by Mizuko Ito
Here is another installment from my student essays from my Japanese popular culture class last year. This one is from Ainsley Breault.
According to an article about MTV, Music Television, the station is "Undeniably an institution… viewed in over 342 million households in 140 countries, on 31 channels and in 17 languages. Consistent in its stronghold over those aged 13 to 24, MTV is known worldwide as the leading youth broadcaster" (Manning-Schaffel). As a result of the enormous influence of MTV, it is not surprising then that MTV Japan would provide a unique lens into Japanese pop culture. The top four most downloaded songs on MTVJapan.com reflect the work of artists whose image, music style, and popularity all provide important revelations on elements of Japanese youth culture. These artists, Orange Range, Amuro Namie, 50 Cent and Eminem, are each unique in their importance to Japanese pop culture. Collectively, the list captures the growing influence of the West, not only through the appearance of American artists Eminem and 50 Cent, but also through the Western influence on the top two Japanese artists. MTV Japan's ranking captures more than just the popular music of the moment; it captures popular culture.
In order to understand the importance of MTV Japan's rankings, one must first comprehend MTV Japan's crucial position in the context of Japanese youth culture. According to hqap.com, a website on the most influential American corporations in Japan, the channel "has been viewed by over 5 million households in Japan. By leveraging MTV Networks’ brand name and its upbeat culture, MTV Japan has firmly established its presence in Japanese media market" (H&Q). The channel is not just popular as a result of the American brand name, however. The network only achieved its current level of popularity after altering the programming to appeal to a Japanese audience. Many changes have been made to the American model for the network; according to an article on the network's popularity, approximately 80 percent of all programming on the network is unique to Japan (Santana). These modifications have ranged from the creation of completely unique programs to the addition of simple changes in the appearance of the network, such as the use of anime Video Jockeys. As a result of these modifications, MTV Japan has become an important fixture in the establishment and distribution of popular culture that is uniquely Japanese.
MTV Japan's influence is a true testament to the merit of its rankings, making Orange Range's position as the number one most downloaded artist commendable. Orange Range formed in 2001 when six friends played together at their junior high school graduation. These six boys, five 21 year olds and one 19 year old, impressed audiences initially with their good looks and "bad-ass" style. The group won the New Artist of the Year award at the 18th annual Golden Disc Awards in Japan in 2004, when they released their first album Musiq. This album achieved enormous success, "selling over 2.4 million copies and producing four No.1 singles" (japan-zone.com). The strong Western influence on this band is first apparent in an analysis of the group's music style. Orange Range is perhaps the most recent band in a long line of the "Okinawa musicians". Okinawa houses a controversial American military base, a place where "G.I.'s hang out in bars and live music clubs. People get drunk and get into fights. Whites, blacks, and Okinawans go out all night. Asian chaos meets wild Westerners" (Tack 1). As a result of this influence, Orange Range's music is an odd combination of both American pop and hip hop music and traditional Okinawan music.
The views of this style of music within Japan seem to illustrate what Joseph Tobin describes as the dichotomy between the terms "domestication" and other terms such as westernization, modernization, or postmodernism. Orange Range's success can be seen to support Tobin's use of the word domestication, in the sense that the process is "active, morally neutral, and demystifying. Domesticate has a range of meanings, including tame, civilize, naturalize, make familiar, bring into the home… the Japanese are doing all of these things vis-à-vis the West" (Tobin 4). Tobin's points coincide with the fact that Orange Range, along with all of the Okinawa artists, are not merely copying the American influences they are exposed to, but are instead adapting them to appeal to Japanese youth. As an anonymous review of the band states, Orange Range "makes me want to ask why they ONLY choose to arrange from those B-level pop music … I felt that this is a quite interesting band that they wonderfully re-created those B-class pop music into trashy A-class pop" (Tack 2). This quote emphasizes the active nature of Orange Range's domestication; they selectively chose songs that perhaps are not of the highest quality in America, but manufactured those songs to suit their own needs.
Ironically enough, the second most popular song on MTV Japan.com was also by an Okinawa artist; Namie Amuro. Namie Amuro released her first album in 1994, and has become a J-pop artist of unrivaled popularity. According to her fansite, (oddly, written completely in English), Namie "was a huge sensation in the 90’s and has gone on to be one of the most successful Japanese pop artists of all time" (Nippop.com). Namie Amuro, much like Orange Range, released music strongly under the influence of the Western presence in Okinawa. As Namie Amuro herself states, her biggest influences were Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey (Amuro Namie.com).
