Masahiro Yasuda

"Internalising 'Street': Transnational Megastore Chains and Tokyoite hip hop scene."

The International Journal of Urban Labour and Leisure, 3(1) <>

ISSN: 1465-1270



This paper examines how hierarchies of musical genres are abstracted and redistributed in so-called transnational megastores through not only economic but also cultural mediations. I focus particularly on Japanese hip hop and, more precisely, Japanese rap records. Interiors of megastores may be described as an amalgam of what Bourdieu (1988) calls 'zones of tastes' (16). I want to explore the kind of taxonomy with which hip hop legitimacy is internalised and constructed in in-store space in Tokyo.

Key words: musical genre, hip hop, transnational corporations, retail, musical taste


As Pierre Bourdieu (1986:16) identifies 'legitimate', 'middle brow' and 'popular' taste zones regarding musical works in French society, in the small field of hip hop culture in Japan, there can be identified a similar set of indices of distinction. Namely, first of all, there are so-called 'Little Bird Nation' rappers who are disposed toward rock genre that is more legitimate and established, claiming their 'natural' adaptation of hip hop methodology to the Japanese everyday reality in which hip hop does not really exist. Secondly and obviously, there are 'sell-out' rappers who are disposed to the mainstream kayo-kyoku genre, admitted to television and other 'mass' media to reach a wider audience. Finally, there are 'hardcore' rappers who are disposed to autonomise their own aesthetics as hip hop, claiming their art to be an immediate expression from the 'street' and, in denigrating the above two, displacing the locus of their legitimacy to the (imagined) US hip hop scene. It is not my purpose here to argue class fraction and educational level that underlie the classes of hip hop in this paper. Instead I want to focus on the way in which such indexical references, a taxonomy so inherent in our social and musical lives, are lived and embodied by record shop buyers and internalised into the in-store spaces.

I focus on transnational megastore chains, such as HMV, Tower Records and Virgin Megastore, which have established their presence in Japan since the early 1990s. Because a megastore gathers together a variety of musical genres in one closed space and re-distributes musical tastes accordingly to different clusters of envisaged clients, it shapes a sort of a musical microcosm in which the position-taking of each genre is manifest. In order to grasp the link between the megastore retailers and the hip hop scene in Tokyo and Japan, I start with a brief history of parallel-import retailing business in Japan and localisation of the transnational megastore chains in the field of popular music production in Japan, especially in terms of their shifting relationship with the Japanese recording industry. Then I go on to explore, from my own field work in Tokyo, some of the working practices and strategies with which megastores re-distribute the musical tastes in their stores in which a set of cultural, economic and administrative interests intersects and confront. Hip hop, of course, is one of these genres rationalised and categorised in the microcosm of a megastore, yet there is a considerable amount of cultural investment by hip hop buyers to intervene in the rationalisation and categorisation to represent the 'street' reality in re-constructing it in the store. If modern recording technology disembeds (Giddens 1990) music from a particular time and space bind, record retailers play, in my opinion, an important role of re-embedding - adding values and making sense to - it to in local social space.

Parallel-Import Retailing Business.

The structuring of the recording industry in Japan has been a decentralisation of actual music production process, from a star system based on composers, songwriters and singers exclusively employed by recording companies and music publishers before and after the second world war, to the singer/songwriter ideology of rock and folk musicians in the 60s and 70s and then to the current configuration that increasingly relies on independent artists and producers to cover a wide range of diverse tastes. The emergence of parallel-import record retailers/distributors in the 1980s is even more menace to the recording industry in that a recording company, which supposedly manages its artists and is responsible for marketing and promoting them, could not play an influential role in defining the values and meanings of their artists and recordings. According to Epic Sony's international A&R, Miyai (1996), "[the import record retailing] brought about a very qualitative transformation [of working practices in recording companies], not simply reducible to time lag between the Japanese and Anglo-American markets".

Conventionally, record retailers are protected in Japan by saihan-seido; a retail price maintenance system derived from the post-war necessity for the recording industry to secure their distribution networks destroyed by the war. Imported records are not subject to this saihan-seido. Namely, a record of an overseas artist priced ¥2,500 in a conventional record shop can be found in an import record shop at around ¥1,580. The former is often packaged, promoted and distributed by a Japanese branch of a transnational label concerned and contains a Japanese sleeve notes and translated lyrics and sometimes bonus tracks, whereas the latter is directly imported from overseas labels, thus entirely identical to what one can get in Anglo-American 'original' markets. The price reduction is mediated by a series of incidents. In 1972, Japanese yen adopted a floating exchange rate system and the country has seen a steep rise of its currency from around 1985. In 1988, Compact Disc format outdid analogue records in terms of units produced annually, revolutionising the music distribution process with its size. Around the same time, private FM radio stations were inaugurated one after another in large cities in Japan, most of which adopted so-called 'more music less talk' format that clearly contributed to the popularisation of overseas artists whose records become available in the parallel-import record retailers. It is certainly misleading to reduce parallel-record retailing as the unique source responsible for what Miyai referred to above as the "qualitative transformation", yet the subsequent situation has reversed that in the 1920s where an imported record cost more than three times as expensive as a domestically pressed one.

