You can still walk into music stores in Japan and see albums released on cassettes. I’m not sure which is more amazing: Being able to walk into a music store or being able to buy new music on cassettes.
As with the rest of the world, music has gone digital in Japan. There are still music stores and some Japanese pop groups, notably girl group AKB48, can sell millions of CDs. (Thank clever marketing for that!)
Yet, here is another photo I took of cassettes on sale in Japan (more images below, via Japanese sites):
This wasn’t a Tower Records, but it was a chain-type music store in a large shopping mall in suburban Japan. And look, magnetic tape!
Japan isn’t alone in this regard. There are other countries that still use tape. But many countries in the Western world have moved on.
Yet in Japan, you can buy new albums — albums released this month — on cassette. The albums, however, might not be what you think: They’re enka (演歌) songs or kayoukyouku (歌謡曲). Enka is a traditional type of Japanese singing — it’s kind of like the equivalent Japan’s blues or country music, but in fancy kimonos. Kayoukyouku is a type of old style pop music that developed in Japan in the 20th century.
Many young people in Japan don’t seem to realise how terrific these styles are, and the biggest fans are typically older people. So, if you walk into the enka section of a Japanese music store, you will see new releases on cassette tape.
Here’s a popular enka singler Kiyoshi Hikawa. He’s way younger than your typical enka singer. Even this guy still releases music on tape. Look at the crowd, and maybe you can see why.
Recently, in the West, cassettes have seen a resurgence with hipsters for a variety of reasons. Website Motherboard has a wonderful look at how cassette tapes are “almost cool again.”
The logical conclusion would be that tapes survive in Japan, because people are old. Old people use old technology. And enka and kayoukyouku are music for old people. It’s not so simple.
First, you don’t really see cassette versions of classical music and jazz, even though older people listen to those genres.
Second, as Teichiku Records explained to Excite a few years back, many of these fans, especially those of enka, enjoy karaoke. To practice, they sing along with the recordings and try to get certain parts just right. However, CDs, with their skip function, are too fiddly for many older music fans. For them, pressing Pause, Stop and Rewind on a tapedeck is far easier.
This year in Japan, seven singers have already released cassette singles on King Records, and by the end of February, nine singers will have released cassettes this year on Columbia Records. Likewise, artists on Teichiku also release new songs on tape.
Cassette still is very much a niche product in Japan. But it’s a niche that many hope sticks around a little longer.
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