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TohoShinki Rages Against the Machine


TohoShinki (aka TVXQ!) are a popular Korean boy band and national heroes. An media executive working in Seoul tells me: “Korean internet users’ passion for TohoShinki is something similar in intensity to their belief that Dokdo is Korean land.” Now the group has crossed the Straight of Tsushima and taken over the Japanese music scene with the force of a Mongolian invasion. Their latest single 「どうして君を好きになってしまったんだろう?」 hit #1 on the Oricon chart a few weeks ago. Backed by the #1 record label Avex Trax and Korean music production powerhouse SM Entertainment, there is very little preventing TohoShinki from further dominating the Japanese music scene.

There is one area, however, that remains “off-limits”: TohoShinki are apparently blacklisted from TV Asahi’s long-running music show Music Station. According to a TohoShinki staff member’s blog, the band and their managers have been pushing the producers of Music Station extremely hard over the last few years to appear on the show. Now with three Oricon #1s in the bag — an extremely rare feat for a non-Japanese band — the excuses coming from Music Station are just not adding up.

Lest you see a sinister nationalist motive here, the blacklisting has nothing to do with Toho’s non-Japaneseness. Avex and SM also represent popular Korean female star BoA, who appears on Music Station and other Japanese TV shows regularly. There is only one reason why TohoShinki is not invited on Music Station: an intentional blockade from Johnny’s Jimusho, the production company behind Japan’s long-standing boy band monopoly.

Almost since the show’s inception in the late 1980s, Music Station has been the exclusive citadel of Johnny’s. Popular ’80s boy band Hikaru Genji appeared on the show almost every week. Johnny’s Jimusho’s other acts then rotated week by week, meaning that there were usually two Johnny’s act on every single show. This scheduling made some sense when Hikaru Genji was at the top of the pop charts. Around 1991, however, Johnny’s acts completely stopped charting on the Oricon. At this point, there was an almost “boy band hiatus” in Japanese pop culture: Hikaru Genji had peaked, SMAP had yet to take off, and most consumers rejected idol pop for “live house” rock bands. In spite of early ’90s consumers clearly signaling their disinterest in Johnny’s Jimusho acts, the company’s boy bands still appeared week after week on Music Station. The not-so-shocking conclusion: Japanese TV producers do not book talent based on their popularity as much as the TV station or producer’s organizational relationships with specific powerful talent companies.

This is still true 15 years later. Music Station is fiercely loyal to Johnny’s for unknown reasons and will generally ignore “what the kids are into” in order to put Johnny’s acts on the show. When Johnny’s boy band rivals like Da Pump or w-inds scored hits on the chart, Music Station would not offer them an invitation. So in the late 1990s, Fuji TV’s rival Hey Hey Hey Music Champ started to give these non-Johnny’s boy bands guest slots, and as a result, Johnny’s Jimusho completely boycotted Hey! Hey! Hey! for almost five years. When the main producer for Hey! Hey! Hey! changed around 2003, the non-Johnny’s acts were not invited back and suddenly Johnny’s Jimusho returned in full force. It’s either one or the other.

This kind of no-compromise, strong-arm financial tactics are the bread and butter of Johnny’s Jimusho’s business strategy. Any media company that does something against the wishing of Johnny’s will find themselves completely and utterly frozen out from use of product-moving Johnny’s talent. Since Johnny’s is a production office, rather than a media company, they have smartly forged financial bonds with every single record label and media conglomerate, meaning that any negative action towards Johnny’s will result in a direct loss of revenue for the offender. No one is exempt. Recently, a Kodansha gossip magazine reported on Ohno Satoshi (lead singer of Arashi) smoking marijuana (the horror!) and having a threesome in a karaoke box (the sound of little hearts breaking). Johnny’s responded immediately by forbidding all Kodansha magazines from using Johnny’s talent in any projects and retracting Kodansha annual publishing of Johnny’s Jimusho calenders, which are normally a revenue bulwark. Kodansha may suffer a decline in net sales from this action, making them wonder, in a very hostile market, whether such a story was really “worth it.”

Listening to Japanese business leaders and politicians, I know we are supposed to believe that Japan has always avoided a devilish American-style competitive capitalism motivated by profit. Everyone in Japan values “preserving social harmony at all moments.” Johnny’s Jimusho, however, is a perfect example of the corporate bullying that tends to easily dominate “harmonious” markets. Johnny’s also acts as a fierce conservative force, making sure that the industry does not change or embrace new technologies that would alter the current power balance. The relation between Johnny’s and Japan is like if your 75 year-old grandfather somehow had the power to set internet policy for Hollywood.