Parallel-import record retailing, in fact, is not particularly new form of music business. It existed in Tokyo for quite a while closely in conjunction with small second-hand record shops. Most of the shops that have been developed today as an influential institution of hip hop in Tokyo were in fact very small business. Their commodities were chosen mostly in reference to Anglo-American leading chart magazines such as Billboard, Cashbox or New Music Express and their business was far smaller-scaled than what we would imagine today in Tokyo. Even Tower Records' first Shibuya shop, launched in 1981, mainly targeted a small number of enthusiasts, or 'heavy users', as its public relation director, Yagawa (1997), put it. In the 80s, "listening to imported disks was not as widely popular as today, and, for that matter, overseas music itself had a very limited market". He reflected:

The volume of business was not considerable. There wasn't this 'impact from foreign capital investment' that we talk about repeatedly today in the music industries. Put it in another way, domestic [record] makers did not bother much of us, or so it seemed to us at least. No one thought of us becoming such a menace as we are called today.

It is only from the late 1980s that the parallel-import record business became 'menace' to recording companies.

The megastore retailer chains, such as American Tower Records, British HMV and British Virgin Megastore (50% participated by Marui department store chain), would start to deal with local repertoires and establish closer business relationship with the domestic recording industry in their turn. Through the process, "the foreign megastore retailer chains develop a quite particular way of dealing with recording companies in Japan compared with other markets" as MCA Victor's domestic A&R director, Imamura (1996) put it, with their vast range of both domestic and international products and knowledge and information on overseas artists and musical trends. By the mid-90s, the situation comes to an extreme: a Japanese recording company contracted a foreign small independent label whose sample disk it obtained in one of the specialist parallel-import shops; a record shop contracts overseas independent labels for exclusive distribution in Japan; a record shop launches its own independent label, such as Bounce label by Tower Records, auditioning and contracting new domestic artists. In the hunt for up-to-date information and in the search for their abstract community, b-boys and b-girls in Tokyo begin hanging around these record shops. Some of the domestic A&R personnel in charge of Japanese hip hop genre admitted the utmost importance of 'shop-front operation', which means to have their records displayed favourably in the parallel-import record shops. Import record shops played a central role in instituting hip hop as an autonomous genre in Tokyo and in Japan: they play the role radio played in the US hip hop scene.

Equilibrium with the Recording Industry.

In September 1990, the first Virgin Megastore was launched in Shinjuku, as an 'imported record megastore on the high street'. As I briefly described above, parallel-import record shops until then tended to be situated on the fringes of popular quarters, catering for a steady number of enthusiasts. These shops were typically messy with scattered piles of unsorted records and cartons on floor, which, as Virgin Megastore Shinjuku store manager, Iwai (1997), put it, "prevented light users, especially female customers from entering". He went on:

So we decided to produce, first of all, a much roomier and cosier in-store space. Then, secondly, to attract a wide range of customers from passers-by to enthusiasts, we took considerable care of giving lively look to the shop by introducing in-store trial CD player system and in-store DJ booth - all of which have become a norm today in many other shops of this kind.

If Tower Records and Virgin Megastore chains were still conceived as 'import' record stores, HMV actively dealt with domestic repertoires from its inauguration. Its first store opened in 1990 as a multiple-floored store in central Shibuya. According to Kawazu (1997), HMV Ikebukuro store manager who had participated in its opening operation, HMV headhunted a number of experienced talents from Tower Records, Virgin Megastore, Shinsei-do (the leading conventional Japanese retailer chain), etc. for the operation so as to provide a wide range of commodities, both imported disks and domestic ones, covering every spectrum of its potential customers.

HMV managed a rapid growth with this strategy. Taking advantage of its stylish image as a genuine British megastore chain while covering domestic repertoires to respond to customers' needs, it would soon propose a new trend commonly called Shibuya-kei ('Shibuya connection') - a style and musical taste that does not distinguish overseas and Japanese rock as far as it is 'good'. Many 'Little Bird Nation' artists, with their 'Japanised' rap titles, associate with this style. Shibuya-kei style is often associated with HMV Shibuya, but it does not result entirely from their conscious effort to co-opt all that trendy and fashionable: it is due to a firm business relation that it had established with the domestic recording industry. According to Kawazu (1997), HMV stores in Japan other than those in Tokyo, especially the one in Sendai City "could not maintain their business without domestic repertoires". He suggested in my interview:

Every now and then, there had always been a number of customers who would buy both international and domestic titles, even before HMV Shibuya withdrew the taken-for-granted barrier between the 'international' and 'domestic' in terms of its store display policy. And that in-store display scheme is, actually, much a by-product of the favourable partnership between our Sendai store and domestic [record] makers.

