Visual-Kei Expose

visualkei

Tokyo Damage Report: Interview with an ex-Visual Kei record executive

A lot of mysteries with this interview — is there really a Satoh-san? why does he speak such colloquial English? why is he giving away all of the industry’s secrets? — but I would like to assume the information is being presented in good faith. This is a must-read article, in any case. We at least learn the kinds of things we should be looking for in order to verify the industry portrait contained within.

There are a few points that match up the Visual-kei “con” well with patterns of the larger Japanese music industry that we know exist:

• Total management company control of artists. In both Visual-kei and idol worlds, the companies hire talent as salaried employees and determine every part of the total package. While this is seen with manufactured pop stars in other countries, it is disappointing to learn that even the crazy indie rock bands in Japan are basically cookie cutter. This also proves again that the business model is forcing super fans to buy the music as one more character good rather than creating “good” songs that appeal to a wider audience. In other words, companies abuse the culturally Japanese praxis of demonstrating loyalty: consumption. The system does not just de-emphasize musical talent, but also de-emphasizes good songwriting and production. No one needs to even try.

• The entertainment industry is a massive tax-evasion scheme. With the arrests of Rising (now Vision Factory) CEO Tetsuo Taira and Avant-Garde CEO Makino on tax evasion charges in the last decade, it is clear that the entertainment business allows for — and according to Taira’s court statements, requires — massive tax evasion. Satoh-san in the interview states in concrete terms how the practice works, with padding receipts between companies as a way to launder money. A few famous indie fashion brands got in trouble for something very similar back in 2005, so this not just the music industry. Since most of this is happening on the jimusho side, major labels from giant companies (Sony and Toshiba, etc.) may not be directly participating in this. But it would be a big surprise if they did not know it was happening. The other big question is why the Japanese government allows this to continue, thus robbing itself of huge tax revenue.

• The false appearance of corporate diversity. By changing the name of labels and management companies, the Visual-kei market appears to fans as if it has healthy competition. In reality, one company basically funds the entire operation. This is also how the alleged Burning “Keiretsu” is purported to work, although with no actual above-the-board evidence, we have to trust industry insider accounts. A scan of the Oricon pages will show hundreds of little management companies, but in reality, they are all organized into larger groups led by a central management company. The only way to prove the links is to look at publishing and corporate records, but most of the super secret connections exist in a plane totally unaffected by official documentation.

• Industry practices as “secret knowledge.” The most disappointing thing about this Visual-kei interview or any insider entertainment industry gossip is that it must remain in the gray zone of knowledge. There is often circumstantial evidence that supports the ideas — for example, Suzuki Ami did disappear suddenly after a “successful” legal battle with her management company — but we never have the mass media or government giving us concrete proof that something illegal or unethical is afoot. The closest we get is the arrest of jimusho managers as the police cannot hide the arrest. But the mass media, greatly dependent upon talent for profit, would not dare expose the entire industry. Those arrested are just “bad apples.” How the Japanese entertainment industry works is full of rules and regulations that can never be made public. So we are stuck having to read suspicious accounts in third-rate publications that often do not mention full names in order to protect themselves from libel. Wikipedia Japan refuses to consider this information in its articles. The truth is essentially cast out to media limbo, while the tatemae facade remains the most legitimate narrative of how Japan works.

W. David MARX
March 4, 2010

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

25 Responses

  1. SNOW Magazine » Visual-Kei Expose Says:

    [...] Continue reading this article at Néojaponisme. [...]

  2. Claire Says:

    Hard to tell if you are joking… but I think he speaks colloquial English because the translator wrote it that way and the original interview was conducted in Japanese. Just sayin’

  3. W. David MARX Says:

    Sure. I think my point is that I often read English translations of Japanese where it is impossible to tell what the original could have even been.

  4. Peter Says:

    “The system does not just de-emphasize musical talent, but also de-emphasizes good songwriting and production. No one needs to even try.”

    Well said.

    Maybe the real story will come out when some of the aging insiders realize that publishing a bakuro story could be fairly lucrative. The first one will come, and the rest will follow suit.

    Or then again, maybe not.

  5. Adamu Says:

    Sometimes, complaining about stuff like this feels a little silly. Does it make sense to worry that circus clowns aren’t necessarily selected for their talent? Or that middle aged women choose to spend money on overpriced photobooks and DVDs? There will always be suckers in the world.

    We all benefit in some way from living out our escapist fantasies through the media, so I hesitate to blame artists for basically doing their job.

    Where it becomes a problem is when this small elite controls so much of what’s become an ingrained part of our daily lives (if you watched the Olympics on NHK, then you were an unwitting victim of the Visual Kei movement every time that shitty L’Arc en Ciel song came on). And on top of that their business practices are atrocious and serve to undermine quality.