When you ask Japanese music insiders on what it would take for Japanese entertainment companies to change, the answer is always: “We are basically waiting for Johnny to die.” This is what strategy for industrial progress in Japan has come to: wishing the speedy demise of the king. I hope TohoShinki has the quiet patience and a few decades required to bring real change to the world of J-Pop.

W. David MARX
August 14, 2008

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

21 Responses

  1. Adamu Says:

    Could Avex and TohoShinki be thinking that this is the right market timing for them?

    I mean isn’t the whole reason that Kodansha and others are now more freely reporting Johnny’s-related scandals because the agency’s financial power has declined?

  2. Aceface Says:

    “TohoShinki has the quiet patience and a few decades required to bring real change to the world of J-Pop.”

    Nothing against TS,but the “change” is one boy band takes over another?
    In that case,Avex would simply fill the vacuum of Johnny Jimusho,and that’s about it.

    How about this.The business model based on idols showing up on TV program is now dying.The rise of TS is proof of that.

  3. Adamu Says:

    At the very least, no more Johnny’s could mean the death of some of that particular company’s more brazen practices. But I have to side with Ace. I barely noticed that it was even special that TohoShinki was selling albums in Japan, thinking they were just another boyband.

    Still, even though some key pillars of the music industry are taking a hit, in some form there will always be a market for stars that appeal to teen girls.

    David mentioned that the pre-SMAP era saw almost no boy-band hits. And what made SMAP so popular was their variety show, right? If the model is indeed dying it might just need a slightly different gimmick to get it going again.

    That brings me to Shuchishin, the Shimada Shinsuke-produced unit of endearing halfwits. The three members are all from different jimusho and only got their start when their particularly dumb answers to quiz show questions was a huge hit with viewers. They have apparently built a huge fanbase of quiz show fans and blog readers (you wrote about one member on the clast blog). They might be just another fad (their singles have peaked at No. 2 so far) but I wonder if this could be the sign of a new model? Just thinking out loud here…

  4. maaku_sutipen Says:

    Do you mind that I link your article in my blog?

    Anyways great essay as it is very informative and fun to read. Explains in a concise manner how has JE has rooted its domain in the Jpop industry.

  5. jg Says:

    “At the very least, no more Johnny’s could mean the death of some of that particular company’s more brazen practices.”

    It’d be the end of anybody trying the same thing. Nobody else could or would, because they don’t need to. Because despotism in the music industry is ridiculous and just keeps the business stunted.

    Director Izutsu Kazuyuki isn’t afraid to break the “taboo” of criticizing JJ and its waning power:

    And I could be wrong, but haven’t SMAP wanted to break away for years?

  6. W. David MARX Says:

    A few bits of additional information I totally blanked on:

    1) SM and Johnny’s made a deal to let each other’s talents into both Japan and Korea. Johnny’s would support SM in Japan if SM supported Johnny’s in Korea. Now that TohoShinki has done so well in Japan and Johnny’s never really impressed anyone in Korea, Johnny’s is very silently backing out of the deal and becoming protective.

    2) TohoShinki is not apparently allowed to be sold in the “J-Pop” section even though they sing in Japanese. They are found in the “world music” section. (Have not confirmed this.)

    3) TohoShinki’s fans are mostly older women, which as Aceface points out, do not get their music info from J-Pop shows. When you look at what music shows get the highest rating these days, it’s always Nodo Jiman and NHK Kayokyoku Concert: essentially stuff that only “old people” watch. The J-Pop market is really, really hurting, and it makes sense that getting middle-aged women into Hanryu behind a CD is a new way of really racking up sales.

    I mean isn’t the whole reason that Kodansha and others are now more freely reporting Johnny’s-related scandals because the agency’s financial power has declined?

    Yeah, but so have the revenues of media companies. So it’s a gamble to cut out $1 mil worth of guaranteed Johnny’s-related sales a year.

    Re: Oricon

    I think there are some fishy bumps and unexplained sampling biases in Oricon data, but not straight out forgery. If TohoShinki sold the most straight-out, they take #1.

    Nothing against TS,but the “change” is one boy band takes over another?

    Yeah, it’s not much of a change. But the Johnny’s monopoly prevents ALL change in the music market. So any cracks help.

    Do you mind that I link your article in my blog?

    Thanks to the internet, you don’t even need my permission! But thanks!

