The Koda Kumi Plurality

Judging by album sales and general media attention, Koda Kumi is the “biggest” female pop star in Japan at the moment. From the late 1960s onward, this was one of the most astute positions to attain in the entertainment world hierarchy. A couple of months into her Pop Queen reign, a young singer would start to enjoy the rewards — myriad product endorsements, unbridled cultural influence, and eventually, male lust, and a permanent place in the grand narrative of music history. Okinawan dance-pop idol Amuro Namie’s fame in the mid-1990s was not just limited to the world of music; she used the platform of pop to usher in a programme révolutionnaire of chapatsu brown hair and mini-skirts for teenage girls all across Japan.

Since peaking in 1999, however, the Japanese music market has experienced yearly negative growth and a weakened position in the public sphere. Even with the general economic growth of recent years, the music industry (including musical instruments and records) suffered one of the only negative growth rates among consumer product industries in 2006 (according to Nikkei’s Marketing Journal). The only industry performing even less robustly was gofuku (呉服) — traditional Japanese clothing like yukatas and kimonos. Does this mean that J-Pop too is a relic of a previous cultural era? And does it follow that the Pop Princess crown is a meaningless heirloom of a past empire?

The best-sellers of today require only a fraction of sales that the best-sellers of the mid-’90s needed to take the top spot. For example, Koda Kumi’s latest album Black Cherry has sold 998,230 copies (Oricon figure) — making her the #2 best-selling album artist after Mr. Children so far this year. In 1999, this level of sales would have placed her at #23 on the final chart for yearly album sales.

Titles, awards, and public acclaim, however, are all doled out relatively, not absolutely. The biggest stars remain the “biggest stars” — the standards are just lower. And even if the music industry is not performing well sales-wise, the J-Pop idols and singers still contribute a great deal to the entertainment world at large through their appearances as guests and actors on television programs. (A more cynical observer may comment that the Japanese music industry’s main responsibility has always been to produce general “variety television stars” and “disc-shaped fan club goods” rather than “musicians” and “CDs”). So at the end of the day, even if Koda Kumi’s sales are not as impressive as her predecessors, she has still managed to win the implicit title of “Most Important Singer” from the media, and as a result, has received her fill of product endorsement jobs from mobile phones to chu-hai alcoholic beverages. At this point in time, I think it is fair to say that the shrinkage of the music market does not seem to have an impact on general media treatment of its star artists.

Nevertheless, we should remember that the music market is so fractured and fragile that Koda’s journey to Number One did not require the levels of “mass support” previously necessary for the top spot. In a very similar manner, most of the Top Ten Oricon Singles these days are from Johnny’s Jimusho boy bands, who understandably are reliant upon a narrow niche market for their sales. Although currently #1 in a broad sense, there is no real evidence that Koda enjoys support from a wide range of demographic groups and taste segments.

Like Hamasaki Ayumi before her, Koda Kumi fans do not include panting males but are mostly young female admirers. She is most associated with a revealing post-gal fashion look called ero-kawaii (erotic cute) often seen in ViVi, which is understood to be less about male attraction and more about female self-confidence. Overall, Koda Kumi’s fans form a plurality of total consumers rather than a majority, easily giving her the top spot through concentrated action in a sluggish marketplace.

Koda Kumi, however, is not just quietly tolerated by the remaining social majority — she is widely scorned and loathed. Although not an objective indicator, she was voted the #1 “Celebrity I Want to Go Away” on Internet gossip site Tantei File in 2007. Shukan Bunshun included her in a list of recent female celebrities who are not considered attractive by the older generation (“Doko ga ii no?” Imadoki no Bijoron, 8/2/07).

Koda represents a commodity that should be quite common in the near future — the “mass star” who has widespread recognition but only appeals to a specific niche. While the quantity of Koda Kumi’s activities in product promotion are on schedule with her predecessors, the quality of her roles bespeaks a different advertising usage. Her core fans come from a singular taste culture. Therefore she is not used by companies to breed general goodwill for a product but to specifically target a product to her narrow plurality of rabid female fans. This may explain why Koda very prominently works with kimono manufacturer Nishizen Shoji to produce a special line of high-priced Koda Kumi Collection kimonos.

More telling is Koda’s new personal model of Sankyo pachinko machines called “FEVER LIVE IN HALL.” Although Koda Kumi’s public persona generally channels a low culture chic close to the world of pachinko (when her Best Of album hit 1 million sales in late 2005, she rented a small bar in Ginza and became the “mama” for the night in celebration — an act that rooted her even closer to her mizu shobai-esque image),1 Sankyo must be plotting this tie-up to lure in younger female customers.2 More mass-marketed singers may have held reservations about creating brand associations between themselves and what is widely-understood as a gauche and gaudy gambling playtime for a less sophisticated spectrum of society, but this was a good match for Koda Kumi. Those who would be turned off by her pachinko sponsorship aren’t fans anyway.

With no need to impress the masses, Koda Kumi can forgo being bland, un-threatening, or over-trendy like past idols and just constantly re-affirm her personal taste culture to shape herself as a finely-honed marketing weapon. Overall low sales in an important media market can bring the niche star into the limelight  — thus becoming an icon for one specific taste culture, market segment, or demographic group rather than the blunt instrument of the widely-beloved pop stars of yore.


1She also claimed that she would have also liked to have been a bar “mama” in another life.

2The Cohan Research Group in April 2006 reported that:

Women currently form over 20%+ of the total user base. The population of women is higher than men in Japan (65 million women compared to 62 million men in 2005). This offers an opportunity for pachinko operators to increase the participation of women in the game. Furthermore, the average days of participation of female players in the game are 32 days per year, as compared to 45 days per year by male players. The improved public image of pachinko and the availability of exciting new machines provide operators with the opportunity to grow their women customer base. According to Tokyo-based Yano Research Institute Limited, women spend about ¥2,000 more than men per visit to the pachinko parlor.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

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3 Responses to “The Koda Kumi Plurality”

  1. CK Says:

    I think this is especially true in Japan, which is well known for its “long long long tail” market. Whenever I see expat businesspeople who aren’t familiar with Japan and say “I’ll trump Japan with my new product”, I say, “which segment of Japan do you exactly mean? Coz there’s no such thing as trumping the whole Japanese market”.

  2. Really Says:

    Some generalizations in your speculation such as “rabid fangirls” make your whole text a lot less convincing as it is easy to see it all strongly reflects your personal opinion. Had you been more neutral about it it might have been more believeable but there are still a lot of pointers where you do not fully back up your claims with statistics or research. Now you just sound like an angry old tart who hates the ero-kakkoii marketing wonder that is Kumi Koda.

    In todays media you are nothing if you do not have a brand built around you.

    In the end the blame is more on Avex if anything. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before in other countries. A company becomes large on selling “performing artists” as huge marketing material concentrating less on the quality of the music and more on the quantity. It is the so called assembly line creation of super stars and performes. There’s one after another and no end in sight. If a strong competitor were to arise things might get more interesting.

    Now Kumi has a strong voice not that often heard in asian female singers who tend to sound more whiney if anything, and she would definitelly be something worth remembering should she decide to pursue a career of music from the heart not thinking about the fame. In Kumi’s case however she seems to love being the performer more than she cares about what she is trying to say with her music.

  3. utadafan Says:

    what’s really freaky is how different kumi-chan looks before she had her huge makeover and became a big star
    http://japansugoi.com/wordpress/kumi-koda-before-she-became-a-big-star/