    The big failure here is the government’s refusal to take on the mob-like music companies and get them to pay their taxes, stop blocking competition, and compensate artists more fairly.

    “Maybe the real story will come out”

    Although the advent of the mass media is somewhat new, the performing arts have always been a dirty business. In that sense, I don’t think there will ever be a “solution” to this problem in the form of one amazing tell-all book. The best we can do is try and appeal to progressive principles and take steps to open up competition. For decades, no one in power has been very interested in taking on media business practices, to the point that plainly unethical behavior (pay-to-play, staged documentaries) is simply accepted as the norm.

    Now with a new government in place that actually does seem to care about reforming media regulations in ways that aren’t 100% friendly to the big players, the mucky-mucks are so entrenched that even incremental change is a painful slog, press club reform being just one example.

  6. TigerAli Says:

    Two thoughts:
    First, there seems to be a lot of English in-jokes (and nerdy ones at that) in this article. I wonder if that means its fake or he added them in when translating because I can’t see a lot of those being in there (then again, you never know with Aspie J-Pop Fans).

    Second, “Please God, if you exist, don’t let Art-school be in on this.”

  7. Dave Says:

    This interview answers a lot of question but not all unfortunately. I mean how bout the big stars like Utada Hikaru and Ayumi Hamasaki ? Are they too under somebody thumbs or are they too big for the companese to control?

  8. Chuckles Says:

    I am laughing my ass off at that interview.

  9. M-Bone Says:

    “Does it make sense to worry that circus clowns aren’t necessarily selected for their talent?”

    Great point.

    The lack of great novels or serous film making freezes us in stupefying pop culture patterns and takes away a chance to think about life, society, and politics. I think that “Perfume” are clearly better than AKB48, but what does that even mean?

    What did the alternative rock turn in the US in the 90s really leave my generation with anyway? A few more needle marks and a loathing of boy bands?

  10. W. David MARX Says:

    What did the alternative rock turn in the US in the 90s really leave my generation with anyway?

    Other than great music? Same thing could be said about Shibuya-kei, Japan’s example of the alternative revolution. The music was good, it spurred a lot of creativity in the normal pop culture markets, turned people on to a lot of good foreign artists. It also showed that it doesn’t have to be as bad as normal J-Pop is.

    Perfume IS better than AKB48 because the idea is to make good songs that people will like — not just to sell off the girls like a hostess club. If the J-Pop world only depends on super fans, the market will not collect casual listeners, and I would argue, that’s exactly why the market has completely collapsed.

  11. Peter Says:

    “We all benefit in some way from living out our escapist fantasies through the media, so I hesitate to blame artists for basically doing their job.”

    I totally disagree with this statement.

    And saying Perfume is better than AKB48 is like saying Freshness Burger is better than Yoshinoya.

  12. Adamu Says:

    I guess my question is whether people actually want or deserve better – after 20 years of SMAP dominance, maybe it’s time to start questioning people’s sanity. My inclination is we are all better off with a higher quality popular culture. But sometimes I get discouraged, is all.

  13. W. David MARX Says:

    The issue with pop culture in Japan is that sometimes its more about the “social value” — the ability to share the product with others as a communal experience — than it is about the actual content. The market surely pressures consumers to treat it in that way. So if that’s the only function of culture, then yes, it doesn’t matter what it sounds like. But Japan wants to be a pop cultural power, and that means making content not just the shell.

  14. M-Bone Says:

    “Other than great music?”

    My doubts are more about what great non narrative popular culture actually does for people. There are some examples (music increasing the visibility of African Americans and thus civil rights awareness). But I’ve also had friends who listened to nothing but Radiohead and NIN drink themselves into an anti-social stupor.

    “But Japan wants to be a pop cultural power”

    It depends on whether they want money or want “soft power”. In a future where consistently selling any content is in doubt, Japan can still export a take on the “social value” that you mentioned. We’ve seen this with the export of the social (and anti-social) aspects of anime culture, inter-media marketing of things like Pokemon, etc. which is winning Japan some wide-eyed “fans” or at least people who think “China” = scary, “Japan” = funky. Japanese music seems less well poised to do this because the language barrier will more or less keep it as a niche of a niche in North America.

    It seems, however, if the AKB48 formula is going to be exported and that US anime fans will also be falling over themselves to see the Japanese group at Anime Expo which has more than 60,000 attendees. Does Shiina Ringo have much “export potential”?

  15. karakuri Says:

    Fascinating stuff. I’ve always wondered what lay below the slick surface of vis-kei. Don’t know if I can call die-hard fans victims, though, if they know what they’re buying into and enjoying the fantasy.