It is in fact quite natural, given the size of domestic catalogue sales in Japan (in the realm of 72-3% as opposed to 27-8% of international catalogue sales), that most of the transnational corporations in the Japanese popular music market invest in domestic catalogues.

Following this, Tower Records, which remained specialised in parallel-import disks until about 1990, decided to take part in the domestic repertoire business. Nonetheless, most of the domestic recording companies, especially domestic branches of the transnational majors, were not willing to deal, mainly because of the growing thrust between the parallel-import disks and their own domestically packaged overseas products. According to Yagawa (1997):

H[MV] and Virgin launched, foreign-owned CD shops became a topic of the day among the concerned parties. People began talking about us like the utmost trend-setter of popular music culture in Japan - true or not. Then gradually, [record] makers, if reluctantly, accepted us. In the long run, Shibuya is a perfect place to carry out their promotional operations.

Recording companies were deprived of, and in turn in search for, competent media with which to announce their newly released products, given that most of music programmes on television were discontinued in the course of the 1980s, as most of popular artists from folk/rock genre withdrew from it.

The foreign-owned, trend setting megastores on the high streets in big cities are, therefore, an interesting promotional medium. Co-operating with megastores, some labels would go so far as to provide Anglo-American like promotion posters, sleeve photographs and label logotypes so that their artists stand out in these imported record megastores. At the same time, Yagawa (1997) suggested:

Before [dealing with domestic recording companies], our buyers would independently prioritise commodities apart from those readily imposed by our head quarter. But dealing with domestic repertoires involves a dose of domestic [record] makers' politics and investment, including their co-operative financial supports....

HMV's Kawazu (1997) pointed out that the introduction of in-store listening systems to be a remarkable turning point in a recording company's promotion strategy. For a sales stuff, then, it becomes crucially important to make sure its latest and prioritised releases are featured in in-store listening systems (allegedly some recording companies go so far as to give away in-store multiple CD players to have their products prioritised favourably).

Intensified competition among the megastore chains also reinforced the mutual relation between the megastore chains and the domestic recording industry. Straightforward differentiation schemes such as publication of in-store free magazines and installation of purpose-made racks and utensils to all stores under a given chain to retain its united corporate identity have become fairly banalised. Much larger scale and more expensive strategies, such as in-store live concerts or music workshops and original free give-aways for those who book a new release in advance, are eagerly sought after, and it is where a recording company's "co-operative financial supports" kicks in. For an in-store concert, a store would only provide its floor, while the rest of expanses, including stage and PA (public address) setting and labour, would normally be covered by the label. Original give-aways (like a toothbrush set I got for booking 1996 Scha Dara Parr [the leading 'Little Bird Nation' rap group] album, Guzen no Arubamu ('Accidental Album'), in Tower Records Shibuya. Had I booked it in HMV Shibuya, I would have got something else), would again be taken care of by a recording company, providing a chain or a store guarantees a certain quantity of orders. These strategies are only possible for selected artists for whom their labels can provide sufficient amount of promotional budget and time, and whose sales record shops can speculate to be big enough. Labels aim at promoting those highly prioritised acts via nation-wide megastore chains, while the megastore chains transform their disposition, from small-scale parallel-import retailing business to large-scale store-as-media, intrinsically involved in the production of domestic repertoires. The present gigantic eight-story Tower Records Shibuya, inaugurated in 1995, purposefully assigns the escalator's landing area on each floor to promotion display for recording companies.

In trading with domestic recording industry, the way megastores deal with overseas repertoires has also been changed considerably. As I mentioned above, the main thrust between the recording industry and the parallel-import business is not about domestic catalogues, but about international ones, because cheaper parallel-import products contributed to dysfunction of the international A&R department in Japanese branches of the transnational majors. To get around this, international A&Rs would have to provide not only translated sleeve notes and alternative sleeve photograph, but also preparing bonus tracks, attaching pin-up posters or even advancing release dates exclusively for the Japanese market. Yet, as the megastores begin dealing with domestic repertoires and business relation between the megastores and their domestic A&R departments becomes mutually reliant, the transitional majors can force parallel-importers to lay in 'auto-import' products - which are genuinely their own products that they themselves import from their head quarters and branches abroad. Sony Music Entertainment Japan and Warner Music Japan are the forerunners of this operation. Miyai (1996), in grumbling, "we don't generate much profit wholesaling imported records", suggested that the utmost merit of 'auto-importing' is that it allows close monitoring of product flow. Surveying sales performances of imported products and considering them as trial samples, in turn, enable the transnational majors to decide which international artists to package and promote locally. The thrust turns to a mutual collaboration.

