A look back as my hobby hits a borderline unbelievable milestone.
Hey everyone, I hope this post finds you well. On my end of things, I’m locked in my house even moreso than usual with the worst polar vortex we’ve seen in forty years, complete with impassable roads and rolling electrical blackouts. Super fun stuff. Anyway the weather isn’t really why we’re here. Speaking of decades past, it’s really weird to say February 2021. It feels like it wasn’t that long ago that I first got into foreign music, but according to the calendar and all of my records, it was indeed 20 years ago this month that I dived into the world of Japanese music, and I’d like to chit-chat about my first steps into this rabbit hole.
In early 2001 I was well into my anime boom. This began in 1999 as Toonami exploded in popularity after bringing “Mobile Suit Gundam Wing” to North America, and by then they had numerous anime series airing and it was a big hit with me. I was already into cartoon culture at the time through Transformers, so it was a natural progression for me. I had also started collecting some anime on VHS, most memorably “Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040″, which is probably the perfect anime series for a 15 year old boy like myself at the time. I wonder if it would hold up for me now? Mental note! Anyway, with anime comes a lot of Japanese music. Unlike now where you regularly see popular J-Pop artists lending their talents to anime, in the 90’s and the early to mid-2000’s this wasn’t as common. Anime music was pretty much its own genre. I started to listen to a lot of anime music in my downtime and became hooked. It was noteworthy for me because before this, I didn’t care about music of any genre at all. I never really connected with American music prior to this. I was familiar with it, and even pretended to like some of it to save face socially with classmates, but I honestly had no interest in it. Let us not even go into the dark ages of me pretending to like rap music for the sake of my friends. A few exceptions were found along the way, but for the most part I looked forward to turning it all off when they left my field of view. The things we did to fit in…
But with anime music, I really enjoyed it. Even when I spoke absolutely no Japanese at all, it was just so nice to listen to. Much like today, I was less concerned with understanding the lyrics and simply considered the vocals to be another instrument. Somewhere along the way, I started to look around online to see what else I could find, and I eventually found some IRC channels dedicated to J-Pop. For the young’uns, IRC stands for Internet Relay Chat, and you could connect to various server networks to find channels. In popular IRC clients, like mIRC, you could transfer files. Before Spotify and iTunes, before Kazaa, before even Napster, IRC was a popular way to “borrow” files of the Internet. And yes, I know piracy bad and all that good stuff, but remember this was 2001. I was in high school, jobless, and Spotify, Apple Music and the like literally didn’t exist. I bought all the stuff my mom would allow, trust me. I spent way too much of her money on those absurdly expensive imported CD’s. Anyway, as I had a look around there was one name that was all over the place: Ayumi Hamasaki.
Ayumi was basically the J-Pop star in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Her music became insanely popular during that time and she was easily the most talked about artist in Japan and those IRC channels. I gave her music a try with no expectations and I was hooked. It was energetic, fun, original, and just had that spark in it that I had come to love from anime music. I clearly wasn’t the only one enamored either. She was in a plethora of commercials, a big hit on music programs, and numerous Ayumi releases in this timeframe sold over a million copies. Her early career was a big deal in Japan, and for me.
Objectively I can admit that some of these song and videos are a bit dated now, but for me these will always be timeless. Songs like the above “Fly High” and others like “Evolution”, “M”, “Boys & Girls”, and more shaped my interest in music, and for that I will always been indebted to Ayumi Hamasaki for truly getting this hobby started for me. Through her, I found other artists to enjoy. In the early days there wasn’t a lot of English language resources on J-Pop, and the few that were rarely went past the mainstream. Basically I got on the website of Avex Trax, Ayumi’s record label and a very popular company in Japan at the time(I guess it still is now but seriously, it was an empire back then), and worked my way down. This led me to getting into my first J-Pop girl group, named dream. No capital D at the time, mind you.
Memories fade but I’m pretty sure dream’s “Movin On” was probably the first non-Ayu music video I saw and I had barely seen any of those yet. Music Videos were a rare treat early on because I was still on dialup at the time. A friend from one of the cartoon-related IRC channels I was a part of at the time very graciously helped me out in getting these. Danobot, wherever you are now, thanks man! If Ayumi started my J-Pop fandom, dream supercharged it. They were a wonderful group. “Solve”, “Reality”, “Our Time”, “Get Over” and so many more good songs. I loved this group very much, and was sad when their songwriter and member Mai Matsumuro left the group in late 2002. I remember buying their 2002 concert DVD and hacking my mom’s DVD player to play Region 2 discs to watch it. And yes, for those of you who are more modern J-Pop fans, while the original members left before it happened, this is the same Dream brand that became a part of E-Girls. It was a special joy for me to see the group that helped start it all survive for so long in some form. I’m really glad they found some success and direction in E-girls as Avex didn’t do them a lot of favors later on, but the story of Avex becoming its own worst enemy is well known and not worth telling. For me, dream’s music holds up to this day. Their “7th Anniversary Best” album is available on Apple Music and Spotify. The 1st disc is comprised of every A-side from the original 3-member group and I highly recommend giving it a listen. It could be bias, but I think it’s still great music.
