventional idol groups because they block the view and bump into others. There have even been rumbles between otagei and non-otagei. At Fice concert they are welcome and can dance to their hearts content.

Momoiro Clover Z: Yoyogi Park to the Top of the Oricon Charts

Prior to storming the Oricon charts, idol group Momoiro Clover Z could be found most weekends performing for a steady stream of passersby in a Tokyo park. Times have changed though, and the five-strong troupe is now a staple of TV, radio and magazines. Mutsumi Morita wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Energetic, and often idiosyncratic, the young entertainers always give 100 percent during live performances, which brim with vigorous vocals, acrobatic antics and light-hearted choreography. The quintet also prides itself on being more accessible to fans than rivals AKB48, subtly tweaking that ensemble's catchphrase of "Idols you can go and meet," to "Idols you can meet right now." [Source: Mutsumi Morita, Yomiuri Shimbun, July 22, 2011]

The group started its climb to the top back in the spring of 2008, operating primarily on the walkways in and around Tokyo's Yoyogi Park. "Sometimes only a few people would stop to check us out," recalls founding member Shiori Tamai, who took her turn handing out flyers to the public. "It was completely different from how I imagined it would be," chimes in founding bandmate Reni Takagi. "We were really at a loss as to the best way to capture people's attention." The feisty quintet refused to get down, however, and this never-say-die attitude has proved to be one of Momoiro Clover Z's strong points.

"Performing in front of people [in Yoyogi Park] was a valuable learning experience," notes Kanako Momota. "It was great fun, and we really took a lot away from that time." Momota, another in-from-the-start member, recollects receiving her first ever fan letter around that time, noting that the item is still safely tucked away at home.

In 2009, Momoiro Clover (the "Z" had yet to be appended) embarked upon a grueling countrywide tour. From May to August, their minivan "tour bus" visited 24 Yamada Denki stores from Hokkaido to Fukuoka, clocking up thousands of miles and an impressive 104 performances, using the summer school holidays and weekends to strut their stuff in the stores' special-event areas. Driving duties were split between the two managers, while the five members and their luggage sat in the back. Come nighttime, the girls slept in the van. Ayaka Sasaki--who had joined the group six months earlier--reminisces: "It was the first time I'd ever slept away from home. I felt kind of bewildered occasionally; it was a pretty tough time."Such hardships merely hardened the group's will to succeed, however. To pass time in the vehicle, they watched comedy DVDs, discussed audience reaction, and came up with ideas for material to use during the next show.

Momoiro Clover Z--often shortened to Momoclo--have devised a hard-hitting stage show that incorporates such elements as professional wrestler Keiji Mutoh's trademark "love pose"; the "beard dance" (popularized by Japanese band-cum-comedy ensemble The Drifters); and various kinds of amusing choreography, including acrobatic moves such as cartwheels and back handsprings.

Due to school commitments, the all-female outfit initially only performed on weekends, which led to the group being tagged "The Weekend Heroines." Their growing self-assuredness and experience soon led to a large increase in popularity. The combo's first TV show was NHK's "Music Japan," broadcast in May of 2010. Group members have stated that one of their ambitions is to take part in the annual New Year's Eve singing contest, which is recorded in the hall.

Morning Musume in Bangkok

In 2012 Morning Musume’s "worldwide hand-shaking tour” made stops in Bangkok, Taipei, Paris and Seoul. At Bangkok's international airport, about 300 fans were waiting for the five Morning Musume members--who are all high school age or older--holding message banners handwritten in Japanese. Some fans came from Indonesia and the Philippines. Morning Musume sang two new songs in front of 3,000 people at an open space in a shopping center. Half of the audience were women, some of who shed tears as they saw Morning Musume for the first time. [Source: Takamasa Sakurai, Daily Yomiuri, November 23, 2012]

In July 2010, Morning Musume--which then had a different lineup of members--held a live performance in Paris that drew 4,000 fans. Morning Musume's members have changed one after another over the past 15 years. Morning Musume is popular outside Japan, including Europe and the Americas. Of the eight members who performed in Paris, six have since left the group, while nine young members enrolled. Fans around the world have been longing for performances with the new members. [Ibid]

