In 2006, Arashi, one of the best-known J-pop group in Asia held their first concert in Taiwan. Their popularity in Asia is tremendous. Including Arashi, J-pop groups are popular in East and Southeast Asian countries. What made J-pop popular in those countries? Singapore, where the sales of Japanese recordings have increased by more than ten times from 1999 to 2002, shows a good example.
Cuteness of J-pop
As discussed in the class, ‘cuteness’ is an important factor of ‘Japan’s Gross National Cool.’ For instance, one main reason of the popularity of Hello Kitty in the foreign countries is its ‘cuteness.’ There is a characteristic of cuteness of Hello Kitty. The place where the eyes and nose are is the same as human babies. When girls see Hello Kitty’s face, their mother instinct is stimulated and they cannot help loving it.
This can be applied to J-pop. Taking Arashi as an example, people notice they are not manly. They sing in a girly voice, and their faces and makeup bear ‘cuteness.’ Other singer groups of Johnny & Associates, Inc consist of many singers who have feminine qualities; KAT-TUN, Hey! Say! Jump, Kanjani Eight, and NYC boys, for instance. Members of these groups tend to be very young, and all have sweet voices and cute faces. The average age of the members of NYC boys is 16. These ‘cuteness’ factors seem to stimulate the mother instinct, the same as Hello Kitty does. Other female singers or singer groups bear ‘cuteness,’ too. The singer Ai Otsuka, for example, sings in a cute voice, and her promotion videos are girly. AKB48, a group consisting of approximately 48 girls, is popular because they do not look professional and their ‘look’ is accessible to everyone. Indeed, the ideology behind this group could be described as ‘cute girls in my neighborhood’.
‘さくらんぼ（Sakuranbo）’ Ai Otsuka
What is common between Hello Kitty and J-pop group is that their ‘cuteness’ is something that stimulates people’s mother instinct. Both Hello Kitty and those idol groups above look innocent and immature. People feel the need to protect them.
Also, young girls love Hello Kitty because they have a desire to stay immature. So they want to possess cute things like Hello Kitty. This can be applied to J-pop. By listen to the songs which bear ‘cuteness’, they can feel they are still young, cute and innocent.
As Disney is turning happiness into commodity, many J-pop singers or groups are turning ‘cuteness’ into commodity. People cannot buy ‘cuteness,’ but they can buy their CDs and DVDs, and they consequently buy ‘cuteness.’ Also, as mentioned in the class that ‘people who have bought Prius cars look earth-friendly,’ people can show themselves as cute by possessing cute things. In the same logic, people can show themselves as cute by listening to cute J-pop songs and sing them at karaoke boxes.
I have considered ‘cuteness’ of J-pop so far. However, the popularity of J-pop differs between Asian countries and America. That seems to be partly because what kind of things consumers want differs according to their cultures. In general, Asian people tend to like cute things; on the other hand, American people tend to like cool things rather than cute things. That is probably one of the reason why J-pop is popular in Asia but not in the United States. However, there are more reasons why J-pop is popular in Asia. I would like to take Singapore as an example, because it is one of the biggest J-pop markets in Asia. According to Ng, author of Japanese Popular Music in Singapore and the Hybridization of Asian Music, the sales of Japanese recordings have increased by more than ten times from 1999 to 2002 in Singapore. This shows that J-pop is becoming more and more popular in Singapore.
History of J-pop in Singapore
The Late 19th
Japanese popular music has a pretty long history in Singapore. According to Ng, it was introduced to Singapore in the late 19th century following the influx of Japanese karayukisan (Japanese prostitutes) and traders, but it was only performed in “Little Japan” and was not popular among the locals.
During the Occupation
During the Japanese occupation (1942-1945), Japanese songs, such as the national anthem, military songs, and traditional folk songs, became popular in Singapore and Southeast Asia, and were actively used by the Japanese for political purposes.
In the 1970s, Taiwanese songs, which were mostly covers of Japanese enka (urban nostalgic and emotive songs) or kayoukyoku (early Japanese pop), were popular among Chinese community in Asia. Chinese Singaporeans became familiar with Japanese tunes, although they few realized that their favorite Mandarin songs borrowed from Japanese tunes. They had little opportunity to listen to original Japanese songs until the early 1980s.