If Orange Range can be said to be a figure of domestication of Western music, Namie Amuro's largest reflection of the influence of Western culture is through her fashion sense. As is evident through the dramatic influence on American style through figures such as Britney Spears and Gwen Stefani, the image of a pop star is a powerful reflection of the style of the youth of a nation. Namie Amuro in particular is perhaps most well known for her sense of fashion and her tremendous influence. As Nippop.com, a large J-pop website, states, "Amuro’s legions of her fans have been dubbed “amura” (a mix of Amuro and admirer) by the media, and influence on fashion can be seen throughout the country" (Nippop.com). Again reflecting Tobin's ideas of domestication, Amuro's style has combined elements of Western hip hop style with Japanese ideals of beauty and cuteness. As Sharon Kinsella states in her article "Cuties in Japan", "the rebellious, individualistic, freedom-seeking attitude embodied in acting childlike and pursing cute fashion is very clear. The magazine prints pages of photographs of readers, whom it calls 'kids', posing in clubs and streets trying to look bad and cute at the same time" (KInsella 230). Amuro, reflecting this uniquely Japanese idea, is famous for her "platform shoes with miniskirt, tweezed eyebrows, [and] flower in hair" (Nippop.com). However, on Amuro's profile on her own website, she states her favorite brands as Fila and Polo sports, and her favorite accessories as caps and silver rings, clearly reflecting a hip-hop influence. Pictures of her on her website feature such contradictions as her sitting demurely among flowers, pouting her lips, with a tight "Atlanta Georgia Hooters" t-shirt on. Yet another picture features the typical Japanese "direct gaze and the pout" (Kinsella 205) that can be found on young girls in Japanese men's magazines. In this picture, however, she is wearing an oversized Fila hoodie and baggy jeans. As a result of this appropriation of both American and Japanese styles, Amuro has created a unique look all her own. This uniqueness reflects Tobin's ideas that "what people consume may be as important as what they produce in shaping a sense of self… Younger workers are rejecting the notion that the central meaning of their lives lies in the workplace" (Tobin 8). It is perhaps in response to this that Amuro Namie got a barcode tattooed on her neck; her eclectic adapted fashion serves to create her own identity, allowing her to break free from the manufactured identities of the work force.
Rounding out the list of MTV Japan's top four list of downloaded songs are artists who clearly reflect the growing influence of the West: Eminem and 50 Cent. These two artists truly capture a Japanese perception of what is "cool" in America right now; the gangster, Los Angeles image captured in hip hop culture. According to an article on the popularity of hip-hop by Caleb Kinney, "In Japan, a wealthy nation and where 99% of its citizens are of Japanese nationality, hip hop is currently one of the most popular types of music. One wonders how Japanese youth embraced the tale of American's ghettos and racial struggles, for Japan is a high-regulated society where instances of racial conflict and urban poverty are incredibly minuscule" (Kinney). However, as is stated in Donald Richie's book Image Factory, "' We Japanese have very good editing skills. We get bits and pieces from all over the world and digest it, put it through the filter, and then output it as a new style that fits our culture'" (Richie 157). American hip hop has become uniquely Japanese, with Sony's release in 1998 of the Japanese video game Parappa the Rapper, which " presents America’s gangsta rap with a kid-friendly array of colors and cartoon appearance. The hero of the game is a dog dressed in the stereotypical American hip-hop fashion of baggy jeans and a stocking cap" (Kinney). The Japanese have appropriated nearly all aspects of the hip-hop lifestyle, as "DJs are still spinning popular songs from America… breakdancers are regularly seen practicing on street corners, graffiti artists are making names from themselves and becoming increasingly popular, Japanese hip-hoppers almost put America to shame on how much effort they use to be fashionable, and the clubs are still attracting maximum capacity" (Kinney).
The appearance of 50 Cent and Eminem at the bottom of MTV Japan's top four list brings to the forefront yet another issue prominent in discourses on Japanese pop culture: the use of English. It seems odd at first that two of the most popular singles could be in a language that many members of the population could not even understand. This problem relates also to Orange Range and Amuro Namie. Amuro Namie's single "So Crazy" features a chorus combining random English phrases with Japanese. Orange Range's music similarly features either English words or words resembling English words. While this appearance of English may at first present a problem, it instead contributes to the idea of domestication of Western influences. As for the English in Amuro Namie and Orange Range singles, as James Stanlaw explains, "the words and symbols were communal and, hence, more public than private. The amateur rock and rollers create English phrase that have personal meaning to them and they hope will catch the attention of their listeners" (Tobin 66). As for the English rap songs of Eminem and 50 Cent, as Kinney states, "language barrier that one imprisoned hip-hop has been broke down for the love of culture and most people forget that words are only a fraction of what hip-hop contains… keep in mind many times the speed that rappers spit out verses cannot be comprehended by any language" (Kinney). Again, according to Stanlaw, "Japanese English is used in Japan for Japanese purposes" (Tobin 75).
One can gather much information based on the top songs on the MTV of any given nation. MTV Japan, in particular, has proven its popularity and intimate connection with the youth culture of Japan. Accordingly, the top four artists on MTV Japan.com quite accurately mirror trends in popular culture. What is striking about these artists however is not simply their music styles, images, or popularity alone, but what their characteristics reveal about the absorption of Western culture into the Japanese mainstream. Popular music captures very clearly Tobin's "domestication" of Western culture; aspects of American style and music, along with American music itself, are made uniquely Japanese. The result is not a top four list that mocks the top requested songs on MTV in America, but rather a list that captures Japanese culture all on its own.
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Posted by Mizuko Ito at 2006年03月15日 06:10