Sounds of Tokyo 9: Pachinko

130323_1940Let me walk you in the door of the Pachinko Oasis. We are in Iidabashi, a geographically central but not especially electric area of Tokyo. The outer moat of the Imperial Palace provides a spacious feel, and a handful of universities and intersecting train lines give a little bustle: pubs, noodle shops, and of course the Pachinko parlor. The evening is calm, and the sliding doors of the Pachinko Oasis greet us with a roar of flipping punchers, tumbling pinballs, buzzers, sirens, and girl-group pop tunes. A stale mix of cigarette smoke and air freshener blasts us in the face. I last about twenty-five seconds. That is exactly how long it takes me to decide this is a place I never want to be again.

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Pachinko is a kind of vertical pinball machine with hundreds of balls cascading over a round light display. Each pathway triggers the release of more balls or spins a virtual slot machine in the center of the screen.  The game started as a simple mechanical toy for children, but since World War II, has ballooned into a $400 billion a year gambling industry. Of course, there is no gambling in Japan. It just so happens that next door to the Pachinko parlor, you can sell the plastic trinkets you won for real money. As long as the two businesses keep separate books, nobody says boo.

Before writing off the world of Pachinko, I figured I should at least give it a try. Feeling too shell-shocked and self-conscious to take a chair at the Oasis, I found a solo machine at the video store and plugged 100 yen into the slot. The machine came to life, offering me a variety of spiky-haired characters and releasing a flood of silver. The controls included a twisting knob, a pair of bright red buttons and a small four-key pad, basically a BOP-IT! set rigged up to a pinball machine. I pounded, pressed, and spun, but for the life of me, I could not discern any effect on the dwindling stream of balls. By the end I just watched them bounce their way down. My Pachinko career lasted about thirty seconds. I declined to enter my name in the score sheet and glanced around to be sure no on had watched me flailing around in my swivel chair. This was not my game.

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Across town at the Oasis, life goes on in one of the most abrasive sonic spaces ever created for human pleasure. Balls accumulate and diminish, stacked by the hundreds in plastic trays. Salarymen and housewives, college kids and retirees lose themselves, their eyes and fingertips twitching with the ricochets while their bodies remain perfectly still. I had always seen the name of the Oasis as purely ironic, but for the regulars it might just be apt. They are in the zone, the caustic sounds, lights, and smells blocking out all interference from the outside world. Or perhaps their senses just become so over-stimulated that they shut down, diverting all brain function to the computation of rebound trajectories. In either case, after my own Pachinko failure I have to respect their composure, and their ability to sit calmly in the crush of noise while four-yen balls flash down the drain.

Sounds of Tokyo 8: Plum Blossom Festival

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Spring brings blooming trees, first plum and then cherry. Gardens and shrines around the city hold festivals to celebrate, and people flood in with picnics, cameras, and toddlers. This garden, on the outskirts of Tokyo, is fairly small: a dense network of manicured paths crowning a hilltop, and wrapping around hundreds of blushing plum trees. The varieties range from white, to pale pink, to warm red, each type opening in succession through February and March.

Although the garden can be seen in a brisk twenty-minute walk, it can easily become an afternoon of sampling snacks, drinking tea, and lounging in the sun. The plum festival, or ume matsuri, brings out the street food and sweet sake vendors, and on this Sunday afternoon, included a musical act as well.

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The woman is singing enka, a style of sentimental ballads that first became popular in the post-war period. The genre is well defined: slow vibrato and swooping melodies, swelling orchestra with just a touch of Japanese traditional instruments. Every enka song I have ever heard plays around with this same bittersweet scale, a minor pentatonic found in traditional Japanese songs. The style is old-fashioned; the woman was dressed in full kimono and sang to an elderly crowd, but this song is actually new. She composed it in this very garden, a plea for young folk to leave the city and return to their forgotten villages.

Springtime, of course, is also allergy season = break out the pollen glasses and surgical masks. I am safe for now; apparently it takes a few years to build up in your system before you react. Tokyu Hands, everyone’s favorite lifestyle everything store, had a full display of particulate protection products, including a line of PM2.5 masks specially designed to filter out toxic pollutants wafting over from China. 130317_1920130317_1921

Why do you still exist?

