JO1 to the world: A new stage for J-pop


It’s a rainy November day and young music fans crowd around the office buildings surrounding Chiba’s Makuhari Messe convention center. Later in the evening, they will invade the hall to attend a performance by J-pop group JO1.

It’s a patient group, but fans of the COVID era have to be. The 11-member JO1 (pronounced “jay-oh-one”) debuted in March 2020, just as the world stopped. Without stadium concerts and face-to-face meetings, fans had to be content with YouTube uploads and physical releases.

Tonight in Chiba marks the last date of their first three-day solo concert ‘Open The Door’, initially envisioned as a nationwide tour but narrowed down to a trio of shows in one venue due to COVID-19 security protocols. It’s a packed house every day, filled with fans wearing official JO1 glow sticks, homemade billboards, and a lot of pent-up excitement.

“Since we haven’t had the chance to see our fans for a while, this show must be particularly strong,” JO1 member Junki Kono told the Japan Times ahead of the performance. “We want to show how much we’ve matured since our debut and we want to give something back to our fans.”

Kono and his group mates – Takumi Kawanishi, Ren Kawashiri, Syoya Kimata, Sukai Kinjo (currently on hiatus for treatment for adjustment disorder), Issei Mamehara, Shosei Ohira, Keigo Sato, Ruki Shiroiwa, Shion Tsurubo and Sho Yonashiro – summed up all the Pop Music Trends of the 2020s: the rise of TV talent contests, the emergence of South Korean companies in the Japanese music ecosystem, and a new interest in making themselves known to the world. ‘foreigner.

“Since we haven’t gone out of a pre-existing system, this is the first time something like this has been done,” Kono says. “It would be great if JO1 could be remembered as a group that changed Japanese music and opened the eyes of the world to the new culture of Japan.”

Directed by television

When I meet JO1 in October in a warehouse in Odaiba transformed into a photo studio, the members – all in their twenties – are in a good mood. They tell me about their fondness for sushi (“Sushi tastes good… my favorite is shrimp,” Sato says) and animates it.

They are also happy to be together. Shiroiwa introduces himself as “a city boy” and “Japanese super idol” to laughter from his colleagues, who are also not afraid to embark on a light roast. After Kawanishi expresses his love for baseball and his appreciation for pitcher Shohei Ohtani, someone else shouts in English “Japanese Shohei Ohtani!” It doesn’t take long for his squad mates to stop him on the fact that the new AHL MVP is, in fact, Japanese. Nothing in their interactions seems forced, the OG1 are just a group of young guys chatting.

Interactions like this partly helped draw viewers to “Produce 101 Japan,” a 2019 talent contest show in which 101 young men competed to make their debut in a new pop group. The program was a spinoff from the hit South Korean series “Produce 101”, the Japanese incarnation being a joint production between national talent center Yoshimoto Kogyo and South Korean company CJ ENM. The series, which aired primarily on the Gyao streaming site, followed the contestants as they gradually improved their song, dance and rap. Viewers – nicknamed “national producers” – had the chance to vote on who would make the JO1 team.

J-pop JO1’s act debuted in March 2020, as the world closed its borders in response to COVID-19. Twenty-one months later, the group’s first three-day solo concert “Open The Door” filled Chiba’s Makuhari Messe convention center with fans every evening. | MARTIN HOLTKAMP

Talent TV shows have long been springboards for new pop stars in Japan. You could make a compelling case that the very idea of ​​”idols” as we know them today arose out of 1971’s “Star Tanjo”, a broadcast contest that launched names like Momoe Yamaguchi, Pink Lady and Akina Nakamori, among others. The Morning Musume group of the late ’90s formed from a similar talent competition, while AKB48’s annual election became a television phenomenon – to the point where the original season of “Produce 101” in South Korea was accused of plagiarizing.

“Produce 101 Japan,” however, signaled the arrival of the streaming-age talent show in this country. Since then, the market has grown oversaturated with similar offerings, from a second season of “Produce 101 Japan” to Hulu’s efforts to create all-female (“Nizi Project”) and all-male (“The First”) outfits. ). Nippon TV is currently broadcasting “Who Is Princess?”, Another group-building exercise available on multiple streaming fronts aimed at creating a group geared towards the social media age.

