There are songs I enjoy more for the beat and music than the words because I can’t understand the words when I’m listening to it. That was one of the inspirations for this article series. There have been times when what we thought a song was about thanks to a lyric or two, or what was in the video, is not what the song is about at all, which is why I try to use lyric videos instead of the actual music video. I’ve learned quite a bit about songs I’ve heard for years and their history, and this month’s installment is no different.
Off of their 1984 album Forever Young, UK group Alphaville only had one hit single, at least in the US. Based on the title you may think “Big In Japan” is about being famous in Japan. It is not. Based on the video and a few lyrics you may think it’s about prostitution or male prostitution. It also is not. So what is the song about? Would you believe…heroin? Oh don’t worry, if you really want a song about being popular in the Land Of The Rising Sun there’s a Frenchman and a Canadian woman who may have the song you thought this one was. I’m here to inform and be helpful. It’s a two-song deal tonight, kids.
The title of the song is “Big In Japan” so if that’s the only line you really hear properly of course you think that’s what the song is about. There’s even Japanese music beats in the song and the video shows a woman turning into a geisha. Then you hear the narrator telling us he’s “waiting for my man tonight”, which makes him sound like he’s waiting for his boyfriend or he’s giving voice to a female character waiting for her lover. With the misunderstanding that all geishas are prostitutes that was common around the time (they are not, most are or were hosts for a gathering or just the waitstaff–and that’s probably an oversimplification of their duties) or just the line “pay, and I’ll sleep by your side” it also sounds like they’re talking about prostitutes. Again, in the video images of a peepshow appear behind the woman in her “walking the city at night, possibly to go clubbing and turn the lead down” scene. Ignore the video because it gives a poor representation of the song.
In a 1998 interview with the German online magazine Re.flexion, Alphaville lead signer Marian Gold explained: “I must admit the only ones who understood the meaning of the song correctly were Bernhard (Lloyd) and our then publisher Andy Budde. Bernhard recognized the quality of the song and Andy the ability of its marketing.”
“‘Big In Japan’ tells about a couple of lovers trying to get off Heroin. They both imagine how great it would be to love without the drug: no steal, no clients, no ice age in the pupil, real emotions, true worlds. Till nowadays Berlin station Zoo is an important meeting place for junkies. That’s why this place became a venue of the song.”
That’s the “zoo” referenced in the song I guess, and the junkies would be the “mannequins” hanging around there, all strung out. The title is further explained in another interview with Songwriting Magazine:
“That line about being big in Japan has been misinterpreted by all sorts of people who like the song. That line has a certain meaning. It means that if you’re a complete loser, you’re telling other people, ‘I’m not a loser because in Japan I’m really big.’ It’s the lie of the loser and it fitted perfectly into the story of these junkies, which the song is about, in a very tragic way.
“The funny thing is I got this line from an English band called Big In Japan, a Liverpudlian band. I bought this record of theirs before we wrote the song and when I was writing the lyric I remembered it and the name of this band and thought, ‘Wow this is great.’ It fitted perfectly with the story and rhythmically it went very nicely into the chorus.
“I’m big in Japan” is a common comment as bands who may not be popular in their native Western territories might be popular in Japan. Again, from Songfacts and the other interview:
“In 1977 I was quite regular in a club in Kreuzberg, the SO36. I hoped to meet David Bowie. There was the rumor he would be in Berlin for withdrawal treatment in that period. There was a fellow, who sold stuff of independent bands from US and UK. I bought the album of a British band named Big In Japan. “Big in Japan” meant so much as if you are nothing in your environs, you can be big somewhere else. You can be a king in another world. And if you aren’t that, you can tell it at home. Japan is so far away. Anyway that statement fit perfectly to the story of the couple of lovers. So I used it for the refrain of the song.”
This fits the theme of a couple who want to get off of drugs, that they could go elsewhere and have a happier life and be together without heroin, a couple of junkies just leaning on each other. “Go to Japan and have the life you didn’t get here that led you to be on drugs” or something like that. And yet I’ve seen reviewers use this as a go-to credit song for Japanese media that’s popular in the states, like anime or Godzilla movies. SF Debris does use in his Godzilla reviews. In fact it was hearing it again in the credits of a review of Batman Ninja by Reviewers Unknown colleague Eli Stone (formerly the Cartoon Hero) that led me to look into the song and learning something I didn’t know about it. All this time it’s actually a song about drug use. It makes me wonder about that other song called “Big In Japan” by French DJ Martin Solveig and multiple time Canadian collaborating band Dragonette?
That one seems to actually be about being big in Japan since I can’t find any major backstory about it. According to Wikipedia (question the source) the lyrics are sung by Japanese idol group Idoling, their first international collaboration, and the song comes from Solevig’s fourth album, “Smash”. The video came out just before the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which is mentioned in the video to show support for Japan. Allegedly the album and single versions have a few different lyrics, but I don’t know what version this is. Maybe switch to this one from now on when you need a song about being big in Japan?