Why the Japanese Don’t Illegally Download Music. Much.

Bodacious Space Pirates(Source)

For all their passion, home-grown fans are not paying enough for K-Pop.

The CD industry is stagnant, and digital music sites are seen as vastly underpriced, with some charging just a few cents a song.

Bernie Cho, head of music distribution label DFSB Kollective, says online music sellers have dropped their prices too low in a bid to compete with pirated music sites….

….With downward pressure on music prices at home, “Many top artists make more money from one week in Japan than they do in one year in Korea.”

(BBC, June 2011)

With many implications for the Korean music industry, and raising many questions about the curious preferential treatment given Korean fans over international ones, I’ve been quoting Bernie ever since. So too Sony Pictures chief Michael Lynton and Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore on movies, the latter of whom suggested that cultural differences are the main reason that Koreans illegally download so much more of them than the Japanese:

…governments around the world are subsidizing and promoting the ubiquity of high speed broadband to make their economies more efficient and competitive. With this increase in speed, content will travel that much more easily on the Internet. But without restraints, much of that content will be contraband.

I’ve already seen it happen in South Korea, which has one of the most highly developed broadband networks in the world. But piracy has also become so highly developed there that we and virtually every other studio has recently had to curtail or close down our home entertainment businesses. It’s hard to sell a legal DVD when it can be stolen without any repercussions.

(Michael Lynton, The Telegraph, May 2009; source, below)

Iron Man 2 Japanese Poster…Paramount is holding back the release of “Iron Man 2” in Japan for several weeks, having little fear about the country being swamped with bootleg copies of the film.

However, when it comes to Korea, it’s a different story. “For better or worse, there are certain countries — notably like Korea — where it’s culturally acceptable to download movies online pretty much right away,” said Moore. “By the third week of a movie’s release, you’re starting to see a large part of the audience who will start consuming the film online. It’s why Korea has almost no home video business anymore.”

(Rob Moore, Los Angeles Times, May 2010; via The Marmot’s Hole)

Given Lynton and Moore’s frustrations, readers — and myself — can be forgiven for accepting that culture must have something to do with it, and that this would necessarily apply to music too. However, I’ve just finished reading Ian Condry’s brilliant Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization (2006), a must-read for all Japanese and — yes — Korean music fans (I’ll explain in a review later this month), who adds two crucial economic and technological reasons that few outsiders to Japan would be aware of:

Ian Condry Hip-Hop Japan(Source)

Two other aspects that distinguish Japan’s music market are rental CD shops and low rates of online piracy. These characteristics further demonstrate that abstract markets do not operate separately from their concrete settings. In Japan, recorded music sale rose steadily during the postwar period, peaked in 1998, and then began a sharp decline that continued through 2004. The start of the decline coincided with the emergence of Napster in 1999, but there are reason to think that online piracy offers only a partial explanation for the decline in sales. As I discuss elsewhere, online piracy is less prevalent in Japan than in the United States. In Japan, most young people access the Internet using cell phones, which as yet tend to have neither broadband connections not substantial hard drives. In addition, ubiquitous CD rental shops make it relatively easy and inexpensive to sample new music without relying on unauthorized downloads. CD prices are high in Japan, generally between ¥2,500 and ¥3000 (US $23-27), but renting a CD is very cheap, generally around ¥300 ($3). The widening availability of CD burners contributes to this “sneaker net” for passing around music and also limits the attractiveness of online file sharing. This suggests that the lack of online piracy arises less from a national respect for copyright than from the combination of a business setting in which rental shops make it easy for consumers to sample music cheaply and a technology environment dominated by Internet-ready cell phones that make downloading over peer-to-peer networks unfeasible.

(pages 190-191; my emphasis)

Written well before smartphones had made their debut, clearly that description is a little dated. Indeed, by 2012, the Recording Industry Association of Japan estimated that only 1 in 10 music downloads were legally purchased, prompting the Japanese government to introduce harsh fines and jail times* for — uniquely — the illegal downloading (rather than the more usual uploading) of content, which in turn provoked an attack on government websites by Anonymous.

However, the Japanese are notorious for stubbornly sticking to outdated technology. Common-sense dictates that looking only at digital downloads would give a very skewed impression of the Japanese music market, which is still the second biggest in the world.

Japan Smartphone(Source)

For just last week, Japan Realtime reported that CD sales are booming:

“The Japanese market is very different from the rest of the world,” said Mr. Minewaki [CEO of Tower Records Japan]…

….While global sales of physical CDs have been plunging under pressure from the digital download market, Japanese CD sales bucked this trend in 2012 with a 9% rise from a year earlier, according to the Recording Industry Association of Japan. Tower Records Japan is majority-owned by Japan’s largest wireless carrier NTT DoCoMo Inc.

Mr. Minewaki said CDs continue to do well in Japan because of legal constraints that curbs rapid discounting, a lag in consumers switching from feature phones to smartphones, and the popularity of rental CD shops where consumers can rent then copy music, a cheaper alternative than buying songs or albums online.

But the compact disc business isn’t completely immune to the marching popularity of digital downloads…

Meanwhile, here in Korea, I don’t think I’ve even touched a CD in the last year. Although I do have hundreds, being 37 years old and all…

How about yourself? Are CD rental stores also still around in Japan?

*Like most articles praising the rapid rise of the Korean digital music market and the supposed success of Korean anti-piracy efforts, this article completely fails to mention how absurdly cheap Korean digital tracks are, as noted by Bernie Cho in the opening quote.

23 thoughts on “Why the Japanese Don’t Illegally Download Music. Much.

  1. Yep. CD rental shops still around. In fact, there are about 3 within 5-10 minute walking distance in my area.


    1. Before I read and added the information about booming CD sales from the Japanese Realtime article, I would have expressed surprise, but now not so much!

      Are DVD rental stores still around too? In Korea, they’ve all but disappeared, clinging on I once read only because — seriously! — older Korean men were understandably too embarrassed to ask their sons how to use the internet to find porn, so they had to rely on DVDs instead.


  2. This was a refreshing post! Though I enjoyed the previous ones about sexuality and its related issues here in South Korea, it’s nice to read about music, movies, and pop culture from another country such as Japan. I’ve always enjoyed Japanese pop, rock and hip-hop.


    1. Thanks. This is a blog about sexuality and South Korea and so on though, so I’m afraid 90%+ of posts will continue to be about those sorry. But I am coming to realize the important similarities (and differences) between the Korean and Japanese music industries especially, and how a study of one informs an understanding on the other, so do expect more Japanese music-related posts in the future!

      p.s. The next movie review will be a Japanese one too!


      1. I love your blog because of the main focus. Living in South Korea, and in a very conservative area (Andong), your blog brings up many of the things my friends and I discuss. I only wish more Koreans would be as open to such topics.


  3. About the Japanese’s respect for copyright:
    Once I asked a Japanese person to find the lyrics of a Japanese song for me online because I couldn’t find it myself. Their answer was: you probably couldn’t find it because it’s illegal to post lyrics on the Internet, you’ll have to buy the album if you want to get the lyrics. So I said okay I don’t want to buy the whole album just for one song’s lyrics, so could you please just write down the lyrics (it was a song with only a few lines) and send them to me in an email? But they said no, it’s illegal so they won’t do it! I was like what the heck… No one is going to throw your ass in jail for writing a few lines of song lyrics in a private email!
    I guess I can’t really understand their respect for copyright because my country is like Korea, where literally _everyone_ downloads movies and songs from the Internet, even my cousins who all work for the police, and no one thinks it’s bad.


    1. Thanks, and that does beggar belief — it’s almost like one of those anecdotes in those numerous expat-writes-about-crazy-Japan books, like one off the top my head that opened with how a Japanese person wouldn’t jaywalk, even at 3am on a deserted road.

      Not that I’m not saying you made it up, or anything like that though. But when was this? Surely not in the last 10 years or so??


  4. Off-topic, but Asian Junkie has done another post arguing that
    plastic surgery in Korea has nothing to do with Western beauty standards. I know that you’re gone over this issue at great length already so I’m not necessarily expecting you to respond yet again, but I thought I’d bring it to your attention.

