There is a standard protocol for Japanese record labels when their artists are arrested on drug charges or for any other anti-social acts: they pull all of the artists’ CDs from stores. When Makihara Noriyuki was arrested for amphetamines in 1999, Sony dutifully removed the singer’s records from record stops. This kneejerk reaction even applies ex post facto: when guitarist Suzuki Shigeru of ’60s hippie band Happy End was arrested for marijuana in February of this year, all the classic Happy End records — perhaps the most canonic recordings of Japanese pop music history — became unavailable through major commercial channels.
The idea is not just that these recordings are “tainted” by a drug using artist, but that companies must self-censor their catalogs to make sure that the offender does not profit during the criminal proceedings. But this behavior also conforms to a Japanese cultural principle: 「臭いものにふたをしろ」”Put a lid on things that smell.” In other words, companies want bury anything controversial as soon as possible. By removing the CDs, record labels feel like they are quietly erasing any legacy of the criminal artist’s existence.
So when Sakai Noriko was arrested for amphetamines in August, her record label Victor Entertainment — as is the convention — took all of her albums out of distribution. And in this digital age, Victor also had to remove all her songs from iTunes. But here’s where the label messed up: they forgot to remove Sakai songs that showed up on compilation albums.
Horror! There were free-floating Nori-P songs out there on iTunes. Surely the Japanese people — who we are told again and again have a low moral tolerance for drug use — rose up in outrage against Victor, Apple, and Sakai for the oversight. Or maybe in more predictable Japanese style, everyone just ignored these offending tracks.
Actually, that’s not what happened at all: Sakai’s 1995 hit “Blue Rabbit” (「青いウサギ」) was the number one song on iTunes for the week.
If anything, this proves the old adage that “all publicity is good publicity.” Surely the arrest made a lot of casual fans think about Sakai for the first time in years. They thought, “You know what I want to hear? ‘Blue Rabbit.’” So they went to iTunes and bought it. There was likely nothing particularly complicated about their motivations.
The high sales for “Aoi Usagi” was big egg on the face of Victor, but on the bright side, this slip-up let us test the idea that Japanese companies and Japanese people share the same morality. Before now, record labels could successfully remove records from distribution, therefore consumers had no way of showing any kind of countervailing reaction against the self-flagellation. Now with iTunes, we see that Japanese consumers’ primary reaction to seeing a disgraced starlet arrested for drugs… is to buy her work. This is not an affirmation of drug use, but it surely is not a hyperventilating rejection of it either.
Record label self-censoring therefore is an elitist act. Consumers should be able to make their own moral choice about whether they want to support or reject Sakai Noriko through purchase of her work. Until now, record labels have prevented this choice and imposed their own perceptions of a monolithic conservative morality upon the market. The case of “Blue Rabbit” shows that pulling records from stores is not in accordance with “Japanese morality” but only the industry’s own guidelines.
When looking at consumer phenomenon in Japan, trends and booms correspond so directly with huge marketing campaigns that it is often hard to separate out natural consumer interest when so many want to consume “whatever is popular.” And that’s why this iTunes “mistake” was crucial: the media and record labels for once were telling consumers not to buy and they did anyway. Perhaps the so celebrated Japanese “singularity of experience” is imposed by the market and the authorities rather than an actual expression of society.