  7. Adamu Says:

    If Johnny were microsoft he would be thrown in jail for anti-monopoly violations, and SMAP would be broken up into four solo projects for the good of consumers.

    We need a bugging law and better investigative powers to the JFTC!

  8. Aceface Says:

    “David mentioned that the pre-SMAP era saw almost no boy-band hits.”

    There were Jackson fivesque”Finger 5″ from Okinawa in the 70’s.In the 80’s Johnny’s kick started Tanokin Trio(Tahara “Toshichan”Toshihiko,Kondo”Match”Masahiko and Nomura”Yocchan”Yoshio)and Shibugaki-tai,and Shonen-tai.And there was The CHeckers….

    “Now that TohoShinki has done so well in Japan and Johnny’s never really impressed anyone in Korea, Johnny’s is very silently backing out of the deal and becoming protective.”

    It’s a bit more complicated.When I was in Seoul in June of 2006,I went to the Seoul’s largest mega book/DVD store,Kyobo Mungo.There was a huge poster of Arashi everywhere and the CD’s were sold like hot cakes.



    位置した『東海』を『Sea of Japan(日本海)』と書かれている。






    Tohoshinki is sold in K-Pop section along with their Korean albums.It’s a different case from BOA since she debut in Japan.

    “But the Johnny’s monopoly prevents ALL change in the music market. So any cracks help.”

    I live longer.I remember the days Watanabe Production was filling that nitche back in the 70’s.

    Those who wants to learn what the 80’s were like may want to buy the manga/anime “To-Y” By Kamijyo Atsuhi.

  9. W. David MARX Says:

    David mentioned that the pre-SMAP era saw almost no boy-band hits.”


    I said there were no boy band hits between Hikaru Genji and Smap, which is basically true.

  10. Aceface Says:

    Otoko-Gumi and TOKIO?

  11. Adamu Says:

    Oops I was talking about the lull between the 80s and mid-90s that Marxy mentioned… There’s no easy, one-stop place to see this data, is there?

  12. Durf Says:

    Adamu: If Johnny were microsoft he would be thrown in jail for anti-monopoly violations, and SMAP would be broken up into four solo projects for the good of consumers.

    Good lord, man, how are you defining “good”?!

  13. Star Says:

    Sir, you are too bias for your own good. Think of it this way. Johnny’s is a business conglomerate. They behave like any business will do. They have all the rights to protect their talents in their own home base which is Japan. Unlike SM, Johnny’s makes enough moneY to stay in their own homeland. I respect Tohoshinki but I must say that they will never be as iconic as SMAP. I dont understand why THSK fans want them to be the #1 everywhere. Isn’t it enough that they are very recognized in Korea? Also, there is no evidence of Ohno Satoshi with marijuana. Please be more professional. I admit the other pictures of him with girls but really a famous idol who is still a virgin is hard to believe. If you want, just search of pictures of THSK guys with girls. In addition, 50 years from now, it is more than likely that Johnny Jimusho will remain as iconic as they have ever been with the numerous stars they held in their belt, while Tohoshinki would more than likely not even be remembered. In fairness, they will probably be remembered in Korea.

  14. Rie Says:

    Star, you sound bias.

    The rumour of Music Station’s preference towards Johnny’s artists is widely known (and also a somewhat-accepted truth?), so Tohoshinki should just let it go and find other music shows to promote their singles/albums.

    And do they really need to appear in Music Station that much? I find Hey3x & Music Fair 21 more fun (and specifically more respectable for MF21) compared to MS.

  15. skchai Says:

    During the time between Hikaru Genji and SMAP, there was . . . SMAP. SMAP actually debuted at about the same time as Hikaru Genji and Otokogumi but was ridiculously unpopular, vying at the bottom of the Johnny’s food chain with groups like Cha-Cha (painful, but I must remember them). One of the interesting stories about Johnny’s resurgence in the latter 90s was the fact that they kept SMAP under contract for nearly a decade before that, even though they were doing little to help the bottom line.

    All this sound eerily like Karel Van Wolferen’s 1980s characterization of the Japanese businesses – collusive, price-insensitve relationships between businesses, combined with lifetime employment and seniority pay (at least for Johnny himself) allows for long time horizons leading to ultimate world domination!

