Even if you don't know it, you have heard Tomoyasu Hotei's music before. The guitarist, composer, producer and all round superstar in his native Japan penned the instrumental epic Battle Without Honor or Humanity, a song Quentin Tarantino first heard in a Japanese B-movie and then used in Kill Bill Volume 1. Hotei's most famous work has subsequently been licensed all over the western world; in multiple movies, TV shows (X-Factor anyone?), commercials, video games and even at Ashton Gate football stadium where it is used as the walk-on music for Bristol City's home games. There is a high possibility the one other song from contemporary Japanese music you are familiar with is also down to Tarantino and Kill Bill. All-girl band The 220.127.116.11's appeared in the movie performing in a Tokyo izakaya and went on to have a UK hit with their cover of Rock-A-Teens song Woo Hoo in 2004, largely thanks to a Carling TV commercial.
Other than a small handful of alternative Japanese artists operating on the fringes of the western music world, such as the Polysics, Cornelius and Maximum the Hormone, there does appear to be a crossover void in terms of western and Japanese music, a void that seems to be growing even as the world, thanks to global technological advancements, appears to be shrinking. This lack of cultural sharing is apparent in the career of Hotei, who needs full time security guards to prevent daily mobbings when in Tokyo, but can walk down the street as a regular Joe in London. Hotei and his family moved to London in 2012 so he could focus on his career in what he regards as an untapped market, despite the huge exposure his music has had in the west. The same star status can be applied to his wife Miki Imai, a highly acclaimed pop singer and actress in Japan. The Posh and Becks of Japan, if a young David had picked up a guitar instead of a football.
Whilst Japanese artists have always struggled to infiltrate the western mainstream, the same cannot be said for western music in Japan. The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, The Carpenters, Queen, Michael Jackson and Oasis all had huge success in Japan in their day, whilst short lived UK punk band Big in Japan played on the popular 80's cliche that success in Japan could come easily to western acts. On the flip side, new wave Tokyo band Plastics can claim rare success in the west in the early 80's, touring the US and UK, appearing on mainstream US television and being credited along with US bands Talking Heads, Devo and The B-52's as new wave pioneers. Plastics are one of few mainstream Japanese bands to sing in English as well as Japanese which must go someway to explain their isolated acknowledgement in the west during their short lived career.
Plastics were so called because they were kicking against what they saw as a copy culture, or a lack of originality in Japanese society at the time. It is apparent that some of Japan's biggest artists in recent history, irrespective of genre, are highly stylised and presented in an ever familiar style, often relying on the Yankee punk aesthetic. The phrase 'Visual kei' is used to describe the common style of many Japanese musicians. Even Boøwy, the hugely successful Japanese rock band in which Hotei made his name, rocked the Yankee look back in the 80's. Boøwy spawned a thousand copycat bands in Japan through the 80's and 90's, many successful but almost all inferior mirror images of the original.
This emphasis on (a particular) style over substance makes western manufactured pop music an easier sell into the east, where the potential language barrier is less relevant because the song is only part of the overall product. In Korea they have realised this can work both ways, especially thanks to the social media boom of recent years, and so it appears that western authenticity is slipping through the net, whilst the mutual trading of über-stylistic, capitalist, bubblegum pop in the shape of Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry and One Direction from the west and K-pop from the east, excels in today's rampantly stylistic world. Japan remains an anomaly. They are yet to push their J-pop culture onto the outside world as their neighbours in Korea have begun to do, meanwhile doors for credible western artists appear to be closing, with international acts of all genres accounting for just 15% of sales in today's Japanese market. Number 1 selling albums in the west do not necessarily mean anything when it comes to bothering the Japanese charts. Queens of the Stone Age and The Vaccines are just two guitar bands with recent number 1 albums that have translated into derisory sales in Japan. The language barrier and the distance have always presented a challenge, maybe more artists need to do what Hotei has done and dedicate serious time in the country they are serious about breaking. "(Artists) think that the Japanese market is just big, but it's not true - it's big and different. Only artists who realise that difference can find success here", says Akiko Ozawa of Sony Music Entertainment in Japan.
Huge thanks to Minoru Yokoo and his infinite wealth of music wisdom