Whether directly from overseas labels, laying in from the transnational majors' domestic branches or relying on a third party distributor, importing involves a series of strategies and calculations in each chain. Some rely mainly on direct import. Some rely on the domestic branches for the acts also available as domestic products to avoid confrontation with domestic recording industry. Some decide according to artists and labels or to territories, for US repertoires tend to be available through the domestic branches while others are not. In economic terms, there seems no big difference either way, and, after all, relying on the majors' domestic branches tends to be interesting, for delivery is quick and stable and holding a risky stock is not necessary. On the other hand, the products by small overseas independent labels have to be imported directly or via specialised distributors, for the domestic branches of the transnational major recording companies do not trade most of them. Unstable delivery is always a risk, but "that's the way this business has always been" (Yagawa 1997).

For the products that are also available as domestic package, it becomes a common practice to lay in both imported one and domestically packaged one. "It is entirely up to customers", Yagawa asserted, "whether they choose a domestic package for bonus tracks and translated lyrics, or an imported one for the price". According to BMG's international marketing officer, Tanaka (1996), not less than 60 to 70% of the entire annual turnover of international repertoires in Japan is generated from auto-imported products, and black music genre, which had rarely been popular enough to be released domestically, is a conspicuous example of the tendency. R&B, soul and funk are culturally and economically marginalised in most of the transnational majors' ethnocentric 'international' catalogues in the first place, and rap and hip hop hard to deal with because of its multiplying number of independent labels and monthly new releases, black music popularises itself unprecedentedly in the course of the 1990s as the import record megastore business develops rapidly in Japan.

The foreign-owned megastore chains thus have come to take a significant position in the field of popular music production in Tokyo and in Japan, in providing both international and domestic repertoires, and in reconciling with both domestic and international departments of the recording companies. It is manifest in Tower Records' in-store free magazine, Bounce, which adopted a foldable double-faced front cover, when its new flagship store was opened in central Shibuya. By capturing a photograph of a Japanese act on one side of the cover and an international act on the flip side, it proclaims that Tower Records now seriously deals with Japanese artists, while maintaining its reputation as an accurate and up-to-date information source for international, and mostly Anglo-American, music buffs as ever. The megastores provide, practically, much wider range of products than the Japanese recording industry deals with, while at the same time providing credible musical knowledge for enthusiasts. The width of commodity range is secured by the vast in-store floor that is divided into a number of sections often related to musical genres (an average Tower Records store in Japan embrace 580 to 650 m sq. floor surface, and its Shibuya store boasts 1400 m sq.; a Virgin Megastore world-wide requires at least 1,000 m sq. floor to be called so), whereas depth of it is maintained by allocating buyers with specific musical knowledge to an appropriate section/genre. It is in such a space that recording industry's final products and consumers intersect. In what follows, I would like to trace the way megastores mediate such an encounter.

Abstraction of Music World and Generic Distribution of In-Store Space.

The 1999 edition of Record Map (1999) indicates that there are 40 Tower Records stores, 21 HMV stores and 21 Virgin stores (including smaller non-Megastores) in Japan. Not surprisingly, most of them are located in big cities such as Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Sapporo, Sendai and Fukuoka. It is also clear that there is a dense, or even excessive, concentration in Tokyo and its suburbs, of which the area circumscribed by the Yamanote loop line alone accommodates 13 megastores (Shibuya (1 Tower Records and 1 HMV), Harajuku (1 HMV), Shinjuku (1 Tower Records (there were 2 stores during my research, which were emerged in 1999), 2 HMV and 1 Virgin Megastore), Ikebukuro (1 Tower Records, 1 HMV and 1 Virgin Megastore), Ginza (2 HMV) and Ueno (1 HMV)), covering almost 16% of the nation-wide 82 stores. As a general tendency in Tokyo, according to Nishizato (1996), a black music buyer for Tower Records Shinjuku East, his store sells more rock and pop catalogues. As for hip hop, he reckoned, Ikebukuro store is popular among gangsta rap buffs, whereas serious b-boys and b-girls flock in Shibuya store. A buyer in HMV Shinjuku South store agreed in another occasion, "Shibuya reigns when it comes to hip hop. Rock and alternative rock are in demand in Shinjuku".

However, it is misleading to map musical tastes in such a simplistic way, especially when dealing with megastores that basically supply a comprehensive range of products. Likewise, because a megastore location is often restricted by its crucial necessity for a large surface in dense urban landscape, more specific criteria channel its customer demands and its range of commodities supplied. For example, suggesting the importance of providing a substantial range of back-catalogues to attract male customers and maintaining constant flow of latest popular and trendy releases to attract female customers, Kawazu (1997), the HMV Ikebukuro manager, explained a rather conventional and mainstream commodity range in his store that "it has less to do with Ikebukuro area as it is. It is mostly because the building that we tenant accommodates a lot of boutiques for women's apparel". Similarly, when I interviewed two buyers in HMV Shinjuku South, there was a temporary disarrangement as it was only a few weeks after its inauguration on the 12th floor of a newly opened classy department store, Takashimaya Times Square. The store anticipated rock-oriented customers as Shinjuku was central to hippie culture in Japan in the 70s, while their main customers turned out to be chic and posh passers-by. The two buyers sighed, "as we're just opened, and most customers are the department store's. Music lovers have not yet come".

