If you listen to NPR, you probably heard the above Planet Money podcast a few months ago about why K-Pop’s instant worldwide success was not a fluke of nature and, instead, was a deliberate manufacturing decision viewed in very stone-cold corporate profit margins. Psy just happened to have the right combination of cross-over appeal, humor, and talent to bring K-Pop to the forefront. In sum, the Korean (and Japanese) music industries do not view “music” as a form of art: they view it as a standardized formula to be replicated over and over again, always changing the formula based upon reviews from past performance to make a greater product. In this sense (and anyone who has ever seen many K-Pop or J-Pop videos knows), originality and artistry are much less important factors in contemporary J-Pop than are producing musicians with generic, recognizable appeal and lyrics and beats that are well-understood. Think about it: if you’ve been to China, Thailand, Indonesia, or even small towns in highland Laos, K-Pop songs are everywhere! In the small, isolated town of Luang Prabang, Laos, there is a Super Junior restaurant! Really, in Laos!
It’s not that talent does not count for anything–we’ve profiled types of Japanese music that are not part of the modern pop industry, and therefore, cannot rely on a “factory model” of production. But what it does mean is that J-Pop is an industry, with standards of success. This concept is also very familiar in the American music scene, where talent agencies and talent managers streamline and highlight performers with the primary hopes of profit gain. The most prolific Japanese music talent agency is 株式会社ジャニーズ事務所 (Kabushikigaisha Janīzu Jimusho), or, Johnny & Associates, Inc. whose signed pop singers are collectively known as “ジャニーズ Janīzu,” or “Johnny’s.” A combination “star-training academy” and “talent management service,” Johnny & Associates, Inc. works to groom young male pop stars into stardom. Founded in the 1960s, the group is so powerful that it has been able to change copyright laws in Japan to gain more money for celebrity images as well as change the organizational structure of Japanese music awards. The founder of Johnny & Associates, Johnny Kitagawa, won two Guinness World Records in 2011: the first for producing the most No. 1 singles–232 over four decades–as well as the most concerts produced by an individual. Within the last decade alone, Kitagawa produced 8,419 concerts, with an estimated attendance of 48,234,550 fans!
While there are many talent agencies throughout Japan, Korea, and China, Johnny’s & Associates is the benchmark for success. We wanted to highlight how J-Pop works as an “industry” and how Japanese art has been commodified for public consumption. As you could tell across our Japanese blog music series, adopting and standardizing music styles from other countries has been a mainstay in Japanese music, from both ska, reggae, rock ‘n roll, and folk music. While we hope you go above and beyond this “model of standardization” for your Japanese SuperStar videos, hopefully you can also understand why so many contemporary Japanese music videos and pop stars are almost indistinguishable! Until next time, when we will talk about “the Britney Spears of Japan,” who recently cut her hair and violated the “bushido” code and everything in this article is inverted!
Until then, here are two videos from popular J-Pop idols Tomohisa Yamashita and Hey! Say! JUMP!, both who are currently represented by Johnny’s & Associates: