How Popular Are Anime Songs In Japan?

by Justin Sevakis,

Fredrik asked:

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?

It's hard to define what's "mainstream" and what's "otaku culture" these days. Aqours, from Live Live!! Sunshine actually had a song top the Oricon charts (the Japanese equivalent of the Billboard charts) a few months ago. That's definitely otaku culture. AKB48 and other large idol groups also regularly top the charts, but while there's a lot of cross-over with otaku culture, those groups don't really have THAT much to do with anime.

And in fact, sales charts aren't even a good barometer of how mainstream a musical act really is. Nobody buys more CDs than hardcore fans, tilting the scales away from bands with wider appeal and towards bands with a small-but-rabid fanbase. A song can easily make the charts and not even show up on the radar of people outside of their fandom, just by the fandom being large and extreme enough to buy a ton of copies.

The majority of anime songs (or "anisong" as the kids like to say) are not mainstream anywhere but nerd circles. Theme songs performed by voice actors or composed just for the show tend to stay pretty low-profile in the rest of the music world. Almost nobody outside of otaku circles know who Mamoru Miyano or Aya Hirano are, despite their long careers. They simply don't show up in places where people who aren't into anime would notice them.

There are lots of shades of gray here. For example, GRANRODEO isn't a huge name in Japan, but regularly climbs the charts just on the success of their songs for anime like Bungo Stray Dogs and Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans. Some of these songs will get airplay and end up echoing through shopping malls. Slowly, as subculture becomes culture and otaku culture becomes a bit more mainstream, the two once-very-separate worlds are starting to fuse a little bit.

For decades anime has been pulling music from already-popular, mainstream musicians anyway, effectively turning mainstream pop/rock into anime music. Shonen series like Boruto and My Hero Academia have done this for years, particularly when a record label is part of the show's production committee. 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 (and sometimes individuals) from Johnny's Entertainment -- from decades-running favorites like SMAP (who broke up last year), TOKIO, V6, Arashi and NEWS, to more recent acts like Johnny's West, Sexy Zone and A.B.C-Z. K-pop acts like BTS and Western stars like Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift and Shawn Mendes also regularly pop into the charts. There are also "art house" pop/rock acts like Ringo Sheena and UA, rock acts like BabyMetal... That's usually what you find on the Oricon charts on any given week.

But more and more these days, it's not uncommon to find a song you know from an anime series on the charts, and in mainstream rotation in Japan.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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