Reasons You Can’t Get Into Japanese Music Industry as a Foreigner (Unless You Really Try)

A little while ago, I stumbled upon an article named Why Independent Artists From USA, UK and the West, Cannot Get a Recording Deal in Japan. While this article is somewhat dated, I thought I would share what I know about the current industry.

Before I begin covering these topics, one thing I really like to emphasize is in Japanese music industry, often the merit of the musical work often does not play much of relevancy. So if you are getting rejected, that’s nothing about quality of music you are putting out.

First of all, how well music are consumed in Japan? Not too bad, some research reveals that 60% of respondent replied that they listen to music every day on their smart phone.

Reality: Japanese Music Industry Is, More or Less a Secondary Industry

Assume that you have great music in your hand, now you are trying to sell, you bring it to the record company, you get rejected. Why?

First of all, you are nobody, let alone if you are independent musician. Did your music piece used in a movie? What about on TV? Aired on a radio show? If you answered no to all of those question, sorry, you are that nobody.

Media tie-ups are big in Japan. Although audiences of TV broadcast are often said to be declining, it still plays big part of the musical discovery process. Research by the Japanese record association shows that in 2016, 24% of respondents listen to music through TV and 21.6% from radio. (YouTube and CD and musical media are larger, but I will cover this other places in this article.)

If you see ORICON ranking, it is very evident. For example, ranking from May 2017, only two items out of top 10 are free of tie-ups. Most others are used in songs used in the commercials (yes, commercial music matters in Japan) drama, or anime. (And those remaining two have had established their tie-ups elsewhere.)

So the shortcut of getting your music successfully launched in Japan is by getting your music used in one of those shows.

Sounds easy, right? Perhaps if you know some famous musical producer, maybe? Otherwise you will have to be very creative.

Essentially, many musicians start establishing their presence by luck; you have to be in right place at right time. If you are foreigner outside of Japan trying to establish identity this way, you are already of disadvantage, as your exposure will be minimum.

Shortcut 1: Be (Very) Successful in Your Country

If you already have some, industrial presence in your country, pursuing to be successful there is perhaps most realistic way. (If your goal is truly to be successful in Japanese industry) if you are successful in a country of your choice outside of Japan, then perhaps Japanese music industry will take a notice on your work. The catch is that you will have to be very successful.

Shortcut 2: Establishing Digital Presence Yourself (And Cater to Your Audiences!)

If you are still not well established outside of Japan, and you want to get some presence in Japan, another way to go direct approach.

There are pretty decent presence in Japan for a streaming media in Japan, such as YouTube and Niconico. Previously mentioned year 2016 research by Japanese record association reveals that 42.7% of respondents listen to music on YouTube. (12.1% on Niconico) so there are audiences.

Since pure musical presence on YouTube is big, if you are to get some exposure, YouTube would be excellent medium to get you noticed.

Japanese people use Niconico differently; it’s commenting feature is very different from YouTube’s and hence, more listener interaction is active in Japan. Particularly, covers, experimental songs, and other performances are more prominent in Niconico.

There are many cases independent artists experienced major debut this way, particularly through providing music to anime. Kenichi Maeyamada, and ZAQ and others for example. Example of Kenichi Maeyamada is notable for the fact he is now performing compositions for well-known singers.

Vocaloids and YouTube/Niconico

One aspect of Niconico is that there are major prominence of using Vocaloid in YouTube and Niconico. If you are making vocal song, you may want consider taking advantage of this medium. (Especially if you are more about showing off your musical work than vocal.)

There are many established industry presence this way, including 40mP, Hachiouji P, and many others.

What Really Matters

In any case, the most important aspect of getting big in Japan is to be able to communicate with potential listeners. You are already behind the mark if your music does not specifically cater to the audiences, and you will have to communicate your work and yourself, thus there’s matter of language barrier.

Unlike traditional media where it resolves around TV and radio, there is a big contrast to make. After all, you really don’t have to be very good artist to be successful in TV and radio; major idol groups like SMAP, and AKB48 (and some of their sister groups) aren’t really well known for their quality as a musical talent — some are actually notoriously known (and self-admissive, more or less) for their tone-deafness. Metrics such as ORICON, is really a reflection of that part of industry, and unfortunately, a lot of record labels look for that. Essentially on those mediums, you just have to look presentable and has quality other than what traditionally people will be looking for when they talk about musicians.

YouTube and Niconico are more strict in the quality of the work, as you will have to very good or they will simply hit that “next” button. In other word, it is a few if not sole variable listeners will be considering. You will certainly overwhelmed by sheer number of works on those media, too.

