INTERNATIONAL ISSUES: Commercial radio that emerged from the Kobe earthquake - English-speaking radio is now all the rage in Japan. Bethan Hutton investigates

The Kobe earthquake in January 1995 had many repercussions in Japan.

The Kobe earthquake in January 1995 had many repercussions in


One of the strangest was the appearance, only months later, of a rash of

commercial FM radio stations. English-speaking DJs playing Western rock

and pop began to pepper the hitherto rather staid Japanese radio


Broadcasters had been lobbying for licences to run foreign-language

radio stations in Japan for years, but the government had always refused

to allow them. It was only after the earthquake, when thousands of

foreigners in the area came last in the queue for relief, that the

government relented. Its decision was a tacit admission that leaving the

influential population of non-Japanese speakers out of the information

loop had been a big mistake.

Kobe is a favourite spot for international companies to set up their

Japanese headquarters and, consequently, has a thriving population of

foreigners. In the aftermath of the earthquake, it was the concern of

these people that prompted the birth of Japan’s first civilian foreign

language station.

In fact, the first station to open was in Osaka. FM Co-Co-Lo was

launched to coincide with a meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic

Cooperation forum, making its debut in September 1995. Tokyo’s InterFM

arrived seven months later, followed by Fukuoka’s Love FM this April.

More stations are in the pipeline, and there are hints that the existing

stations - which all carry advertising - might work together more

closely in future.

Their official role is to offer public service broadcasting in a mix of

foreign languages. However, they have already evolved into music

stations and have begun to draw a staggering 90 per cent of their

audiences from the Japanese themselves. Although the majority of foreign

residents in Japan are Korean, the predominant language is English.

This has opened up an Aladdin’s cave for advertisers. Radio, for

example, has been the poor relation in Japan, partly because of lack of

choice on the airwaves. Tight government control of radio frequencies

means that, for example, the 38 million residents of Tokyo and its urban

sprawl have a choice of only half a dozen FM radio stations whose

programming appeals to a fairly small proportion of the population.

’Westerners get up in the morning and automatically turn on the radio

but the Japanese turn on the TV,’ Hiroshi Mitsuka, the programme

director at InterFM, explains. But foreign language radio is

successfully persuading more people to tune in. Even better, the

listeners tend to be hip Japanese who are already open to Western

influences and brands.

Market research has found that a large number of listeners want to

improve their English and they occasionally pluck up the courage to call

in and make a request in English. Others like the stations because they

provide an alternative to the Japanese pop that dominates the airwaves -

the foreign language stations play more American and European music,

with occasional Asian hits. Some listeners just like an international

flavour to their aural wallpaper.

The listeners tend to be young, urban, and internationally-minded - an

attractive market for advertisers. When InterFM first launched, most of

its advertising was from international telephone companies targeting

foreign residents. As the audience profile has become more Japanese, the

ads have also changed.

These days, InterFM claims up to a million occasional listeners and its

main sponsors are now the car manufacturers - both Japanese and American

- using advertising that is aimed squarely at Japanese listeners.