  16. Jared Says:

    Interesting discussion.

    Distribution models can’t be copyrighted, so it’s pretty hard to monetize (or get much soft power from) the “communal experience” aspect of pop culture if it’s not tied to meaningful content. Otherwise people will just steal that packaging and sell their own content. Archie Comics is now available in manga form. http://www.comicbookbin.com/archiecomics001.html

    I think the problem is that content that appeals to domestic audiences doesn’t always translate to export. I don’t necessarily mean lyrical content, but cultural meaning. It’s hard to tell from here in the States, but it seems to me that Akiba-kei might appeal to Japanese people looking for escapist reassurance that the technological foundations of their economy are still strong, while a better candidate for export to post-financial-crisis America (or Asia?) might be something that deals more honestly with the Lost Decade, like Nobody Knows or something.

    Or another way of saying this: the stuff that tends to translate well usually comments on the socio-economic conditions in some way. Kurosawa as allegory for reconciling Japanese culture with democracy, Shibuya-kei as creation of meaning in affluent, international bubble economy, etc.

  17. M-Bone Says:

    “(or get much soft power from) the “communal experience” aspect of pop culture if it’s not tied to meaningful content.”

    I’m going to disagree here.

    Here is an example – kids who don’t pay for any anime but download lots of it and cosplay go to university and do a first year Japanese history course. The butts in seats rule leads to the university hiring an extra Japan scholar. This may not seem like much, but there are countries (Korea, Taiwan) that are big into trying to increase their position in foreign universities and pour big bucks into what Japan gets for free with “soft power”.

    I’m not of the school that says soft power = major international relations advantage. But being a bit more “liked” can’t be a bad thing. This is especially important, I think, when it comes to China and Korea. Having young people in those countries hooked on Japanese cultural products, paid for or not, could causes a generational shift in attitudes.

  18. Jared Says:

    Well yes, I think we agree. I wasn’t trying to suggest anime had no meaningful content. Robotech is probably as important for Japan’s soft power as Kurosawa, but my argument is that this is because they can both be watched as comments on Japan’s global role.

    To bring it back to the original point about the visual-kei business model, and the government’s regulatory role: I think the difficult transition to a post-LDP and post-Keynsian order, where China replaces America as regional hegemon, will also require a complementary shift in pop culture (both style and content) in order to reflect and explain these new politics. The situation is obviously in flux at the moment. Visual-kei, like the Harajuku myth, is clearly a manufactured rebellion that has the effect of postponing these shifts. (Not to get all Frankfurt School on you; clearly not ALL mass culture falls under the category of repressive tolerance.)

  19. M-Bone Says:

    I think that Japan has three types of products that can export well – narratives that emphasize Japaneseness (Kurosawa), data-base works that can be cleansed of Japanese elements as mass consumption products but still have the potential to be used as Japan fetishes by fans (Pokemon), and niche works of various types (Murakami Haruki in high art pomo lit circles, Miike Takashi for “underground” film, etc.) that hit that long tail.

    There are also the exciting (but thus far of questionable quality) collaborations – the Batman, Matrix, Dante’s Inferno omnibus videos, Afro Samurai, etc. So the big break for Japanese pop culture may actually be to stop being identified with the nation state / site of creation.

    “but my argument is that this is because they can both be watched as comments on Japan’s global role.”

    How far do we want to take this, though? Pokemon has been read as a throwback to the bug collecting that was common when Japan was straddling nostalgia modernism and mass consumerism. I think that it is pretty much possible to read ANY recent pop culture project as nation in the global allegories.

    “to reflect and explain these new politics.”

    What if atomization is the reflection? The shift could be in nobody taking national projects seriously anymore. That certainly seems like what Moe and “One Room Disco” are about. Neither entirely without a sense of humor in the face of decline, either. Well, there is also “Kanikosen” as well. Or does that still even count?

  20. W. David MARX Says:

    I am guilty of this as well, but it seems like we always defend or criticize cultural practice in terms of function. In other words, culture has to help the Japanese nation in some kind of concrete way.

    Arguing from the more abstract embrace of culture as a creative or intellectual exercise, most J-Pop and Visual-kei fails in that it’s created only as a commercial vessel. This is non-culture basically clogging up the channels where real culture would be able to thrive and spread.

  21. Jared Says:

    M-Bone: “I think that it is pretty much possible to read ANY recent pop culture project as nation in the global allegories.”

    Well yeah, that’s the fun part! Why shouldn’t I read Japanese pop culture as being a reflection of Japanese political and economic concerns? Call that paleo-Marxisme if you want, but it still has a lot of explanatory power.