In the early 2000’s there was lots of fun to be had in the Avex brand. I remember watching a weekly webcast they did called “Channel A” and found a lot of artists from it and their site in general. Some of the highlights were Folder5, EARTH was a short lived but pretty awesome group, and other acts like Do As Infinity and Koda Kumi I got into, but really Ayu and these girl groups became my bread and butter. And just to tie it into modern times, I got my very first taste of K-Pop watching BoA’s Japanese debut through Channel A footage, although it would be eight or so years before I gave that genre specific attention. It was a very fun hobby for me, and while some times in the music and the fandom were better than others, I had some good times interacting with people in those wacky IRC channels. This was were I met my longest running friend Amn, the guy I mentioned in my Japan writings.
As time went on I got into more artists, some I remember and some I don’t, and music finally became a regular hobby of mine. It’s worth noting that this hobby then expanded to some local music. After learning to appreciate music in general, I developed a liking for American classic rock, alternative, 80’s stuff, and more. Without a doubt Japanese pop music helped me grow into all kinds of stuff as the years went on. But getting back to 2001, just as I thought I had become a proper J-Pop fan and nothing else was really going to surprise me, along came something called… Drumroll, please!
And so began the era of Japanese idols. I still remember when “The Peace!’ music video came out a bit before the actual release. Its impact was probably second-only to discovering Ayumi Hamasaki. I instantly became enamored with this group of girls. While most J-Pop at the time was very upbeat and lively, this was upbeat in overdrive. After this I started to divebomb those IRC fserv’s (I just remembered that term while writing this LOL) for all the Morning Musume content I could find. This is how I learned about Hello Project, the sub and sister groups, and idol culture in general and that they had an entire TV show. Wow, this idol thing is really something! I started to watch some of the show, titled “Hello! Morning”, and developed a huge crush on Goto Maki. Ah, the days when me and idols were the same age. Goto Maki was a sensation herself when she debuted in Morning Musume, and it was easy to see why. She was charming, charismatic, great on stage, and oh man did 15 year old me think she was pretty. She was featured pretty prominently on Hello Morning, most notably in a segment which translated to “Until the bus comes”. It is still a favorite of mine to this day. It’s on YouTube if you care to have a look. Hello Project at that time really was the perfect storm of their peak music, creativity, and media variety. There are very few J-Pop albums to this day I would hold up as high as “4th Ikkimasshoi!” For me, it’s nearly impossible to beat, nostalgia goggles or not.
This wave of Hello Project and Avex would take me through 2002 easily, but in 2003 I started to diversify more. Not really because of any lack of interest in the two behemoths of my fandom, but rather a natural progression of getting into more music. However, now that it’s all in the history books, this stuff right here is what I remember most. By no means was this a complete list of everything I was into, this is just what had the most impact. An impact that would lead to so much. We all know just from the existence of this site and my Japan trips that the hobby overall endured. It set the stage for so many experiences that followed. My eventual AKB48 fandom, seeing multiple J-Pop artists that came to America, going to Japan multiple times, even eventually getting into K-Pop… it’s all thanks to these initial experiences and these initial artists.
I honestly wish I could thank them all. Teenage life was a mixed bag for me like it was for most people. J-Pop gave me something to do, something to be into, and something to listen to. It gave me a hobby that occupied the free time and filled the air with something other than high school work and drama. It got me through some difficult times over the years when I struggled, and made fun times even more so. And as I began adult life, while changes in my job and age have made free time feel a bit more fleeting, it’s still there for me. So indeed, thank you to pioneers of my hobby like Ayumi Hamasaki, dream, and Morning Musume. Thanks to friends of years past in those IRC channels and other places who helped me along the way. Thank you to my mom who put up with my weirdness then and now, bought me those CD’s and DVD’s when my teenage self had no income to do so. Thanks to all the other artists and fans I’ve ran across in my time in this hobby. And of course thank you to all the friends in this hobby I have now who keep it going on. It wasn’t all perfect, but it’s been worth keeping around for 20 years and counting, and that’s pretty damn hard to beat.