top of page

May 2020

Cultural Article

Photo Credit: E! News

It’s Gonna Be May… and 5 Little-Known Facts about the Japanese Music Industry

by Mamiko Kim

Have you seen this joke before? A friend may have posted on social media the above meme of Justin Timberlake with the popular misheard lyric, “It’s Gonna Be May,” reminding you that April is ending, and it’s going to be… well, you get the picture. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the original lyric comes from the NSYNC song “It’s Gonna Be Me.” In the late 1990s to early 2000s, NYSNC was one of the biggest US musical groups, receiving 8 Grammy nominations, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and even performing at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. From that group, the biggest break-out star is easily Justin Timberlake, who has won 10 Grammys, continues to top music charts, and is consistently listed in magazines’ best-of lists, including in 2018 when Billboard critics argued that he was “the Best Male Pop Star of the 21st century.”

It was a surprise to me when speaking with a few of my Japanese colleagues, then, that they didn’t know who Justin Timberlake was. I played some of his more popular songs for them to listen to, but they hadn’t heard them before. They hadn’t even heard of NSYNC (though one colleague knew Backstreet Boys, ending the long-standing debate, I suppose, of which group is better. My middle school self would have been pleased).

This conversation peaked my interest in the Japanese music industry, and highlighted to me how little I knew, despite having lived there for several years. I wondered, what music is popular in Japan? What is Japanese music consumption like in general? From my digging, here are my top 5 little-known facts about the Japanese Music Industry.

Justin Timberlake's 2016 music video, "Can't Stop This Feeling," has over 1.2 billion views on Youtube.

1. Japan is the Second Largest Music Industry in the World

The growth of concerts and live-shows has helped propel Japan to become the

second largest music industry in the world, after the United States. 2018 saw 48 million concert goers, a 25% increase over five years, and 345 billion yen ($3.15 billion) in sales, a 49% increase during that same time. (1) Concerts are particularly important, not only for being a source of revenue, but also because it appears that Japanese fans especially value making a personal connection to the artist rather than simply consuming their music. Top-billing Japanese girl group AKB 48, for example, holds near-daily concerts in their personal theater, and were specifically founded as idols you can meet. (2)

This demand for more face-time with artists also explains why Western artists may have greater difficulty breaching the Japanese market than they did before. Johnny Thompson, a former employee of Warner Music Japan and currently general manager of the international division of Japanese music publisher Nichion, explains, “When I got into the business 25 years ago, the split was about 80-20 [Japanese to Western artists in the Japanese music market]. Now, I think it’s 90-10.” (3) Western artists who have a following in Japan have labels who have pushed for their presence there. This reveals why, Carly Rae Jepson, for example, has greater music sales in Japan after amassing fans from concerts, than Adele, who has comparatively dismal music sales in Japan (3), despite being listed as the number 1 best-selling artist of the 2010s worldwide. (4) Meanwhile, in addition to the advantage of a common language and relatability, Japanese artists continue to gain greater air time and notoriety as they do the on-the-ground work of amassing fans in their home country.

Results of an in-office poll asking if they knew the artists. Listed from top to bottom are the worldwide best-selling artists over the last decade, according to (#1 Adele- #10 Eminem)

2. CDs are the King of Music Sales

When was the last time you bought a CD? Or better yet, when was the last time you rented one? You may be surprised to learn that CDs account for nearly 70% of music sales in Japan. (1) Meanwhile, 18% are digital sales, and only 5% of music revenue is from streaming. (5) In comparison, only 9% of music sales in the U.S. were from CDs, with 88% from digital sales and 75% of the music industry revenue coming from streaming alone. (6) One reason for this may partially be due to the fact that CD prices in Japan are protected under law, and until very recently there was resistance to streaming as it was seen as direct competition to CDs. Prices are printed directly onto packaging to prevent discounting, and an average CD costs about $17, (5) compared to averages of $13 in the US. (7) Thus, less CDs need to be sold in order to make comparable profit elsewhere. In addition, slowing the growth of digital sales is the presence of over 2,000 CD and DVD rental stores in Japan, where for under $3 you can rent a CD (and inevitably have individuals discreetly ripping songs for much cheaper than actually buying the product) (5).

However, while pirating is a concern, CDs remain a popular medium because of the ways in which artists use them to market and interact with fans. Artists release multiple varieties of their singles and albums as collectors’ items. CDs can include different album covers, trading cards of group members’ pictures, tickets for meet-and-greets and other events, and a slot into voting for annual member election contests (one vote per CD serial number). Thus, it is common for many die-hard fans to buy hundreds of copies of the same CD to attain the full set of items, and also to try to push for their favorite band member to get more publicity and visibility through the election (those who win the election are featured in a song and music video, and are the fore-runner for the following year at promotional events). (5) With the legal system on its side and the benefit of fan interaction, CDs are likely to continue to be the most popular music medium in Japan in the near future.

"Happiness" by Arashi is the author's favorite song by the band.

