How to License Japanese Images

Licensing images in Japan

W. David Marx shares lessons from the front lines of licensing 100 images from various Japanese individuals and institutions for his upcoming book on Japanese fashion.

Disclaimer: Very sadly, we are not lawyers, so always consult with your publisher’s legal team or other counsel when making final decisions on image usage. The following article is merely intended to provide general thoughts and guidelines.

Writing about fashion requires visuals, so for my book Ametora: How Japan Saved American Fashion (Basic Books, Fall 2015!), my publisher and I planned on having around 60 images. I ended up finding more than 100 suitable ones, and we ended up using more than 80.

While the publisher helped foot the bill for the image rights, I was responsible for arranging the licensing. In other words, I had to go out and do the legwork to secure the rights for every single one. This took about five months of emails, phone calls, and faxes, but to my surprise, most everyone was happy to grant me rights. In fact, the only explicit “no” came from a famed Japanese electronics company who hilariously did not want me using a 40 year-old advertisement for a boombox because they could not clear the “portraiture rights” of the models whose faces you could not even see anyway.

Seeing that Néojaponisme readers are the type of people likely to write books that require licensing images in Japan, I thought I would pass on everything I learned in the last six months.

Prerequisites for Image Licensing in Japan

First, you need proof that you’re working on a legitimate production — i.e., the name of a publisher, date of publication, title of work, etc.

Second, make yourself a basic template in Japanese that explains what you are working on, so that you can just cut and paste your requests. Even if you do not need it for the initial email, they will ask for it, so just have it ready to go. My form had: book title, paragraph about book’s theme (with heavy name dropping on whom I interviewed), book format, number of Images, publication date, blurb about the publisher, and blurb about me.

Third, you need to prepare yourself (or a trusted associate) to do a lot of phone calls in Japanese — including cold calls to random individuals.

Images Sources

1. Photo Agencies

The easiest place to license photographs in Japan is the newspapers and wire services (prices below are for black-and-white photos, color are often more than ¥20,000.)

Yomiuri is the most expensive, but oddly, seems to have the fewest number of photos. Asahi and Mainichi are particularly easy to sign up for.

There are also a few high-end photo agencies you can use. Aflo has a lot of great images that you will not see elsewhere, as they also manage individual collections of a lot of famous photographers.

Getty is not Japan-focused, but can be useful for finding photos of Japanese celebrities when abroad.

There is an application process for licensing photos on these sites, but it is nearly automatic for any legitimate publication. Once they approved, they just send the image download links over email. Based on price and ease, any image search should start with these agencies.

2. Individual Photographers

For all other images, you will need to reach out to the photographer who took the photos. This includes photos inside magazines — the photographer, rather than the publisher, owns the copyright. The photographer maintains copyright for 50 years after death, so even if they are deceased, you will need to reach out to the family to get rights.

Fees on old photos are highly variable. Sometimes I was not charged for using the old photos, one time I paid ¥30,000, the most of any photo I licensed.

Finding widows and children seems difficult except that there is an organization called the Japan Professional Photographers Society who are happy to pass on contact information for a photographer or next-of-kin. Yes, it will be an awkward call when you ask the son of a deceased photographer to ask to find negatives from fifty years ago, but there really is no other way to do it. Expect to do some faxing too. Also note that some famous photographers are not part of the Society.

For personal or family photographs, most people do not charge but you do need to secure permissions.

3. Illustrations

Illustrations work the same way as photographs — illustrators retain rights to their images used in magazines. There is an illustrators’ society called the Japan Illustrators’ Association, but I did not use them. To find one illustrator, I had to contact a tailor he did work for many years ago, beg for a phone number, and then have the conversation with the illustrator’s wife that started as, “So in 1989 your husband did a piece in Hot Dog Press…”

Also, there are no standard prices for illustrations, so you have to negotiate. For most of the ones in my book, the illustration itself was an important historical marker of style (rather than eye candy), so the illustrators gave me lower prices.

4. Magazine Covers

Most publishers will let you use these for free but you need permission. One publisher I dealt with normally charges for use of covers in Japanese media but gave me a pass because I was referencing it in a semi-academic work.

5. Magazine pages

Reprinting magazine pages is a gray area that depends on the publisher. Copyright on magazine pages is not cut-and-dry, and as far as I could deduce, publishers are very unlikely to actually own copyright on all the content in the pages. Each person responsible — the writer, the illustrator, the photographer, the advertiser — owns their own copyrights for the material.

So it comes down to case-by-case usage: One publisher told me that I could basically use anything as long as I referenced it as a “visual quotation” (i.e. fair use). Another publisher told me that the magazine I was referencing no longer existed and they did not care how I used anything (and then hung up on me.)

One major publisher said the only thing off-limits was when pages use non-Japanese models, as they sometimes have deals that their images are not used outside of Japan.

Managing Risk

Japan is often said to be a “low risk” society, and this mindset sometimes becomes a barrier to licensing images. Many rights holders or parties involved may simply reject a licensing request because there is some risk — albeit extremely low — of a future lawsuit. Here are a few additional things that you will have to think about but will come down to managing risk.

