Why are Japanese CDs so expensive?

Why are Japanese CDs so expensive?

Think of that cool Japanese CD you recently picked up online.

You could have picked it up for an estimated 60-80% less.

In fact, if you look at nearly every Japanese CD you have in your home that you purchased on eBay, Amazon.com, Discogs, or other re-seller sites, you could have those for a fraction of the price you paid.

How?

Simple.

If you physically walked into a store in Tokyo or Osaka.

Ok… well, maybe not that simple.

But, the reality is, most Japanese CDs you buy online today, are offered to you at a significant markup.  The price you see for Japanese CDs on eBay for example, will usually include a lot of man-in-the-middle costs in the price:  eBay fees alone, depending on a seller’s business model, take up anywhere from 15 to about 50% of a seller’s revenue from a sale.  That- is a cost you are paying- it’s included in the price of the CD.  Then, there are Paypal fees the seller also must account for, when pricing their items.  This is all before we even consider their profit margin which, in most cases, will be at the very least, 20-30% and often as high as 200-300% (a CD which cost them $10 in Japan, they may sell for $60-70).

There are a number of other costs, fees, and adjustments that go into the price of a Japanese product offered on a re-seller site.

Until now, the only way to bypass all these costs and pick up those beautiful Japanese products, was to actually fly to Japan, and engage in the shopping spree of your life.   Mind you, once you figure in the cost of flights to Tokyo, the surreal cost of hotels in Japan, and even basic costs like dining in Tokyo, this option may not seem all that practical.

However, a recently launched online service now enables you to do just that-access the domestic Japanese marketplace, from the comfort of your own home.  We’re not talking about access to vendors based in Japan who are offering their goods on eBay.  Those are re-sellers, and we’ve just covered the no longer necessary additional costs you incur when you purchase from them.  We are however talking about giving you access directly to local vendors in Japan- offering their items to people living in Japan.  Thereby, giving you access to the same prices you’d see if you lived in Japan.

Mind you, there is always a catch.

Imagine walking into a record or book store in Japan.

If your first instinct would be to try to look for a George Harrison record, in the “George Harrison” section, you’d be out of luck.  Why?  Well, you’re in Japan.  There will not be a George Harrison section.  There will however be a ジョージ・ハリスン section (that is, George Harrison, written in Japanese).  Similarly, (we hope) you wouldn’t approach a store clerk and begin a conversation in your own language (be it Chinese, Russian, English, German or other) asking them where you can find a certain item.  As you’re in Japan, everything will generally be in Japanese.

Kupiku.com however, has invested extensively in making it easier to find Japanese CDs and other products on Japanese marketplaces, without the knowledge of Japanese language.  Kupiku provides live chat support in English:  their staff will be happy to instantly provide you a link to any items you’re seeking (just like finding a clerk in a shop in Tokyo who speak English, and would point you to the section of the store you’re looking for).  Additionally, while searching for Japanese items using Roman characters (English text, for example) will have very limited results, there are a number of effective methods one can use to find virtually any Japanese product, without knowing it’s Japanese name:  if searching for a record, CD, DVD, Video Game, or similar media products- try searching using the catalog number, or barcode (known also as the UPC/EAN/JAN), or even- the ASIN, if you know it.

Ultimately, it simply no longer makes sense to continue paying two or three times more than you need to for Japanese CDs or other products by using re-seller websites, when you can access the same prices you would if you lived in Japan (and an exponentially larger selection) via Kupiku.com.  Buying direct, simply makes more sense.

Japanese CDs: 10 things to know (+2)

Japanese CDs: 10 things to know (+2)

1. Not all Japanese CDs are issued with an obi

Despite the obvious benefits that are often part of Japanese issued CDs (bonus tracks, more content in booklets, superior quality of the pressing, stickers, additional booklets, posters, and other goodies), it’s the coveted OBI strip that often creates most demand for a used copy of a Japanese CD.  However, contrary to popular belief, not all CDs in Japan are issued with OBI strips.  A small percentage of Japanese pressed CDs, were in fact pressed without OBIs.  Some of the earliest CDs pressed in Japan by Toshiba-EMI (part of their CP35 catalog series) had a golden round sticker placed on the seal, instead of the traditional paper obi strip seen on most CP35 issues.  Earliest pressings of Sheena Easton’s Take my time CD (CP35-3058) are an example.  Additionally, many digipak pressings, as well as ‘slipcase’ pressings, did not come with an obi strip.  Some examples include Yngwie Malmsteen’s Fire & Ice CD issued in Japan, and several Arch Enemy titles.  In many instances where a CD was housed inside a ‘slip case’ (with an additional booklet placed on top of the jewel case, then all housed in a slipcase), an OBI was not placed around the slipcase.

Yngwie Malmsteen Fire & Ice CD JAPAN WMC5-479

2. Not all new Japanese cds are factory sealed

Here’s a point of contention that has led to some unpleasant results on eBay over the years.  The factory seal present in most Japanese CDs when they are new (at least, those that were issued in a standard plastic jewel case) is an easy way to know you’ve picked up an original, factory sealed CD from Japan.  But, what happens when the CD you receive, arrives in a re-sealable plastic sleeve?  Is it possible that a Japanese label would release a CD, new, enclosed only in a re-sealable sleeve?  Absolutely.  In fact, virtually all Mini LP (MLPS/Paper jacket) style CDs released in Japan, come in a re-sealable sleeve when they are new.  The reason for this is simple:  if a hard seal would be imposed on a paper sleeve CD, the corners of the jacket would soon begin to cave, and despite being new- the CD would soon feature damage to the sleeve, caused by the tight seal.  To remedy this, most labels in Japan, release their mini lp CDs inside resealable sleeves.  To be sure the CD you are purchasing is in fact new, it is recommended to purchase from reliable, established vendors in Japan.