Pop Idols Keep Going Into Their 30s and 40s

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AKB48 member
Dan Grunebaum wrote in the New York Times, “In human terms, the Japanese “Christmas cake” maxim celebrates feminine beauty, but dictates that a woman is past her prime at 25, when she should avoid turning into leftover Christmas cake. In show business this has long meant that female pop “idols” should marry and retire by their early 20s.[Source: Dan Grunebaum, New York Times, October 7, 2010]

“But with the number of Japanese older than 65 rising from 7.1 percent of the population in 1970 to a world record 22.7 percent in 2009, the Christmas cake dictum is showing signs of age. The Christmas cake example is the singer Momoe Yamaguchi, whom Japan swooned over in the 1970s. After stealing the nation’s heart, she married in 1980 and disappeared forever into domestic bliss. When “the Japanese Madonna,” Seiko Matsuda, declined to retire after marrying in her early 20s in 1985, she caused a minor cultural earthquake. But even now, at 48, as she celebrates 30 years in show business with a hits collection, she continues to sell records, leading some to re-dub her the “eternal idol.” [Ibid]

Today’s pop idols, Ayumi Hamasaki and Namie Amuro, are in their 30s, while the members of Japan’s most famous “boy band” SMAP are approaching 40. On the small screen, Tokyo Broadcasting System’s “Around 40" drama series became a hit in 2008 with its examination of the issues confronting aging women, mainly through the character of a 39-year-old psychiatrist, Satoko Ogata, and her “arafo” (around 40) friends. The “Sex in the City”-inspired series spawned a cottage industry of commentary and arafo and even “arafaifu” (around 50) Web sites. [Ibid]

Some think SMAP’s ability to remain popular has more to do with their knack for coming across as being younger than they really are. Mark Schilling, a film critic for Japan Times, told the New York Times: “My feeling is that Takuya Kimura,” of SMAP, “and his generation of idols is better at hiding aging’s effects. The guy may be in his mid-30s, but he’s still got that lineless, beardless, pretty boy look. It’s nature’s gift, but impossible to maintain past a certain age minus the sort of care that an older generation, downing their nightly bottle of Suntory Old and smoking their daily two packs of Mild Sevens, would have considered unmanly.” [Ibid]

Effects of Aging Pop Idols on Japanese Society

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AKB48
“For commercial purposes, it certainly is handy to have older “idols” or “charisma” figures,” Keith Cahoon, a music industry veteran and the man who brought Tower Records to Japan, told the New York Times. After decades of economic stagnation and limited job opportunities for the young, older Japanese consumers tend to possess more disposable income. The phenomenon of the “Long Tail” retailing concept in marketing also allows entertainment companies to continue to promote aging artists at low cost. “It gives them perfectly targeted marketing at a fraction of what it used to,” said Mike Rogers, an entertainment blogger in Tokyo. “This allows “older” artists to have much longer careers---if their management is smart enough to capitalize on this change in the marketplace.” [Source: Dan Grunebaum, New York Times, October 7, 2010]

While older actresses have long continued their careers by playing selfless mothers and wives and feisty grandmas, film and television franchises like “Around 40" are now pushing over-35 actresses as sexually-active women. Robert Schwartz, a correspondent in Japan for the music magazine Billboard, told the New York Times the pop scene was witnessing a similar acceptance of older talents. “It’s very clear,” he said, “that both the music industry and popular tastes are changing in Japan to accept pop stars who are over 30 and even middle-aged.” He cited the resurgence of the singer Hideaki Tokunaga, who, at 49, this spring became the first male artist to have at least one album to top the weekly charts in each of the last four decades. [Ibid]