In all cases, an in-store space is divided in terms of musical genres and tastes, according to customer's consumption patterns and sales performances, or, more precisely, dependent on how these criteria are interpreted and applied as a differentiation strategy from other stores and from other chains. Apart from the 'pushed' products situated at the most eye-catching point in the store, a floor is likely to be divided into 'classical', 'jazz', 'international pop' and 'Japanese pop' sections. The most popular, therefore most profitable, genre of the store tends to be situated closer to the entrance, and classical and jazz sections are often treated with differentiated utensils and furniture. As classical and jazz genres and international and domestic pop genres tend to attract different cluster of customers, the distance between them is often covered with intermediary categories such as 'Film Soundtracks' or 'World Music', and in-store music from each of the sections is often acoustically adjusted to avoid interference. While the ways in which music is further divided varies from one chain to another, and from one store to another, there seems to be one commonly applied logic. That is, the more music is subdivided, the more it produces an engaged atmosphere that attracts enthusiasts. In terms of basic rules each chain applies uniformly nation-wide, Virgin Megastore chain and HMV chain subdivides 'international pop' into either 'pops/rock' and 'dance/black', or 'rock' and 'black', and in some cases, 'black' is further subdivided into 'R&B/soul', 'house/techno', 'rap/hip hop', etc., whereas Tower Records adopts "basically the simplest method that customers - light users - have no difficulty with" (Yagawa 1997), and integrates the entire 'International pop' under one comprehensive 'pops' flag with "uncomplicated A to Z classification" (Yagawa).

At the same time, there is a subtle difference in in-store spatial distribution and commodity range among stores in a same chain, depending on the location and the customers. The two Tower Records stores in Shinjuku, which has come to be united in one large store in 1999, are a good example of this. The one, tenanting an old cinema building in the eastern area of Shinjuku station, would cater for enthusiasts, hence detailed sub-generic classification and shelving, whereas the other, tenanting in a newer apparel shopping complex in the southern area of the station, cater for mainstream customers with more conventional and broad shelving. The basic rules described above, therefore, does not apply to Tower Record Shinjuku East, and 'International pop' would be "subdivided into 'Soul', 'Rap', 'Pops' and 'Techno'" (Yagawa 1997). Kawazu (1997) for HMV Ikebukuro admitted the difficulty involved in maintaining corporate identity and catering effectively for tangibly different customers each store has and this seems where conflict and confrontation occur between interests of a corporate administration and a local store management. In the aforementioned new HMV Shinjuku South store, floor distribution was roughly planned by its general manager firstly, then who buyers distributed the commodities, anticipating the flow of customers. As one of the buyers pointed out that "there are a couple of points that actually are not quite dodgy", a series of trial and error processes would be repeated before it reaches unspoken consensus between the store and its customers. The buyer describes their strategy as:

Above all, we need a constant flow of the sure-fire mainstream hit products, …. The thing is that we have so little clue what sells in this store that everything counts. Everything's worth just laying in and experimenting.

Here, we could also detect a series of interests and expectations intersecting at the store: Shinjuku quarter wants to reinvent itself by renovating its southern area in which the store is situated; the building, Takashimaya Times Square department store, speculates a benefit from letting its top floor to an HMV store, which drains its customers downwards; and of course the customers whose mile-long queue on Takashimaya's opening day led to instant news coverage.

Music is thus classified into generic categories that are reflexively attributed to a set of consumer clusters and re-distributed into abstract in-store space in a megastore. In order that the in-store musical space makes sense, the spatial distribution channels customers, as much as it is channelled by them. The new Tower Record Shibuya store, opened in April, 1995 and conceived as not only Japan's, but also world's flagship store to represent its corporate identity, accommodates: a coffee shop on the basement floor; new releases on the ground floor; 'J-pop', computer game and CD-ROM on the first floor; '(International) Pop' on the second; 'World Music', 'Reggae', 'Film Soundtracks' and 'Video' on the third; 'Jazz', 'Country & Western', 'Blues' and 'New Age Music' on the fourth; 'Classical Music' on the fifth; books on the sixth; and purpose-made event hall on the top floor (Table 1 illustrates schematically in-store spatial mobilisation of HMV Shibuya and Tower Records Shibuya as of 1998). According to Yagawa (1997):

The first [Japanese pop] and second [international pop] are the most popular floors in Shibuya store. The higher one goes, the less popular and more selective music becomes. The ground floor, as the store is in fact way too large, gathers together all the genres that we deal with. We simply want it to be a sort of an attraction which people can simply come in and out, whether or not they purchase something.

