Updated: Feb 10
In global pop culture, the East Asian island country of Japan is primarily known for its cuisine, animé, big-city street style, and eccentric live TV formats. However, beyond its four biggest export products and iconic inventions, Japanese culture also secured its seat at the table as one of the biggest influences of the global music industry. Be it Gwen Stefani's "Harajuku Girls", Lady Gaga's emulation of Japanese street style in her Art Pop era, or Ariana Grande's backing vocals chanting "Ari-chan!" through the chorus of her 2019 release "bad idea" - there are countless examples (some more tasteful than others) of global music giants taking inspiration from and at times appropriating Japanese culture. While not every implementation of Japanese text and imagery in Western artists' work comes from an informed place of respect, Japan-based fans mostly love their global idols as much as their own, and Western artists love their Japanese fan base and its aesthetic. But, as much as it serves as inspiration for many, can we also take notes from Japan's approach to equality empowerment in music? How appropriate is the emulation of Japanese trends by Western musicians? And how do American music industry trends influence Japan's music landscape? To kick off our Japanese January at music is her passion, we will try to answer these questions in this introductory article.
Gender inequality in Japan
Generally speaking, Japan's gender pay gap, unfortunately, speaks for itself in regard to where Japan's economy stands on equality empowerment. In 2018, only 44% of Japan's workforce of Japan's 67 million full-time workers. When it comes to unemployment statistics, however, Japanese women represent over 70% of non-working professionals in Japan. This might be linked to them often being at a professional disadvantage when it comes to family-planning and motherhood. "With many women forced to leave the workforce to have children without quality support from their employers, many women find that there are fewer professional opportunities available to them when they are ready to return to work", as Makiko Eda, the chief representative officer of the World Economic Forum in Japan, explains. On top of that, 2019's report on average annual income by Japan's National Tax Agency showed that men earn roughly twice of women's average wages each year. Based on these numbers, it can easily be concluded that Japan's economy unfortunately still has a long way to go to reach full gender equality. However, does the same apply to Japan's music industry?
“No one really cares how many men or women musicians are playing on a festival stage. But we just have kind of a stereotype, which is men go work and women should just be at home and do housework.”
Beyond analyzing a country's music industry's gender pay gap, its level of equality empowerment can usually be judged by taking a look at the line-up of the biggest music festivals. In 2019, Japan's four major music festivals (Fuji Rock Festival, Summer Sonic, Rock In Japan Festival, and Rising Sun Rock Festival) showed an average of 65% male acts and 35% female or mixed acts. In comparison to major American or British festival line-ups of the same year, this looks promising. In an interview with Japanese sociology major Takuro Utsumi, he suggests that Japan's musicians on the stage (!) seem to exist in a space that is somehow less affected by sexism than other parts of society. “I think musicians have kind of opportunities to be known or to be seen. In terms of equality empowerment, Japan is kind of really behind though", Takuro says. “There are just as many female musicians as male musicians, but when you look at behind the stage, like engineers or something – women might have hesitation of wanting to work behind the music scenes because people used to think it’s a men’s job.” One of the trailblazing initiatives that are working hard to establish more gender equality in the Japanese music industry beyond the stage is Women in Music Japan. Founded in 2019, this female-led network and society is dedicated to fostering equality in the music industry through the support and advancement of women. Just like its branches in other parts of the world, WIM Japan strives to "educate, empower, and celebrate female contributions to the music world, and strengthen community ties" through panels, seminars, webinars, workshops, performance showcases, achievement awards, leadership summits, and global initiatives.
Japanese and American music: inspiration flows both ways.
Despite perhaps being at a less advanced stage of equality empowerment when it comes to its overall workforce, Japan's cutting-edge pop music and fashion have long influenced global pop culture. As some pop artists of today and decades of the past try to emulate Japanese trends - some more gracefully than others - it appears that the flow of influence and inspiration goes both ways: Japanese pop culture and music seems to draw just as much inspiration from American and British trends as it provides. Looking at recent trends in Japanese music, emerging genres like Japanese rap and city pop are deeply rooted in American music movements. City pop, for instance, "is kind of known as kind of an urban sound", and directly draws inspiration from the 70s and 80s classic American rock music. “Japanese people kind of mimic them”, says Takuro in our interview. In return, when the retro genre gained popularity in 2020, a lot of American musicians started to sample music from Japan, re-establishing the balance in this everflowing stream of inspiration. For example, Mariya Takeuchi's city pop classic "Plastic Love" has been streamed over 50 million times on YouTube since 2017.
Another sky-rocketing trend rooted in America that has recently heavily impacted Japan's music industry is that of rap-battle culture. Nerve-wracking TV content of cleverly rhymed roasts fired back and forth between eager competitors in Japanese rap battles have made Hip Hop one of the most important genres of Japan's music industry today.
“Hip hop and rap music have its roots in black music, of course. And we’ve kind of developed a Japanese rap scene by ourselves.”
Like with city pop, Japanese artists have taken a foreign phenomenon (in this case of course rap's origins in black music genres like soul and funk) and made it their own. Japanese rap culture today focuses less on sexuality and showing off one's wealth than its American big brother. Instead, it is comprised of roasting rhymes due to its competitive factor, social criticism, and impressive word wizardry. As Japanese is made up of roughly three times more words than the English language, this makes for an interesting mix that succeeds to exist in its own space in Japan's music industry.
As much as the Japanese music industry is happy to borrow from other countries and cultures, as forgiving Japanese fans appear to be when it comes to Western artists using Japanese imagery, writing, and lyrics in their work.“It’s kinda easy for us to see if they just try to mimic the costume or style”, says Takuro Utsumi. "We don’t mostly think it’s really disrespectful. Some artists just want to have a Japanese feeling in their music.” As long as the implementation of Japanese elements in artworks or songs is considered respectful and celebratory by the Japanese fanbase, it seems to be widely accepted.
Although Japan's overall economy unfortunately still lacks a significant amount of empowering equality, it seems as though its music industry and pop culture make for an overall colorful place of creative freedom and exploration, and are moving forward thanks to initiatives like WIM Japan. Furthermore, based on our sources and expert interview, we are under the impression that Japanese musicians are rather eager to draw inspiration from American trends and seem to generally accept Western musicians' implementing Japanese styles and language in their work. At the end of the day, they usually have the last laugh when an attempt to "celebrate" Japanese culture goes south - like in the case of Ariana Grande accidentally tattooing the word "Japanese BBQ finger" on the palm of her hand.