Johnny’s and Engaging the Foreign

Hi, I’m Captain Ahab. You may remember me from such posts as “Using JTicket International 2: Electric Boogaloo” and my seemingly endless stream of posts screaming about a certain idol and his doofy fucking face. I come to you today to talk about Johnny & Associates’ engagement with foreign fans and the foreign market. (But first, let me welcome you to this new space for discourse (welcome!))

Ah, Johnny’s. That bastion of sparkles, flashing lights, and costumes with poofy shoulders and an abundance of feathers. Yes, Johnny’s, that perennially insular provider of male idol groups whose business practices are virtually inscrutable. Over the past three years, they have been quietly expanding in small but relatively significant ways to engage a larger portion of the foreign market. Let’s explore those changes and their implications, focusing largely on concerts and access to information, and the ways in which J&A is both embracing and decentering fans and fan cultures (read: J&A appreciates your money but also probably hates you).

If you’re at all familiar with J&A, you know just how insular J&A is. Much of this is a byproduct of the structure of Japanese media and its insularity. Japanese media programs are much more difficult to license overseas due to their licensing fees being higher than any other country in Asia (this is a direct factor in why hallyu has gotten to be such a big deal because Korean dramas were/continue to be cheaper to license than Japanese. But that’s a post for another time). You know box sets of dramas, whether they feature idols or not, and concert DVDs of your preferred groups are exorbitantly expensive. CD singles and albums aren’t cheap, either, particularly for foreign fans. The Japanese media market aims to serve itself and be self-sustaining. I’d like to expand further on the efficacy and feasibility of self-sustainability, but that’s also another post for another time. Foreign sales, however, aren’t insignificant, and sales through Oricon-partnered online retailers are counted in overall Oricon sales with no distinction between foreign and domestic sales and have been for years now.

As we know, the pace at which J&A has embraced foreign fandom and social media has been glacial. Johnny’s International email service started in 2010 as a way for J&A to reach its fanbase and let it know about upcoming releases (mostly Tackey Channel), to let fans know about concerts for which they will be able to ballot, and any other information J&A feels fans need. J&A knows foreign fans are out there. Foreign fans obtaining, translating/subtitling, and then disseminating Japanese television shows (particularly dramas) has been a thing since at least the early 2000s1. Increasingly, fans are prosumers, crafting (and creating) content that reflects their desires and their views of/on the idol(s). This is also true for fan translators who, in whatever capacity, disseminate information about their favourite idol(s).2 Prosumption is something we’ll address in greater detail in another essay, but for now, just keep in mind that prosumers are interlocutors and shaping knowledge for foreign fans — largely for those dependent on translations, but also consider the way fans on sites like Tumblr shape information (I’m totally guilty of this).

In response to the doing away with restrictions on Japanese cultural products (in Korea, at least), various Johnny’s groups have done concerts and fan meetings in Korea, mainland China, and Taiwan (Arashi and V6 in participating in the Asia Song Festival in Kwangju and Seoul, NEWS in Taiwan, and SMAP in Shanghai immediately come to mind) (we know correlation doesn’t equal causation, but you have to know you have a market there before you’ll throw your money down to do a concert overseas). These opportunities are rare, but they do happen every few years or so. It’s important to note that these concerts are vastly different than the slap in the face that is Arashi’s upcoming 15th anniversary concert in Hawaii which is specifically for fans living in Japan who hit for tickets and get in on that package deal with JAL (and maybe a few Hawaii-based fans); these concerts in South Korea, Taiwan, and Shanghai are for the foreign fans. (Also, before we go on, let’s appreciate that TOKIO are going to be playing Summer Sonic this year, marking the first time a J&A group will be playing summer rock festival) (also, before fans get all crazy on me, I’m not saying it’s Arashi’s fault they’re doing this concert in this way, but it does still feel like a slap in the face).