  16. Says:

    ただの人間に興味ありません。この中に宇宙人、未来人、異世界人、超能力がいたら、あたしのところに来なさ い。以上。

  17. Drama Recaps: Maou Episode One « Néojyanisme Says:

    […] when he was reported to have had a threesome in a karaoke box (which gossip i had to get from néojaponisme of all places) – seriously, the weed’s not such a shocker, but this is a man whose public […]

  18. Jo____ Says:

    That’s the reason why i keep wondering why Tohoshinki did not appear on Music Station even though they got so many #1s in Oricon Chart!. Thanks for answering my question in your article. Do you mind i link your article in my blog?

  19. happilyinsane13 Says:

    Although I understand why Johnny’s does what it does, I don’t agree with it. It certainly isn’t helping itself, and I must say I’m glad that there are now public broadcast journalism forces that are becoming more willing to go against Johnny’s. Although I don’t think that some of the scandals on Johnny’s members are true, I don’t believe them all to be lies either. I think Tohoshinki deserves a fair chance to promote themselves in Japan. SMAP invited Tohoshinki to SMAPxSMAP, that’s definitely a start. If Johnny’s groups themselves extend a willing and friendly hand to ‘rival artists’, the company might have to listen also.

  20. SortofNeutral Says:

    Tohoshinki are a group of idols from the korean equivalent of JE, SM Ent. you should check out the dirty laundry of SM Ent too. Lee Soo Man isnt an angel send to this earth to save us from johnnys demons. in my opinion japan has it better. JE is an enormous company so even after Johnny Kitagawa’s death, someone else will hand pick the talents. Who knows it might even get better, no more crazily named groups like heysayjump. they remind me of an orphanage.

    if you compare and contrast, you would understand. for one thing in south korea the whole competition between pretty little boys and girls has resulted in breeding the craziest delusional fan girls and boys in the world! almost all the variety, music and award shows are dominated by these idol groups, second tier artists can barely survive in the industry and only really stand out acts from other genres can compete.

    the korean music industry is depreciating due to severe problems with piracy and other reasons and thats why Lee Soo Man is promoting overseas like crazy, SujuM in China..Boa, THSK and The Grace in Japan and trying to hit the american market with Boa as well.

    Tohoshinki is sold in the foreign artist section cos thats what they are, they didnt debut in Japan, they are marketed as the acapella group from korea. They were trying to be like the Gospellers not johnnys but now i think SM is trying to cash in on the new found idol fame.

    Groups like Exile from Avex makes millions more album sales than JE Groups and thats unthinkable in korea, SM makes the most album sales eventhough they mostly produce teen idols and manufactured pop, they dont leave room for any serious competition against their top talents, bribing top tv stations and buying awards are a common fact.

    The Ohno scandal resulted in more sales for Arashi thats cos JE fans have learned to accept their weaknesses if it happened in Korea he would probably have been murdered by his own fans. Kimura Takuya is in his late 30’s, married with kids yet he still has hordes of fangirls. thats unthinkable in korea for an all around entertainer. its all about being young, single, pretty or plastic. they say talent come first but what if THSK looked like SMAP instead of their delicate pretty one would give a shit.

    Eventhough THSK got number ones thats cos Avex carefully chose a date to release with no real competition but thats goin to change soon since JE shows are inviting THSK and they are goin against Kat-tun’s Rescue in march.

    if anyone should compete with JE, it should be japanese male pop group acts. and it is a fact that the reason why JE artists and Pony Canyon artists didnt appear together on the same shows was due to the chairman making a statement that he didnt want his acts to be on the same stage as JE groups and a fued ensued.

    Pony Canyon acts still achieved immense success without music station and THSK did perform in music station once with koda kumi in 2007, the year they started their number 1 streak. they have also been invited to music fair, music japan, music fighter, utaban, hey3. and now smap’s show and kinki kid’s domoto brothers. Some Johnny’s have not been invited to some of these shows but THSK was.

    i dont think that JE is threatened by korean idol groups, they rule cos they produce all rounders in acting, modeling, singing, dancing and variety. shounen club is where it all begins, its a pretty boy battle ground for survival at such a young age, gaining fans from that point before debut.

    THSK will not be able to survive in the industry for decades like SMAP since in less than a decade they would have to join the army and put a stop to their activities, acting careers of members are also unlikely in the future and i doubt they would get their own show in even korea, super junior and snsd were raised to cover the variety area afterall. dbsk’s successor shinee im also doubting due to lack of star power but who knows.

    Its a ruthless business and shit is always gonna happen no matter who’s on top. I dont think getting rid of JE is going to reflect positively on the japanese music industry. they are not all untalented, theres some good stuff there too and i guess thats why im supporting them now eventhough i initially didnt get it at all.