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
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.