The Early 1980s
After the war, it was not until the early 1980s that Japanese popular music was formally introduced to Singapore. The first Japanese song to become a hit in Singapore and Southeast Asia was Sakamoto Kyu’s “Sukiyaki” (originally titled “Ue o muite arukou,” “I will walk with my head up”), came indirectly from the United States. In 1981, as a part of screening of Japanese drama on the Chinese television station, Chinese Singaporeans (who constituted more than 70% of the nation’s population) listened to the theme songs of these dramas.
Following the first J-pop boom in Hong Kong and Taiwan, Japanese music record, both licenced and pirated were imported to Southeast Asia in large quantities. Also, thanks to the popularity of Yamaguchi Momoe’s dramas and movies, Yamaguchi became an icon among young Chinese Singaporeans. In the 1980s, Singapore television showed the Japanese Red and White Singing Contest (Kouhaku), the annual music event in Japan to celebrate the New Year. Japanese singers such as Yamaguchi Momoe, Matsuda Seiko, Nakamori Akina, Shounentai, Checkers became popular, marked for their image more than their music.
Decline and Rise in the 1990s
However, the popularity of Japanese popular music in Singapore did not last long, because of the decline of popular music and television dramas in Japan in the late 1980s. In the early 1990s, the only Japanese song that made a commotion in Singapore was Say Yes (by Chage & Aska). When the music industry in Japan revived in the mid-1990s, Asian nations (Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore) once again saw a rise in the popularity of Japanese popular music. In March 1999, Speed became the first Japanese singer/group whose album made it to the top ten in the Singapore chart. Since then, Japanese albums have become regular entries in the Singapore charts.
As the history shows, the recent popularity of J-pop in Singapore is based on the relatively long history of Japanese popular music there. Besides the history, what are the reasons for the J-pop popularity?
Ironically, piracy has played an important role in the population of J-pop in Singapore and Asia. Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand and China make pirated J-pop CDs and VCDs for the Asian market. Taiwan, the largest producer of J-pop music albums and marchandise in the world, has not signed any agreement with Japan on copyrights protection.
Chinese Cover Version
A large number of Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese) cover versions of J-pop songs made by Taiwanese and Hong Kong artists also help popularize J-pop in Chinese communities in Asia. It is cheaper and easier for Taiwanese and Hong Kong artists to buy the copyrights of Japanese songs than to write their own. Chage & Aska, Nakajima Miyuki and Southern All Stars have Chinese cover versions.
The mass media and communication industry are the main forces behind the J-pop boom. Singapore TV began to show more Japanese dramas after 1995. From 1995 to 2001, on avarage, more than 10 Japanese dramas were screened on Singapore television a year. Soundtracks of Japanese drama usually sell well.
Here are other reasons that Ng thinks the reasons Singapore audience tend to enjoy J-pop. First, they find Japanese icons to appear charming. Second, J-pop provides a viable alternative to American pop or Chinese pop. J-pop has many varieties, including Euro-beat, R & B, rap, soft rock, hip-hop, etc. The sound quality is superb and the packaging is attractive. Titles are usually in English. Third, there are more than 10 thousand Singaporeans learning Japanese.
The recent popularity of J-pop is based on many factors, including history, Japanese drama and anime, piracy, Chinese cover versions and mass media. I think the biggest factor is ‘cuteness.’ Asian people like ‘cute’ things and they act like immature cute girls; whereas American people like ‘cool’ things and act in a cool way. Many American musicians regard sex,drug and alcohol as cool and they use those words in their lyrics very frequently, which is far from ‘cuteness.’ So what Asian and American people pursue in culture seems different. This would be a reason why American people are not very attracted by Japanese ‘cute’ pop musicians, although they have a high popularity in Asian countries.
1. Why J-pop is not so popular in the United States while it is popular in Asian countries?
2.Why do you think “Sukiyaki” made a great hit in the world?
Ng, Benjamin Wai-ming.” Japanese Popular Music in Singapore and the Hybridization of Asian Music.” Asian Music, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Autumn, 2002 – Winter, 2003), pp. 1-18.JSTOR.Web.23 Apr. 2010.
“Karayukisan no kobeya.” Web. 23 Apr. 2010.<http://www.karayukisan.jp/no9/index.html>
Entry contributed by Sanami Takasaki