My Love for J-Pop in 3 Uncommon Formats
No vinyl records, cassette tapes or CD albums allowed
Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, the first machine for both recording and playing sound, in 1877. Long-playing records, magnetic tapes in varying formats and, of course, compact discs and streaming have followed in that invention’s wake. Along the way, a few formats have had short lifespans or simply never took off everywhere around the globe. Here are a few that I’ve encountered while living in Japan and exploring J-pop.
The Mini-CD Single
My first eureka moment with J-Pop was Judy and Mary’s “Music Fighter” (1998). I was coming down an escalator in Narita Airport soon after arrival when I saw the video playing on an overhead television. The song’s crazy rock energy and singer Yuki’s shouts caught my attention, so I set out to find it the next day. I ducked into a music shop in Tsunashima, the kind so small you might exit before you realize you’ve entered, and found it on a rack of mini-CD singles.
Mini-CDs were digital optical discs that were just over 3 inches in diameter instead of the usual 5 inches, and they would play in most CD players. In Japan, singles came in long, narrow cardboard sleeves and sometimes small envelopes making them look like baby records. Most had three tracks. “Music Fighter” came with a remix and a backing track for practicing your karaoke skills. The sleeve of my copy has disappeared, but I still have the disc, along with a few more by Judy and Mary, the Galaxy Express 999 and Devilman anime theme songs, and Sheena Ringo’s Ze-Chyou Syuu (2000), which is a box set of three mini-CDs adding up to a lengthy EP.
The CD Maxi Single
The maxi single, which came on a regular 5” compact disc, is more familiar. These have yet to go extinct and sometimes contain enticing “B-sides.” Around the turn of the millennium, a weekly activity for many people was visiting media rental shops like Tsutaya to pick up the latest singles and take them home for a few days. Rentals still exist (I accidentally wandered into a GEOS the other day), but it’s hard to imagine why when there’s streaming for those who don’t want to buy.
I have a modest collection of maxi-singles, most by Sheena Ringo. They’re treasures because of the cover art. “Ringo no Uta” (2003), for example, has her distinctive mole printed on the outside of the clear plastic case. It’s perfectly placed over her face in the cover photo on the booklet inside, so when you remove the booklet, the mole stays on the case, revealing Ringo without it in the photo. This is because she had just had it surgically removed and this was big news. I also occasionally dig out Do As Infinity’s “Tōku Made” (2001), a great one for air drumming.
MiniDisc was a tiny magneto-optical disc (approx. 3”) in a plastic cartridge that was able to hold up to 80 minutes of music. People bought blank MDs at rentals, definitely not for recording the music they rented in the same store. According to Engadget, Sony gave up on the technology in 2013. That was about the time my old MD player, a sweet little unit with yellow speakers, crapped out on me. My replacement stereo has a deck, but I don’t have any MiniDiscs left to go in it!
At one point, I also had a portable MD player. I liked recording Sheena Ringo and her band Tokyo Incidents to MD for treks across Tokyo. In fact, the best mixtape I ever made was on MD. It was what I only recently learned is called a “coupling-shū” or “coupling collection” in Japanese. This sounds like it might be a collection of duets (of which Sheena Ringo has many great ones), but it’s actually a collection of B-sides from maxi-singles — the songs that were coupled with the singles.
I haven’t mentioned many artists. That’s largely because I’m picky when it comes to J-pop and I’ve restricted myself to those musicians I enjoyed most back when these formats flourished. If you have memories of these or other formats, or if you’d like to recommend J-pop artists, by all means leave me a comment below or on Twitter at @Gleaming_Sword. I’d love to hear them.