The original “Produce” went down in flames in South Korea due to vote manipulation, while similar shows were banned in China due to government concerns, and Japan has become a stronghold for this type of. search for television talent.

JO1, however, was the first. The members say the experience shaped their attitude towards pop music and taught them to never stop working on all aspects of their performance. It also strengthened their bond.

“It’s like family,” says Kono, Sato adding that at the start of the series he only focused on how he could win himself. “Now I think as a member of JO1,” he said, “and how we are a team. I think of us as a whole.

Surf the wave

JO1’s YouTube page features a plethora of non-musical content, from “eye contact challenges” to cola taste tests. Some of the more interesting downloads find members attending the ECC language school chain where they learn English, Chinese and Korean.

“All of the members have focused on studying languages ​​over the past year,” Kono explains in English, demonstrating his progress. “This year there has been a lot of learning.”

Lapone Entertainment oversees JO1, as well as the next group “Produce 101 Japan” INI. Founded just before the reality show’s premiere, it is a long-term joint venture between Yoshimoto Kogyo and CJ ENM: the former brings national knowledge, while the latter offers an approach to go beyond – beyond the proven success of the K-pop boom, especially over the past five years when the possibility of success in America became a reality.

“Managers and most staff can speak two or three languages,” says Kono, adding that they hear songs from other languages ​​almost every day. The members are eager to show off their skills in front of me, whether it’s greeting in Korean when they introduce themselves or saying in perfect English to Sato, “Now I’m studying Japanese.” It gets him lots of laughs from the others.

JO1 was formed through “Produce 101 Japan,” a 2019 talent competition in which 101 young men competed to debut in a new pop group.  |  MARTIN HOLTKAMP
JO1 was formed through “Produce 101 Japan,” a 2019 talent competition in which 101 young men competed to debut in a new pop group. | MARTIN HOLTKAMP

This approach to group building has become more prominent in J-pop, as Korean companies – and their PR methods – enter the Japanese market. NiziU, the resulting girl group of “Nizi Project,” is under the direction of South Korean powerhouse JYP Entertainment, and their first full-length album topped the Oricon charts last week. INI could be even more mundane than JO1 in its construction; the group includes a Chinese member to include different backgrounds, an approach that K-pop groups have used with great success in Asia.

“Since our third single, we’ve tried to incorporate English into the lyrics,” says Kawashiri. “We practiced singing in English while speaking, although it is one of our biggest challenges. “

Break down the door

These international dreams may have to wait until the whole pandemic situation calms down, but for now, the group still has its territory to conquer. After hours – or maybe 21 months – of waiting, the thousands of Makuhari Messe fans stand up as the lights go down. JO1 emerges on stage performing the cheerful “Born To Be Wild”, a song going from dramatic verses to rapped interludes and a funk hook, all performed according to a precise choreography. The light sticks glow blue as the beat kicks in, as in sync as the 10 men on stage.

While JO1 has the backing of a South Korean music industry that sits on top of Asia, the members don’t want to just sail behind the Hallyu wave.

“I want to make Japanese a more universal language in music,” says Sato, after the band explained how they listen to pop in English, Korean and Chinese, even if they don’t fully understand the lyrics. He compares it to Japan’s most successful pop culture export anime, which brings Japanese to the world and is embraced even if the viewer doesn’t get all the details.

I ask the group what kind of career they want for themselves, citing BTS as an example of aiming high on a global scale.

“You mention BTS, but there are a lot of great bands all over the world, including from South Korea, but imitation is something we don’t want to do,” Shiroiwa says, seeing her band as taking elements of K-pop and J-pop looking for something different. “JO1 wants to find a unique style in Japan. We want to bring a new wind from Japan. It would be amazing to be seen by the younger generation of artists as a trailblazer. “

At the end of the last show of their tour, JO1 is simply caught up in the feelings of the moment. In the final 40 minutes of the three-hour concert, the members express their emotions about the weekend, with almost everyone breaking into tears, overwhelmed by something that has been brewing for nearly two years. It’s a moment of reflection shared with fans, before they turn to a new era of pop.

In accordance with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is urging residents and visitors to exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, concert halls and other public spaces.

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