Is the AKB48-style idol singer promotion system limiting Japanese music’s global appeal?

By Casey Baseel, SoraNews24
Photo: Pakutaso

Idol music is a unique part of the Japanese recording industry, and not just because of how it sounds. It’s marketed with a completely open acknowledgement that the primary appeal for fans is the performers’ image, not the songs’ sounds, leading to practices such as tying chances of winning tickets to not just concerts, but also non-musical meet-and-greets like handshake events, to CD purchases, with the more duplicate copies you buy the better your odds of winning become.

That’s been the norm for idol music for a decade-plus now, with mega group AKB48 and its associated three-letter-48-named sister units the most successful examples. But Reiko Yukawa, a Japanese music critic who started her career discussing jazz in the 1960s, thinks the idol system has had a detrimental effect in Japanese music’s global appeal. It’s a lament the 86-year-old Tokyo native, who also has numerous credits as a lyricist, voiced back in 2018 while comparing the international success of K-pop groups to those of Japanese idols, and this month she tweeted a belated follow-up to those thoughts.

“Japan’s domestic-circulation hostess club system that they call ‘idols who you can go to meet in-person’ has caused the loss of Japanese music’s international competitive capability,” tweeted Yukawa, and more than a few commenters agreed with her, posting replies such as:

“I think you’re exactly right.”

“The sins of [AKB48 producer] Yasushi Akimoto are immense.”

“’Hostess club system’ is the perfect way to describe it.”

“I’ve thought the same thing. Sometimes I want to ask idol groups ‘Just what exactly is it that you’re selling?” The actual musical element has become secondary.”

“At some point, their aim went from figuring out what they could do to sell music to finding what they could do to sell CDs…The music is being treated like the shredded daikon radish on a plate of sashimi.”

On the other side of the debate, though, are idol fans, or at least non-detractors, who feel that idol sales practices aren’t to blame for any perceived shortcomings of the performance of Japanese music as a whole in overseas markets, and that boosting the global “competitive capabilities” of Japanese music isn’t the goal of idol music in the first place.

“Since when is music supposed to be about competition?”

“This kind is stuck in the last century, like when the first wave of Japanese rock bands said ‘We have to sing in English only to be big around the world.’”

“Japan is the second-largest music market in the world, and so there’s a history of making music and sales systems that appeal to Japanese people.”

“So if AKB48 disappeared, would that make Japanese music more competitive? Is Yasushi Akimoto going around putting pressure on other recording companies so they can’t make music in other non-idol genres?”

“If there wasn’t a demand for idol-style promotions in Japan, they would have already stopped doing them. Idols are different from other types of musicians anyway.”

Yukawa probably has a point, in the sense that Japanese idol music is a tough sell to mainstream overseas markets. Singers who owe their popularity more to their image than their vocal talents aren’t unique to Japan, but the demure and supportive personas that form the foundation of the idol genre are quite a bit different from the cool and powerful atmosphere that non-Japanese image-based performers more frequently cultivate.

At the same time, though, it’s pretty clear that idol music production companies are more interested in making their groups domestic successes than worrying about how they can make Japanese pop music in general more “competitive” outside their home market, especially when idol music is a niche even within the Japanese music industry. It’s also important to bear in mind that domestically the idol sales promotion system can be very effective, like when one of AKB48’s singles sold more than 2.5 million physical copies before it even hit store shelves. To be sure, a lot of those were duplicate copies bought by fans for the AKB48 general election ballots that came with the disc, but a sale is a sale. That sort of multiplier effect means that catering to the tastes of a single in-Japan super fan is as profitable as finding dozens, or even hundreds, of new overseas supporters, so we’re probably going to see idol promotions continue in the Japanese music industry until they stop working inside Japan.

Source: Maijitsu via Jin, Twitter/@yukawareiko 

Read more stories from SoraNews24.

-- Idol group AKB48 sells 2.5 million copies of new CD, bags full of them end up in trash days later

-- AKB48, Japan’s biggest idol singer group, apologizes for selling “Date Tickets”

-- “There are many mentally unwell girls in AKB48” claims ex-member of Japan’s top idol singer group

© SoraNews24

©2022 GPlusMedia Inc.

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No, of course not. There may be a wider diversity of music in the Oricon charts than in the average UK or US chart. Idol music is a good gateway to JP music, from enka to punk. Misaki Iwasa graduated from AKB48 to enka and took some of her fans with her. My collection spans a wide range of musical genres for both JP and SK music. All publicity is good publicity, with 46/48 spin off groups generating a positive view of Japan in other nations. Most artforms seem to stir in snobs an arrogant distaste for whatever is popular and successful. I'd consider that a flaw in a critic, in music, film or literature.

-5 ( +3 / -8 )

Never listen, never watch, never interested. Never should be called music, never going to popular outside of immature Japan where people never grow up

-4 ( +8 / -12 )

Japanese music - just like everything about its entertainment industry - is like a bonsai. It's beautiful but it will never grow and reach its full potential because it is being pruned and limited to look exactly how its owner want it to be.

-2 ( +5 / -7 )

I think the fact it's completely rubbish probably limits it's appeal more. If you're a grown man and into this stuff, you need help.

3 ( +8 / -5 )

Korean girl bands look good and sound good, ie, are musically proficient. They look like women - as opposed to children -- and can swivel their hips and sing in multipart harmony.

I'm no fan, but it still means the Koreans are easier to look at and listen to than J girl bands no matter your nationality -- unless you're tone deaf who find children sexually attractive.

0 ( +9 / -9 )

I think the lack of actual quality of most of the music is what limits the appeal, you can't make much with the few things of actual quality being produced locally, specially with the language barrier acting against it.

For some reason the local industry is very much focused in the national market and only very few artists actively look to have international projection. Maybe the problem is that they make enough money here to justify the extra effort to make it big in the world.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

It's all about proficient marketing.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Korean girl bands look good and sound good, ie, are musically proficient. They look like women - as opposed to children -- and can swivel their hips and sing in multipart harmony.

I'm no fan, but it still means the Koreans are easier to look at and listen to than J girl bands no matter your nationality -- unless you're tone deaf who find children sexually attractive.

Too bad K-pop is plagued with gapjil, rape, and sexual favors. I stopped supporting the industry long ago and never will again.

2 ( +6 / -4 )

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