3. Arashi’s Album was the Top Global Seller in 2019

In January of 2019, Arashi, a popular Japanese 5-member boy band, announced that they would be going on hiatus at the end of 2020 after being active for 20 years. Johnny & Associates, known for being Japan’s most prominent producer of iconic boy-band musical acts, debuted Arashi, or “storm” in Japanese, as a band that would “create a storm throughout the world.” (8) They may very well have, for they gained a following not only for their songs, but also for the dominating roles of its members in film (including Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima”), television dramas, game shows, and music programs. Fans were heart-broken at the announcement of the end of their activities. As a farewell, Arashi completed a whirlwind Asia press conference tour, and released “5x20 All the BEST!! 1999-2019,” which compiled their best hits. Selling at 3.3 billion global units, it beat out sales of Taylor Swift’s “Lover” album in second place, and BTS’s “MAP OF THE SOUL : PERSONA,” which came in third in 2019. (9)

Kenshi Yonezu's performance at Kohaku Uta Gassen of his hit-song "Lemon." The song begins at 1 minute 18 seconds. It was the first time a performance for the program was filmed in Tokushima, where the singer is from.

4. “Lemon” is the First Song to be #1 on a Billboard Chart for Two Years in a Row

Kenshi Yonezu’s “Lemon” made history in 2019 when it hit #1 on Billboard Japan’s Year-End charts for the second year in a row. This was the first time that a song was #1 for more than one year on any countries’ Billboard chart. The melancholy song about love-gone-wrong, with a memorable lyric of one’s heart being embedded with the bitterness of lemons, remained in the top ten songs in 2018 for 10 months straight after its release. (10) Then, in December, the first month that its popularity seemed to be fading, Kenshi Yonezu appeared on Kohaku Uta Gassen , a prominent music program that many Japanese watch as part of their celebrations on New Year’s Eve. Yonezu’s enthralling performance reignited interest in the song, and kept it at the top of charts throughout the majority of the following year. (11) While “Lemon” will likely not make the same headlines in 2020, it will surely remain a beloved song for quite some time.

This video of Yo Hitoto's "Hanamizuki" translates her lyrics into English. The song is a karaoke favorite in Japan.

5. The Top Karaoke Song during the Heisei Era is “Hanamizuki”

It would be remiss for any list on music in Japan to not mention karaoke. Known in the United States as rowdy, crowd-pleasing entertainment at bars, karaoke in Japan is a common family-friendly activity. Not only is it often used as a team-building exercise among colleagues after work, but it is not unusual for families to have their own karaoke machines at home. In fact, karaoke is so dominantly a part of life that music programs on TV consistently have the lyrics of songs on screen for people to be able to follow along. (The video of Yonezu on Kohaku Uta Gassen above is one example). Meanwhile, it is unheard of to see lyrics displayed on U.S. music programs. I cannot think of a time when “The Voice” or “American Idol” showed lyrics, despite being perfect formats to allow it. In fact, including the option to sing along is seen as a smart-marketing strategy in Japan. Swedish streaming service, Spotify, after years of struggling to gain a foothold there, finally launched in 2016. One of its premier features is a new karaoke style streaming system, which is only available on its Japanese platform. (12)

So, what is the most-sung karaoke song? During the Heisei Era (1989-2019) it was “Hanamizuki” by Yo Hitoto. (13) This hopeful song about following dreams and wishing the happiness of others was released in 2004, and was written in part as a message of peace after the September 11, 2001 attacks. (14) During this particular time of stress and unknown futures, it seems an especially fitting song to take to heart. While you are at home today, whether alone or with family, why not listen to some Japanese music, or even sing some karaoke to uplift your spirits? I guarantee that you will find something you like.

JITTI Staff recommends of songs to sing at karaoke!

Karaoke Pro Tip: Stay hydrated and keep a glass of water nearby

You can listen to the staff picks in this music playlist. Enjoy!


  1. Imahashi, R. (2020, January 16). Japan's music industry rises again in new 'age of discovery'. Retrieved from

  2. Akimoto, Y. (2009, July 28). Japanese Idol Group AKB48 to Perform at MIPCOM. Retrieved from

  3. Brasor, P. (2017, January 28). Big in Japan? Overseas artists may find it more difficult to draw a crowd. Retrieved from

  4. MJD. (2020, January 02). Bestselling artists of the 2010s. Retrieved from

  5. Vido, R. (2017, July 05). Why is the music industry in Japan so strong?: Scandinavian Traveler. Retrieved from

  6. RIAA. Facts Archive. Retrieved from

  7. Cohen, W. (2018, June 25). CD Prices on the Rise Again. Retrieved from

  8. Michel, P. (2019, January 29). Arashi's hiatus spurs heartbreak, but hopes for a 2020 Olympic farewell. Retrieved from

  9. Billboard. (2020, March 19). IFPI's Best-Selling Album of 2019 Announced. Retrieved from

  10. Japan, B. (2018, December 12). Kenshi Yonezu Talks 'Lemon' Topping Billboard Japan's 2018 Year-End Chart: Interview. Retrieved from

  11. Japan, B. (2019, December 16). Kenshi Yonezu's 'Lemon' Logs Historic Second Year at No. 1 on Billboard Japan's 2019 Year-End Charts. Retrieved from

  12. AFP. (2016, September 29). Spotify launches new karaoke style streaming in Japan. Retrieved from

  13. SBS PopAsia. (2018, December 03). Japan's top 50 karaoke songs from the last 24 years. Retrieved from

  14. 一青窈の代表曲「ハナミズキ」の歌詞の意味を紐解く - 音楽メディアOTOKAKE(オトカケ). (2017, March 21). Retrieved from

bottom of page