How Popular Are Anime Songs In Japan?

by Justin Sevakis,

Fredrik asks:

I've been to Japan twice, and one thing I noticed (and was disappointed about) is the relative lack of prominence of anison in Japan. I didn't get to hear radio much but in the few times I did most of the time they were playing non-anison J-Pop or even Western music. The same went for store ambiance music, except of course for stores in Akihabara or anime stores such as Animate or Gamers!. I went to non-anime record stores twice (once for each visit), and in both cases the majority of CDs on sales were non-anime related. Also, when going around, it seemed that most anison artists aren't exactly household names: the majority of people I asked (okay, maybe less than 30, but still a number of people) did not know the name Mami Kawada, for example. Finally, I've been reading about sales for most anison music, and it seems even the highest selling anison CDs, with rare exceptions (mostly Nana Mizuki ones), still have less sales than the best selling J-Pop artists. Is anison really that niche in Japan?

Anime songs (I'm still not ready to use the "anison" portmanteau, as it still makes me think of Jennifer Aniston) are not mainstream anywhere but nerd circles. While there will occasionally be some crossover between mainstream acts and anime (particularly in shows like Naruto, that specifically go after mainstream musicians), but for the most part anime songs remain obscure to the masses. Just HOW obscure varies wildly, however.

What's difficult to place here is exactly what makes an anime song an anime song, other than, obviously, being used in an anime. The songs that end up in shows are often generic J-pop performed by a voice actor, or an otaku-friendly singer that's on a record label affiliated with the production. But it's not exactly unusual for a show's creative staff to dive deeper, and end up with something more mainstream. Anime has dipped into songs from American and British acts, classical music, J-pop oldies, and more cutting-edge mainstream pop music. Occasionally, they even get a song from a real, bonafide celebrity, the sort "normal" Japanese people listen to.

And what do "normal" Japanese people listen to? Well, allowing for the fact that Japan is one of the world's most voracious and eclectic music consumers, the perennial chart-toppers tend to be extremely predictable. First are the boy bands from Johnny's Entertainment -- from decades-running favorites like SMAP, TOKIO, V6, Arashi and NEWS, to more recent acts like Johnny's West, Sexy Zone and A.B.C-Z. There are local R&B acts like SCANDAL, EXILE and Crystal Kay, American acts like Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber. There are also "art house" pop acts like Ringo Sheena and UA, local rock acts... That's usually what you find on the Oricon charts on any given week.

There's also, increasingly, a middle-ground between otaku-centric and mainstream music. AKB48 typifies this, where a song will go really big with the otaku crowd, but still draw enough of a mainstream following that they end up really high on charts. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and vocaloids like Miku Hatsune are other examples.

But the latest singles from late-night anime, by artists like Minami Kuribayashi and Maaya Sakamoto, simply don't make much of an impact at all with a wider audience. You'll see ads for their new albums and singles in Akihabara and other otaku enclaves, and that's pretty much it. Nobody outside of nerd circles has even heard of them.

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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