Portraiture Rights
The primary uncertainty when licensing photos in Japan is so-called “portraiture rights” (肖像権, shōzōken). From my limited legal understanding, this is not a right explicitly guaranteed by Japanese law, but people over the years have been able to sue under basic constitutional personal rights protections when they can prove damage from someone publishing an image of them without consent.

Celebrities are the most likely to sue over portraiture rights because they can claim that the publication is using their likeness to promote the book or otherwise damage their reputation. Normal people, however, can and have sued before. The most obvious case would be a photographer taking an unauthorized street snap of a young man in a terrible outfit which goes online to have commenters savage his outfit and identify his name. But what about someone whose photo was taken fifty years ago for a fashion magazine and listed as a particularly stylish person?

Knowing that there is always some risk of a lawsuit, rights agencies license you a photo and then tell you that it is your responsibility to “clear” the portraiture rights for anyone in the photo. But just imagine for a second what this task entails when the photo is twelve young men from 1964 in a shot of Ginza.

It bears repeating that I am not a lawyer, but there are some commonsense ways to lower potential risk: (1) not use images of people in a way that denigrates them or could seem damaging (2) do not use images of celebrities on the cover without permission (3) make sure the text references the images so that you can show there was a “fair use” context for using the image. Fair use does not exist in Japanese law, but it will still help your case if you are able to show that the image was critical for illustrating the narrative rather than just “eye candy.”

There are different laws on portraiture rights depending on which country you publish, so always consult with your publisher’s legal team before making any decision.

Also note that in one case I did not need to pay a licensing fee to a photographer for the use of a photo, but I did have to pay a small fee for “portraiture rights” to the estate of the person in the photo.

Orphan Works
If you are writing a history and want to show images illustrating historical moments, you will definitely uncover many great images that are essentially “orphan” works. The photographer or illustrator may be unlisted or unreachable; it may be an advertisement from a company that no longer exists.

Using these images opens you up to some level of legal risk, so you have to make a decision weighing the risk involved.

The Japanese government recently has changed the law to ease the licensing burden when all copyright owners cannot be located, but this only extends to certain trusted organizations, which we are guessing, you are not part of. This seems to signal, however, a liberalization of copyright towards orphan works.

Public Domain
Any photo or illustration where the creator passed away more than fifty years ago (that’s now 1965!) is now in the public domain. Have fun.

W. David MARX
July 22, 2015

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

Dad music for the Japanese summer

Dad Music

Matt Treyvaud lists out the hot summer jamz — Father Edition — for 2015.

Let’s be real. It takes a very careful series of life choices to keep attending all-night dub improv happenings in Shimokitazawa forever. For most of us, the appeal of settling down eventually wins out, and for a smaller but still substantial proportion of us, children follow. Parenthood entails many responsibilities, but here we address one of the gauntlets thrown at the feet of men in particular: dad music. (Mom music will be covered in a later post, if we can find someone to write it.)

Listening to dad music is one of the hallmarks of being a dad. But what is dad music in 2015? The traditional record collection-based definition makes no sense in a world where everyone has access to all music at all times. Yes — dad music, too, requires curation. Here, then, is our offering as the Japanese summer closes in.

Beating the heat

High humidity calls for spare music. You can’t be expected to endure a whole bunch of jangling and drumming and harmonizing when even your own clothes feel like wet towels against your skin. Oshima Yasukatsu‘s Bagashima nu uta – Song of My Islands, an album of traditional songs from Yaeyama, is what you need. The first full minute is just Oshima singing. Then he starts plucking languidly on his sanshin as well. That’s it. That’s as thick as the texture on this album gets. This is music that passes through the room like a gentle breeze, leaving no possibility of mold behind.

(Those seeking something a little more dad might consider Oshima’s Shimameguri – Island Journey, which features guest appearances from members of Kiroro and Altan.)

A touch of class

You can’t neglect the jazz side of things. How is your kid going to grow up to be a saxophone player living in a garret in New York if you don’t expose them to the music before they know any better? On the other hand, you’re a dad, and you’re worried that too much jazz will eat into your prog time. Solution: Fukamachi Jun‘s Haru no yo no yume (“A dream on a spring night based on the Tale of the Heike”). Okay, the season isn’t quite right — but just listen to Rakujitsu no shō (“The sinking Heike”). That is a summer synthesizer by any definition.

(Note: This album is also approved by Planet Mellotron.)

Rocking out

The kids are out catching tadpoles. Your wife is at an antique fair. Now is the time to open the window and let the neighborhood know that you remember how to rock. (But considerately.)

You have many options for this one. Most of the Taj Mahal Travelers’ oeuvre, for example, is available at bargain prices from Amazon Japan’s digital music store. They take a while to get going, though. Your family might come home at any moment and demand that you turn it down. For a quicker fix, why not dig out that battered old disc from the back of the 9×9 CD wallet you bought in college – Ghost’s Lama Rabi Rabi?