Kohtaroh Asoh, a reporter for Nikkei Entertainment and the author of Shinka Suru Aidoru (The Evolving Idol), noted the overwhelming dominance of women in shaping popular entertainment tastes. “When women became financially independent, they no longer had to marry in their 20s,” he said. “They now put off marriage till their 30s and their pop idols reflect this. Nontraditional single mothers like Namie Amuro are even viewed as trendsetters.” [Ibid]

But Mr. Asoh told the Times he believed there was another reason for the way in which female identification with older idols is influencing the entertainment world---the abandonment of the field by men. “Idols used to have an equal number of male and female fans,” he said. “But when adult video exploded in the “80s, men no longer needed idols as the objects of their sexual fantasies.” [Ibid]

Nostalgia also may play a role in the current prominence of aging talents in Japan’s entertainment industry. Roland Kelts, media commentator and author of the book Japanamerica, told the New York Times Japanese baby boomers were seeking reassurance from aging stars in the way Western fans have for years. “There’s a point at which rock and pop stop being celebrations of youth, rebellion and forward-thinking,” he said, “and start becoming celebrations of themselves---a way of confirming that they the entertainers, and we the fans,” are still relevant. Put another way, Alan Swartz, a vice president of MTV Japan said, “The population might be getting older, but there are probably more people than ever who are young in spirit.”

Miku Hatsune, Turquoise-Haired Digital Idol

Miku Hatsune is the name of a software product that Sapporo-based Crypton Future Media, Inc. released in 2007. The vocaloid program sings a song that a user composes. Creators can alter Hatsune's appearance to suit their tastes, even creating animated videos starring the turquoise-tressed idol. The flexibility and ability to customize the character have been key to her popularity. Hatsune is also the name of the "singer" who has now achieved fame as the world's most popular virtual idol. She made her "live" debut in Hong Kong in October 2012. [Source: Takamasa Sakurai, Daily Yomiuri, November 9, 2012]

Takamasa Sakurai wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: Among cosplayers across the world, those donning Hatsune's outfit are seen most. Even though she is not an anime character, Hatsune has become the most popular cosplay subject. Many of Hatsune's songs are composed and uploaded online, and people who are skilled at creating animation make accompanying video clips of the turquoise-tressed idol. As a result, audiovisual collaborations produced on a massive scale have flooded cyberspace. [Ibid]

Her first official live show was held in March 2010 at a live house in Tokyo's Odaiba area. An onstage screen showed a 3-D holographic image of Hatsune, which was created using the motion capture technique. Her singing and dancing were perfectly coordinated to produce a realistic show that even accompanied a live band performance. The event received superb feedback. Hatsune's 3-D live shows were later performed again in Tokyo, and in Singapore and Los Angeles.

The Hong Kong event was held at KITEC Star Hall with a capacity of 3,000 people each for two shows a day. The night show sold out, while 90 percent of the seats were occupied for the daytime event. Another Hatsune live show was held in Taiwan, which was also very successful. The performance was something like I've never seen. The audience reacted just like they would at a real band's concert. [Ibid]

Hiroyuki Ito is president of Crypton Future Media Inc., which developed the Hatsune Miku, a virtual pop idol and voice synthesizer. The Hatsune Miku software has become increasingly popular around the world because it allows people to choose and produce their own songs based on a predetermined image. [Source: Takamasa Sakurai Yomiuri Shimbun, December 20, 2010]

Young people around the world seem to have latched on to this distinctive idol. Hatsune Miku has a catalog of tens of thousands of tracks, while there are countless original images of the idol on the Internet. A number of products featuring the character have been released and an album of songs has even charted. "It's no longer just a matter of selling a product anymore; you have to first build a community around it," says Ito.

Virtual Music in Japan

Jin Kiyokawa wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: Virtual singers also play a leading role in the rising popularity of Japanese singers overseas. "Tell Your World" is a song produced by Japanese music group livetune through Hatsune Miku, a computer music software that enables users to create synthesized female vocals by typing in lyrics and a melody. The song was distributed across 217 countries and regions, a record high for any Japanese singer. [Source: Jin Kiyokawa, Yomiuri Shimbun, March 2, 2012]

The song was used in a commercial for Google Chrome, a free web browser. As the commercial gained popularity on video-sharing websites, many fans from various countries requested to buy the song; hence the song's widespread, global distribution.

