“Big in Japan” is a bit of music industry puffery—it describes bands that aren’t popular stateside but do really well overseas, allegedly, especially in Japan. It’s usually a big lie, although sometimes it isn’t.
Best known as the first band of Joan Jett, the Runways were an all-girl hard rock band that didn’t do that well in the U.S.—their second album Queens of Noise peaked at #172 on the album chart. In 1977, the band embarked on a world tour and was greeted at the Tokyo airport by screaming teenage fans. They recorded a Live in Japan album and made a special for Japanese TV. The Runaways were ultimately the fourth-top-selling Western act in Japan that year, trailing ABBA, KISS, and Led Zeppelin.
The group’s first three albums sold poorly in the U.S., but went Gold in Japan. So in 1978, the band toured Japan, not the U.S., including two sold-out shows at Nippon Budokan, a huge arena in Tokyo. The shows were recorded and the highlights were released in Japan only as a live album called From Tokyo to You. Then something weird happened—that became successful in the U.S., with more than 30,000 sold in America, remarkable for an import. An official release of the album called Live at Budokan sold three million copies in the U.S. in 1979. In the next two years, the band had three top 40 hits at home.
This British pop singer was a one-hit wonder in 1972 with his song “Beautiful Sunday.” It hit #21 in England, #15 in the U.S.…and #1 in Japan. It sold two million copies in Japan, still the bestselling single by a Western act there ever.
Swing Out Sister
“Breakout” hit the top 10 in 1986, and the soft rock band had a few more minor hits in the U.S. and England. Then almost a decade later, its song “Now You’re Not Here” was used as theme song to the Japanese soap opera Mahiru no Tsuki (“Midday Moon”), and the band got huge in Japan. “Now You’re Not Here” went to #1, as did the follow-up “Heaven Knows.” Three more top 10 hits followed. Today, Swing Out Sister almost exclusively records for and tours in Japan.
For more music trivia, check out Uncle John’s Plunges into Music.