Did you know it’s been almost twenty years since that album was released?

Hold that feeling. Your kids are at the door.

Matt TREYVAUD
July 14, 2015

Matt Treyvaud is a writer and translator living near Kamakura. He is Néojaponisme's Literature/Language editor and the proprietor of No-sword.

Kickstarter Campaign for Parting It Out by Ian Lynam

Kickstarter campaign for Ian Lynam's new book Parting It Out

Néojaponisme co-founder Ian Lynam launches a Kickstarter campaign for his new book.

Our intrepid co-founder Ian Lynam has been hard at work on a collection of essays about graphic design and culture for the past few years, and the project is just about to come to fruition. He has launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the book, titled Parting It Out, which you can view here.

It’s going to be a very Néojaponisme-esque book – our very own W. David Marx has written the introduction essay and there are a number of essays which prominently talk about Japanese graphic design past and present – some previously published here and some new.

If you look in the Updates for the project, you’ll also find the foreword for the book, as well as a link to a previously unpublished 110-page zine with an essay by Ian along with hundreds of photos of vernacular signage in Fukuoka.

There are a few other surprises, as well — the video for the campaign features a previously unreleased song from Evan of Ratatat, and the book features collaborations with design critics Randy Nakamura and Chris Ro.

Please feel free to share this Kickstarter campaign with your friends and colleagues, and if you’re feeling generous, we invite you to help back the project.

Team NÉOJAPONISME
February 10, 2015

Team Néojaponisme are a-okay. Thanks for asking.

Public Domain Day 2015

Japanese Public Domain Day

Matt Treyvaud looks at the latest works of Japanese literature to hit the public domain, including a guide to rakugo argot.

Every year Japan puts older creative works into the public domain — something that no longer happens in the United States. For works of literature, the tireless website Aozora Bunko celebrates Public Domain Day each year on January 1 by presenting a neat list of newly free works. (Note, however, that these works may not be considered public domain in other jurisdictions, including the U.S., because Japanese copyright — “life + 50 years” — is on the short side by international standards.)

This year, Aozora Bunko released works by ten different authors. One noteworthy example: critic and free verse poet Miyoshi Tatsuji‘s groundbreaking Surveying Ship (“It is twilight/ O mother, push my pram/ Towards the tear-damp evening sun/ Push my creaking pram”). Another: feminist historian and activist Takamure Itsue‘s “From the Standpoint of Research into Women’s History” (“Women’s history is a completely new field for development, and if this research is continued, it is only natural that many fallacious aspects of the hitherto prevailing views of history should be corrected”).

Okay, one more: rakugo artist San’yūtei Kinba III‘s “Argot Etymology.” Most of this essay is about the argot used by the author and his contemporaries in the entertainment industry (so, mainly the senbo tradition deriving from Osakan puppeteers of the Edo period) but there are some interesting comments about his era’s shopgirl slang too. Towards the end, for example, he lists some senbo number words:

  • 1 = hei, the Sino-Japanese pronunciation of 平, meaning “flat, level”
  • 2 = biki, from the Japanese crest known as maru ni futatsu-biki, “circle with two [lines] drawn [through it]”
  • 3 = yama, because the character 山 (yama, “mountain”) has three points on top
  • 4 = Sasaki, after the quartered-square crest of Sasaki Takatsuna, visible on a flag here
  • 5 = katako, because if you’re counting things on your fingers, you can count to five (go-ko) on one hand (kata-te)
  • 6 = Sanada, after the sixfold crest of the Sanada clan
  • 7 = Tanuma, after Tanuma Okitsugu‘s “seven celestial bodies” (七曜) crest
  • 8 = yawata, a native Japanese pronunciation of 八幡 “Hachiman
  • 9 = kiwa, because it’s on the edge (kiwa) of ten

All these can also be found in Umegaki Minoru’s 1956 Argot Dictionary 隠語辞典, albeit with different etymologies in some cases. For example, observing that katako and biki show up as kata-kobushi (“one fist”) and maebiki (“front-puller”) in other traditions, Umegaki proposes those as the direct sources for those two. Mind you, he is unsure what “front-puller” is supposed to mean (“Because carriages were pulled by two men?” he asks forlornly).

Anyway, should you ever need to talk business with a rakugo artist without the other punters catching on, now you can. Happy Public Domain Day!

Matt TREYVAUD
January 6, 2015

Matt Treyvaud is a writer and translator living near Kamakura. He is Néojaponisme's Literature/Language editor and the proprietor of No-sword.

The Year 2014 in Japan

2014: Plurality Power / W. David MARX
Japan — a country that once prided itself on a “new middle mass” of “100 million middle class” — now finds its direction from passionate minority factions rather than a set of shared mainstream values. In 2014, there is no mass majority in Japan, only powerful pluralities.

The LDP won the election after no one turned out other than their solid bloc of older voters. The right-wing maintained its ruling coalition thanks to the gains of another powerful minority — Kōmeitō, a political party that mobilizes the devoted believers of its affiliated religious group. On the other side of the aisle, the minority Communists grew their numbers — enough to introduce bills to the Diet floor.

