*First broadcast on June 30, 2022.
In Japan, vinyl records have made a comeback. Sales in 2021 were 10 times higher than they were in 2010. Japan's second-hand records are well-regarded all over the world because they're generally kept in great condition. Our guest, Honne Makoto, works for a record manufacturing company. He tells us about the history of vinyl in Japan, and its appeal in the modern era. We also see how world-class Japanese technology contributes to making vinyl records and the machines that play them.
Hello, and welcome to Japanology Plus.
I'm Peter Barakan.
Our topic for today, if you can't tell
from the design of my t-shirt, is this:
It may come as a surprise to some people
watching this program that
for the last 40 years or more,
most of my time has been taken up
curating and presenting music programs
on the radio,
so today is going to
be right up my street.
For the last 15 years or so in the West,
most people have been consuming
their music through streaming,
and with the attendant
decline in CD sales,
surprisingly, vinyl records
have made something of a comeback.
So today, we take a dive into
Japan's record culture.
In Japan these days,
record shops are often
packed with customers.
The popularity of records
is illustrated by sales figures.
In 2010, sales totaled 170 million yen.
But the 2021 figure was
over ten times higher: 2.3 billion yen.
That astonishing growth
is being fueled by people under 30.
The artwork's a key factor.
I share images of my records online.
I can carefully dust my records,
and really take care of them.
That aspect appeals to me a lot.
The market for second-hand records
is booming too.
Here's a shop in Tokyo.
It stocks around 100,000 items,
including pop, rock, jazz,
and classical music.
Some are valuable collector's items.
Take, for example,
The Beatles' debut album.
The price is nearly 300,000 yen!
Japan's second-hand records are
also drawing international attention.
And that has prompted the emergence
of specialist export businesses.
This one ships around 30,000 records
a month to Germany.
From there, they're sent around the world.
Second-hand records from Japan are popular
because they're in such good condition—
much better than most records in the West.
People in Japan lavish
care and attention on their records.
A disc someone bought 40 years ago
will often be in almost perfect condition.
The jacket, too, must be in good shape.
And one extra feature gives records
sold in Japan a unique appeal.
These paper strips are called obi,
and they're only found on records
available in Japan.
The information on the obi may include
or a description of the artist.
Obi are not found on records elsewhere,
giving them significant scarcity value.
You can buy second-hand records
in some unusual places.
Here's one example.
It's a convenience store
where you can also buy vinyl.
Most of the stock here is
You can pick one up with your groceries
and other everyday purchases.
There's even a listening station
at the back of the shop.
I collect records myself.
When we held a flea market in the store,
I tried selling them,
and they did really well.
So I decided to stock
records all the time.
That's how it started.
Here's a record shop that's also a pub.
They serve craft beer.
Customers can enjoy a drink
as they browse through the stock.
I spent half a year in the UK,
and I loved the pub culture there.
We still didn't really have that
in Japan back then, so I opened a pub.
I also wanted to sell records,
and now I do both.
The popularity of vinyl records in Japan
shows no signs of waning.
This is a record manufacturing plant.
Here, we're making seven-inch singles.
Wow, it's amazing.
You're still making singles.
How many discs can
this turn out in an hour?
That's actually quite quick.
Our guest, Honne Makoto,
works for this company,
which produces over
a million discs per year.
His job is to promote sales of records.
It's interesting that second-hand records
from Japan are popular around the world.
First of all, are we talking about
Japanese music, or foreign music?
Well, in Japan we have this music
called “City Pop.”
You can trace it back to what we called
“New Music” in the 1970s.
It was like folk rock, basically.
Yes, yes, “New Music” was like that.
“City Pop”, though,
is kind of old-style Japanese pop
with various US styles mixed in.
For some reason, in the last few years,
the “City Pop” genre
has become globally popular.
Another reason behind the demand
for second-hand records from Japan
is their condition.
Americans and Europeans
handle discs differently.
Maybe a bit rough with them?
I wasn't! I used to take
really good care of my records.
But I know what you're talking about.
I can remember lending records to friends,
and having them come back
OK, so Japanese people
do treat their things well.
We keep things looking nice.
What do you think is responsible
for this sudden popularity in vinyl,
after such a long time?
Around 15 years ago,
an event called “Record Store Day”
was started in the United States.
The idea was to encourage people
to visit independent record stores,
and to listen to vinyl records.
That was 15 years back.
And artists quickly got involved.
Earlier than record labels.
That's because artists liked
how their music sounded on vinyl.
They also liked that records,
have an A Side...and a B Side.
It's like a character with
a public persona and a hidden side,
occupying the same world.
With one 20-minute side of an LP,
you can tell a story.
Artists wanted their music
to be heard in that analog form,
and I think that message
reached their audience.
One thing I've always
felt with vinyl records is that
the sequencing is important.
With CDs, as soon as CD players came out,
they always had a remote control,
and if you didn't like the song,
you could just skip it.
Whereas with LPs, there was…
there were two sides.
