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.