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It looks to me like the world’s second largest music market is living in the 90’s. The ten-story Tower Records is humming with CD sales, dominated by bubbly boy bands and girl groups. Last year in Japan, physical sale of CDs actually rose while digital music sales fell. Looking for answers, I sat down this week with the Tokyo bureau chief for Billboard Magazine, Rob Schwartz. Most of what I report here is based on that conversation.

Japan’s brick and mortar music stores are supported on two sides: by consumers who favor their product, and an industry that profits greatly from their business model. On the demand side, Japanese music fans seem to place more value on a physical product than do their counterparts in America and Europe. The music store also fits well with the Japanese shopping culture; people would rather shop on the streets of trendy neighborhoods than on their computers. This habit is supported by the city’s train network, which generates constant foot traffic around subway stops and commuter hubs. The use of trains over cars has helped sustain many institutions considered moribund in the west: video rental stores, arcades, and bookshops to name a few.

On the supply side, to understand how Japan can hold steady against the digital tide, you have to consider the unique nature of the Japanese market. First of all, it is huge, behind only the US in size and well ahead of any European country. Second, that market is dominated by domestic music; over 80% of the music sold in Japan is made in Japan. Again, only the United States is more self-absorbed in its music tastes. These two facts put the Japanese music industry in a powerful position: it depends on neither imports nor exports to survive. It can stand alone, unconcerned with penetrating global markets or conforming to international trends.

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Only 2 foreign records cracked Tower’s top 20 this week

The handful of giant companies that dominate Japanese music have largely shut out digital competition. Sony Music will not license its Japanese artists to iTunes. Napster opened in Japan in 2006, and shut four years later because the industry was not responsive. Spotify and other streaming services have yet to try. Most of the digital market that does exist consists of mobile-phone ring tones and singles downloads: low quality audio that can’t even be transferred to a computer or mp3 player. But change is on the way. Last year both Sony and Rekochoku, the largest seller of mobile-phone downloads, launched their own online services. A few months ago, the Japanese parliament created harsh fines for illegal downloading, which could encourage more companies to go digital. Still, the industry is advancing cautiously, always protective of the highly profitable physical market.

The marketing end of business is perhaps even more old-fashioned. A recent survey of music industry executives asked which media outlets were most effective for reaching consumers. Responses were varied: radio spots, targeted web ads, online videos, and so forth. Every single Japanese executive gave the same answer: television. Morning variety shows are the number one tastemakers in Japan; if you have the money to buy airtime, you can be a rock star. Following the release of Justin Timberlake’s latest single and album, you can see the approach is completely different: it started with a Tweet that led to a YouTube video of Justin introducing his new track, followed by an online countdown to the actual video release, supported by ads on the MySpace home page and other sites. When the song went live, it sold 350,000 online downloads in a week. No part of that would happen in here, which is half the reason that Psy and his Gungnam Style invasion came from Korea, not Japan.

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Trucks advertising new music groups; they circle my office all day long

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On the ground, I don’t see signs of a digital revolution. When I try to look up bands that play the clubs and “Live Bars” of Tokyo, I often find little or no internet presence: maybe a few YouTube videos and a forlorn Myspace page. Taking in the whole picture, from the Sony monolith to the unlisted indie-rocker, I get the sense that music in this country is not experiencing the democratizing effects of the internet felt in the United States and other markets. Small acts aren’t going viral, and bigger acts aren’t choosing to ditch major labels in favor of online distribution and more independent marketing. Instead, talent houses and major labels run the show, taking on unknown artists and making them into stars. The company shapes their look, provides their material, markets their product, and to a degree unknown in the US, controls their lives. The process takes big time backing because it costs big time money. All those television spots are paid for, even the feature articles in Japanese Rolling Stone are paid for by labels.

My conversation with Rob Schwartz drifted between music, film, marriage, sexual morays, and industry intrigue, but the end of the night take-away for me was clear: I won’t be a rockstar in Japan. Like every high-schooler with a band, I dreamed of our Japanese tour with posters covered in Chinese characters and mobs of adoring fans. That is not going to happen. Japan is in many ways the most impenetrable market on Earth, dominated by domestic music produced by giant companies. They make the music, buy the TV ad time, and keep the teenagers lining up around the corner at Tower Records.