Closing the Culture Gap: Can Anime Songs Boost the Recognition of J-Pop in the U.S.?

Photo Credit: COMIX WAVE FILMS INC

By Zerui Pan
Staff Writer

The absence of Japanese pop music in U.S. mainstream culture is an enduring phenomenon too conspicuous to overlook. As Japan became an economic superpower in the 1990s, the Japanese music industry also grew, becoming the second largest in the world. Its influence, however, was largely limited to Asian markets and hardly reached U.S. consumers. While some Japanese musicians such as X-Japan and Arashi have been known to the Asian audience since the 1970s, they never succeeded in entering the mainstream U.S. marketplace. By contrast, many Latin artists like Bad Bunny have gained considerable recognition in the U.S. Even its Asian counterpart, K-Pop, has superseded J-Pop to become the most popular East Asian music genre worldwide in recent years. This remarkable divergence in reception raises one intriguing question: what has limited J-Pop from penetrating the U.S. market? 

The culture gap between Japan and America might be one possible factor. Some speculate that Americans may not appreciate J-Pop or Japanese products due to the fact that they are simply unfamiliar with Japanese society and culture. The growing fandom of Japanese anime in America, however, begins to change this argument. Once a subculture hardly attracting attention, the popularity of Japanese anime in the U.S. has skyrocketed in the last decades in which the U.S. anime community played a significant role. In 2014, the U.S. was the third-largest importer of Japanese animation, holding only 73 contracts according to the Anime Industry Report. Seven years later, it superseded South Korea to become the largest importer of anime with 474 contracts. Such a drastic increase (almost 550 percent) indicates that American corporations have attempted to meet the soaring domestic demand for anime during the past few years.

The story of anime in the U.S. illuminates a strategy J-Pop may also utilize to elevate its recognition among American audiences. The historical expansion of J-pop in Asian markets in the 1990s substantially relied on exporting music along with other Japanese cultural products. The strategy of promoting multiple products allowed foreign customers to appreciate the various facets of Japanese pop culture simultaneously. It created an echoing effect as the experience of interacting with one product would lead to the appreciation of another one. Such an effect is prominent with anime songs because of their ability to overcome language and cultural barriers for their connections with images and narrations compared to other forms of music. 

The recent success of a Japanese rock band called “RADWIMPS” in the U.S. further illustrates the special capability anime songs possess in terms of closing the culture gap. Their rock song “Zen Zen Zense”, made for the anime film Your Name, became extremely popular worldwide, with the music video garnering over 287 million views on Youtube. The song went viral partially because of the coexistence of a Japanese and an English version, both written by the leadman Yojiro Noda. He changed some details of the original lyrics to suit the English language. For example, Noda noticed a difference in language convention and accordingly inserted first-person pronouns that were absent in the Japanese lyrics to make the flow sound natural to U.S. listeners. What Yojiro Noda did in creating the English version of “Zen Zen Zense” is more than merely translating the literal meaning of the lyrics; instead, he “localized” it to cater to the customs of U.S. audiences and thus helped the song overcome the language barrier. 

Apart from overcoming the language barrier, the global success of “Zen Zen Zense” should also be attributed to its close connection to scenes from the film. The tagline of the lyrics, “Back in the Zen-zen-zense (lit. a very long time ago) till this day / Been looking everywhere for you”, resonates with the main plot of the story in both languages. While common U.S. listeners might find the context of the song—life in Tokyo, Shintoism, telepathy—difficult to grasp, they will have a rough understanding of those cultural contexts after watching the film. Such a combination of music and concrete imagery is the most unique feature of “Zen Zen Zense”. As an anime song, it allows the appreciation of Japanese music and the film to take place simultaneously. The visage image on the screen allows the audience who may not be familiar with Japanese society to comprehend the intended message. The explanatory power of visual imagery, therefore, also enables anime songs to reach a wider audience.

In 2020, RADWIMPS launched its first tour to North America, bringing J-Pop to metropolitans such as Los Angeles, Toronto, and Mexico City. Even though these events were canceled due to COVID-19, they signified the burgeoning J-Pop community in the U.S. Such increasing recognition of J-Pop could not exist without anime songs. At this point, we may witness a positive feedback loop in which anime songs play the most significant role: initially, anime attracts U.S. listeners to delve into Japanese pop culture; these anime lovers may appreciate anime songs simultaneously with the assistance of narratives and visual imagery; they might then start exploring other J-Pop genres and raise their demand; after realizing the monetary potential overseas, Japanese musicians will produce more songs that cater to Western listeners and further elevate the recognition of J-Pop in the U.S.

But how can anime songs boost the future recognition of J-Pop in the U.S.? On the one hand, even though anime songs can attract more American listeners to Japanese pop culture, the lack of local distributors in the U.S. market may impede them from exploring J-Pop and other Japanese music genres. On the other hand, Japanese corporations are also reluctant to increase their overseas investment to promote J-Pop since they cannot see immediate financial returns. Nevertheless, the growing popularity of anime and anime songs may help more Japanese artists to participate in the U.S. entertainment industry. Their performance will foreseeably elevate the recognition of J-Pop among American audiences once the culture gap between Japan and the U.S. is bridged by Demon Slayer, One Piece, and Pokemon.

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