Japanese Artists With Foreign Names 1984-2004

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When trying to describe the characteristics of a national culture, one of the main problems is that these characteristics — held by some to be essential and unchanging — are always in flux. For example, take a look at the top ten Japanese music artists of 1989 vs. those of 1999 from the Oricon singles chart:

1989
1. 光GENJI
2. 光GENJI
3. 光GENJI
4. 男闘呼組
5. 長渕 剛
6. 工藤静香
7. 光GENJI
8. 氷室京介
9. 中山美穂
10. 久保田利伸
1998
1. GLAY
2. SMAP
3. SPEED
4. BLACK BISCUITS
5. GLAY
6. Kiroro
7. ラルク・アン・シエル
8. KinKi Kids
9. Every Little Thing
10. KinKi Kids

If you take a look at these charts over time, there is a sharp rise in the number of artists using vaguely Western words (or even Japanese words written in Western script) and foreign words written in katakana that coincides almost exactly with the growth of the total market. And now in the current market decline, “foreign” names artists are leveling off, and artists using four-kanji Japanese names are floating back up to the top. To illustrate this, I graphed the rise of artists with foreign names with the number of units moved of the #1 single.

(The pink line is the number of artists using foreign-worded names. The blue line indicates the units sold of the #1 single.)

Now, I think this is a bit of a spurious correlation. The adoption of foreign artist names had little direct impact on the music market explosion. However, I think it’s clear that “Western” words became more and more popular as Japanese consumer habits went “international” in the very late ’80s/early ’90s, and production companies moved to foreign-sounding names to cash in on that trend. Also, groups — rather than solo artists — have always tended to take Western names (even back in the ’60s with The Tigers or in the ’70s with Pink Lady), and the ’90s music market showed strong sales from bands and dance units, not just individual singers. Because of the enka tradition, however, there has been a strong, latent market in Japan for solo artists, and the artists in that style will most likely take on Japanese names. As ’90s-type artists become less popular and the market shrinks overall, those old-style singers are breaking back into the charts by default.

Overall, the foreign name trend does seem to be in a bit of decline, perhaps because consumers are embracing their own “Japaneseness” or they have less interest in international culture. Johnny’s hit groups used to have Japanese names — like 光GENJI or 男闘呼組 or 忍者 — but then in the ’90s, they started taking on romanized names like SMAP, KinKi Kids, and V6. Now they’re back to things like 嵐, but also NEWS. An equilibrium position?

W. David MARX (Marxy)
August 26, 2005

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

14 Responses

  1. r. Says:

    you should really be working for AVEX tracks as some kind of corp. spy.

  2. Chris_B Says:

    I like enka

  3. Jrim Says:

    Bless, you’re such a sociologist. I demand more cod-scientific analyses in this blog, and I demand them now.

    Oh, and Chris_B – I actually kinda like enka, too. Damned if I know why, but I think it might be because it’s got “soul”, dig?

  4. trevor Says:

    this is the most boring post in internet history!!

  5. Julien Crix Says:

    for god’s sake man, take it easy….

    (nice colors on the graph though)

  6. nate Says:

    not to nitpick…
    what do you mean “top ten japanese music artists”? The artists behind the top ten singles of the year? (in sales?)

    Makes things sorta hard to suss out.

    Also, how do the sales of the top single compare to overall sales, or combined sales of those top ten singles? not an objection, just curiosity.

  7. nate Says:

    oh sheesh. Reading it again, I guess it sorta says as much. Had trouble with the wording still, but now it is only nitpicking.

  8. channing Says:

    Sweetass graph my demon

  9. Chris_B Says:

    in any case this is an interesting observation

  10. Carl Says:

    Can you use excel to figure out the significance of correlation on that graph? Is it in the general range of being accepted as statistically valid or not?

  11. alin Says:

    This is nice. Pure data in all its beauty. I like this. A lot.

  12. Dave Says:

    What I enjoy most about this is that the more the music scene changed, the more it was the same. What factor remained the same over the ten years? A shitload of sales by Johnnys.

    (Disclosure: Once upon a time, back in my misled high school years, I bought a TRF album, issued by one of Johnny’s competitors.)

    It looks like you finished your Oricon marathon – I’m curious to see what you do with the data next. One thing that might be interesting to see would be the level of concentration – what share of all music listened to / bought / consumed comes out of the top few bands/jumusho/labels ? Has that changed over time?

  13. Antonin Says:

    best post of the day !!

  14. porandojin Says:

    yeah, the diagram looks beautiful