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Big in Japan is an expression historically used to describe western based musical groups who achieve success in Japan but not necessarily in other parts of the world.
The phrase began to appear on several major Japanese foreign-rock magazines, especially the Music Life magazine, in the late 1970s, and in most cases, the "big in Japan" artists became popular in Japan due to being featured by Music Life. The concept predated the phrase; Neil Sedaka made it big in Japan with "One Way Ticket" before breaking through in his native United States, while Jimmy Osmond, typically a side show to his older brothers The Osmonds in North America and Europe, cut several tracks in Japanese and received several gold records for his recordings.
In the late 20th century, notable "big in Japan" artists included several stadium rock bands from the United States, metal artists from Northern European countries such as Norway, Denmark, and especially Sweden and Finland (e.g. the rock band Hanoi Rocks), eurobeat artists from Austria, Germany and especially Italy, and UK rock artists.
Some bands have used their popularity in Japan as a springboard to break into other audiences. Notably, the power pop group Cheap Trick, which had been known as the "American Beatles" in Japan for their appeal, achieved widespread success with their multi-platinum live album Cheap Trick at Budokan. The band had previously struggled to break into the mainstream American market with their earlier albums. Furthermore, like Cheap Trick, some bands have lost their "big in Japan" titles after gaining popularity in their respective homelands. The most notable example is Bon Jovi.
For example, Scorpions initially had only mediocre success in Europe and the United States, yet were "Big in Japan", as evidenced by their 1978 tour of the country and the double live album Tokyo Tapes. Another example is The Ventures, a band formed in 1959 and touring Japan each year since 1965, having logged over 2,000 concerts there by 2006. "Being 'Big in Japan' turned into a positive sign of their closeness to the hearts of Japanese people, with the band embedded in national and local rock cultures." The Swedish band The Spotnicks toured Japan in 1966 after their song Karelia topped the Japanese charts the year prior, with hardly any promotion of the band. Around this time, the band's popularity in Europe had been waning due to changed taste in music, particularly in their home country where they had relatively few hits, none of them topping the charts. They went on a few more tours there in the late 60's and occasionally toured there in the 70's, 80's and for the last time 1998. While their popularity in Japan is small compared to the one of The Ventures, Karelia is considered a classic song.
The phrase was used as the name of a UK punk band active from 1977 to 1982 (whose name inspired the title of a 1984 hit single by pop band Alphaville) and was the name of the lead track on the Grammy-winning 1999 album Mule Variations by Tom Waits. The mockumentary This is Spinal Tap parodies this phenomenon when the band schedules a Japanese tour after discovering that their single "Sex Farm" is inexplicably selling very well there.
American band Mountain reformed for a successful tour of Japan in 1973. A live album titled Twin Peaks was released in 1974. Mountain bass player and vocalist Felix Pappalardi then worked with the Japanese band Creation in 1976.
The derivative phrase "small in Japan", originally used for AC/DC, has been used since the early 1980s. In general, a small-in-Japan artist holds significant popularity in the Western world (in most cases the United States), and visits Japan many times to promote himself/herself, yet is almost unknown and unsuccessful in Japan despite being heavily featured by Japanese music media.
In Japanese culture, the phrase "small in Japan" is also used to describe Japanese celebrities who are unknown, unsuccessful or "forgotten" in Japan but making their ways outside Japan. The phrase has been used to refer to certain musicians such as Dir En Grey, certain professional wrestlers such as Yoshihiro Tajiri and Yoshitatsu, certain fashion models such as Ai Tominaga and Tao Okamoto, and all the Miss Universe contestants from Japan, most of whom are former unsuccessful fashion models, including Kurara Chibana and Riyo Mori.