In pop culture, there were a few relics of the mass culture era — Frozen and Yokai Watch — but these shared experiences were mostly limited to children. Adults only came together to share downers: complaints about higher taxes, debates over the effectiveness of Abenomics, accusations towards imaginary STAP stem cells. (Even the year’s preordained comedy catch-phrase dame yo, dame dame is all about saying “no.”) Otherwise powerful pluralities own the culture. In music, the idol cults continue to dominate the music charts through an aggregation of splintered factions. Even without cable TV, top dramas struggle to pull more than a 10% rating.

So why try to force 2014 into a single story of “national culture”? In the place of any manufactured holistic narrative, here instead are some of the fragments that defined our year.

Abenomics / Noah SMITH
This was a difficult year for Abe Shinzō and his Abenomics program. The economy’s signals are mixed — investment has picked up, but consumption and exports are still anemic. The Bank of Japan continues to buy financial assets at a record pace, the so-called “first arrow” of Abenomics. But with employment at a 15-year low, it’s not clear what else the BOJ can do. Of course, the BOJ is certain to keep purchasing government debt, as this is the only way to maintain Japan’s interest rates at a level low enough for the still-rising government debt to be sustainable. But monetary policy’s effectiveness in terms of boosting the economy is probably near its limit.

Meanwhile, the “second arrow” — fiscal stimulus — is long gone, and Abe’s 3% sales tax hike is widely credited with sending the economy into a sudden recession. Abe could conceivably reverse course and choose to engage in a massive fiscal stimulus, funded by printed money, if the BOJ would go along. But this seems unlikely for political reasons, and with the unemployment rate already low, the effect would likely be minor anyway; there just aren’t that many more idle hands left to put to work. At this point, Japan’s best hope for fiscal policy is treading a wise and careful middle path and avoid derailing the fragile recovery that began in 2013.

As for the “third arrow” — structural reforms — Abe has proposed a large number of bold actions but failed to get them passed so far. His hope, and the hope of reformers in general, is that Abe’s political capital from the recent election victory will allow him to make headway on the TPP, labor reform, corporate governance reform, and other difficult, unpopular neo-liberal measures.

Womenomics / Noah SMITH
There is one way, however, in which Abe may already be sparking deep and lasting change. This is the area of gender equality in the workplace — the so-called “Womenomics” program. Westerners have, by and large, been skeptical that a renowned conservative like Abe could be serious about fighting for gender equality. But the idea seems to have permeated the consciousness of Japan’s elite, including bureaucrats, business leaders, the courts, and the media. Even if many of the women-boosting reforms being pushed by Abe fail, a sea change may have occurred in the mindset of Japan, Inc. Already, companies are announcing voluntary quotas for women in management positions, government ministries are creating plans to make bureaucratic jobs more female-friendly, and courts are ruling in favor of victims of “maternity harassment.”

Devin Stewart of the Carnegie Council has been conducting a series of interviews with Japanese female leaders and business leaders. There is a distinct sense that the change in attitude is real and spreading, although of course much more needs to be done. And the legal measures Abe intends to introduce over the following year — changing the tax system to encourage two-income families, ending incentives for long overtime hours, etc. — seem less likely to encounter resistance from vested interests than the other structural reforms he has proposed.

In other words, Womenomics is still in its infancy, but there are signs that it’s for real.

Kanji of the Year / Matt TREYVAUD
The Kanji of the Year for 2014 was — “tax.” Organizers and individual voters struggled to frame the choice as a reaction to a generally taxocentric year of news, but of course it really just won because everyone’s unhappy about the consumption tax rising to 5% to 8%. Reaction online has been muted and surly, suggesting that a lot of people voted for 税 because they thought they should rather than because they actually wanted it to win. It’s certainly a big comedown after the recent string of positive winners like 絆 “bonds” and 金 “gold”; in fact, there hasn’t been such a purely negative Kanji of the Year since 2007’s 偽, “deceit” (which, incidentally, made #9 this year too; 嘘 “lie” was at #3).

Shukatsu Schedule Change / Adamu KUN
For Japanese third-year university students, December is the start of the job-hunting process (shūshoku katsudō or shūkatsu in Japanese). This commences with research on companies and innumerable “information sessions” that count as pre-pre-pre interviews.

This will change with the graduating class of 2016: Companies have agreed not to begin recruiting activities until March of a student’s third year. Corporate members of the Keidanren agreed to these changes under pressure from the Abe administration, which is interested in encouraging study abroad, internships, and other initiatives that would help Japan adapt its economic model to the modern era.

As dry and bureaucratic as that all sounds, the implications are enormous — millions of Japanese college students will now have an extra six months to study, create, and live life without having to go through an overly long job search.

But let’s be clear — these changes (like much of Abenomics) do not represent a fundamental paradigm shift. In other words, measures like this are intended to strengthen the nation-state of Japan. What has not changed is the high-stakes, one-strike-and-you’re-out nature of the hiring system itself. People who for whatever reason miss out or fail to thrive within the system are effectively shut out of the best jobs Japan has to offer. Perfectly talented individuals who just happen not to fit the mold will still be relegated to the employment underclass.