Import thing is how you measure success. Do you measure success in the fact record label signs a contract with you? Or is it merely recognitions you are looking for? That’s up to you to decide.

T-mobile Roaming in Japan

I was traveling Japan earlier, from March 23rd, to March 30th. This was my first time traveling with my phone set to roam. The last travel before that was precisely 7 years 1 month 24 days before this trip, and I did not roam for two reasons back then; one it was cost prohibitive, and secondly, back around that time, I did not have a phone capable of roaming; back in time, I was using T-mobile MDA, essentially a renamed version of the HTC Wizard, which was an EDGE capable, which basically meant there’s no roaming available in Japan. (Japan is one of the few countries out there never had seen GSM deployment.)

Forwarding the clock for 7 years 1 month, 24 days, now I have a Nexus 5, which supports LTE and UTMS. This meant finally I am capable of trying out roaming in Japan. Coincidentally, as a part of T-mobile’s Un-Carrier initiative, they have made available free roaming (albeit with some limitations) available to simple plan subscribers, which basically gave me a chance to try it out.
The premise is that, I get data and text roaming free of charge (data locked to 128Kbps) and calling at $0.20/minutes. Latter pricing is not actually too bad, as some of their domestic plan can come very close or even exceed that at high margins. (For example, Softbank would charge 20 yen — roughly 17 cents per 30 seconds in their White Plan, and DOCOMO would also charge up to 20 yen, but generally more like 11 to 15 yen, that’s 9 to 12 cents. Although in Japan, receiving the call is free as a caller actually picks up that bill, but in case of roaming, both making and receiving a call incurs charges, just like they would in domestic calls in the US.)

Getting off the plane, I have waited for a while, until the phone receives signal. Actually the phone force restarted, but it probably has nothing to do with the roaming; perhaps it’s something to do with the Android 5.1 issue, but once that’s over, it was a fairly smooth ride. The phone received a signal, showing JP DOCOMO as a carrier. Then I received the following two messages from 156 number:

Free T-Mobile Msg: Welcome to Japan. Unlimited text incl with your global coverage. Talk $0.20/min. More info http://t-mo.co/tc

Free T-Mobile Msg: Unlimited web included as part of your global coverage. To purchase high speed data please visit: http://t-mo.co/4G-Data

After a while, I have also received the following from 889 number:

Free T-mobile Msg: For faster web browsing, you can purchase a high speed data pass at: http://t-mo.co/4G-Data

The data pass, which I did not purchase, comes in three increments: 100MB for $15.00 (expires in a day), 200MB for $25.00 (expires in a week) and 500MB for $50.00 (expires in two weeks) — again, I did not purchase these so I can’t speak of experiences using those add-ons. These are still bargains, considering non-simple choice plan would incur $15.00 per MB. While connected to Japanese network, it was locked to UTMS. I am not sure if it’ll be the case with these optional packages or whether purchasing one of these options would unlock access to LTE network.

Pulling IP address of the device showed that it was T-mobile USA’s IP range, which was not surprising considering the packet would still go through their access point, even though it is piped through Japanese network. At 128Kbps, I was worried that my data experience suck, however, it handled fairly well, especially after I turned off most of background backups of photos. It handled things like Facebook post, and Instagram fairly well.

Messaging applications naturally did not have any issues. One thing I noticed is when I jumped from one carrier to another (the network I could roam was on DOCOMO, as well as Softbank) and occasionally, especially when I was emerging out from no-signal area to coverage area, for some reason, it took a while to phone to realize that I have a data connection. This intermittent connection issue was somewhat annoying, but not critical for most of my applications.

Google Maps operated and helped a lot navigating a massive network of Tokyo train systems. Browsing experience was not too bad either; this probably also have helped by the fact that Google Chrome compresses data for me in the background.

Softbank and DOCOMO mobile cell towers -- my device probably roamed both of those towers at some point!
Softbank and DOCOMO mobile cell towers — my device probably roamed both of those towers at some point!

In any case, having some form of connectibility was way better than having nothing, and the first try with T-mobile free roaming was a very pleasant one. Now I can’t wait to go back again! 🙂

Social Expectations in Japan and Why I Can’t Ever Live in Japan

During Sakura-Con, I had chance listening to Roland Kelts talking about foreigner living in Japan. He said that if foreigners visit Japan, they can’t be one of them (Japanese) but they will be able to enjoy benefit of being in Japan without being expected to be Japanese. (and any effort of blending into them will be taken favorably by Japanese.)