    There’s an interesting comment on the Asian Junkie entry:

    I know pale skin has been favored in most cultures since time immemorial, but what about the V-line and double eyelids? I know they weren’t present before Korea had much contact with the West…not to say that they came from them, but it is interesting that the ideal standard of Korean beauty currently resembles those of half-caucasions like Tia from Chocolat.

    The same thought had occurred to me — or rather it had come to me the other way around: Tia is the “face of the group” and gets more outside work (MCing, endorsements, etc.) because she comes closer to the current Korean beauty standard than Chocolat’s other half-American members do. The beauty standard is Western-inspired but requires certain specific features; it doesn’t favour people who just happen to be half-white.


    1. Thanks, although –yes — frankly, I don’t really think I have anything new to add to the topic. Also, my previous writing experiences have taught me that, regardless of the content, a Caucasian male writing on the subject just brings out too much vitriol in people, so it’s not something I’m all that eager to take up again!

      Four quick things though:

      1) If you haven’t read it already, Joanna Elfing-Hwang’s recent article “Cosmetic Surgery and Embodying the Moral Self in South Korean Popular Makeover Culture” at The Asia-Pacific Journal is a must read.

      2) That comment about the V-line betrays an almost complete lack of knowledge about where it and other terms like it really come from (and how recently!).

      3) Again with that comment, I’ve often heard that double-eyelids were popular and common well before Westerners arrived. Without necessarily disputing that though, I’ve yet to come across someone who provided actual evidence that they were either.

      4) What you wrote about Tia makes a lot of sense!



  5. It’s no big deal really, but just for the record, all of the above comments were made before I edited the post to include the information from the Japanese Realtime article. Cheers.


  6. Music has become like pornography. You could never survey all the free stuff in one lifetime so why on Earth would anyone pay for it? If you’re never not within reach of a button you can press and go on Youtube, and there’s nothing you can’t find on Youtube, why still pay for CDs?


  7. Interesting. Just a few days ago Ian Martin of Japan Times (actually one of my favourite writers) wrotethis on his blog, and it sounds like a crucial point to me:

    “So what countervailing advantages does pursuing a core fan strategy have for the Japanese music industry? Well, at one extreme, just look at mass idol collective AKB48 and their legions of obsessive fans, some willing to spend millions of yen on thousands of copies of a single in order to gain multiple voting rights in the group’s annual “senbatsu election” of the most popular members. Not only the CDs, but an ever growing pile of goods that the fans are encouraged to buy and buy again in order to show their devotion to the goddess of their particular sect within the AKB cult. AKB48 are an extreme example, but they’re the big success story in the domestic industry, and their success in monetising fans within a shrinking market has been noted with interest by their competitors.”

    You can read the whole article here: https://clearandrefreshing.wordpress.com/2013/06/27/why-music-industry-rapprochement-with-the-internet-might-not-work-to-fans-benefit/ , a very good read.

    I’m also glad you mentioned Condry’s book, I have it on my whishlist since I just finished “Japanese Popular Music: Culture, Authenticity and Power” by Carolyn Stevens. Do you have any other book to suggest? I’m just starting this: http://www.amazon.it/Idols-Celebrity-Japanese-Culture-ebook/dp/B009M98D7W, which is more a collaction of essays, some of them already covered on the Neo-japonism website, but from the first chapter I can tell it’s a great work!

    I hope you’ll keep writing about japanese pop from time to time, I’d especially like what you think about Koda Kumi, since she’s a very controversial figure yet as “corporate” as other idols.


    1. Thanks for the comment and interesting links, and sorry for the late reply. To add to Ian Martin’s post, by coincidence I just read here about the growing pile of goods fans need to buy here in order to attend any of the four major music shows, with exactly the same logic as Ian outlines:

      When the fanstaff come (time listed on the fancafe) they will check if you have the things you need to get in with the group. Once they’ve checked/gotten the people who have priority in the right order they will write a number on your wrist and that will be your entry number with the group. The higher your number/the lower your ranking is the less likely you are to get in.

