METAL IN JAPAN - Propaganda or Promised Land?

September 16, 2001, 15 years ago

by Carl Begai

metal in japan feature

Japan. Nippon. Edo. Land Of The Rising Sun. Call it what you want, but there's no question that the small island nation has piqued the curiosity of the Western mind since it was first discovered. For me, the attraction started early in life, with really bad martial arts movies, many of which, I discovered later, were actually Chinese productions. With my first viewing of the movie adaptation of James Clavell's Shogun, the culture became a closet obsession, and from that point I delved into the culture through books, cuisine, and personal contact with people that live in Japan, though I've yet to meet any of them.

And, of course, there was metal, which is a scene that is rich and vibrant almost to the extreme. Thus, while preparing my Loudness story, I thought it might be interesting to try and unveil some of the mysteries and oddities of the Japanese metal scene that often perplex the Western metalhead mind.

If you own any Japanese import CD's or have scanned the pages of Burrn Magazine, the name Tak Yonemochi might be familiar. Over the last twenty years he has had his foot in just about every music-related door you can come up with. At the age of twenty-one he started as a music publisher with Shinko Music, one of the largest music publishing firms in Japan. He was involved in international publishing, master rights, and attended MIDEM every year to promote the company, giving him valuable links to North America.

Yonemochi also worked closely with Koh Sakai, the founder of Burrn Magazine, for close to four years, doing interviews and album reviews. On top of that, being a guitarist, Yonemochi was heavily involved with several guitar magazines like Guitar Player and Young Guitar. And, at present, he is hard at work with his long-standing band Air Pavilion, as well as starting his own label, API Archives. This interview, in fact, took place during a short break from acting as producer for one of his signings.

At this point in Yonemochi's well rounded career, it's safe to say that he's not going to cut his hair and get a real job any time soon. "Yeah, I'm 42 and I'm still playing fucking guitar," he laughs.

Having been in the music business for so long, and being acquainted with several well-known rock and metal personalities, Yonemochi was tagged by yours truly as being one of the best people to talk to about metal in Japan. Yonemochi doesn't believe he is an authority on the subject by any means, but what he had to offer proved to be educational.

Perhaps one of the bigger mysteries is the Japanese metal community's attraction to Western bands. When you look at their press coverage, a much higher percentage seems to be dedicated to non-Japanese talent than to domestic bands, and there is no shortage of the latter.

"It's hard to find a typical reason for that," Yonemochi says. "Simply, we're interested, and that's the only answer. It's hard to say these days, though. Back in the '80s the Japanese record market was half foreign and half domestic. There was a lot of coverage of international bands, and especially back in those days because heavy metal was one of the most popular musical styles around. Every single magazine had a foreign heavy metal band on the cover. When the '90s came, domestic music in Japan started to grow much more, and today it's actually an 80%-20% split in favour of domestic bands. It just might seem that there's this emphasis on Western bands, but they're actually a very small portion of the market now."

Japan has often been viewed by outsiders as the Promised Land for heavy metal. It's not uncommon to hear artists, no matter what kind of metal they play, talk about receiving the rock star treatment they had assumed was reserved for million seller acts like Bon Jovi or Madonna. In a recent interview, however, Children of Bodom bass player Henkka Blacksmith mentioned that the band was given the red carpet treatment times ten on their Hatebreeder tour. Kimberly Goss of Sinergy backed this account up, saying that on a record company sponsored shopping trip in Tokyo, the label reps practically fell over themselves to see to her comfort, going so far as to hold her umbrella in the pouring rain. Two examples of what we might view as extreme behavior, but Yonemochi isn't at all surprised.

"Yeah, that's true in most cases," he says. "I worked for Warner Pioneer for a long time, and taking care of the artists was one of those jobs. We really did take care of them and worried about making them feel comfortable. It was and is a case of being thankful that the artists are there for us, to let them know that we enjoy the fact that they're there. I think part of it is also the Japanese cultural attitude. As a people, we are very thankful to have the things that we enjoy."
"The other side of it is, bands that have been invited to tour in Japan are bands that are really liked by the audiences and the record company. Of course the record company wants the band in question to come back again, so they try to make them feel as welcome as possible."

In keeping with the Promised Land analogy, there are some rock and metal artists that literally owe their careers to the Japanese metal scene. Acts like Harem Scarem, Lana Lane, Firehouse and Valentine are able to make a living off of profits from their Japanese sales while the rest of the world more or less turns a blind eye. In some cases a Japanese record deal is the only thing that allows the artist in question to forge onward and not have to take a job at Burger King. This begs the question: what is it about acts like this that make them so attractive to the Japanese market while being shit-canned or just plain ignored by a good portion of the Western world?