Foreign Tourists Hit New High / Adamu KUN
Back in 2003, the Japanese government set the goal of attracting 10 million tourists per year to Japan by 2010. They did not make that deadline, but finally surpassed their target. In 2013 the number of visitors from overseas suddenly skyrocketed 30% from the previous year to 10.4 million and is likely to reach 13 million in 2014. The streets of Shinjuku are now clogged with (usually confused and lost) tourists.

What explains the turnaround? To be sure it happened well before plans to create better tourism infrastructure really came to fruition. Japan over the past few years has relaxed some existing barriers to visits from neighboring countries, but the weaker yen has probably done at least as much by nudging a trip to Japan into an affordable price range.

Now that the tourists are coming, it’s up to the local community to ensure they’re having positive experiences that they will tell their friends and relatives about. That includes Anglophone foreigners who live here: One of my New Year’s resolutions will be to be more proactive in helping clearly lost groups of tourists when I’m in an area I know well.

The Olympics: The Biggest Issue that Never Was / Nick DONEGAN
In 2013, Tokyo won its long-running Olympic bid on a platform of compact scale, centralized proceedings, increased efficiency, and a small budget. This year budgets ballooned from $1.5 billion to $3 billion while construction companies found themselves faced with another bidding process. The IOC asked Tokyo for a more decentralized affair and the rather-far-away-from-Tokyo prefecture of Fukushima requested a prominent role, but all the Japanese press reported on was the possible resurrection of softball and baseball as well as plans for the entertainment lineup. In 2015, however, the Olympics may become the biggest issue of 2014 that never was.

2014_takakura_sugawara

RIP: Yakuza Film Stars Takakura Ken and Sugawara Bunta / Brett BULL
Actors Takakura Ken and Sugawara Bunta, who died this year, are among those credited with bringing the yakuza film genre to the world. Many will remember Takakura Ken from Black Rain, in which he appeared opposite Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia as assistant inspector Matsumoto (“And I do fucking speak English”). But for years before that 1987 film, Takakura had already become one of Japan’s most prominent actors. He was cast by the likes of director Yamada Yōji (The Yellow Handkerchief) and appeared in a number of hard-boiled flicks by studio Toei in the 1960s (A Fugitive From The Past). His passing in early November narrowly preceded that of Sugawara Bunta, who rose to fame in the 1970s through Toei’s post-war Battles Without Honor And Humanity series. Directed by Kinji Fukasaku, the films and Sugawara’s performances are frequently praised — notably by Quentin Tarantino — for projecting a realistic look at the underworld onto the screen.

2014_obscenity

An Obsession with Obscenity / Brett BULL
Japanese law enforcement repeatedly made headlines with its enforcement of Article 175 of the nation’s Penal Code, which restricts the sale and distribution of obscene materials (usually meaning renderings of non-obscured genitalia). On two occasions, Tokyo police arrested artist Igarashi Megumi (aka Rokudenashiko) for distributing image data of her vagina and publicly displaying a plaster replica of said organ. In Nagoya, police pressure forced an Aichi prefectural museum to cover up private parts in photographs of nude males contained in an exhibition. On the Internet, contributors to the video site FC2 Live came under scrutiny twice for streaming live porn segments without the use of a mosaic.

2014_pink

The End of Pink Japan / Brett BULL
1960s-era adult entertainment is in true decline. The Kantō area lost two more “pink” film theaters (one in Tokyo’s Shimbashi, another in Tochigi), leaving the number of theaters dedicated to the soft-core genre now at only 50 nationwide. Four decades ago, there were more than 1,000 venues. Things started to go downhill since the arrival of home video in the 1980s.

Another blow to anachronistic eroticism was the bankruptcy of legendary Rokku-za strip theater in Asakusa. Founded in 1947, the theater, which utilizes a stay-all-day for one price system, has hosted performances from a number of popular porn stars. News reports indicated that the theater has suffered from a substantial drop in attendance over the past decade. Given that the core demographic for both pastimes is the middle-aged male, Japan’s ageing population does not bode well for the survival of either.

2014_yokai

Yokai vs. Yokai / Matt ALT
2014 may have been the year of the horse, but as far as the media industry was concerned it was the year of the yōkai — Yōkai Watch, to be precise. Often hailed as the “next Pokémon,” the series centers on a young boy who is able to see and harness monsters from Japanese folklore. As of December 2014, Yōkai Watch swept the worlds of video games (with five million copies sold of the latest installment “Yōkai Watch 2”), manga (it won the 38th Kodansha Manga Award), and toys (raking in 10 billion yen in sales while forcing Bandai-Namco president Ishikawa Shuko to convene a press conference to apologize for shortages.) But perhaps none of these victories was as symbolic as that of Yōkai Watch: The Movie. It opened domestically in mid-December and promptly trounced Disney’s Big Hero 6 — the antagonist of which, ironically enough, just happens to be named Yokai.

