Punk and heavy rock have never truly been in vogue throughout Japan. Sure, some of the bigger names from the U.S. and the U.K. have managed to do well in the island nation: Bands like Green Day, Paramore and Fall Out Boy continue to draw huge crowds for their concerts there, and lesser known groups from the West are always welcomed warmly. But if you scroll through lists of the biggest selling albums and singles in the country, the bands and artists are almost all homegrown, and the music is by and large radio-friendly pop in one form or another.
There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. The Britpop-meets-Offspring group Judy And Mary saw their last four albums hit No.1 or No. 2 on the country's album charts, and the emo-leaning One Ok Rock have been on a steady climb since they formed in 2005. Yet when you try to take the temperature of Japan’s current punk scene, everyone says that the glory days have long since passed.
“It used to be much bigger for Japanese bands,” says Masa Ouchi, the coordinator for AltPress.jp and head of Kick Rock Music, a label that has been promoting punk in Japan since 2005. “Hi-Standard were a pretty big band and helped really make the punk scene here. But since they went on hiatus in 2003 or '04, it's been going down.”
Crossfaith singer Koie Kenta echoes the same sentiment about how things are progressing for metalcore bands like his own. “Japanese people don't really listen to heavy music,” he says. “They listen to idol groups [pop bands made up of a half dozen or more vocalists, usually all dressed in matching outfits]. Those groups release a single, and they'll sell a half-million copies. And K-pop from Korea—it's fucking huge in Japan.”
With that in mind, the people working and performing within these scenes follow parallel paths. The bands do what they can to get heard outside of their home country; the promoters and label folk work to bring music from other parts of the world into Japan. In the former camp are groups like Peelander-Z and Polysics, whose names tend to pop up on U.S. concert calendars with regularity. A band like Crossfaith—in spite of the fact that their 2011 EP, Zion, actually made it into the top 10 on the Japanese charts—are more interested in how they'll be spending their summer: traversing North America as part of this year's Vans Warped Tour.
The effect of a band's success outside of Japan, says Ouchi, is a reflective one. “Those bands that are working on international stuff, those are the ones that end up doing really well here.” It's for that reason Ouchi has turned his attention away from his label and focused his efforts more on Kick Rock Invasion, a label that licenses punk records from American labels for Japanese release. Just this year, KRI has brought new albums by Silverstein, the Used, Like Torches and July to local fans, and has new work by the Wonder Years and the Summer Set on the horizon.
The only real issue with these licensing deals is the band and their original label have to create a Japanese-only edition of their album to entice buyers to avoid the cheaper import version. This often includes something as simple as a new insert featuring a translation of the lyrics (and sometimes a special message for Japanese fans) and an Obi strip that wraps around the outside of the CD case spelling out the title, track names and cost of the disc. But as most music obsessives know, the biggest change is the addition of some exclusive music tacked on to the end of the album. It's a well-worn practice, but one that still pays off for American labels. “I still sell more records in Japan than I do in most of the European territories,” says Eric Tobin, VP of Sales and Artist Development at Hopeless Records. “They have HMV, Tower Records, Disk Union. This genre may have declined in popularity, but every time I look at sales numbers, Japan is at No. 2 or No. 3.”
Much of that has to do with the fact that Japanese music fans take what we might see as a throwback approach to seeking out new sounds. “People actually go into the shops and try to discover new music,” says Tobin. “In the U.S., it seems our efforts are more geared toward social media and how to create opportunities for fans to be involved in some way. There, it's about the acquisition of the physical product. So we get tables set up in the shops to promote something like a new All Time Low album, encouraging people to come read up about it and listen.”
Like any other country in the world, the other surefire way to get the attention of new fans is through live performance. But therein lies a challenge for most bands that haven't achieved the level of success to get invited to one of the big music events in Japan like Fuji Rock or Summer Sonic. You have to find a promoter or label willing to do the legwork to book the shows, cover the costs to fly the bands overseas and take care of all the promotion involved. And even with all that, there's no guarantee that the band will see any money from the shows. The other potential hurdle, says Tobin, is that “people don't speak a lot of English there. It's much harder to cross over to what's happening over there.”
Brandon Pagano, guitarist for Pennsylvania-based pop-punk band Handguns, had to deal with this firsthand when the group toured Japan last year. “We landed in Tokyo, and nothing there was in English,” he remembers. “The attendants there didn't really speak English. So it was us blind-shooting it through the airport trying to find our label manager.”
Tours like the one Handguns embarked on are fairly typical for smaller bands: eight dates in seven cities (Tokyo, Niigata, Koriyama, Nagoya, Okayama, Osaka and Kanazawa), hitting small clubs while accompanied by a local band who helped translate needs to venue owners, sound engineers, and fans. Pagano says the language barrier didn’t discourage Handguns' audience: “They were really receptive to the music. Even if they didn't speak English, they knew all the words and all the harmonies.”
Another way to handle touring in that country is to do what six groups—Hit The Lights, We Are The in Crowd, Set It Off, Divided By Friday, Like Torches, and July—are doing this summer: gang up and do a multi-date run. It’s a plan that’s part safety in numbers, and partly to give the Japanese fans a wealth of options to choose from. With efforts like that, it might not be too long before punk has regained its prominence within the country.
“I think this is a cyclical thing,” says Ouchi. “I think punk will come back very soon. If we can survive this and keep working with great people in the scene, hopefully we can come back and do even better in the next few years.”