Here we are, in the final days of the Heisei era. It’s an exciting time, a time to look towards the future, but also a time to look back on the past 30 years. With this being Japan, there is A LOT of looking back, more so than towards the future it seems. But for those looking forward to the Reiwa era, one question keeps popping up: What will it be like? Ever since this era was named a few weeks ago, I’ve been asked what this new era will bring musically. I’m now going to give my honest answer.
I DON’T KNOW! NOBODY KNOWS!
I’ve been going back and forth over what to say when asked this question, because there are so many ways to tackle it. I’ve given bits and pieces out, but nothing in full detail.
First of all, we have no idea how long the Reiwa era will last. It all depends on how long Naruhito is emperor. Maybe he’ll decide it’s not his bag next year, leading to a new emperor and a new era. Or maybe he’ll go the more traditional route and rule until his death. He’s 59 now, and with Japan’s life expectancy being so high, he could be emperor for the next 30 years, the same amount of time his father Akihito has been emperor.
So let’s say he’s emperor for 30 years. That’s 2049. How would anyone know what the musical trends would be then? Let’s look at this another way. Let’s look back to 2009, ten years ago. Arashi had the #1 album of the year, as well as the #1, #2, #3, and #5 singles. Cut to today, and they’re preparing for their indefinite hiatus. Would this had been expected in 2009?
The top stars of the next few decades could currently be children, or maybe not even born yet. So how would we know what music they’ll be making? How would we know the kind of Japan or world they’ll be growing up in, which would shape their sound? Will Japan continue to do its own thing musically, like it is currently doing by shunning the sounds of hip hop and Latin music that are resonating with music listeners worldwide? Or will there be an opening up to worldwide trends, paralleling the country’s plans to boost immigration in light of its aging population and declining birth rate?
Given Japan’s current demographic trajectory, will the youth even matter? Will what the youth likes even matter as much given how the older population will continue to grow as the youth population continues to decline? A lot of international fans want a return to the late 90s to mid 00s JPop diva era, the era when the international fandom was at its peak due to a lot of fans joining the fandom. But this phenomenon was able to happen due to a large youth population. Looking at Japan’s census age charts from 1995 to 2015 reveals that over the past 20 years, the youth population that made this trend happen has decreased by nearly 50%. While things for have improved for the youth as of late economically, will this trend continue through the Reiwa era?
The one thing I can be certain about though when it comes to the Reiwa era is that digital will grow as the real indicator of what is popular. Physical won’t matter as much. We’ve already seen this change take place. Oricon has become more inclusive of digital formats in its charts as of late. This is in part because there is no way to deny that the breakout hits / stars of the past few years have all had their success mainly digitally: Yonezu Kenshi, Hoshino Gen, Aimyon, back number, DA PUMP’s revival… Aimyon is the first star of what will probably be the main format of the Reiwa era: streaming.
The idols will probably still rule the physical charts due to the gimmicks that their otaku fans eat up, but their impact will be felt less. There will probably not be a Kohaku Uta Gassen in the future like 2014’s where every 48 group at the time was there. All since have been dropped from the show with the exception of AKB48, in part because NHK sees that despite their high sales, these acts don’t resonate with the public.
Nobody knows what is in store for the Reiwa era until it happens. That’s part of the fun of following all of this!