2014_babymetal

Meet The New Cool Japan, Same As The Old Cool Japan / Patrick ST. MICHEL
It was a good year for Japanese pop acts going viral through checking off all the classic “weird Japan” boxes. Idol-pop-meets-heavy-metal trio Babymetal’s “Gimme Chocolate!” racked up millions of YouTube views, and that momentum helped land shows in North America and Europe. Lady Gaga then invited the group to be the opening act during part of her North American tour, as was the Vocaloid avatar Hatsune Miku. In 2014, that holographic singer also performed on the Late Show With David Letterman, leading to a rush of tweets from confused regular viewers wondering what anime was doing on their TV.

Both achieved the same sort of gawked-at success in the West that many other Japanese media entities have managed in the YouTube age, one where the sheer WTF-ness of something (context be damned) surpasses actual appreciation. And it went the other way, too — Western artists such as Clean Bandit and Pharrell Williams used Japan and Japanese pop culture as backdrops for videos they released this year. As did Canadian singer Avril Lavigne, who found herself in hot water after her Harajuku-centric clip for “Hello Kitty” was accused of cultural appropriation.

2014_e-girls

Idols Actually Aimed At Women / Patrick ST. MICHEL
Up-and-coming idol-pop groups have appropriated nearly every subculture over the last few years. EDM club kids? Yep. Slightly chubby women? You bet. Steampunk? Sure, why not. Yet one of the year’s best selling outfits succeeded with a far more obvious theme — marketing to actual women instead of men. E-Girls, a 27-member-strong supergroup, signed to Avex, technically serving as the all-woman version of EXILE (hence the “E”). The group was a constant name on both the Oricon Charts and various digital rankings, and of course, an advertising staple.

Taking cues from the more mature-leaning groups in Korea, E-Girls presented an image and music that tried to relate to actual women rather than offer up an unsettling fantasy version of girls for male consumers. A poll late in the year found that they were the most aspirational idols for women in Japan. Nothing highlighted this better than the video for their top single of the year, “High School Love,” whereas dozens of idol units donned uniforms and played up the kawaii in a school setting, each member of E-Girls wore something different and danced confidently without infantilizing themselves.

The Year Idol Music Became Sort of Interesting / Devon FISHER
2014’s Oricon singles chart was entirely devoid of surprises, the top 50 almost wholly dominated by the trifecta of Johnny’s groups, EXILE Tribe and Yasushi Akimoto’s ridiculous girl groups, but in the margins of Japan’s idol-obsessed music culture something interesting happened. Exemplified by EXILE Tribe’s K-pop inspired E-Girls and the newly reconfigured Morning Musume ’14 (such a departure from previous generations that Hello! Project management saw fit to add the year to their name), all of a sudden the idol group sound was taking in influences from the Occidental realm of EDM; apparently the expiration date on the Onyanko Club sound has finally been reached. Yasutaka Nakata’s production for Perfume, once a dramatic departure from the ordinary, now no longer sounds all that far-off from the mainstream, and idol groups are all the better for it. If idols are going to completely dominate the realm of popular music anyways, might as well make sure that music is at least somewhat fresh.

Parupaganda / Ian LYNAM
On July 1, Prime Minister Abe announced a decision to reinterpret the Japanese constitution, allowing the Japanese military to support allied nations under attack. In short, this monumental reinterpretation legalized Japanese rearmament, outlawed by the post-war constitution. Within hours of the decision, a YouTube video featuring AKB48 Team A member Haruka “Paruru” Shimazaki (島崎 “ぱるる” 遥香) appeared online encouraging citizens to join the Japan Self-Defense Force (自衛隊).

In the Realm of a Dying Emperor / Jason G. KARLIN
Johnny Kitagawa, the founder and president of the talent agency Johnny & Associates (hereafter Johnny’s), is approaching the twilight of his control over the male idol empire he created. Since Johnny himself appears to be averse to anointing a new president, a succession dispute emerged within the organization and intensified in 2014.

Johnny’s realm is now divided between two factions. One is led by Julie Keiko Fujishima, who is Johnny’s niece. Her faction includes the groups Arashi, TOKIO, V6, and Kanjani Eight, among others. The other faction is headed by Iijima Michi, who has managed SMAP since their creation. Her faction consists of SMAP, Kis-My-Ft2, Sexy Zone, and A.B.C-Z.

In 2014, conflict between these two factions has grown so intense that is creating headaches for Japan’s networks and television program producers. Groups under Fujishima and groups under Iijima almost never appear together on the same music or variety shows. While not uncommon between rivaling labels, this degree of internal competition is unprecedented.The Japanese advertising and entertainment industries yearn for the coronation of a new empress.

Boyz Be Sexy / Jason G. KARLIN
On July 15, 2014, fans of the five-member Johnny’s idol group Sexy Zone were devastated to learn that the group would be re-organized into a three-member unit. Management split off the two youngest members to form a new group called Sexy Boyz.