"I think part of that comes from the fact that we live in the country of technology," Yonemochi offers. "We really do appreciate bands that have technical skills, like the ones you just mentioned. Bill Leverty (Firehouse guitarist) is a good friend of mine, and I think he's a great guitar player. Mr. Big became huge here because the Japanese love Billy Sheehan's and Paul Gilbert's playing. I mean, they used to play the Budokan, and it wasn't because they were a pretty band. The fans here like the bands that have melodies they can sing along to and technical skills."

Fans aside, one wonders if the record company executives and promoters are aware of just how important Japan is to some artists' careers.

"Record company A&R; people know how much some artists rely on their Japanese record company, yeah," Yonemichi offers, "but at the same time, in the backs of their minds they hope that the band or artist is successful in their other territories so that they (the record company) can create a buzz from those sources."

Over the last couple of years there has been a shift in popularity of certain types of metal in Japan. Once thought of as the last bastion for cock rock hair bands, Japan has opened its arms to the likes of In Flames, Children Of Bodom, Vader and Cradle Of Filth, going so far as to push more commercial rock/metal acts out of the limelight entirely.

"That's very true," Yonemochi agrees. "Those bands and a lot of punk-ish metal bands seem to have taken over. I think it's true that people are starting to become more aware of these heavier bands. Even bands like Korn and Slipknot have just started taking off here, and bands like that have been ignored for the last four or five years. To my eyes, it just seems that these heavier, more extreme bands are finally getting their recognition. People have started to realize that there's more to choose from."

For metal fans in the Western world, Japanese import CDs are often viewed as collector's items thanks to the bonus tracks that are otherwise unavailable to most other markets. This is especially true when the bonus tracks happen to be exclusive songs rather than demo or live versions of existing tracks. While some of us may see those bonus tracks as a great way to suck in the Western buying public to fork over the extra bucks - which many of us do - the truth of the matter is that the extra songs are there to try and connive the Japanese fans to buy the albums pressed at home rather than abroad.

"We probably have the highest retail prices in the world," says Yonemochi. "It costs 3,000 yen for a CD, which is about $28.00 American. But now, people are selling CDs imported to Japan for, let's say, 1,500 yen. The bonus tracks and the liner notes, a lot of which I write (laughs), are key ways for the record companies to try and a convince the Japanese public to buy the Japanese pressings. So the bonus tracks are very important for the Japanese record companies. They always ask for them."

While Japanese metal publications see covering foreign acts as a way of attracting the buyers, it seems that more and more Japanese metal acts are making their way back into the spotlight, thus supporting Yonemochi's claim that there is indeed a leaning towards domestic talent. At the end of 2000, several labels went on a binge remastering and re-releasing Japanese metal albums from the '80s and '90s. On top of that, Japanese metal bands are being signed outside of their homeland, receiving exposure that has been denied them since the late '80s. To date, acts like Loudness, Vigilante, Concerto Moon, Double Dealer, death mongers Sigh, and even Yonemochi's own Air Pavilion have been signed to European record labels, and the wave seems to be growing.

"It's strange, really," Yonemochi agrees. "All of a sudden people are starting to come back to those old bands, like .44 Magnum and Anthem, finally. I think that's one of the reasons why Loudness decided to do this reunion at this point in time. People are looking back to the '80s music and being thankful for it, and for that reason people are rediscovering bands like Ratt and Motley Crue. At the same time they were listening to that way back then, they were hearing Earthshaker, Loudness, Bow Wow and stuff like that. I think the trends have really started to shift in that direction."

As for the renewed interest in Japanese metal on an international scale, Yonemochi believes it goes back to Japan being the country of technology.

"Japanese bands have always been famous for the technical aspects of the music. Akira Takasaki is a perfect example; he's a great guitar player. Norifumi Shima (Concerto Moon/Double Dealer) is another example of that as well. I also think it goes back to this idea of people rediscovering the old '80s-style metal. At some point somebody must have thought to themselves, 'Whatever happened to that Japanese band? What's new over there now?', and I think that's all it took to get the ball rolling."

For Western world metalheads, whether they are serious musicians or air guitarists, Japan will likely always possess some sort of mystique. It is indeed a hotbed for metal, but it's focus isn't really that much different than that in North America or Europe (South America, that's another story in itself...). Case in point when Yonemochi laughs at my suggestion that some Westerners do indeed think of Japan as metal's Promised Land.

"We always carry our dreams," Yonemochi says thoughtfully. "For some Western bands, it might be to come and play to a Japanese audience. For me, having an album released in Europe is a dream come true. How we perceive that dream world or Promised Land, if that's what you want to call it, really all depends on which side of the planet you're on."

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