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Why is it so tough to buy Japanese digital media downloads?

by Justin Sevakis,

Vanessa asks:

Hello, is it impossible to buy Japanese digital media from any website while living outside of Japan? Cds and books are easily attainable from Amazon Japan, which even will display the website in English for foreigners. While browsing mp3s and Kindle editions, all I see are "unavailable" notices. Not much is on iTunes, too, or it is hard to find. Wouldn't it be profitable, no matter what country the buyer is in currently? Is it just a technical issue, or are the more expensive formats being pushed, like whole cd albums. I forgot to mention all the neat swag "for sale in Japan only." No fair.

There's definitely no technical issue. Japanese companies have not embraced worldwide distribution of their artists online, for the most part. There are a few reasons for this, some of them business reasons, while others are just obstinance or red tape.

The biggest obstacle is that the Japanese media business is run by powerful, sometimes unbelievably aggressive and controlling talent agencies. These guys really throw their weight around, and the most successful ones consider their talent to be a HUGE DEAL, inside or outside of Japan. They're used to dictating everything related to their talent, even down to what photos magazines can use. And in order for many of their biggest artists to be made available in, say, North America, they don't want to just casually put some songs online for everyone to see. No, there has to be a BIG SPLASH, with coverage on EVERY TELEVISION NETWORK and EVERY MAJOR MAGAZINE. They are, after all, big stars.

Needless to say, this is almost certainly not going to happen to Japanese musicians. (The closest any have ever gotten was Puffy, back in the early 2000s... or maybe Pink Lady back in the 70s.) But that's pretty much how Japanese talent agencies operate. Whenever it comes to making their talent available in a new country, it's go big or go home. And until they say when, it's no J-pop for you. (Or at least, physically importing CDs or piracy for you.)

At any rate, there really isn't THAT much of a market for Japanese music outside of Asia, so no other companies usually bother to challenge this position. (Nearly all attempts to release a significant amount of Japanese music in North America have failed miserably.) Moreover, that very conservative way of allowing access to something only when there's a good reason to allow it, rather than making things available everywhere by default, is pretty much a standard Japanese way of doing business. Most distribution contracts with publishers only cover Japan. Many publishers would want to think long and hard about making a book or a CD available elsewhere before allowing it. Would they be giving up possible overseas licensing opportunities? Is there really a market over there? Without a clear answer to those questions, it's hard to move the needle.

If you want to legally download Japanese music, your best bet is to go online and buy Japanese iTunes gift cards from a website like jlist.com, and then switch to the Japanese iTunes Store to use them. The Japanese iTunes music store doesn't have EVERYTHING, but it has the most Japanese music you're going to find online. You are going to have to search for your favorite musician or anime soundtrack in Japanese, however, so make sure your kanji (or at least your Encyclopedia copy/paste abilities) are ready before you attempt this.

While there are spotty reports that other Japanese services, including the Kindle store, might work from overseas with a VPN connection, the only surefire way of getting everything is by using a generous friend, or a service like OPAS. These will allow you to register a Japanese physical address, and they'll act as your personal forwarding address in Japan. It's definitely not free, but without physically going there to do your shopping, it's your most foolproof option.

Have you managed to legally download or pay for something that Japan didn't want to sell to you? Tell us what worked for you in the forum.

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

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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