Geo Focus: Japan

With influence from foreign businesses now higher than ever, Japanese pro-audio companies will be looking to maintain the health of the domestic market now the countdown to the Tokyo Olympics has begun. But what preparations are being made in the Land of the Rising Sun? Colby Ramsey reports.

There are a lot of mixed feelings about the state of the pro-audio market in Japan at the moment. The ‘70s witnessed the golden age of the country’s audio business and a boom in its economy, however pure audio dealerships like those seen in the small town of Akiba – once thought of as an “audiophile’s dreamland” – have diminished to only a handful.

While it also appears to be a somewhat challenging time for Japanese audio manufacturers, the influx of foreign manufacturers operating there and their success working with local PA rental companies to increase awareness of their products cannot be ignored.

According to Takeshi Senoo of Audio-Technica Japan’s pro-audio division, this is the case across various areas of the market from live sound to the conference and AV sectors. He believes that times are much harder now for Japanese brands domestically even compared to five or ten years ago.

Yoshiyuki Tsugawa, director of Yamaha’s pro audio business unit, notes that the growth rate of the PA market is currently larger than that of the country’s GDP, and blames the earthquake of 2011 after which “the professional audio market slipped into stagnation as the budget shifted towards reconstruction, quakeproofing and disaster prevention”.

There are some operating in the domestic market that are more optimistic however, including Kazuya Taniguchi, system designer at sound design and studio build specialist Realsonido. He affirms the belief that many sectors, including music, live sound reinforcement, audio post and broadcast, are gradually improving now compared to five years ago.

Pro-audio product planner at Pioneer DJ, Yuji Murai, is also positive about the future, and suggests the market will grow healthier thanks to capital investment and demand for various events in the run up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Taniguchi believes that there may even be some new laws and regulations introduced in anticipation of the Games, meaning domestic companies will likely have to construct a corresponding system to adapt to the new standard as quickly as possible.

“Demand for high-quality audio venues is also increasing as the number of premium-priced live concerts and music events increases,” Murai explains. “It is because the retired baby boomers and their subsequent generation tend to spend their free time and money on such live events, while for the younger generation, the business for music festivals and events is facing an uncertain future due to a declining birth rate in Japan.”

Keeping Connected

While Pioneer DJ has seen the market for PA/SR active speakers growing in North America, it remains small in Japan albeit showing potential signs for future growth, with a strong karaoke culture holding fast.

A particular development that Yamaha has noticed is the now mandatory requirement to install voice evacuation systems – which also serve as commercial audio systems for elements like background music and paging – in every facility that accommodates more than 300 people. “As voice evacuation equipment requires the use of certificated products, the market is in an oligopoly situation by domestic manufacturers such as Panasonic, TOA and JVC,” notes Tsugawa. “This effectively becomes a barrier to entry by new manufacturers, although the price competition with low-cost products made in China is becoming more stringent.”

Despite this assertive approach to new mandatory requirements from some manufacturers, Audio-Technica’s Takeshi Senoo feels that Japanese end users can sometimes be too sensitive to developments in audio equipment, with domestic consumers caring more about the performance, aesthetics and styling of the product than the price and overall value for money.

Contrary to this, recent changes to wireless frequency bands have resulted in many Japanese manufacturers launching new UHF systems as a direct response. Senoo observes the 1.9GHz solution for conference rooms or universities becoming increasingly popular because of potential interference issues. “Our infrared wireless handheld/beltpack system is ideal for educational facilities where there are many lecture rooms close together that all need a connection,” explains Senoo. “In Japan, we only have 30 channels for UHF wireless use without any license so end users who don’t want interference tend to choose this option.”

Tsugawa at Yamaha Pro Audio also confirms a growing trend towards networking products as Dante rapidly spreads into the live sound reinforcement and venue market, while also gradually increasing in commercial installation equipment.

When it comes to installation, Taniguchi at Realsonido says he has not been installing many Japanese products, as certain sectors of the market such as music and audio post opt for foreign-made products from companies like Avid. While it may prove difficult then for firms like Realsonido to expand into other countries, Taniguchi affirms that his responsibilities lie with constructing audio systems for the domestic market.

Staying Focused

Murai at Pioneer DJ also cites the revision of the Law to Control Businesses That May Affect Public Morals as a potential influence of activity in the nightclub business, as this means they are allowed to open all night and could be a trigger for expansion. He also notes that while active speaker products are being introduced in dance studios and apparel shops more and more due to their ease of use, the markets in Europe and the USA remain bigger than that of Japan in terms of DJ equipment sales.

“As a global company, however, we think it is extremely important for us to succeed in the Japanese market where people are very demanding in product selection,” he says. “We think it is a basic of all business that you have to be an expert in both common demands around the world and different needs arising from cultural differences.”

Murai goes on to advise that for new businesses looking to enter the market, being determined to continue the business with faith is paramount, as opposed to only pursuing short-term profit. “We witnessed the world give a standing ovation for the great performance that Tokyo presented at the Rio Olympics Closing Ceremony,” he says. “That is the proof that Japan is one of the leading technology powerhouses in the world.”

Looking ahead, Tsugawa evisages an expansion of the live sound reinforcement and installation markets as well as increased demand for new construction and renovations as the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo draws closer.

Interpreting Opportunity

For Audio-Technica, the install market remains a priority, and it predicts that many Japanese companies might adopt English as an official language while the number of foreigners working for these companies could increase significantly. “In order to satisfy end users’ demands, we may need to develop the conference system with a lot of interpretation options,” Senoo explains. “And in ten years time the UHF frequency band we can use could change, so we need to be constantly developing our wireless products to pre-empt future developments.”

In defiance of these uncertainties in its pro-audio market, Japan and the companies that operate there will undoubtedly be looking to uphold its strong traditional culture, and will continue to push the boundaries when new opportunities emerge.

“In the future we believe that venues for high quality entertainment will be created – that comprehensively combine audio, video and lighting technology,” Murai concludes. “And Pioneer DJ will work to contribute to the creation of this new entertainment culture.”