So Close, Yet So Far: J-pop, Consumerism, and Alienation?

I glanced at my clock. Ten o’clock on the nose. Perfect. I’ll wait a few minutes just in case the website is slow. I smiled. After missing other shows and waiting too late to buy tickets, I’ve finally and totally got this one.

At 10:35, after countless website crashes and error messages, I finally made it to the Tokyo Dome ticket center web page for Haru Fest 2015 headlined by Kyary Pamyu Pamyu – one of Japan’s most famous pop stars domestically and, recently, overseas – and was informed that the show had already been sold out, not even an hour after ticket sales were opened.

Keep in mind that Tokyo Dome has 55,000 seats.

I arrived in Akihabara, home to the eponymous and extraordinarily famous idol group AKB48, at 4:30, just as the crowds of white collar workers and twenty-something men were gathering outside of the AKB48 Cafe and Shop in hopes to catch the daily screening of special music videos recorded for the occasion that are played inside. Strolling confidently up to the ticket window and ready to join these somewhat dejected-looking souls, I was confronted with a sign informing me that the numbers that are drawn to determine who is lucky enough to buy a ticket and actually enter the theater are only distributed from 4:00 to 4:15. Sure enough, two schoolgirl-clad staff members emerged from the cafe and started calling the lucky numbers. Disappointed, I asked a staff member about possibly buying a ticket to see the daily live performance over in the AKB48 Theater, to which he flatly said that tickets are only sold online – and are quite difficult to get, even though the main members of the group don’t perform there.

With my purpose for heading out to Akihabara shot down in flames, I sheepishly headed back toward the station.

These true-to-fact anecdotes reveal an important angle of the interesting paradox in Japanese popular music culture: it boasts to be for and of Japan. In terms of this music being “for” the people, J-pop stars – much like American pop stars – seemingly constantly coo about how appreciative they are of the fans, which creates the potential to form emotive bonds with these musicians without having to actually meet them in the flesh. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu often uses social media, especially her Twitter account, to let the world know about what she’s up to, often posting pictures of her latest photo shoots or thanking fans for remembering her birthday. Social media is especially adept at creating a (false?) sense of intimacy because, while the Internet offers everyone a voice, it comes with the price tag of personal, human identity; some may disagree with me on this point, but the web is, at the end of the day, an anonymous space that functions on imagined, rather than material, realities. In any case, many of Kyary’s fans are foreign, as she has become popular around the globe with what many perceive to be her… well, stereotypical “Japanese-ness.” American pop culture blogger Perez Hilton featured her 2012 music video for CANDY CANDY with the caption, “This video is ridiculous… but we love it so!” It’s worth noting that Kyary’s musical output isn’t especially prolific – she releases one album a year, capping her discography at three — but her face is everywhere around Tokyo in billboards, commercials, train advertisements…

“Candy Candy”, the second single from Kyary’s 2012 debut album Pamyu Pamyu Rebolushon, as featured on Perez Hilton

Kyary for Nintendo
Kyary for Nintendo

Kyary for Alook
Kyary for Alook, a glasses chain in Japan. The ad references her unique look, reading: ‘See and Be Seen.’

AKB48, an idol group which has taken Japan by storm since their debut in 2005, informs and praises fans through more formal media outlets. In fact, AKB48 has their own weekly newspaper, which you can buy next to the Asahi Shinbun – the Japanese equivalent of the New York Times – at any convenience store. The group was created by Akimoto Yasushi, who envisioned the group as “idols you could meet”: a highly democratic musical act that would allow fans actually to interact with the members not just through daily performances, but through annual voting processes that rank the members of the group in terms of overall appeal (which, itself, is based on many factors, including looks, humility, and hard work). To this end, a special magazine is published every year with the election results, and features interviews with the top members. Akimoto’s 48-member idol group template proved so successful that the AKB48 brand has expanded to comprise a school of aspiring idols organized, who generally take on the task of performing daily in Akihabara (there would be mayhem in Akihabara if the primary 48 members did live shows every day). Additionally, other 48-groups across the country and parts of Asia have been created that are supposed to represent these regions, including HKT48 for the city of Hakata, NMB48 for the Namba district of Osaka, SKE48 for the Sakae district of Nagoya, and JKT48 for Jakarta, Indonesia.

The music video for AKB48’s 2010 ‘Heavy Rotation,’ which, with only slight exaggeration, literally everyone in Japan has seen.