And one side is typically about
20 minutes, give or take a few minutes.
And that's a kind of good segment of time
to be able to maintain
your attention span.
Streaming services started in 2015,
In Japan, yeah.
They started much earlier
in Europe and America.
It was a hammer blow to
pressing companies like us.
Really, you thought it
was going to be fatal?
We were very shocked.
But in fact in 2015,
our sales actually began to rise.
In the US, Record Store Day had begun.
“Listen to vinyl!”
had re-emerged as an idea.
Japanese musicians, too,
began to say “Listen to us on vinyl!”
Many people aren't fans of music per se;
they're fans of certain artists.
So when their favorite band says,
“Listen to us on vinyl,”
they go out and buy it.
I guess for a lot of young people,
who up to a certain point
had never seen a vinyl record,
and probably didn't even know
what to do with it.
How to handle it.
How did they know how to play it,
In the age of streaming services,
records are a world apart—
a kind of mysterious black object.
But here's my view.
Record players are fiddly.
You have to adjust all the audio settings.
And I think people are actually
enjoying that aspect.
Spending time on something like that
is actually really pleasant.
And here's another point.
Recently, we've been
experiencing a pandemic,
and people have spent more time at home.
They started to think,
“What's really important in my life?”
“Is it drinking with colleagues?
Is it going on dates?
Wait a second...it's actually
being at home, listening to records!”
records first went on sale in 1903.
But those records were made elsewhere.
At that time, no one in Japan
could produce records.
So they were made in the US,
and shipped over.
Production began in Japan in 1909.
Early records featured traditional songs,
and music from
traditional performing arts.
Then politicians began using records
to speak about their policy positions.
Rather than touring the country,
they could save a lot of trouble
by recording a speech on vinyl
and distributing it.
In the 1920s,
Western jazz and classical music
became especially popular in Japan.
At a time when few musicians
traveled to Japan,
records were a way to listen
to world-class performances.
But that meant access to a gramophone.
And they cost more than
most people could afford.
Records themselves were also
too expensive for the average consumer.
the starting wage for university graduates
was 50 to 60 yen per month.
One record cost around 1.5 yen.
This led to the emergence of music cafes,
where customers could listen to records.
Different cafes specialized in different
music: jazz, or classical, for example.
When Japan's war years began in the 1930s,
Japanese records entered
something of a dark age.
Records featuring music from enemy nations
including the USA and UK were banned.
It was no longer possible
to listen to them,
and many music cafes disappeared.
But when peace returned in 1945,
records helped to lift people's spirits.
Music cafes reappeared almost immediately.
Being able to listen to many different
kinds of music
in the postwar recovery years.
The 1960s and '70s brought
growing demand for audio equipment.
More people were listening
to music at home,
and records became an important
part of everyday life.
In recent years, Japan's remaining music
cafes have become increasingly popular.
This longstanding jazz cafe
opened in 1933.
It doesn't just attract people
who like listening to jazz—
professional musicians often visit, too.
It's so nice.
You can listen to lots of old music.
And it's all on vinyl.
This cafe, meanwhile, opened in 1926.
It specializes in classical music.
It has huge, made-to-order,
and two turntables.
This set-up has been in use
for around 50 years.
Everyone has their own favorite seat.
If an earlier customer has taken it,
they'll sit at the next table and
wait until that person leaves.
Then they'll move over,
and immerse themselves in classical music.
In postwar Japan,
records were expensive, and most people
couldn't afford to buy them.
Even if they could listen
to music at home,
the equipment here offered
much more of an experience.
It feels like attending
a live performance.
The role of records
has evolved with the times,
but for over a century,
they have been a source of joy in Japan.
What about recording facilities?
At first, Japan didn't have
anything like that.
Sound engineers from the US
or elsewhere would come over,
and record in gymnasiums
and spaces like that.
They'd press the records abroad,
and ship them back to Japan.
At the time,
I'd say that record collecting
was something of a luxury hobby.
I know in the early days of television,
when not everybody could
afford to buy a TV set,
they would have a TV in public places,
and everybody would
gather to watch television.
I wonder if they had the same thing
with records, 100 years ago.
Well, records were very expensive.
People like singing along to music,
but some just wanted to listen.
So in Japan, venues offering
that service began to open.
There were jazz, classical,
and rock cafes.
They quickly grew in number.
I remember there was one in Shibuya...
getting taken there by a friend one time.
And we were having a couple of drinks,
and listening to some music.
And I started talking to my friend,
and one of the employees
came up and said, “Shh! Quiet!”
Yes, that's usually the rule.
You're there not to communicate with
people but to commune with the music.
there are people who really like to focus
on what's coming out of the speakers.
In the history of recorded music,
there have been some
unbelievable monster hits.
I mean, things like
Michael Jackson's Thriller come to mind.
In Japan, what would it be?
Japan's best-selling single
sold over 4.5 million copies.
It's by Shimon Masato,
and it's called “Oyoge! Taiyaki-kun.”
It sold incredibly well.
A novelty song.
