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:
5. 長渕 剛
4. BLACK BISCUITS
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?