AKB Newspaper
An issue of the AKB Newspaper, and the magazine with 2014’s election results.

A recent joint performance of ‘Koisuru Fortune Cookie’ (‘Loving Fortune Cookie’) by AKB48 and JKT48 in Jakarta.

What these rather staggering realities illustrate is that, while J-pop is marketed as the music of and for Japan, it’s actually incredibly difficult to access. This leads to wonder what Japanese popular culture – and perhaps popular culture in the United States and beyond – actually reflects and represents. For example, it’s quite ironic that AKB48 was designed to encourage maximum contact between the performers and their fans, but seats at the shows featuring the top 48 members are nearly impossible to snag. And, speaking from my own experience, it’s hard to believe that Kyary Pamyu Pamyu sings such “Japanese-y” music when seats for her (one!) concert this entire spring are sold out within minutes; this is especially pronounced when my favorite underground musicians – who are also friends and acquaintances – perform up to three times a week in venues where there is no separation whatsoever between the musicians and the listeners.

So if popular music in Japan is so hard to hear live and is often rarely performed, how are fans actually exposed and encouraged to interact with this music? … Remember what I said about Kyary Pamyu Pamyu in advertisements? Kyary hasn’t released any new songs or videos since I’ve come to Japan, but I can easily think of several products she’s endorsed. While AKB48 is more prolific – after dropping singles for months, they just released their sixth album in full on January 21st of this year – the AKB48 Cafe and Shop, as well as the AKB48-themed slot machine parlors scattered throughout the Tokyo metropolis, speak for themselves. People are encouraged to consume music not just through a 3-minute long, heavily engineered song written by men in office buildings (specifically Nakata Yasutaka writing for Kyary, and Akimoto writing for AKB) and performed by these young women; in Japan, we are encouraged – perhaps primarily – to interact with these musicians through consuming their products and whatever products they endorse. The same, I might add, can be said of American pop stars as well.

“Kira Kira Killer,” a popular single from Kyary’s most recent album, Pika Pika Fantajin, released last summer.

The short-version music video for AKB48’s ‘Kibouteki Refrain,’ off of their latest album Koko ga Rhodes Da.

Beyonce Pepsi
Beyonce advertising Pepsi in the US…

Taylor Swift and Coke
…while Taylor Swift pushes Coca Cola.

This leaves me with a few questions about what Japanese popular music says about contemporary Japanese society. Life in Tokyo can be quite alienating, precisely because it is so unfathomably huge. Like New York, Tokyo never sleeps. The trains are packed at all hours of the day with men (and some women) in business suits, many of whom work zangyou overtime late into the night. On a more somber note, trains are often delayed due to jinshin-jikou, which translates as “human body incident”… which more often than not translates as suicide. The apartments are small, and even though personal space is a rarity here (although I have read that Americans require more personal space than people of any other society in the world, so who am I to judge?), it’s easy to feel alone when everyone is glued to their smart phone. And anyway, Japanese society doesn’t exactly condone small-talk about the weather with strangers. It seems like people here are always in a hurry to get somewhere, and one can easily feel, at times, lost at sea in what is indeed a ceaseless, churning sea of people, trains, sirens, cars, bicycles…

It strikes me that, every time I go to Akihabara around 4:30, the crowd of people standing outside the AKB48 Cafe and Shop don’t look especially exuberant; the group looks somewhat sheepish, in fact, and people seem to keep to themselves. I grabbed lunch in the AKB48 Cafe a few months ago, and most people were there by themselves, eating in silence. I can’t help but notice that this is in striking contrast to the deep sense of community that runs through the underground and traditional music scenes here in Japan. Of course, I’m reserving personal judgment. Instead, I’ll continue to keep my eyes (and ears) open, and trying to make sense of what members of each musical community – traditional, popular, and underground – have in common with one another, as well as with members of the other scenes. Maybe, if I can actually manage to get tickets to a show (boy, have I tried; yes, this is part of the experience; and yes, it will happen!), I’ll see a different kind of community emerge.

3 thoughts on “So Close, Yet So Far: J-pop, Consumerism, and Alienation?

  1. Very insightful analysis of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and AKB48 in terms of relating them to consumerist culture – I’d be very interested to hear more about why this particular style is of such appeal and popularity in Tokyo. How does it resonate with the citizens’ culture?


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