Big in Japan (phrase)

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Mr. Big was a "Big in Japan" band from the United States.[1] They were one of the two most popular foreign music[a] artists in Japan alongside Bon Jovi.[2] Outside Japan, Mr. Big were generally considered a one-hit wonder with their single "To Be with You".

Big in Japan is an expression that can be used literally to describe Western (especially North American or European) musical groups who achieve success in Japan but not necessarily in other parts of the world. However, the expression is commonly used ironically to mean successful in a limited, potentially comical, and possibly unverifiable way.[3]

Original usage[edit]

The phrase began to appear on several major Japanese foreign-rock magazines, especially the Music Life magazine, in the late 1970s, and in most cases, the "big in Japan" artists became popular in Japan due to being featured by Music Life.[citation needed] The concept predated the phrase; Neil Sedaka made it big in Japan with "One Way Ticket" before breaking through in his native United States, Jimmy Osmond, typically a side show to his older brothers The Osmonds in North America and Europe, cut several tracks in Japanese and received several gold records for his recordings. The Human Beinz, one-hit wonders in their native United States, charted twice at the top of the charts in Japan.[4]

In the late 20th century, notable "big in Japan" artists included several stadium rock bands from the United States, metal artists from Northern European countries such as Norway, Denmark, and especially Sweden and Finland (e.g. the rock band Hanoi Rocks), eurobeat artists from Austria, Germany and especially Italy, and UK rock[5] artists.

Some bands have used their popularity in Japan as a springboard to break into other audiences. Notably, the power pop group Cheap Trick, which had been known as the "American Beatles" in Japan for their appeal, achieved widespread success with their multi-platinum live album Cheap Trick at Budokan. The band had previously struggled to break into the mainstream American market with their earlier albums. Furthermore, like Cheap Trick, some bands have lost their "big in Japan" titles after gaining popularity in their respective homelands. The most notable example is Bon Jovi.[1]

For example, Scorpions initially had only limited success in Europe and the United States,[citation needed] yet were "Big in Japan", as evidenced by their 1978 tour of the country and the double live album Tokyo Tapes.[6] Another example is The Ventures, a band formed in 1959 and touring Japan each year since 1965, having logged over 2,000 concerts there by 2006.[7] "Being 'Big in Japan' turned into a positive sign of their closeness to the hearts of Japanese people, with the band embedded in national and local rock cultures."[7]

Swedish band The Spotnicks toured Japan in 1966 after their song "Karelia" topped the Japanese charts the year prior, with hardly any promotion of the band. Around this time, the band's popularity in Europe had been waning due to changed taste in music, particularly in their home country where they had relatively few hits, none of them topping the charts. They went on a few more tours there in the late '60s and occasionally toured there in the '70s, '80s and for the last time in 1998. While their popularity in Japan is small compared to the one of The Ventures, "Karelia" is considered a classic song.

The phrase was used as the name of a UK punk band active from 1977 to 1982 (whose name inspired the title of a 1984 hit single by new wave band Alphaville) and was the name of the lead track on the Grammy-winning 1999 album Mule Variations by Tom Waits. The mockumentary This is Spinal Tap parodies this phenomenon when the band schedules a Japanese tour after discovering that their single "Sex Farm" is inexplicably selling very well there.

American band Mountain reformed for a successful tour of Japan in 1973. A live album titled Twin Peaks was released in 1974. Mountain bass player and vocalist Felix Pappalardi then worked with the Japanese band Creation in 1976.

Other usage[edit]

It has also been used in sports, for instance, to describe Major League Baseball players who join Japanese clubs at the end of their careers, such as Daryl Spencer.[8]

"Small in Japan"[edit]

The derivative phrase "small in Japan", originally used for AC/DC,[9] has been used since the early 1980s. In general, a small-in-Japan artist holds significant popularity in the Western world (in most cases the United States), and visits Japan many times to promote himself/herself, yet is almost unknown and unsuccessful in Japan despite being heavily featured by Japanese music media.

In Japanese culture, the phrase "small in Japan" is also used to describe Japanese celebrities who are unknown, unsuccessful or "forgotten" in Japan but making their ways outside Japan. The phrase has been used to refer to certain musicians such as Dir En Grey, certain professional wrestlers, certain fashion models such as Ai Tominaga and Tao Okamoto, and all the Miss Universe contestants from Japan, most of whom are former unsuccessful fashion models, including Kurara Chibana and Riyo Mori.[10]

In one exceptional case, Digital Arts magazine has used the phrase to describe the Xbox, a video game console that was a success all over the world except in Japan.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Yōgaku" ("Foreign music"), every music from an outer place, more specifically, the Western world


  1. ^ a b Featured Artist : MR BIG Archived 2011-03-16 at the Wayback Machine (USEN) (in Japanese)
  2. ^ Sankei, Reunited Mr. Big is planning their first Japanese tour in this June Archived 2010-08-11 at the Wayback Machine (in Japanese) February 21, 2009
  3. ^ Dorian Lynskey (2010-03-22). "What does it mean to be 'big in Japan'". The Guardian. Retrieved 2019-07-01. The phenomenon of being 'big in Japan' dates back to when Japanese record-buyers were condescendingly regarded as kooky and gauche, prone to aiming their affection for western culture at the wrong targets.
  4. ^ "Human Beinz at ROCK CON The National Rock & Roll Fan Fest". Retrieved 2014-08-23.
  5. ^ The term "UK rock" is an only-in-Japan term used for every rock music artist from the United Kingdom.UK rock / Britpop All About (in Japanese)
  6. ^ Peter Buckley; Jonathan Buckley (2003). The Rough Guide to Rock. Rough Guides. ISBN 1-84353-105-4, ISBN 978-1-84353-105-0. p. 909
  7. ^ a b Shane Homan (2006). Access All Eras: Tribute Bands and Global Pop Culture. McGraw-Hill International. ISBN 0-335-21690-0, ISBN 978-0-335-21690-1. pp. 152-154
  8. ^ Matt Johanson; Wylie Wong; Jon Miller (2007). San Francisco Giants: Where Have You Gone?. Sports Publishing LLC. p. 1. ISBN 1-59670-187-0., ISBN 978-1-59670-187-8.
  9. ^ Barks : AC/DC visits Japan, after 9 years silence Retrieved 2010-07-14 (in Japanese)
  10. ^ Artistic Jam : "Big in Japan" Archived 2013-01-17 at Retrieved 2010-07-14 (in Japanese)
  11. ^ Xbox sales 'small in Japan' Retrieved 2007-07-11