      Most guides say you just need the group’s most recent CD. The fact that you need the CD is correct, but it is literally the bare minimum. All groups give priority to registered/paid official fanclub members, and most groups require other items such as proof you’ve leveled up on the fancafe (ex. Tasty, NU’EST), require you to sign up on the cafe beforehand for priority (ex. BAP, B1A4), have printed off proof-of-purchase of the songs (음원구매내역서) on an official Korean site (Melon, M!Net, Soribada, etc…) (ex. almost all groups!), ringtone/callback tone (ex. DBSK, NU’EST during FACE), printed off fanchant from the fancafe (ex. Infinite), or require you to buy official goods (ex. Infinite’s slogan). Those are just examples that I know of, and to know more specifically you NEED to check each group’s fancafe. Most stuff translates easily in Google Translate if you do it sentence/word at a time, the one that doesn’t I wrote up there in Korean.

      If you are missing any of the things you need, you will be pushed to the back of the line and be less likely to get in. If you don’t have the CD you can’t even line up except for rare cases (VIXX let’s people with just proof-of-purchase online get in behind people with the CDs). No excuses work. (My friend saw a girl telling BAP fanstaff she hadn’t brought her CD because it was raining that day and she didn’t want to get it wet. This DOES NOT WORK AT ALL.)

      I have heard of Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture (as it happens, via one of the editors tweet-complaining about how people were posting entire digital copies online for their friends!), and linked to it in a recent post actually, and I’m very annoyed that there’s no paperback version available yet. But I can’t recommend anything else sorry, because frankly I know next to nothing about Japanese music, and actually *cough* don’t even know who Koda Kumi is. I’m afraid you must be mistaking me for someone else!


  8. Potentially relevant to all this, Avex are launching a new group called FAKY, which “consists of bilingual members as it looks to expand its reach outside of Japan as the next generation girls group from Tokyo”. It sounds as if Avex want the group to attract an international following just as K-Pop groups have done. They’ve revealed two members so far, and one of them, Anna, was born in New Zealand.

    And there’s a slightly tenuous Korean connection. :) Anna acted in the film Ninja Assassin, starring Rain.


    1. P.S They’ve just revealed a third member, Tina. Diane and Tina are both half-American and Tina is a cheerleader…hmm, this is reminding me of a certain Korean idol group. :)


      1. In a recent interview, the group that shall not be named said this about their mixed-race heritage:

        Ever since their debut three years ago, [the group that shall not be named] has attracted attention for being ‘mixed-race idols’. What are their thoughts about this title that continues to follow them?

        “To be honest, I don’t like the emphasis that we’re mixed-race. We all have Korean citizenship and social security numbers too. We love Korea.” (Tia)

        They hope that people will see them as Korean rather than mixed-race.

        For obvious reasons, this seems a big disingenuous to me. But I’m curious as to why their management company are doing a complete 180 on that.


        1. The mixed-race idol angle hasn’t exactly made Chocolat massively popular with the Korean public, and it could have backfired, especially as the mixed-race members are all children of Korean women who married American servicemen. I presume that this heartwarming piece of PR was intended to counter the particular prejudices against children with that background. In fact, Melanie once got called a Russian prostitute during an unofficial webchat (incidentally, they confirmed that the missing member Jaeyoon had quit and was not, as per the official story, ill)..

          Since that unique selling point didn’t work, I suppose that the only thing left is to emphasise the members’ credentials as regular Korean girls and hope that the whole issue will eventually fade away. That said, I wonder if it’s as much the members being honest as a change in the company line, because I don’t think that Paramount Music/PM Entertainment/whatever they;re called have anything like the media management skills of bigger K-Pop companies. The girls chat unofficially to fans and go off-message, and even in official interviews they say things that the management wouldn’t be happy about. Melanie reportedly blabbed on Arirang radio that she gets jealous when guys are interested in Tia (and Tia’s ideal type is basically her), and oddly enough that episode is not available online. There was another Arirang interview where they were asked what they did in their spare time and they replied “sleep and eat”. I can’t tell you which member said that, because that episode isn’t online either.


          1. Sorry for taking so long to get back to you, and for not really having anything to say in reply. But good points, and I’ll bear them in mind next time I hear anything about PM.


  9. idol group’s senbatsu sousenkyo, handshake event, photopack, two-shoot photo is great way to fight piracy in music industry. Wondering if 48 franchise would work in SK. You can meet those idols everyday on theater, seeing how they grow form debut.


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