Musical production and consumption are intrinsically mediated by a shared set of codified practices, generic knowledge and symbolic competence. In a record shop, space allocated to each musical genre turns out to be dynamically transformative depending on anticipated musical dispositions and knowledge of its customers. Definition and position-taking of a musical genre in megastores is, therefore, at once mediated by the necessity to devise an appropriate way for consumers to find what they are after with "no difficulty", and, as Yagawa suggested, by "a fairly arbitrary and administrative necessity for a store and for a [record] maker to grasp their commodities." Where and how, then, is hip hop genre defined and positioned in megastores?

Hip hop Buyers and In-store Reconstruction of 'Street'.

We have observed that 'international pop' repertoires and 'Japanese pop' repertoires are as significant classifiers as classical and jazz genres in the megastore floor arrangement. The same is also true with regard to hip hop genre - American hip hop acts, which tends to be classified under 'international' category, does not normally intersect with Japanese hip hop acts, classified under 'Japanese' category. That is, the international/Japanese distinction overrides hip hop as one cultural category - it makes better sense to most of the customers. In Tower Records Shibuya, Japanese hip hop is located beside the 'Japanese independent labels' section on the first floor, whereas American hip hop is shelved in the separate 'Rap' section on the second floor. The logic behind this is the recognition that, to borrow Yagawa's (1997) passage, "when it comes to hip hop, American acts are far more popular than Japanese ones [thus the independent 'Rap' shelf]", and "for Shibuya store [which counts tens of thousands of customers daily], it would be confusing were 'international' and 'Japanese' not classified simply". Suina (1997), a Japanese pop buyer in HMV Shinjuku South reckoned:

Although more and more people are talking about Japanese rap, most of them are initiated into Scha Dara Parr, East End x Yuri [a rap group attained million-seller success featuring an 'idol' female kayo-kyoku singer] and the like, for good or worse. So, naturally, for a majority of customers, it is far convenient to have them shelved in Japanese pop section. Likewise, without applying a rigid framework to commodities, it would be, as you imagine, too complicated for us to control inventory and manage sales.

Contracted to major recording companies which spend fair amount of time and money to promote them, and enjoying, as a consequence, a favourable set of mass media coverage, major Japanese rap artists such as Scha Dara Parr or East End x Yuri, are shelved so that everyone, with or without investing particular emotion and knowledge in hip hop, can locate them.

For Ichikawa (1997), a black music buyer also in same HMV Shinjuku South, some Japanese hip hop artists must be treated equally as American artists. He boasted:

I decided that certain Japanese hip hop artists could be displayed with American artists, as they are dope and real. But not the rest. As a b-boy in Tokyo, I have a responsibility to tell the good from the bad. I just cannot give any false information to my customers.

Nishizato (1996), the black music buyer in Tower Records Shinjuku East, also reckoned that he would shelve Scha Dara Parr and East End x Yuri in Japanese pop section, whereas a limited selection of Japanese hip hop artists are crossed over to US hip hop section, including groups such as the Buddha Brand and the Microphone Pager. In abstracted music world of megastore in-store space, therefore, are two contested definitions of hip hop culture hence distinguished - those commercially successful but culturally false Japanese rap, and those commercially marginal but culturally as "dope and real" as American 'original' hip hop. The distinction is concretely materialised in that two almost mutually exclusive trajectories are drawn in the same store for each definition. To the 'real' hip hop fans that 'represent' Tokyoite street culture, it is much convenient to reach their favourite Japanese artists without going to unhip 'Japanese pop' section and it makes much better sense that recordings by 'real' Japanese hip hop artists are shelved with those by American artists.

As I briefly mentioned above, buyers in megastores are granted rather important roles in deciding which products to lay in, which artists to push and how to display them, in order to secure the depth of commodity range. Depending on strategy of each chain, commodities they desire would be ordered either individually by each store, or collectively by its headquarters. In all cases, each buyer contributes to producing a 'culture' shared with his or her customers by controlling atmosphere, commodities and background music in the section of which s/he is in charge. Buyer as an occupation is founded not only on business competence and economic calculation, but also on passion for and knowledge of the music that s/he deals with. Buyers often contribute to in-store promotional magazines and pen up recommendation cards displayed with products they push. More often than not, buyers' musical activities and personal relations go beyond the store - not only are some buyers from different chains often found to know each other, but they are also allied to people in other areas of music production, such as music journalists, DJs, artists, A&Rs, producers and so on. Buyers give life into the packaged music that they deal with - and add extra value to products which are technically identical in any other stores - by bridging the abstract in-store music space that displays music as commodities and the out-store social space where music is actually produced. Knowing how to add extra value is the key to the buyer profession.

