Enter the Rabbit Hole of Japan’s Doujin Scene

February 26, 2013

Japan boasts the second largest music industry in the world, trailing only behind the U.S. It’s an establishment built on big, marketable talents that become omnipresent in the country as their superstar stock rises.

The giant image of idol group AKB48 adorns Shibuya Station to promote their new single. Golden Bomber appear in train cars across the nation promoting cell phones. The chiseled features of the members of EXILE fill up a billboard over Osaka’s Shinsai-bashi district.

Yet running parallel to the J-pop mainstream is another musical universe featuring its own celebrated creators – they just aren’t as visible. It’s Japan’s doujin music scene, built around music makers operating outside of the music industry, releasing their tunes through personal websites or at conventions where many doujin creators meet to share their works. It’s a unique do-it-yourself world that’s become very influential to contemporary Japanese culture.

Defining doujin can be tricky. It primarily refers to any work – musical or otherwise – that is unofficial and self-published. In some ways, it captures the same spirit the word “indie” had in the 1980s and 1990s in many parts of the English-speaking world. These are independent works untethered to the demands of others, allowing the artist to pretty much create whatever, and however, they want to.

Yet the term tends also to refer to derivative works, creations inspired by an already existing product. Doujin works have been made before World War II, though post-conflict saw a boom in fan-made creations based off of popular art. Early on, most doujin art was largely made up of comics made by fans. In 1975, the Comiket convention kicked off, serving as an event where doujin creators could meet and sell their self-published works. Held twice a year (August and December), Comiket has blossomed into the biggest event of its kind.

Doujin music, accordingly, represents well at Comiket. Many releases are derivative in some way, as some artists create new arrangements of existing video game music or anime themes. Others take instrumentals from the same sources and add lyrics to them. Even simply dubbing in vocals done in a different language can warrant the doujin tag.


Yet it isn’t solely derivative music making up the bulk of these conventions. Many other artists sell original recordings ranging from rock to death metal to techno to jazz, all self-published of course. Collaboration is also prevalent, as many doujin musicians work to soundtrack doujin video games.

The best example of doujin music comes courtesy of Touhou Project, a long-running video game series. Started in 1995, Touhou Project is the brainchild of  creator Junya Ota, the one and only member of Team Shanghai Alice – also known as ZUN – who does every aspect of creating the games, down to recording the music that appears in each installment of the shoot-em-up series. He’s sold the games, which currently stands at 13.5 titles total, at Comiket and similar events for years.

Touhou Project is doujin encapsulated – and has even inspired a sub-doujin response wherein other game makers and musicians take the characters in Touhou Project games and create their own derivative works with them. Musical projects like IOSYS and CROW’SCLAW have provided songs to these types of games, and have even released albums full of material recorded for self-published video games.

The doujin music scene has evolved greatly over the years, as today more musicians are able to perform their music live. The Internet has also made it easier for creators to share their work, whether they sell copies of CDs through their website or just post songs to a website such as YouTube’s Japanese counterpart Nico Nico Douga. These developments mirror the ways a lot of artists around the world deliver their music to the masses, foregoing labels in favor of controlling the process directly. Yet doujin remains unique to Japan because of its derivative nature – fans of a series taking established characters and putting their own spin on them.

Vocaloid, the latest development in the doujin scene, drives home that point. The singing-synthesizer software was first developed in the early 2000s, but it wasn’t until 2007 when Crypton Future Media joined the scene by introducing the Vocaloid character Hatsune Miku. Lacking much in terms of background information, Miku came into the world a virtually blank slate, and Crypton encouraged users to manipulate her image as they wanted. Fans responded with original art, comics, videos and music where her visage was altered in all sorts of way. Vocaloid music – and comics – have become a staple at Comiket and have also generated Vocaloid-centric conventions, such as THE VOC@LoiD M@STER, now in its 24th installment.

Yet Vocaloid is just one of the newest and most visible developments in a world long underground. The doujin scene is one of the deepest rabbit holes in Japanese culture, and one that serves as a welcome – and necessary – compliment to the mainstream.