You’re familiar with the family club only allowing those with Japanese addresses to join, and how one needs to be in the family club in order to ballot for tickets. And you know just how cruel a mistress the balloting system can be — send your 8,000 yen per ticket months before the concert, let Johnny sit on (or swim like Scrooge McDuck in) your money, only to call the hotline to find out you didn’t get chosen in the lottery and have your money returned (and your soul crushed a little. With love, Johnny & Associates). Of course, this all varies by group; some groups are easier to see than others. It’s really difficult to obtain a concert ticket if you’re a foreign fan, especially if you don’t live in Japan. Your only real options are: have someone in the FC and hope they hit for tickets; buy a ticket off someone on Twitter, Mixi, Yahoo! Auctions, or in one of the idol shops in Harajuku (and then, it might be marked up); or stand outside the venue with a sign in Japanese that reads “please sell me 1 ticket.” Lucky for you, JTicket International became a thing back in 2011 with a major change happening sometime between 2011 and 2013. Fans who hit for tickets in 2011 had to send copies of their passport photo page along with their flight itinerary to secure their ticket (and then pay cash at the venue); in 2013, you just had to pay online with a credit card and bring your confirmation email. They really had something there with JTicket International. The reader will note my use of the past tense there because JTicket has ceased operation and I am not presently aware of a successor to it. It was really nice while it lasted. I hope it comes back and I can also get some use out of my Johnny’s Family Club Support Card.

So that’s not a thing anymore. Also back in 2011, Johnny’s released the Johnny’s Web app to the App Store and Google Play, meaning users with smartphones could access jweb on their mobile devices by paying the 325 yen or whatever it is per month like everyone else. And that’s pretty rad. It sucks if you can’t really read Japanese, because you’re still having to either depend on more fluent fans to translate it or you’re stumbling through the entries, struggling with kanji (or both!) (I know I still do the latter on occasion. Kanji is a cruel mistress). Either way, it was something. And sometime last year, Johnny’s added English, Korean, and Chinese subscription services, so you could read the entries in your preferred language (assuming you read one of those languages).

What this does is in a way undermines fan translators and filesharers. Let me explain. This allows J&A to interact with fans who want to support their idols and/or who may not even know about fan translators, but it also lets them retake control over the words and images their idols are posting. This can also be seen in TBS uploading the foreigner segments of “Amazipang” with English subtitles to YouTube. I’ve talked a little before on my other blog about the implications of “Amazipang” as it plays into the formation of a national narrative and current nation branding strategies, and I plan to expand that this summer. For now, just be aware that this is pretty huge, mostly as it relates to the global availability of Japanese media. This is what Korean media companies started to do a few years ago to both engage with fans and combat illegal filesharing: put the shows on YouTube, provide subs, and expect fans will watch it that way. The companies still retain control over their intellectual property and can change or remove the video at their discretion (let’s not get into semantics about how people can still download videos from YouTube or any of that, okay?). It should be noted, and this is vital, that these segments on YouTube are all sans V6. The only reason this writer can think of for this is “because Johnny’s” (when you’re still mandating that online vendors selling magazines or books with your idols on the cover instead use a silhouette of the idol(s), you’re not going to upload videos of them to YouTube).

So there are good and bad things about Johnny’s engaging with fans. You can feel included in the community by having the information (whether textual or media) delivered to you directly and in your preferred language. It does, however, serve to disrupt the visible but still somewhat illicit fan communities that have formed and thrived on the internet for over a decade. That’s sort of the impression I have of Johnny’s recent foray onto Weibo. Johnny’s have had twitter accounts for things before (usually stage plays, sometimes dramas, some of them run by J&A artists. Koyama running the twitter account for “Guests of Room #0” while it was running comes to mind), so there has been some engagement there but no real official presence.3 On the one hand, you feel like you’re a witness to history. Wow, Johnny’s embracing social media! On the other hand, you’re paranoid and you wonder what this means for fan communities. You’ve probably felt the panopticon or heard rumblings about it and its reaches but now the panopticon is staring you in the face.