Using the computer software, many composers freely release their songs. Additionally, the character of Hatsune Miku is a beautiful anime girl, and is popular at cosplay events. A livetune member, kz, released a song using the computer music software for the first time in 2007. He later released a Hatsune Miku album through a major record company, the first album release featuring computer music software from a major label."I don't think I'll arrange my songs using foreign styles. Japan's pop music is making unique progress," kz said.

Yamaha’s Vocaloid Software Makes it Easier to Started in the Music Industry

Jin Kiyokawa wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “The last couple of years have seen a flurry of singles composed using "vocaloid" voice-synthesizing software. The genre, which has steadily become a major presence on hit charts, emerged out of music popular among online techies. It is expected to transform the music industry, from the ways new talent is discovered to what genres are dominant. [Source: Jin Kiyokawa, Yomiuri Shimbun, October 12, 2012]

Vocaloid--"vocalo" for short--technology was developed by Yamaha Corp. Users enter lyrics and a melody into a computer and the software spits out a vocal part. Yamaha and several software firms partnered with it have produced a variety of voice-synthesis applications that feature different singers and voice actors, each sporting an eye-catching female character on the package. Users are meant to feel like they are composing music for these adorable singers. [Ibid]

Among them, virtual diva Miku Hatsune--who "debuted" in 2007 from Sapporo-based Crypton Future Media, Inc.--is the epitome of vocaloid popularity. After five years in the business, she is more popular than ever. Hatsune's charming voice, based on that of voice actor Saki Fujita, has drawn rave reviews, but the character's striking physical appearance has fueled an even bigger craze, far surpassing the original synthesizer application. Internet video site Nico Nico Douga, or Niko-do, has played an important role in spreading the vocaloid word. Creators can easily post their latest compositions on the site, where they can be listened to for free. [Ibid]

People who make music using such applications are called vocaloid producers, or vocalo-P. All began as amateur composers, but around 2008 CDs produced by vocalo-Ps began appearing on the charts, and some have moved on to composing music for actual living singers. This year in particular has seen a surge of vocalo-P-produced CDs from major record labels, and some producers have begun working as singer-songwriters. A series of vocalo greatest-hits albums has been popular, with three of them in the top 10 of the August Oricon chart. [Ibid]

Vocaloid songs use Japanese lyrics, which give composers and listeners the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the words and experiment with how they flow. Nevertheless, the vocabulary in some songs can be quite difficult. Since vocaloid music doesn't require the singing and performing skills of real musicians, composers are able to experiment with more dynamic melodies. [Ibid]

Considering that many vocalo songs can be listened to for free on video sites like Niko-do, where popular tunes are played several million times, why do vocalo CDs still sell well” A fanatical fan base is one reason. According to Daigo Abe, the acting manager of Niko-do's User Culture Production Department, many fans buy CDs to "show their gratitude for getting to listen to the songs for free." There is no way for a fan to pay a composer through Niko-do for a song. Some fans mock the situation by using a pun on the term "furikome sagi" (money-sending scam) as "furikomenai sagi" (can't-send-money scam). [Ibid]

Since composing a vocalo song only requires a computer, much red tape and overhead can be eliminated, which makes production a low-risk venture for record labels. Music label U/M/A/A Inc. President Masakazu Hiroishi denies his company set out to slash production costs, pointing to the thick illustrated booklets the label produces for its vocalo CDs. "The visual element has allowed us to broaden the perspective of the [music] world," says Hiroishi. "We want to make products that fans desire for the sake of the object." Other music companies have followed suit by bundling accessories and other goods with CDs. This phenomenon runs counter to trends in the mainstream music industry, which is desperately trying to cut back on CD-associated costs. [Ibid]

Image Sources: Japan Zone except clubbers (Japan Visitor) and AK48 (Wiki Commons)

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2013

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