This was very interesting to hear from “foreigner perspective”, as its flip-side is exactly what I had in mind, and what I have written in the past. In the US, even though I’m considered to be American, a lot of people still may see me as foreigner, but at same time, that doesn’t mean much, as a lot of Americans are originally from foreign country; it’s just part of the society. However, this creates very awkward situation for me to be in Japan.

I have been long enough in Japan; first 13 years of my life to be exact, and I understand sociological norm in Japan. However, it is also true that I have lived in the States for 18 years. This makes it very awkward when I visit Japan; while I understand that norm, I do not necessary believe in executing it myself. I speak perfect Japanese, I look like Japanese, and I don’t look like a foreigner — so unless I pretend I don’t speak Japanese; which actually I have done casually in the past, Japanese people expect me to behave, and more importantly, think like Japanese.

Because their social expectation for me to act like Japanese, I do not get any credits for efforts of act (and think) like Japanese, because they assume that what I am supposed to be doing, yet any deviance from it would count negative toward me.

I don’t have any problem living in the States looking like Japanese, but this is why I sometimes wish I looked like foreigners in Japan.
While I am doubtful I will ever be living in Japan, this will be certainly life-long wonder of how I should mitigate this “identity crisis” every time I visit Japan, or merely dealing with Japanese elsewhere.

Donation for Earthquake, Tsunami in Japan

As you probably know by now, North-Eastern part of Japan has suffered major earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which caused devastating damage to the region. They are dealing with many problems still; aftershocks, additional earthquake (yes you heard it right…Shizuoka region got hit by another — not as strong, but still major one) as well as continuing problem with nuclear power plants.

Last weekend, I responded the call to create the website called SeattleJapanRelief and it was my honor taking part launching this collaborative effort.

So if you or someone you know are considering donation, please do direct them to the website above. You don’t have to be in Seattle area to donate through it!

Tokyo to Outlaw Fictional Characters Breaking a Law?

It has been a while since I’ve written about so-called Tokyo Wholesome Youth Fostering Ordinance (青少年健全育成条例) earlier in the year. So what’s happened with it?

Adaptation of this ordinance has been indefinitely deferred, but not surprisingly, they are still pursuing this, even with stricter control.

They are seeking new ordinance to cover, any act of sexual behavior in fiction, regardless of their age, that would break a law. (Again, please note, that this ordinance is specifically talking about such activities expressed in fiction and not real life.) It even doesn’t have to be explicit — if Tokyo somehow define some work indecent, even ambiguous, they could classify them as “inappropriate.”

As with past authors from various media are already standing up to oppose this. This could be death of anime and manga, people. Especially if you are into moe stuff!

Sakuranbo Elementary School Fiasco

Sakuranbo, a Japanese word for cherry, sounds quite innocent. Probably so if you stick that as name of the elementary school, well, unless it was already being used by mature themed sexual game (eroge) group.

Here’s what happened. In Higashine city in Yamagata prefecture, there is new elementary school being built. Since Higashine city is known for its cherry produce, they are pushing to name many of their city features with name of cherry — and it is now natural for the city to try to follow that trend with their newly building elementary school.

While they were searching for possible overlap, they seems to have done many kind of checking, but one very simple thing — searching on the Internet.

Searching for Sakuranbo Elementary School (さくらんぼ小学校) on Google and other search engine reveals that this name already is being used as branding for mature game. The city was notified by residents about this problem. Mayor of the city, Seigo Tsuchida, initially responded their lack of intension to reconsider its name, with reason “by changing the name, we are approving mature games.”

For the meantime, Sakuranbo Elementary School, the mature game group, announced on their webpage, about their willingness of cooperate with school by changing the name of the group if necessary.

Later, the city reversed its decision of not changing the name, with mayor’s statement that “I feel like I was struck by a car.”

Analyzing the whole situation, this situation well could be prevented by the city conducting simple search on the Internet. Sakuranbo Elementary School, the mature game brand, has been in its existence for 8 years since 2002, and search would easily reveal existence of the group. It’s city’s sole responsibility to make sure their branding is not overlapping with existing entities.

Legally, anyone who knowing something about trademark would see that they aren’t in infringement to each other, as they are in different class. Therefore, the city should be legally clear to open up their new elementary school in that name. This only got problem because the group was offering mature products.

The group’s offer of changing their branding is extraordinary, considering they are legally not required to.