There seems to be very little in the way of a concerted strategy to engage an increasingly visible foreign market; again, much of this could very well be due to the insularity of the Japanese market itself. Johnny’s has been a pop culture force for decades without the foreign market, and the foreign fans have proven they’re willing to (resigned to?) conform to the system already in place in order to engage with their idol(s). Groups may go overseas to debut (Arashi, Tegomass), or for promotions for movies (“Letters from Iwo Jima,” “SP,” “NazoDi”) or to perform plays (“Talk Like Singing,” “Kinkakuji”), go on location for news coverage or variety shows (the list is quite long but Sho, Inocchi, Tego, Koyama, and Taichi all immediately come to mind, along with V6’s many “where are you going?” games and the time they went to South Korea to sell sushi for the VVV6 junk battles or when Inocchi went to Miami, etc., etc.), and occasionally appearing on foreign TV (Yamapi), but there’s no concerted engagement. Again, there doesn’t need to be. Many fans who illegally get their hands on Johnny’s material will later buy that same or new material in order to support the artist — or at least will feel compelled to even if they can’t afford much — but in this is conformity to the current market strategy. Johnny’s groups have exposure through fans who encounter media containing them in Japan, on the internet, through friends, etc. or who seek them out. “Amazipang” and Yamapi’s new show, “Otona no Kiss Eigo,” show some efforts to engage the foreign, but again, we have to consider the primary market for these shows and the reason behind them. “Amazipang”‘s show description says explicitly that they’re going to talk to foreigners about what’s awesome about Japan and then show that off to the world, and Yamapi’s show is, by its own description, not just a show for studying English (but it kind of is). These shows are cool, but again, they’re not specifically for us. Whether they’re used in engagement with the foreign fans/market remains to be seen (“Amazipang” sans V6 is trying) but there’s currently no indication they will be. Foreign celebrities often appear on J&A variety shows (“SMAPxSMAP,” “Arashi ni Shiyagare,” “VS Arashi,” “Gakkou e Ikou” (RIP), etc.) but again, consider the primary market for these shows.

All of this operates under a principle of “come to us, because we’re probably not coming to you.” Concerts in foreign locations are logistically difficult, yes, but lucrative. Yet they don’t happen often, so fans are invited to come, via JTicket International (RIP), to Japan. Fans are encouraged (expected?) to sign up for subscription-based services to read blogs. Information is, to some extent, increasingly coming from Johnny’s themselves. Fans are definitely expected to buy official releases from their favourite artists. There’s a normalizing in all this, and it’s one that gets fans to behave as J&A expects its Japanese fans to behave. It also, again, allows Johnny’s to control the script and its products. The foreign may feature in J&A (location shoots, locations for concerts/fan meetings, on TV shows, etc.), and as we’ve seen, there have been/are attempts at including the foreign but only insofar as it brings the foreign under their purview and, again, normalizes consumption practices.

This author has no real pronouncements on all this; she is merely cautiously optimistic for how and in what ways these things will change in the future. All media markets are different. Engagement is complicated, and I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens? There still seems to be a policy of letting sleeping dogs (fan communities) lie, but who knows when or if that will change.



Citations and Notes
01. Lee, Dong-Hoo. “Popular Cultural Capital and Cultural Identity: Young Korean Women’s Cultural Appropriation of Japanese TV Dramas” in Chua, Beng Huat, and Kōichi Iwabuchi. 2008. East Asian Pop Culture: Analysing the Korean Wave.. It is interesting to note that in this study fans, even when presented with official subtitles on DVDs, still preferred fansubs because fans would explain culturally-specific concepts/practices.

02. See the first and last chapter of Scripted Affects, Branded Selves: Television, Subjectivity, and Capitalism in 1990s Japan by Gabriela Lukacs. She deals much better with the idea of consumers crafting and creating content, the increasingly niche nature of Japanese media and choosing what one consumes and what one associates with, and the cultures surrounding fansubbing and foreigners consuming dramas.

03. Readers should be aware Johnny’s are not (usually) allowed to have social media accounts. Jin created his in March 2011 while still with J&A and as he was in the midst of his US debut. Others, such as Tanaka Koki, had to wait until Johnny’s terminated their contract. J-web is, in essence, the closest J&A artists get to official social media accounts. And speaking of Jin, we’re not even going to, because his attempts to break into the US market just require a whole separate entry.