Sexy Zone was born from disaster. The formation of the group originally was scheduled to be announced in May 2011, but due to the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, the group’s debut was postponed until late September 2011. At the time of their debut, they were the youngest group in the history of Johnny’s idols — the average age of the group’s members was 14.2 and the youngest was only 11. Though more than a few eyebrows were raised about the group’s naming, Johnny Kitagawa responded to criticism by explaining that he wanted “less beautiful boys (bishōnen) and more sexy.”

The two former members of Sexy Zone were combined with six members of Johnny’s Jr. to form the new eight-member idol unit called Sexy Boyz. Before the announcement of Sexy Boyz, an Internet search for the group’s name returned numerous blocked sites that would trigger browser warnings. Today, thanks to Johnny’s, a search for “Sexy Boyz” now safely leads to fan sites and news regarding the group’s activities.

Comedy Band Makes Salient Point / Patrick ST. MICHEL
Popular four-piece Golden Bomber is an “air” band (they pretend to play instruments live while a pre-recorded track plays) best summed up as the “clown princes of contemporary J-pop.” At this year’s Rock In Japan festival, they spent more time on gags and coating themselves in blue paint than performing. Yet Golden Bomber made one on-the-nose point this year — capturing the growing exhaustion with Japanese music promotions. For their August single “Rola No Kizudarake,” the physical single came with plain white cover art, and lacked any of the bonuses that have become a staple of Oricon-topping acts such as AKB48 and EXILE. It was a deliberate “specialization in music” experiment, one which found member Kiryuin lamenting how the current J-pop landscape moves the focus from the music to promotions such as handshake events. Many online agreed with him, and the single debuted at the number-two spot on Oricon… bested only by an EXILE single packaged with tickets to a “high touch” event.

2014_Indie_music

Indie Music / Ian MARTIN
While 2014 was a typically dire year for J-pop in general, it was a marvelous year for brilliant Japanese music of absolutely no broader pop-cultural significance. Fukuoka quartet Hearsays’ In Our Time mini-album was seven cuts of the most gorgeous, shimmering, spine-tingling indiepop imaginable, while Oversleep Excuse’s Slowly Better was steeped in fragile, heartbreaking melodies, and Luminous Orange’s Soar, Kiss the Moon veered thrillingly between Stereolab-esque sophistipop, richly textured shoegaze, and intricate prog/math rock.

2014 also saw a blitzkrieg of raw, discordant postpunk/no-wave/skronk/junk with Panicsmile’s Informed Consent, synth-punk duo Hangaku’s raucous self-titled debut, an even more ferocious temper tantrum of a debut (also eponymous) by early Boredoms-style junk noise band Halbach, The Mornings’ Idea Pattern, Sonic Youth-influenced Nagoya band Free City Noise’s Leaving and Otori’s electrifying I Wanna Be Your Noise. On a rather more eccentric note, Tochigi-based duo Teashikuchibiru’s wonderfully titled Punch! Kick! Kiss! was easily the year’s best violin-and-acoustic-guitar-based folk/new wave/hip hop crossover album, and Umez snatched the prize for best J-pop/machine noise hybrid garage-punk (there’s more of it around than you might think).

Impressive albums also emerged from new wave old timers Convex Level, Sapporo-based indie-folk act Hasymonew, Fukuoka math rockers Macmanaman, intricately-worked Nagoya guitar pop trio Crunch, Tokyo new wave/krautrock band Buddy Girl and Mechanic, rounding off an abundant harvest of wonderful, weird, discordant, delicate and beautiful music with no commercial prospects whatsoever.

Twenty-five Years of Flipper’s Guitar / W. David MARX
In August 1989, Keigō Oyamada and Kenji Ozawa’s band Flipper’s Guitar released its first album Three Cheers for Our Side, unwittingly launching the Japanese music genre known as Shibuya-kei. I wrote in detail about four key Flipper’s Guitar songs over at Memories of Shibuya (one, two, three, four), but what is interesting to me is the degree to which Flipper’s Guitar introduced so many diverse influences to Japanese music… only to have them all be erased 25 years later. Nothing in the world of J-Pop now sounds like Shibuya-kei. The other thing is how far the bar has dropped: J-Pop is so domestically-oriented and incestual that we’re breathless when someone adds something vaguely Skrillex to the mix. We should not forget that Shibuya-kei was not just “Western music made by Japanese people” — it was obscure Western music made by Japanese people.

Shibuya-kei’s Quiet Comeback / Devon FISHER
With the scene having been kept on life support for most of the last decade, it seemed unlikely that the once-trendy sounds of Shibuya-kei would ever be making a comeback. But with Tower Records in Shibuya affecting a revival through their own T-Palette Records label, Shibuya-kei artists who had long since gotten used to irrelevance are making surprise appearances on the pop charts — penning songs for idol groups such as Negicco, granted, but nothing’s perfect. Old standbys such as Cibo Matto and Buffalo Daughter came out with albums this year, the former marking 15 years since the group’s previous full-length. A new generation of musicians are seeking credibility through posing with Maki Nomiya for instagram selfies, Yasuharu Konishi has his own idol group with the model duo Nananon, and little by little the best thing about Japanese music in the ’90s seems poised to reclaim its former glory. Perhaps Cornelius might even start writing “songs” again.