    Marxy: “This is non-culture basically clogging up the channels where real culture would be able to thrive and spread.”

    Maybe, but then again maybe talent will out. And anyway there’s often more interesting things to be said about commercial culture than “real culture,” whatever that is.

  22. Mulboyne Says:

    “The entertainment industry is a massive tax-evasion scheme”

    I wouldn’t get hung up on this because you’ll find the same practices in dozens of other industries such as real estate, finance, wholesaling, temp agencies, travel agencies etc. There are a couple of reasons why you see news coverage of talent agencies getting busted by the tax authorities. Firstly, their “products” are in the public eye so there’s a point of reference for the audience. Secondly, the media will often cover criminal cases involving the media which is why the Yomiuri will always have a story when a Mainichi newspaper distributor is arrested for a minor offence and vice versa.

  23. M-Bone Says:

    “In other words, culture has to help the Japanese nation in some kind of concrete way.”

    Not necessarily the nation (I’m always on about individual subjectivity).

    “embrace of culture as a creative or intellectual exercise”

    That’s what I like, but the contexts that create that sort of thing are usually deeply tied up with moneyed (if not commercial) spaces. That’s why Adorno called the cops on the students in 68, right? And undergrads reading “Benjamin on Hashish” in Starbucks… So in my mind it is a matter of degree, not a matter of absolutes.

    I’m still a bit hesitant about our ability to talk about non-narrative culture in these terms. I can honestly say that I feel watching “The Wire” will entertain the XXXX out of you and if it doesn’t change your mind, will at least present a space in your life for considering some new and important things. But the “good” music?

    AKB48 might be stupification tied up with a bow, but much great music, avante grade art, etc. gets appropriated on the consumer level as a type of stupification anyway. Much great music, for example, has served as an invite for the worst types of consumerist bric a brac obsession and as I mentioned above, is a ticket into boozing and/or drugs if that is the “scene” around the music or the image being sold (which can’t I think, be divorced from the art if we are talking about holistic products).

    With consumer-level appropriation being so important and having such potential to disarm “quality” culture and turn it into a t-shirt, can we really say that AKB48 are any more or less “good” as culture? We’ve had enough fun appropriating them for our various thought experiments. They seem to fit well with Otsuka’s “monogatari shohi” idea in that they can be used as a small story generating machine. They are being used by the usual suspects of the otaku-crit world (who move tens of thousands of copies of new books) to talk about different brands of pomo culture, etc. So if they are grist for a “good culture” mill that I like, I end up pretty ambivalent toward them while I also end up ambivalent toward Radiohead because I’ve seen them appropriated in opposite ways.

    “Why shouldn’t I read Japanese pop culture as being a reflection of Japanese political and economic concerns?”

    No reason why you shouldn’t. I enjoy doing it myself.

    But when you said above – “the stuff that tends to translate well usually comments on the socio-economic conditions in some way.” – if you can take everything as commenting on socio-economic conditions, isn’t that just like saying everything translates well?

  24. Daniel Says:

    “data-base works that can be cleansed of Japanese elements as mass consumption products but still have the potential to be used as Japan fetishes by fans (Pokemon)”

    Apologies for the double comment. Just wanted to say I thought that was a really interesting way to describe Pokemon and similar games.

  25. Chuckles Says:

    [...But Japan wants to be a pop cultural power, and that means making content not just the shell...]

    Isnt the reverse precisely the case?

    Content would be restrictive, structurally and functionally – it would hamper the very memetic quality that would allow for Japanese cultural prowess by making it impossible for endusers to appropriate (due mostly to fears of appropriation, imitation, etc).

    Content is not how the pop cultural powers of today gained their high estate. Anime itself is testament to a highly successful shell product (Disneyian) animation finding success in a totally remote context (Japan) because of shell export and local content.

    People want to make movies like Hollywood, because Hollywood has been successful in exporting genres.

    Furthermore, the entire literary structure of the modern world is so occidental precisely because modes and styles of writing have been exported, as opposed to content – Gravity’s Rainbow’s emphasis is on the style, the entire structure of hysterical realism is on the style, pomo is stylisitic, as is magical realism, the epic poem, and various tidbits here and there. The American talk show / Oprah / Donahue / O’Reilly is shell, format, and it has been successfully exported, as has any number of shell/format based Sesame street type shows.

    The point is that exporting shell allows for foreigners to create local content and assume a semblance of originality – no anxiety of influence here. This is soft power at its best and and allows for the pop cultural power that you are talking about. cf. Boondocks, another highly successful shell import (into America).

    Point is that that statement seems to be true only in its reverse.