The city, in other hand is under big fire, possibly perpetual for years to come. Apparently, the mayor of the city has received message from his staff by this problem — with no luck persuading the mayor.

It is worthwhile to note that for past 10 years, the mayor, Seigo Tsuchida was reelected without contests 4 times. Perhaps lack of residents’ interests choosing proper leader might have also contributed this problem.

Borrowing Tsuchida’s word, no car was there to struck the city, it was city rammed into the wall.

On Japanese E-mail Mannarism

One of Japanese “E-mail mannerism” article is causing bit of arguments on twitter. Idea is that the article is saying that one should be suffixed with sama (Japanese Mr./Ms.) to names showing up in “TO” header, which a lot of people claim it is bad know-how.

I actually believe it is very bad idea. Simply because TO headers are not context sensitive. For example, say, someone sends you E-mail with you referred with suffix of sama, among with your colleague in CC, each with same sama suffix. You reply to that E-mail and suddenly, what you see your colleague referred as sama and other person referred without that suffix. It is considered rude that you refer your colleague with sama suffix, when you are talking someone outside of your organization, and further more, it is of course considered rude you don’t put the sama suffix for addressee, if you are appending the suffix at all, it is very inconvenient.

Some other things considered part of E-mail manner in Japan with my take on them:

  • Don’t send things in formatted E-mail (as long as it’s not WINMAIL.DAT, it should be fine these days — but also append text version of the E-mail. Most software do this automatically if you send in formatted mail.)
  • In the body, address recipient with his or her company name, department, and name. (Many people do address someone this way. I don’t do it for few reasons. First it’s redundant, and second, it risks recipient’s personal information when it happened to be delivered to someone else. I even omit this completely for quick responses.)
  • Introduce yourself on the every E-mail. (Not necessary bad idea, but I don’t personally do it unless I’m sending E-mail to someone for very first time, or case it is first E-mail in very long time.)
  • Include your full name, E-mail address, company name, company address, company URL, etc. as a signature (I think name and company is enough. There’s privacy implications as E-mail is not necessary private. I also put in statement that the message may be signed because I do sign E-mail, and to prevent confusion when signature.asc ends up in the E-mail — which is not applicable for everyone.)
  • Put in line break often. (I think this is stupid. Because putting in line break will cause ugly display when someone adjust their window size. I’m not opposing putting in extra line between topics.)

TWYFO and Anti-Otaku Politics

The word Otaku is Japanese word is equivalent to nerd in Japanese.

Although, the word Otaku often carries not negative, and even positive elements in many countries, this word tend to be negative when it is used in Japan. The attempt to laws like Tokyo’s recent audience can be also observed as anti-otaku movement.

It is highly speculated these movements are nothing more than discrimination against Otakus as well as people who are into Akihabara cultures. In fact Governor Ishihara of Tokyo prefecture did openly stated that “it is responsibility of government to regulate Kimo-Ota (Disgusting-Otaku) who are pervert likes non-wholesome works.”

The reason currently proposed regulation like TWYFO is highly controversial as this can be arbitrarily enforced to suppress what they define Kimo-Ota.

While decision of adopting this ordinance has been deferred for mean time, Japan Pen Club, the group of about 100 book publishers joined in a force of opposing this ordinance.

The Way Japan Treats Japanese

There’s a law in Hyogo, and now Saitama prefecture that forces parents writing essay to their carrier in order to the parents to lift mandatory internet filtering service on their childs’ mobile phones.

It is their effort of preventing children in their community to not be exposed to inappropriate contents, but I just felt it’s quite creepy. It is parents responsibility to be conscious about what their children are being exposed to, but isn’t it ultimately parents’ decision, and also authority to determine what their children can do and not? I just don’t see why parents need to “beg” to their service providers. (It is worthwhile to note that this clause is also included in TWYFO as well.)

In recent years, I’m starting to see news about government going into individuals’ jurisdiction. For example, people cannot use mobile phone at some ATMs because that would encourage fraudulent transaction directed from the phone.

Seriously, people in Japan are willing to put up with it?

Can we really do nothing to protest against TWYFO?

Currently, Minsyuto (Japanese Democratic Party) is a ruling party in Japan. Perhaps we should be expressing our appreciation to diversity of Japanese works.

On Japanese Democratic Party website, there is a comment form, which you can fill out to express your opinion. While I’m not sure how English page will be received by them, some comments would at least let them know there are people outside of Japan who care about cultures in Japan. Do try your best Japanese, but unless you are nearly perfect in Japanese, I’d also recommend writing in English as well.