2014_manga

Manga of the Year / Matt TREYVAUD
Unita Yumi’s Aomiyuku Yuki 2 (「青みゆく雪」, 宇仁田ゆみ) is the long-awaited second (and final) volume of a story she began serializing in 2009. The title is an untranslatable pun on the names of the two lead characters, college students Sei (青) and Yukiko (雪子). Sei is the best and most honest representation of an adult learner of Japanese language that I’ve ever seen in a comic book. Instead of stereotypical tics or katakana “desu”s, Unita gives him a genuine, recognizable L2 Japanese of his own. Volume One ended with a cliffhanger: Can love overcome a language boundary? Volume Two adds an intra-Japonic twist to this question and then stands back and lets the characters sort it all out.

Old-Timey Album of the Year / Matt TREYVAUD
I’m not going to make any claims for its status as great art, but I didn’t run across another album all year that was as much fun to listen to as “Nee kōfun shicha iya yo”: Shōwa ero-kayō zenshū 1928-1932 (『ねえ興奮しちゃいやよ』 昭和エロ歌謡全集 1928~32), a compilation of “ero[tic] kayō” from the early Showa period. Erotic march enthusiasts especially will want to pick this one up, as it includes not only the “Ero March” but also the “Ero-ero March.”

2014_popular_reference

Popular Reference Work of the Year / Matt TREYVAUD
Kinsui Satoshi (金水敏) has been working the yakuwari-go 役割語 (“role language”) beat for more than a decade now, exploring why fiction is full of old professors calling themselves washi and rich young women exclaiming yokutte yo even though no-one has said those things in real life for decades. The Kinsui-edited Yakuwari-go shōjiten 〈役割語〉小辞典 (“A small dictionary of role language”) is aimed squarely at a general audience, and as such, offers only very brief summaries of the sociolinguistics of gonsu, batten and the like, but this also allows it to fit in more citations from fiction and manga.

The End of Gyaru Magazines / W. David MARX
Last year I admitted being wrong about a “permanent gyaru dominance” in fashion. Japan’s famously gaudy women have been slowly disappearing from Shibuya, or more likely, showing up in front of 109 in completely reasonable clothing. This year, the End of Gyaru became conventional wisdom with the closing of core publications egg, Koakuma Ageha, and BLENDA.

The demise of the first two came after the publishers ran into major financial trouble. BLENDA, on the other hand, is part of more established Kadokawa Haruki, but even it went away. One can imagine that the decline of actual gyaru has gutted the advertising budgets of gyaru-targeting businesses. International luxury brands have to advertise somewhere, so the existence of LVMH guarantees that there will always be a Spur or Brutus. But subcultural magazines live and die by the health by the smaller scale businesses that cater to them. They go down with the whole ecosystem.

That being said, magazines are not necessarily required for youth culture anymore, especially for the so-called “delinquent subcultures.” The gyaru are no longer in Shibuya, but they’re out there. After merging with yankii in the late 1990s, the gyaru style is primarily a provincial one, and we can imagine strong gyaru communities, heavy make-up, and bright pink, crystal-studded tracksuits outside of the capital. And maybe things are not as dire as they look: Koakuma Ageha is coming back. Japan’s thousands of kyabajō still need style guidance.

2014_cdg_frozen

Comme des Garçons and Frozen / Team NÉOJAPONISME
A few weeks ago, Sam Byford of The Verge tweeted this photo of Comme des Garçons’ Aoyama flagship store — with illustrations of Elsa and Anna on the window — and asked, “ummm what has happened to comme des garcons.” Yes, Kawakubo Rei’s fiercely avant-garde brand has made a Frozen collection. From the nicest, least critical, “Hey, Adrian, let’s stay friends!” perspective, CdG does these kinds of collaborations all the time with mass market brands — H&M, Speedo, Nike, Fred Perry, The Beatles, Star Wars. But Frozen? Is Kawakubo Rei trying to prove that she can place a halo of coolness on anything in the entire world? For 2015, we hope that Comme des Garçons the company — once a paragon of experimental apparel — can locate some more inspirational standards in collaboration partners. The world does not need Hypebeast pages on CdG x Duck Dynasty, CdG x AXE Body Spray, CdG x Maeda Atsuko, CdG x Liberal Democratic Party, etc., etc….

2014_year_in_lit

Azuma Hiroki Goes Global / Brett FUJIOKA
In the world of Japanese criticism, Azuma Hiroki’s new book, General Will 2.0: Rousseau, Freud, Google, received an English translation. The book takes a look at the ways social media could potentially reshape (or rethink) modern democracy in the near future. In Japanese, Azuma published another book on a similar subject matter — “Dark Tourism.” The work received air time on Japanese television and attracted attention from video game developer Hideo Kojima.

Team NÉOJAPONISME
December 29, 2014

Team Néojaponisme are a-okay. Thanks for asking.