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“Melody and melancholy in suitable doses” – Finnish heavyrock is “BIG IN JAPAN“

by Timo Isoaho

From the Archives: Hanoi Rocks, Children Of Bodom, Sonata Arctica, Stratovarius, Negative, Amorphis, The 69 Eyes, Twilightning, Dreamtale... Finnish heavy rock and heavy metal acts have for years enjoyed great success in the Japanese market. But why Finnish music in particular, and why Japan of all places? What sort of figures and what sort of market are we talking about here? This article is originally published in 2004.

Japan is one of the largest market areas in the world for music, even if record sales are relatively modest when set against the country's population base of around 125 million souls. The melodic power-metal outfit Sonata Arctica, who hail from the northern city of Kemi, have for a couple of years been among the biggest-selling foreign heavy acts in the Land of the Rising Sun, and Sonata Arctica's albums sell around 50,000 copies on average. 

The apparent contradiction in the numbers/success equation is explained for instance by the fact that the Japanese market adheres to much the same rules as the Finnish one: domestic bands and artists sell relatively more than do foreign acts. Japan has or has had several million-selling names (for example X Japan), about whom precious few people outside the country have ever heard a word. Some idea of the breadth of the market comes, on the other hand, with the knowledge that in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo you can find stores that are geared solely to selling the products of Japanese teen-glam bands! 

Riku Paakkonen, MD of Helsinki-based Spinefarm Records, has visited Japan on several occasions. Thanks in good measure to the contacts he has forged, the CDs of many Finnish metal acts have found their way into Japanese stores. Paakkonen is nonetheless unable to pick out any single crucial reason behind the popularity of Finnish bands. 

“I'd see it in such a way that Finnish music has a suitable mix of melody and melancholy, and this combination seems to go down well in Japan. Another thing you must understand is that these days Finnish musicians are extremely talented. And be- sides, you have to remember that Finnish heavy metal in various forms is selling well practically everywhere right now. Some years ago it was true that Japan was probably the biggest foreign market for Finnish acts, but now things are very different, say in the case of Children of Bodom. These days Bodom sell heavily and relatively evenly all over the place”, muses Pääkkönen.

Children of Bodom, who already have two lengthy U.S. tours under their belts, are also the best example of the musicianship that Pääkkonen was referring to. The band's guitarist and front man Alexi “Wildchild” Laiho and the keyboards player Janne Wirman won the readers' “Best of the Best” vote in their respective categories in the big-selling Japanese magazine Burrn last spring. In the guitarist section, Laiho even beat out a certain gent named Zakk Wylde! Wylde's pedigree as a sideman to Ozzy Osbourne and with Black Label Society should be an indicator of the company Laiho is competing with.


A stark contrast to Japanese culture

Stratovarius vocalist Timo Kotipelto, who has made several tours of Japan, and the Negative bassist Antti, who has been there a couple of times, both find a good many reasons for the popularity of Finnish artists. 

“One thing you don't hear mentioned very often is for instance the fact that the Japanese and Finnish languages share a lot of the same sounds. The Japanese kind of like this. On top of that, the Japanese see the Finns as an exotic nation, in much the same way that we ourselves view them from here. And it's also true that a good many Japanese still have a sort of negative set towards the Americans because of World War II. Many of them prefer to look for things they like from Europe, and some of them get so fired up about it that they come and knock on the front doors of Tony (Kakko) from Sonata Arctica or Tuomas, the Nightwish keyboards player”, says Kotipelto. 

Antti's comments probably come very close to the core of the matter. 

“The Japanese are withdrawn and introverted in their way, at least in certain things. There's a reluctance or a fear of showing feelings openly, and particularly with sensitive subjects, they like to skirt around the edge of things. Like when we went to Japan for the first time, we were given a good example: if someone asks you if you are gay, then you really shouldn't snap back with a sharp 'No way', but you should go around the issue by saying something like 'Well, I really prefer women'. I guess we found all that a bit difficult to get into at first, and anyway, why did they give us THAT particular comparison as an example?” snorts Antti. 

“I'd be willing to bet that it's a really big deal for a lot of Japanese people to see this androgynous-looking blond guy up there, for instance Jonne Aaron from our band or Makke (Michael Monroe) from Hanoi Rocks, giving it everything and singing openly about deep emotions. I mean, that is almost completely at odds with everything in the basic Japanese way of thinking, and it's not hard to imagine a Japanese girl falling for this kind of teen idol! Then again, even at our gigs you can also see business types in collars and ties, men who come to rock out a bit after their working day. After the set they straighten their ties, buy a band T-shirt, and head off home.” 

Finally, Antti takes a tongue-in-cheek look at it, but there might just be a smattering of truth behind the musician's throwaway comments. 

“You know, Japanese culture is pretty amazing, and in some places it's pretty weird, too, and it's not easy for a Finn to understand their mindset. It may even be that the Finnish bands are totally dire, and that some of the Japanese audiences like us simply for that”, the bassist laughs. 

In a couple of months' time, the Finnish heavy brigade will find themselves roadtesting the limits of tolerance in the local culture, if Nightwish's plans come to fruition and the band makes its landfall in Japan next spring. The band's earlier CDs have not sold above a few thousand copies each in Japan, but the chances of the Once album - already regarded as a heavy classic and at the top of the Billboard Eurocharts in July – are seen to be completely different. And how will the Japanese cope with dramatic female vocalist Tarja Turunen fronting the band?

“There are not too many female executives to be found in Japan, for instance. It might be that many Japanese men may think twice about digging a band that is headlined by a woman”, says Toni Peiju of King Foo Entertainment, who have Nightwish on their roster.


Down-to-earth musicians without airs

Tamiko Asada from Tokyo has been a fan of Finnish heavy rock for years, and she maintains Japanese fan sites for Children of Bodom and Negative. In addition to the Finnish acts singing in English, Tamiko wants to give a nod to Timo Rautiainen and Trio Niskalaukaus. 

“The band's sombre, mournful sound and the Finnish lyrics make for a tremendous combination. I first saw them at the Tuska Open Air Metal Festival in Helsinki in 2001, and the way the Finnish audience welcomed them made a big impression on me. Everyone was singing along with Rautiainen and I decided to see if I could get to grips with the band's lyrics myself. I learned the chorus of Kova maa (off the band's 2002 album Rajaportti) and it was amazing to sing along with the Finnish audience. I've actually seen Trio Niskalaukaus CDs on sale in Tokyo, too”, says Tamiko. 

“One of the biggest reasons behind the success of Finnish bands in Japan is the way the musicians are so down-to-earth. They don't put on any airs. For instance, when Negative and Children of Bodom were on their first tour of Japan, we were all amazed at how friendly the band members were and how they always seemed to find time to sign autographs, and pose for pictures and chat with fans. I can assure you that a lot of American bands are quite different that way. They don't want to meet their fans, and they behave like they own the place”, she goes on. 

For his part, Negative's lead singer Jonne Aaron has no doubts at all about the reason behind the triumphant march of the Finnish heavy bands. 

“Finnish bands are the best. That's already a pretty good reason for digging them”, the vocalist observes drily. 

Photos: FMQ Archives, Printed Magazine 3/2004

Translation: William Moore