Hip hop buyers in megastores re-construct 'authenticity' of Tokyo hip hop scene in the in-storespace by introducing a set of social relations with which to exclude the fake. According to Tower Records Shinjuku East's Nishizato (1996), the key to be a good buyer is to "cling to the latest information but never be fooled with wrong information. Accuracy counts - it yields credibility and royalty. Accurate and up-to-date information is of great value." Hip hop is so hectic a genre to keep up with - its product life is very short and new releases bustlingly come and go - that release information from Tower Records headquarter is not just good enough. He would acquire the 'reality' through internet, specialised magazines and, simply, direct calls to labels. These information-gathering activities easily transcend the business purposes and merged into off-duty hours, or inversely, their private activities inform their business dispositions. HMV Shinjuku South's Ichikawa has his own rap group. Nishizato is also known as DJ Toshi among Tokyoite hip hop scene, and was about to launch his own hip hop label when I met him. DJ Kensei, one of the most talented hip hop DJs and producers, was also a buyer in Tower Records Shinjuku South, and Nishizato, who took over his post, was in fact his follower who would help him carry his records around. Kemuri Productions, the DJ group which collaborates with DJ Krush, comprises a group of buyers in Tower Records Shibuya. It is not rare that some megastores actually handle legally obscure mix-tapes. It was also the case that I was often proposed to purchase a tape mixed by a buyer that I interviewed.

PoS System and Buyers.

As we have seen, import record megastore business grows abruptly in the 90s. According to Original Confidence 23 September 1996 issue, annual turnover of Tower Records in Japan shows an explosive augmentation from ¥1.1 billion in 1983 to ¥32.8 billion in 1996 - more than thirty-fold in a dozen years. After 1994, it retains a constant eight-billion-yen annual growth despite the economic recession following the collapse of the 'bubble economy' in Japan. To manage this expansion, which also mediated a drastic re-structuring of the music industries, it becomes inevitable for megastore chains to reorganise their corporate structures, and rationalise stock and order administration. Certainly, as I described above, each store has its own character which can only be rightly dealt with by each store manager and buyer and, therefore, detailed decisions about floor layout and commodity range are left to each store in most of the cases. However, some chains find it of utmost importance to maintain corporate identity and to reduce unpleasant confrontations between stores, and begin implementing a more concrete and centralised administration measure. For example, in HMV, a uniformed format for an otherwise improvised recommendation card was imposed in its all stores. The buyer in HVM Shibuya who 'invented' Shibuya-kei style was promoted to its headquarter as a project planner in the interest of exploiting the fashionable image of HMV nation-wide. Another consequence of the centralised and rationalised administration is PoS (Point of Sales) system that electronically monitors commodity distribution in connecting stores, warehouse and makers that the megastore chains begin introducing in the late-90s (see du Gay et al. (1994) for consequences of PoS system in megastores and recording industry in Britain).

PoS system does not influence a recording company as directly as in Britain and in the United States because the recording companies have been reluctant to share product numbering and bar-codification in Japan. Consequently, PoS system is invested in by wholesalers and retailers, resulting in a number of incompatible standards. Virgin Megastore has appropriated the system used by its partner, Marui department store since its Shinjuku store opened, while HMV was localising the one used in Britain. Given the increasingly intensified sales campaign from the domestic labels and headquarters' intention to order in bulk so as to negotiate favourably, the new administration structure detects inconvenience in relying on a buyer's idiosyncrasy to select commodities for some unpopular genres, such as Japanese hip hop. HMV Shinjuku South's Suina provided us with some insights:

So far, stock and order have been controlled in terms of an order card like this [he produced a small paper card from a box behind the cashier counter. It is inserted in a plastic pocket for a disk and is collected when a customer purchases it]. Each card contains the title, the artist and the label of a disk purchased. So.... Frankly, a buyer could easily make up a card of whomever an artist he or she likes to lay in and put it in this box. And that's it. Each store would individually order what its buyers wanted. Totally idiosyncratic. But from now on, everything's going to be computerised and we can't reflect our egos any more [by the time of this interview, there were only two HVM stores in Japan that introduced PoS system: Ginza and Shinjuku South. The system was said to be introduced to all other stores within the following few months]. The commodity department manages everything. They're trying to synchronise all HMV stores .... Quite a few people quit after this ....

In another interview, a store manager pointed out that there is a high rate of people leaving their jobs in record retailing business. Precisely because of their passion for music, many buyers easily leave their stores once the stores or the headquarters turn their back to the music to which they devote themselves. As they remain connected to the music industries more or less strongly, unemployment does not seem to be a great source of anxiety. While some enter a megastore "because they want to write recommendation cards" (Kawazu 1997), others quit them because they have signed to a label as an artist, or because they obtain a position as a journalist for a music press.

The rationalisation of stock and order is thus another site of conflict between the headquarters that need to exploit an uniform corporate image as a chain and the passionate buyers who invest themselves in their favourite music. Tower Records introduced PoS system provisionally in the mid-90s. According to their comments in Original Confidence (23 September 1996, 9):

Admitting its sophisticated information management and database function, we will still have to rely on buyers if we are to lay in reflection not only on what is selling and what will be selling next, but also on why it sells.

