J-Music in the US: a Brief History

Written by Zer0

Everyone's excited about Utada and BoA's respective forays into the American music market. Here's a quick breakdown of other artists who have made the attempt in the past.

 

Kyu Sakamoto's
Kyu Sakamoto (1963)

Kyu Sakamoto's now-legendary single "Ue wo Muite Arukou" was released in Japan in 1961. A British group, Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen, did an instrumental cover of the song in 1963. They thought the original name was too long so they renamed their cover "Sukiyaki" - a word that was short & easy to remember, while also very obviously Japanese. Capitol Records noted the cover version's popularity and decided to release the original Japanese version of the song in the West. "Sukiyaki," performed by Kyu Sakamoto, made it to number one on the Billboard Chart in America - the first (and so far, only) completely foreign-language song to do so. Sakamoto's second single only made it to number 58 in the USA. Unfortunately, Kyu Sakamoto was one of the 520 people who died in the crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123 near Gunma on August 12, 1985. He was 43.

 

Pink Lady's American Debut Album Cover
Pink Lady (1979)

Pink Lady were already huge in Japan by 1979. Their sexy costumes and (by the day's standards, complex) dance routines made their catchy songs even more memorable. So, that year, they took their act to the USA, making the unfortunate decision of releasing "Kiss In the Dark," a disco song, at the tail-end of the disco era, just as the genre was fading swiftly from popularity. While the song did reach number 37 on the Billboard chart, their American television variety show, "Pink Lady ...and Jeff" sealed their fate. The show lasted only 6 episodes and since then has been consistently rated one of the worst programs ever to appear on television. The jabs at the girls' "Japanese-ness," their lack of English comprehension, and the show's lackluster performances of disco covers turned the girls into a joke here in the USA, and after one album of ballads & disco songs, the girls were never heard from again stateside.

 

Seiko's Self-Titled American Debut
Seiko (1990)

Matsuda Seiko is one of the biggest, most legendary pop divas in Japan. In 1990, she attempted to make a dent in the American market by changing her name to "Seiko" and performing "The Right Combination," a duet with New Kid Donnie Wahlberg. The New Kids on the Block were the biggest thing in America in 1990, so this was a very good move - while the single did not reach the top 40, it did chart. However, the album failed to sell and, even after switching labels in 1995 and working with well-known American producers, Seiko remained virtually unknown to mainstream audiences in the states. She would, however, have some success with two dance music singles in 2002.

 

Pizzicato Five's
Pizzicato Five (1994)

 

Pizzicato Five are nowadays very well-known for propelling the success of the Shibuya-kei sound. By 1994 the former five-piece group (which debuted in Japan with only four members) was a trio, and they released the "Five By Five" EP in the USA. This was followed by the ironically-titled "Made in USA" album, which consisted of tracks from their previous three Japanese albums. While they never had huge mainstream success in the USA, fans of more underground music knew them very well, and songs such as "Happy Sad" received respectable MTV airplay.

 

Toshi Kubota's
Toshi Kubota (1995)

Soul singer Toshinobu Kubota has had moderate success in Japan, and in 1995 moved into the American market, shortening his given name to simply "Toshi," and released his album "Sunshine, Moonlight." The next album he released in the states was his Japanese album "Nothing But Your Love," in 2000. It was simply repackaged for an American audience. He never got any radio airplay here, and had no mainstream success. Toshi's sound was always inspired by American soul and R&B, and Toshi spent plenty of time in the states to immerse himself in the culture. This, however, did not translate to stateside success. After his first attempt at the US market, his single "La La La Love Song" would go on to be a huge hit in Japan, solidifying his success in his home country.

 

Mai-K's
Mai-K (1999)

In October 1999, then 16-year-old Kuraki Mai recorded an English single in the USA called "Baby I Like," and it did absolutely nothing. Following this, Mai found plenty of success under the Giza label in Japan. Her album, "Delicious Way," put Kuraki out there and made her a very well-known pop star domestically. Giza USA then released an English-language repackaging of the album, "Secret of my heart," under the name Mai-K in the states. This also did absolutely nothing, despite plenty of outdoor advertising. Mai-K got no radio or MTV airplay in America which meant no mainstream success. She has continued to do very well in Japan, however.

 

Puffy AmiYumi's
Puffy AmiYumi (2000)

Puffy made their American debut live rather than on disc. After being featured at the South by Southwest conference in PuffyAmiYumi in cartoon formAustin, TX in 2000, Sean "Puffy" Combs sued them for use of the name "Puffy" in America. The girls therefore changed their professional name to "Puffy AmiYumi," incorporating the girls' given names. In 2002, the girls went to Anime Expo to promote the US releases of "Spike," their then-latest Japanese album, and "An Illustrated History," a best-of collection exclusively released stateside. Between 2004 and 2006, the girls appeared on television in cartoon form on the Cartoon Network show "Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi," which featured fictional stories of the girls on the road with their manager, Kaz. The show did modestly well, and the girls got their own float & balloons at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade - a very big honor that only the biggest pop culture phenomena usually get. Puffy AmiYumi released their next two albums, "Nice." and "Splurge," in the USA also. While it was the cartoon more than the music that got them their American success, they are the biggest J-Pop success in the states since Pink Lady.

 

And then of course there's Utada and BoA - but it's likely you already know those stories. :)

The following Japanese, Japanese-American, or Japanese-language artists have also released (or will release) music in the American Market:

Shonen Knife
DJ Krush
James Iha
Cibo Matto
The Slants
Fantastic Plastc Machine
Mondo Grosso
Boom Boom Satellites
Dir en Grey
Tamaki Nami
T.M. Revolution
X-Japan

The following Asian, Asian-American, or part-Asian American (by blood) artists have also released (or will release) music in the American Market:

Edward & Alex Van Halen
Coco Lee
Sun Ho
SE7EN
Wonder Girls