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Big in Japan (phrase)

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Mr. Big are 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 of Japan, Mr. Big are generally considered a one-hit wonder for their single "To Be with You".

Big in Japan is an expression that can be used 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, oddly specific, or possibly unverifiable way.[3]

Original usage[edit]

The phrase began to appear in several major Japanese foreign-rock magazines, especially 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. Sedaka noted that Elvis Presley, the biggest rock star in America in the late 1950s, never left North America/Hawaii (in part because his agent Colonel Tom Parker lived in the U.S. illegally[citation needed]), and this opened opportunities in foreign markets such as Japan for more obscure artists such as Sedaka to gain a foothold there.[4] 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, scored two number one hit singles in Japan.[5] In the summer of 1977, The Runaways, who struggled to make a mark in America, were the fourth most popular imported musical act in Japan, just behind The Beatles and Led Zeppelin.[6]

Irish musical group The Nolans, who were virtually unknown in North America, sold over 12 million records in Japan, outselling The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Adele, and Ed Sheeran combined. They also became the first international act to have all of their releases hit No. 1 in the country, as well as the first to hit No. 1 on both the Japanese domestic and international charts.[7][8]

American singer-songwriter Billie Hughes recorded the 1991 song "Welcome to the Edge" for the soap opera Santa Barbara, but in Japan, the single became a No. 1 hit, selling over 500,000 copies and receiving Quadruple Platinum certification by the RIAJ.[9][10]

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[11] artists.

Some bands have used their popularity in Japan as a springboard to break into other markets. 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" reputations 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.[12] Another example is The Ventures, a band formed in 1958 and touring Japan each year since 1965, having logged over 2,000 concerts there by 2006.[13] "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."[13]

Swedish band The Spotnicks toured Japan in 1966 after their song "Karelia" topped the Japanese charts the year prior, with hardly any promotion by the band. Around this time, the band's popularity in Europe had been waning due to changing musical tastes, 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 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.

After leaving Megadeth, guitarist Marty Friedman moved to Japan in 2003. There, he became a household name, with more than 600 TV appearances in 11 years and becoming a highly sought-after live and studio guitarist.[14]

The American progressive metal band Symphony X built their early career in Japan, after signing a record contract with a now defunct Japanese company, Zero Corporation.[15] They have since achieved success both internationally and in their home country.

Other usages[edit]

"Big in Japan" 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.[16] Professional wrestler Stan Hansen, who had a modest career in North America, became one of the nation's most notorious gaijins in the Japanese professional wrestling scene, having become the first foreigner to defeat Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba.[17]

"Small in Japan"[edit]

The derivative phrase "small in Japan", originally used for AC/DC,[18] 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 for self-promotion, yet is almost unknown and unsuccessful in Japan despite being heavily featured by Japanese music media. An example of an internationally famous artist who is not well known in Japan is Adele.[19]

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 musicians such as Dir En Grey, fashion models such as Ai Tominaga and Tao Okamoto, and Miss Universe contestants from Japan, most of whom are former unsuccessful fashion models, including Kurara Chibana and Riyo Mori.[20]

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.[21]

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 Ongen.net (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. ^ Sedaka, Neil (September 15, 2020). Reflections on the beginning of Neil Sedaka's International Singing Career. Retrieved October 2, 2020.
  5. ^ "Human Beinz at ROCK CON The National Rock & Roll Fan Fest". Nationalrockcon.com. Retrieved 2014-08-23.
  6. ^ "The Runaways Rock Japan 1977 HD". Internet Archive. 2010-05-20. Retrieved 2020-04-28.
  7. ^ The Nolans (2021-03-19). "Tonight on Life Stories, Piers Morgan only hit the tip of the iceberg on how huge we were in Japan..." Twitter. Retrieved 2021-07-03.
  8. ^ McNamara, Dermot (2020-09-17). "The Nolans celebrate 40 years of hits, with new album The Nolans: Gold". Candid Publicity. Retrieved 2021-09-11.
  9. ^ Fukatsu, Kaz (1992-06-06). "TV Themes, Karaoke Push CD Singles Production Up 44% in '91 (page 42)" (PDF). Billboard. Retrieved 2022-07-26.
  10. ^ "ゴールドディスク認定 (set date to 1992年4月 and search for "とどかぬ想い")". Recording Industry Association of Japan. Retrieved 2022-07-26.
  11. ^ The term "UK rock" is an only-in-Japan term used for every rock music artist from the United Kingdom.UK rock / Britpop Archived 2010-07-02 at the Wayback Machine All About (in Japanese)
  12. ^ Peter Buckley; Jonathan Buckley (2003). The Rough Guide to Rock. ISBN 9781572308268. Rough Guides. ISBN 1-84353-105-4, ISBN 978-1-84353-105-0. p. 909
  13. ^ a b Shane Homan (2006). Access All Eras: Tribute Bands and Global Pop Culture. ISBN 9780335216901. McGraw-Hill International. ISBN 0-335-21690-0, ISBN 978-0-335-21690-1. pp. 152-154
  14. ^ Umanov, Ben (2014-08-19). "How Megadeth's Marty Friedman Became a Japanese Superstar". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 2021-06-15.
  15. ^ Sharpe-Young, Garry (2009). ""Symphony X"". Archived from the original on 2012-05-28. Retrieved Jan 6, 2023.
  16. ^ Matt Johanson; Wylie Wong; Jon Miller (2007). San Francisco Giants: Where Have You Gone?. Sports Publishing LLC. p. 1. ISBN 978-1-59670-187-8., ISBN 978-1-59670-187-8.
  17. ^ "Stan Hansen". WWE. Retrieved 2022-04-10.
  18. ^ Barks : AC/DC visits Japan, after 9 years silence Retrieved 2010-07-14 (in Japanese)
  19. ^ Big in Japan? Artists from abroad may find it more difficult to draw a crowd
  20. ^ Artistic Jam : "Big in Japan" Archived 2013-01-17 at archive.today Retrieved 2010-07-14 (in Japanese)
  21. ^ Xbox sales 'small in Japan' Retrieved 2007-07-11

External links[edit]