EXILE HIRO wants to take J-pop global

After over two decades of leading the Japanese pop scene, it’s hard to overstate just how influential EXILE has been on Japan’s modern music scene.

Hiroyuki Igarashi — known as EXILE HIRO — has led EXILE since its debut in 2001, and went on to establish LDH JAPAN Inc. from which he oversees a broad portfolio of entertainment outfits.

He remains an influential figure today, even after stepping down from the group as a performer in 2013. In 2015, he was awarded the Commissioner for Cultural Affairs Award by the Japanese government and has been appointed to several cultural roles representing Japan in the years since.

At September’s Rakuten Optimism conference, HIRO joined Rakuten Chairman and CEO Mickey Mikitani and Samurai Inc. creative director Kashiwa Sato to debate the future of Japan’s entertainment industry and its relationship with branding and technology.

A lasting legacy of Japanese music

“LDH started as a very small company. It was just me and a few of my friends at first, and most of us including the members have known each other since we were in our twenties.” HIRO reflects.

As younger artists joined EXILE, HIRO and most of the other founding members of the group relinquished the spotlight to the next generation, taking on more business-oriented leadership roles.

“I’m in my fifties now, and many of EXILE’s members are in their forties,” he reflected. “We’ve accomplished many of the goals we’ve had since we were a small company, and I want to keep doing so because I think our goals change as we age.”

Today, those goals lie in expanding into new markets. While supporting the passion projects of many of the company’s artists, LDH is supporting post-artist careers in ventures in fashion and food — from coffee to Japanese sake.

“But one of my ultimate goals for LDH is to bring Japanese entertainment to a larger platform for a global audience to enjoy.” HIRO states.

EXILE HIRO, Rakuten Chairman & CEO Mickey Mikitani and creative director Kashiwa Sato discuss "The Entertainment of Tomorrow" at Rakuten Optimism 2022.
EXILE HIRO, Rakuten Chairman & CEO Mickey Mikitani and creative director Kashiwa Sato discuss “The Entertainment of Tomorrow” at Rakuten Optimism 2022.

K-pop always meant to go global

One genre of music currently enjoying the global spotlight is K-pop. South Korean boyband BTS has been dominating global music charts for much of the last five years — something Mikitani explored during an earlier Optimism session with HYBE America CEO and BTS producer Lenzo Yoon.

HIRO is well acquainted with many big names in the K-pop scene, including BTS producer Bang Si-Hyuk and Yang Hyun-suk, founder of the agency behind the boy band Big Bang. Mikitani quizzed HIRO on why Japanese music never quite managed to go global in the same way.

“Simply put, we were probably looking in different directions,” he theorized. “K-pop evolved under the notion that they had to have a global audience because the South Korean market is smaller. They absorbed everything they thought would make fans happy and earned themselves a global market.” Not limiting themselves to the comparatively small scale of the domestic music scene, South Korean producers had their eyes on international audiences from early on, rearing multilingual talent that could connect with fans across the world.

“Meanwhile, LDH was still a small agency in Japan,” recalled HIRO. “Of course, there was always a part of me that wanted to go out into the world. But in order to do that, I had to gain recognition here first.”

“People find virtue and beauty in communication that doesn’t totally rely on explicit, verbal explanations and cues.”

Kashiwa Sato, Creative Director, Samurai Inc.

HIRO has great respect for the way the K-pop industry approached the global market, and he thinks that the Japanese music industry has a lot to learn. “K-pop has always been a great influence on us and Japanese entertainment,” he told Sato and Mikitani. “Going global is something that I’ve always wanted to do, so I’m talking with my friends in the K-pop industry to try and find a path for LDH and Japanese entertainment.”

Kashiwa Sato brands Japan

If there’s anyone who knows how to package Japanese culture up for a global audience, it’s creative director Kashiwa Sato. In addition to directing branding strategy for iconic Japanese companies such as 7-11, Uniqlo, and Rakuten, Sato was also asked to take on the branding for HIRO’s company LDH and their many artists.

“Japan is generally considered a high-context culture,” he explained. “People find virtue and beauty in communication that doesn’t totally rely on explicit, verbal explanations and cues.”

When it comes to global markets, however, different principles apply: “But that’s not the case with many foreign cultures. Verbal communication is very important. Japan being a high-context society doesn’t work well with globalization and branding. We need to start being more verbal in our communications.”

Sato believes that Japan’s issues with finding popularity internationally don’t stem from a lack of quality products to export.

“Japanese brands have a lot of good qualities,” Sato stressed. “I try to do what I can to promote those good qualities for the world to see. But I feel like many Japanese companies aren’t really aware of the strengths that they have.”

One effective approach is to leverage certain areas in which Japanese cultural exports are already popular: “Take manga and games, for instance,” he proposed. “Japanese brands can succeed overseas by using things foreigners like about Japan to their fullest.”

It’s an approach that LDH is already pursuing, such as BATTLE OF TOKYO, a digital crossover project of existing boybands, and a project that pairs girl group SG5 and the popular anime Sailor Moon. It’s an unconventional combination for Japanese audiences, but one that could draw attention from abroad.

“I’ve learned not to be stifled and to think outside of the box. I want to take this remix and run with it. We’re going to see how it goes in the U.S. and adjust from there,” HIRO declared. “We’re still working on how to present Japan’s best features. I think we’ll need to approach this in an unconventional way.”

A tech-fueled musical future

Mikitani questioned HIRO on the role of tech in the music industry, and how artists have needed to adapt to revolutionary inventions such as the internet and cell phones — two pieces of technology that barely existed in the 1990s.

“I think the core of creating entertainment hasn’t changed so much,” HIRO reasoned. “But the way these contents get distributed definitely has, and so has the way fans interpret, consume and enjoy them.”

“I define entertainment as feeling excited or acting on an urge. It’s a feeling you can’t visualize, which is why it’s so important.”

EXILE HIRO, Representative Director & Chairman, LDH JAPAN Inc.

As the tech industry hypes the potential of the metaverse, and even some artists jump into virtual reality to hold large-scale concerts, HIRO isn’t looking to put all of his eggs into a virtual basket just yet.

“We have to think about the fans and what they want. We want to make sure everyone is comfortable moving to that world, not by maneuvering them, but by creating a story in the metaverse,” he argued. “I think the virtual world is a spectacular thing, but it’s just a question of how to transfer real-life fans to that world. That’s one of our tasks right now.”

However technology progresses, HIRO is driven by a core philosophy on the very idea of entertainment: “I define entertainment as feeling excited or acting on an urge,” he explained. “It’s a feeling you can’t visualize, which is why it’s so important.”

Through his company LDH, HIRO is looking to create a cycle of dream fulfillment, empowering young entertainers to make their mark on the industry before progressing into a role from which they can empower the next generation of dreamers.

“Remember that rush of excitement you felt as a child? I want to treasure that feeling. Each generation is different, and I want to connect everyone and to repeat that process in a cycle,” he told Sato and Mikitani. “Technology is constantly evolving, so the way we do this process is changing too. However, that cycle of dreams at the core of entertainment never changes. That’s what I’ve experienced. That’s what I want to treasure.”

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