Ultimate Find: Decoding Japan’s Love for Vinyl
Record store in Jimbocho, Tokyo; a neighborhood known for small book shops, vinyl hunting and curry shops. / Image by OFTO
You don’t have to look too far to see Japan’s continued impact in the music world. When it comes to proving their unwavering belief in a traditional style of consuming music – like buying physical formats – the most recent stat tells us that vinyl generated $256.3 million in the first quarter of 2021.
On its own, it counts for a lot more than most countries, but comparatively, the sales figure is down 20% from 2020. Given the pandemic and the lack of concerts which often create the selling point for CDs and vinyl, it’s still an important figure coming to us from the world’s second largest market for recorded music.
However, none of these trends are eyebrow-raising considering that Japan has always had an affinity for the physical format. If anything, it could be argued that the Japanese way of collecting and consuming music has lessons for the rest of the world.
But that’s a story for another time. What we can explore is how a sense of efficiency and manufacturing precision, the sustained support towards record stores and the consumption culture helped create the world’s most sought-after physical recordings of music.
A 12″ Japanese vinyl pressing of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon with Obi strip.
One of the key phenomenon which we’re going to get into is the quality of vinyl created in Japan and how it gained an immense amount of respect around the world from audiophiles and collectors across the world.
Japanese manufacturers are known to use “high quality virgin vinyl” and this was a practice which yielded gains in the 1970s and 1980s. This was arguably also the golden age of vinyl sales after which it was overtaken by cassette tapes and compact discs from the late 1990s onwards. It was only a decade later that vinyl regained some of its lost following. All throughout these past 50 years, vinyl from Japan became particularly watched and sought after. Why was that the case?
As one website puts it:
JVC had invented an exceptionally durable and quiet vinyl compound known as “Super Vinyl” that was unavailable anywhere else.
The quietness was clearly a big plus for people who were used to all the pops and crackles that vinyl is synonymous with. You may think this earthen sonic value is what endears many to the vinyl format, but there’s more to it than that. It’s really clean and quiet and this was not an accident. The EQ just turned out different from the copy of the master (of the recorded album) they received. That meant lower bass levels and brighter treble.
What was the reason for this sonic treatment that’s now become the standard for vinyl made in Japan? Among the myriad of reasons cited by seasoned collectors from Japan as well as industry folks, one of the interesting ones that piqued our curiosity (and certainly holds weight) is that the vinyl sound of Japan was a byproduct of suiting lifestyles in the country. Often, homes in Japan are made from plywood and are hollow.
The cleaner, quieter sound meant cutting off a lot of low-end bass, so that doors and walls may not vibrate from bass sounds. This in turn would likely cause some disturbance to neighbors, especially if living quarters were often compact and cozy and any low frequency sounds would be immediately, almost physically noticeable.
However, what if you’re a band or artist who hears this Japanese vinyl mix and it’s not exactly the intended output? Often, these pressings may not reflect the artist’s sonic intention, but on the other hand, some records also benefit from this inadvertent treatment it undergoes in pressing.
Interestingly, the EQ tweak means that Japanese often looked at the grass being greener on the other side, often picking up hordes of American pressings because they found them much more valuable, especially jazz records. Japanese audiophiles are apparently more likely to happily swap their country’s pressings for American or U.K. editions.
Outside of these reasons – which are only seen from the lens of an audiophile – Japanese pressings also carry off a high standard of quality that is arguably unmatched in the world. In the creation and packaging of vinyl records in Japan, special attention goes beyond just the LP itself. There’s a higher quality of cardboard used for the sleeve and cover, for starters.
Vinyl record of Lawrence of Arabia‘s OST pressed in Japan.
From a collector’s point of view, that’s a plus. Then there’s the famous Obi strip which is a trademark of sorts of Japanese pressings. The color and Japanese text (which often lists out promotional text) add an exciting look, adding even more collectible value simply because no one else does it. Inside, the extras often include Japanese lyric booklets and posters, bonus 7-inch records and more. They are also sought after perhaps because they are (obviously) made in fewer quantity compared to larger markets like the U.S. or Europe.
The answer that explains the allure of Japanese vinyl, then, simply comes down to the amount of care and reverence for the vinyl format in terms of creation. This is likely what attracts newbie vinyl collectors.