The song was featured
in a children's TV program in 1975.
It became Japan's best-selling single
based on physical sales—
a title it still holds today.
The song is about street food
a kind of cake in the shape of a fish.
A taiyaki pines for the
freedom of the sea.
In Japan's economic miracle years,
this idea resonated with millions of
The records were pressed
at the firm our guest works for,
and the song's success made the company's
own workforce extremely busy!
The spell that records cast over Japan was
finally broken in 1982 by the advent of
Japan was the first country
in which compact discs were sold.
quickly gathered momentum.
In 2015, streaming services
were launched in Japan.
Music was easier to access than ever
before, and vinyl's future looked bleak.
Although conditions remain perilous,
vinyl is far from a lost cause.
This is the only remaining company in the
world that makes blank lacquer discs.
They are a crucial element
in record production.
The blanks are used to produce masters—
original records from which
others will be made.
The process starts with one-millimeter
After the metal is carefully checked
for unevenness and blemishes,
it is coated with nitrocellulose lacquer,
a material similar to nail polish.
The lacquer is around
0.2 millimeters thick.
Creating a totally flat and even surface
requires an extremely
high degree of precision.
From start to finish, making a batch of
discs takes around a week.
To turn a blank into a master,
it is cut with a lathe.
At the facility we've been visiting,
the task is done in-house.
Let's take a look at
the “cutting” process.
Audio from a digital source is etched
into the blank master disc.
This is done by cutting grooves
into the lacquer.
Record players reproduce music by
running a needle along those grooves.
Here's a close-up.
The width of each groove
determines the volume of the sound.
A wavy line generates a high note.
A straight line produces a low note.
The accuracy of audio reproduction
reflects the skill of the engineer.
The sound from a groove near the edge,
and near the middle, will be different.
We have to take that into account,
and produce a master that's
as close as possible to the source.
After the master is cut,
it is used to create a metal stamper disc,
which is then used to press vinyl.
This is how records are mass produced.
Japan is also a top manufacturer
of record-player needles.
This company, established in 1940,
makes 90 percent of the world's supply.
At the tip of each needle
is a piece of diamond—
the hardest mineral in the world.
It measures just 0.3 millimeters.
The needles are polished carefully,
one at a time.
Then they're checked for
flaws using a microscope.
Needles that conform to specifications
are installed one by one into cartridges.
At one point, production levels dropped
to just 100,000 units a month.
But the vinyl revival sparked a recovery,
and since then production
has more than tripled.
This next company developed a turntable
that can play even damaged or
No needle is required!
Instead, laser beams access
the information etched into a record.
Imagine this V at the bottom
is a record groove.
A regular player runs a needle
along the deepest part,
right at the bottom of the groove.
That's how it reads and reproduces
But with laser beams, you can get
information near the top of the groove.
That area has never been touched
by a needle, and so you get a pure sound.
Let's see how well the technology works.
The surface of this record is damaged.
Will it play?
There's no crackling,
and no danger of the needle skipping.
Japan's world-class technology
is helping to
sustain the tradition of listening
to music on vinyl.
In the second half of the 1980s,
CDs became prevalent,
and in Japan especially actually,
it seemed that overnight, the record
companies all stopped making vinyl
and started making just CDs.
In fact, in Europe and America,
they were still making vinyl
for quite a while after that.
But then vinyl kind of disappears
for quite a while.
And it was really only in Japan that
people were still making vinyl records,
and those technologies
continued to the present day.
Why do you think that was?
A small number of vinyl
enthusiasts were still buying records.
Thinking about it
in strictly economic terms,
the best move would obviously
have been to stop making vinyl.
But in Japan, that wasn't the only factor.
And record-making continued.
Is there any difference in the way
that records are produced
in Japan versus in other countries?
The thing that really sets Japan
apart from other countries
is that most aspects of making
a record happen under one roof.
Cutting, making a stamper, pressing...
everything is done in the same building.
If you want to ask somebody
about a problem,
you can simply walk over to them.
So that's the major advantage;
you can have very minute control over
what happens at each stage of the process.
Yes, I would say so.
From an audio quality standpoint,
and from a manufacturing standpoint,
it's all smooth and steady.
And I see that as a key feature.
The vinyl revival has been going on
for a few years now,
and it seems to be going quite strong.
Do you think it can last indefinitely?
Well, we must do our best to build on
the current enthusiasm and make it last.
The company I work with makes records.
But we also have needle makers,
lacquer blank makers,
audio equipment makers, radio stations,
people working in promotion.
We all need to send the same message:
“Let's listen to high-quality audio!”
If we don't, the revival will end.
It's like good food.
Good audio makes a lasting impact.
I think the music itself is
the first thing to make an impression.
But what you notice next is
the way it sounds.
So we want to make great-sounding records.
If we abandon that idea,
the whole revival might collapse.
We have to preserve audio quality.
But no one can do it on their own.
We have to unite to support good audio.
That's how I see it.
OK, thank you very much.
Thank you very much.