There’s no denying that Japanese hardware – synthesizers, drum machines, and DJ gear – has exerted a huge influence on dance music. How did this island nation come to dominate music production and playback?
It was quite a phenomenon. There were a few decades – mostly in the ‘80s and ‘90s – where the entire chain of dance music production, from creation to playback, was monopolized by Japanese products. Sounds were created on Roland, Yamaha and Korg synthesizers and drum machines, played by DJs in clubs on Technics turntables with Audio-Technica cartridges, Pioneer DJ CDJs and mixers, and listened to by punters on Sony Walkmans and home stereo units. Japanese products were involved in almost every stage of the process and we barely even noticed.
How did Japan go from the butt of jokes – ‘Made in Japan’ used to be a pejorative, much like ‘Made in China’ is today – to the global leader of dance music electronics? To get to the bottom of this, we assembled a world-class group of experts, including Japanese engineers and a synthesizer documentarian and Japanologist, and asked them, “How did Japanese music technology come to dominate the dance music world?”
The Post-War Economic Miracle
Although the West had first become enamoured with Japan in the 1800s when the country opened to the world and Japonisme overturned traditional European artistic conventions, our story begins in the aftermath of the Second World War.
“Japan has a long history of artisanship and craftsmanship that fueled its shocking resurrection from total defeat in World War II,” Japanologist Matt Alt told us. His most recent book, Pure Invention, is about how Japanese pop culture made similar inroads into the West and beyond. “After it emerged as the world’s second-largest economy in the late ’60s, its newly rebuilt cities, filled with young people from a postwar baby boom, transformed into hothouses for consumer innovation.” With plenty of expendable income and a newly emerging middle class, the country’s manufacturers rose to meet demand. “Locals’ hunger for excitement and stimulation of all kinds fueled a kind of Darwinian competition,” Alt further explained, “that sharpened the products from creatives of all stripes, from illustrated manga and anime to consumer electronics to cutting-edge music like YMO and city pop. Transformative hits like the karaoke machine and the Walkman were honed for a discriminating urban Japanese audience before exploding abroad.”
This is the key here. As consumer Westerners, we may imagine Japan as existing to supply the world with products but export was a byproduct of a gangbusters domestic economy.
The same was true for musical instruments. Fumio Mieda, Auditor of Korg, started with the company in 1968 and went on to design some of the company’s greatest instruments, including the miniKORG 700, MS-10 and MS-20, and VC-10 vocoder. “Because of the existing groundwork of the electronics industry and the large-scale domestic demand for Western instruments,” Mieda explained, “after the end of the Second World War, Japan could start selling steel guitars, electric guitars, guitar amps, electric organs, drum machines, effect units, synthesizers, and electric pianos in rapid succession. Electronic instruments start with semiconductors and need every component. Also, diverse manufacturing and engineering technologies are needed, and knowledge of Western music is also important. So it can be used around the world, quality and price are important. Japan at this time could fulfil all of these conditions. Because we could anticipate demand, making electronic instruments wasn’t that difficult.”
Because of the existing manufacturing infrastructure, as well as a population excited about pop music trends, Japan was primed for a music instrument boom. There was another piece of the puzzle, however, ready to fall in.
Tatsuya ‘Tats‘ Takahashi, CEO of Korg Germany and designer of the Korg Minilogue, among many other instruments, laid it out for us. “The favourable exchange rate in the ’70s and ’80s was a kickstart in gaining a foothold in the global market.”
Kiyotaka Kakemizu, Brand Communications Specialist at Audio-Technica who has worked on DJ headphones and cartridges for the company, agreed. “It (is) the same reason as to why the Japanese car became popular worldwide. Back in the ’80s, Japan was (known as) the world’s factory, as some Southeast Asian countries are now, and we produced many good quality products for affordable prices and shipped them globally. I think music gear and DJ gear might have been the same case.”
Alex Ball, who made the documentary Land Of The Rising Sound about Roland and also uses Japanese instruments when composing music for soundtracks, concurred. “The Japanese were able to produce affordable synthesizers for the first time. This meant that synths from Roland, Korg, Yamaha, Teisco, Kawai, etc. were often the first synths that young musicians were able to get their hands on.”
Well-made local products – including electronic instruments like synthesizers and drum machines – could be exported overseas and sold at attractive prices – prices low enough that synthesizers were now in reach of regular people.
The stage was set for a dance music production takeover.
If It Ain’t Broke, Fix It
Japan has long been known for its penchant to take in ideas from outside and put them to its own use. This is as true for kanji, the writing system it borrowed from China, to tempura, which originally came from Portugal, to electronic equipment.