That is, they found it hard to balance quantified data with buyers' live intuitions. Actually, there is another difficulty that undermines effective introduction of PoS system in Japan: PoS system is valid for domestically packaged products, but it cannot be as usefully reflected on ordering and stock controlling of directly imported products. Each chain considers different strategy for it, but the general tendency is that growth of business, expansion of market and establishment of mutual relation with recording industry all seem to get rid of the hip hop's necessary evils - mix tapes, bootleg records, and what have you. To borrow Kawazu's comment, "this is where the megastore's business limit falls, and, in this respect, we cannot compete with specialist shops".


In introduction, I have pointed out the three dispositions in the field of Japanese hip hop culture. Now, focusing on transnational megastore chains, we could identify three more or less distinctive trajectories Japanese rap records draw. The first are those which are classified as 'Japanese Pops' or Shibuya-kei style in a megastore space, but not as widely accepted as to reach conventional record stores. 'Little Bird Nation' artists are likely to fall in this category. Secondly, there are records that reach beyond the 'Japanese Pops' section of megastores to the conventional retailer chains, such as Shinsei-do, to reach a wider audience. Even if megastores are unfailingly important institution for any rap acts in Japan, their reach is quite limited when it comes to a national success. Compared with the number of megastore shops nation-wide totalling to no more than 82, Shinsei-do alone has more than 300 stores in Japan. Lastly, there are Japanese rap records which cross over to 'US rap' shelf in a megastore because of their closeness to the US 'real' hip hop and may be excluded from the rationalising megastore space to smaller hip hop specialist shops that also deal with analogue 12 inch singles and mix-tapes.

A megastore is, as it turned out, an abstract space invested in by a set of not only economic, but also cultural interests that generate strategies to transform the way musical genres and tastes are classified and distributed in it. We have also seen that there is a set of interaction between clients, location and buyers in this transformation. In this sense, it is misleading to assume that the meanings and values of a record is readily given by artist or labels in question and simply passed on to consumers. Record retailers can and do change meaning of and add value to commodities they deal with. Particularly, in the case of Japan, the institution of transnational megastore chains have transformed the way both domestic and international catalogues are produced and packaged. Record retailing business is one of the intermediaries that forms a particular network of mediation through which meanings and values of a song are produced. It is only after they engage themselves to the local field of cultural production that transnational megastore chains are instituted as an influential intermediary of popular music production in Japan.


Bourdieu, P. (1986) Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. R. Nice. London: Routledge.

Du Gay, P and K. Negus. (1994) "The Changing Sites of Sound: Music Retailing and the Composition of Consumers", Media, Culture and Society, vol. 16.

Giddens, A. (1990) The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Original Confidence (23 Sept. 1996) "Tower Records: 'Uri' no Senryaku to Soshikizu wo Ikkyo Kokai [Tower Records: Revealing Its Sales Strategies and Organigramme]". Tokyo: Original Confidence.

Record Map (1999) Tokyo: Gakuyo Shobo.

Personal Interviews

Ichikawa. (1996) Japanese pop buyer, HMV Shinjuku Times Square. 26 November.

Imamura, H. (1996) General manager, Product admin. dept./A&R dept., MCA Victor, Inc. 29 May.

Iwai, Y. (1996) Store manager, Virgin Megastore Shinjuku. 7 December.

Kawazu, J. (1997) Store manager, HMV Ikebukuro. 4 April.

Miyai, A. (1996) International A&R, Epic/Sony, Sony Music Entertainment Japan. 29 October.

Nishizato, T. (1996) Hip hop buyer, Tower Records Shinjuku East, 5 December.

Suina. (1996) Hip hop buyer, HMV Shinjuku Times Square. 26 November.

Tanaka, H. (1996) International marketing, BMG Victor, Inc. 30 May.

Yagawa, T. (1997) Public relations, Tower Records, Inc. 14 January.


Table 1: In-store Distribution of Musical Genres in Tokyo Megastores (1998)
































Masahiro Yasuda is currently writing up his doctoral thesis - a comparison of French and Japanese hip hop - for the Centre for Mass Communication Research, University of Leicester. He lives in Paris and works as a part-time film journalist and as copyright coordinator for a Japanese book publisher. Other publications include: Yasuda, M. (1997) "Hippu Hoppu, Tokyo, Kindai: Ongaku Sangyo no Kozo Henka to Bunka Seisan (Hip hop, Tokyo and Modernity: Structural transformation of the music industries and Cultural Production)", RITZ MARKETING REPORT V11 and Yasuda, M. (2000) 'Whose United Future? - How Japanese DJs Cut Across Market Boundaries', PERFECT BEAT 4/4.


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