3. There are often two dates on Japanese CDs

If you take a look at the back of most Japanese CDs (or the OBI strip) you’ll often see two dates- and in most cases, they will be exactly two years apart.  The first date, designated the date this particular edition was released in Japan (the day it appeared on store shelves).  The second date, is the date on which new/sealed copies, can have a reduction in price.  To put it simply: no store in Japan, can offer a sealed copy of that CD, for a price lower than the sticker price.  It is a regulation put in place in the interest of fair competition.

UFO Walk on water CD JAPAN 1995 XRCN-1237

4. Bootlegs, counterfeits, and fakes

There are loads upon loads of bootleg/counterfeit editions of Japanese cds out there today, littering eBay, preying on unsuspecting buyers who just can’t pass up those ‘too good to be true deals.  Most of these cost less than a dollar to manufacture and deliver to the vendor. You might be doing the music scene a greater service by simply downloading the album instead. Whether you download or buy a knockoff, the artist still doesn’t get paid. But at least with a download, you’re not funding a piracy ring.

ANDY TAYLOR Thunder CD JAPAN Russian Bootleg 32XD-29764-2
The amount of errors and general inconsistencies on this Russian counterfeit (ranging from grammar, to the use of components in OBI design that have been prohibited by Japanese law in 1988) are sufficient in numbers to write an entire article about.

5. “Made in Japan” isn’t always made in Japan

Another common misconception among sellers and buyers alike, of early Japanese pressings, can be found in relation to early European and U.S. CD pressings.  You will see something like “Printed in West Germany” or “Printed in U.S.A.” on the inserts, but, “Made in Japan” on the disc.  The reference to Japan in this case, does not designate a Japanese pressing (as much as vendors who found that Bruce Springsteen CD with a catalog number that looks something like 808 432-2 to be a Japanese edition).  Due to the fact the CD technology was originally developed by Phillips and Sony Japan, a large portion of all compact discs were manufactured in Japan in the early 1980s.  Discs were the distributed to other parts of the world, where labels would print inserts, and content on the face of the discs, and distribute as their own domestic pressings.

As the discs themselves however were “Made in Japan”, and correctly noted as such, some incorrectly denote such early pressings as Japanese pressings, when in fact they are domestic (U.S. or European) pressings, that simply used a component (the compact disc) that was made in Japan.  To illustrate this another way:  there are some indie labels in Japan that do not press or manufacture their own CDs.  Instead, they will import European pressings of CDs, then simply print a Japanese liner sheet, add an OBI, seal the CD, and sell it domestically in Japan.  The CD thus, is simply a U.S., or European edition, with an OBI strip and lyric poster added for the Japanese fans.  Such CDs are properly advertised in Japan as “Imports”, not as domestic Japanese editions, based on the fact they are not domestically produced products in Japan.

6. Japanese CDs however, are made in Japan

Compact Discs are among the last few technologies the Japanese still proudly make in Japan. Much else bearing recognized Japanese brand names is now made in China, Malaysia, Taiwan, and other parts of the world.  After all, the reasoning is simple:  why pay 3000 yen per hour to a worker in Japan, when similar work, under supervision of Japanese plant managers abroad, can be done for 300 yen per hour, or less.  When it comes to music however, Japanese collectors simply have too much pride to purchase what they deem inferior products and as a result, Japanese labels continue ensuring manufacturing of CDs continues in Japan, meeting the strictest Japanese audiophile quality standards.

7. CDs were intended to be replaced in 1992

…by the new MiniDisc format.  And, at least in Japan, where new tech is always embraced (at least for a moment), the attempt was met with relative success. In September of 1992, Sony had announced the sale of it’s first MiniDisc players in Japan, and parts of Europe.  For a number of reasons (price, being one of them, and the rapid decline in cost of CD-Rs- something Sony had originally bet against) the technology failed to pick up.  During the early/mid 90s, a limited number of albums were released in Japan on the MiniDisc format.  These days, Japanese MiniDisc releases are as sought after as the top pieces in the CD format.  Try finding Michael Jackson’s Thriller Japanese MiniDisc, and see what it may set you back.  The same goes for most albums released in Japan on this short-lived format.  While few still own MiniDisc players, original albums released on this format in Japan are a prized commodity very few collectors can boast ownership of.

Michael Jackson Bad Mini Disc MDMichael Jackson Bad Mini Disc MD

8. CD Babies?

Some interesting spin-off technologies were born from the massive success of the Compact Disc.  Among those, the best known of course is the DVD.  However, not to be forgotten are LaserDiscs, which, despite their iron-man targeted weight, were quite successful in Japan and among cinema-philes world-wide.  While Betamax, and VHS cassettes ruled the home video market in the 80s and early 90s, those who preferred digital quality, opted in for the Laser Disc technology.  To this day, there are many releases (movies, concerts, and music-related releases) that had never been re-issued and thus are available only on LaserDisc.  Another interesting  CD technology in Japan include the coveted 8cm CD Singles, and VHD (launched in Japan in 1983 (and defunct since 1986- but remain highly collectible especially in Japan), and of course the Mini Discs.

CRIMSON GLORY Dream Dancer CD Japan Single 8cm MP10-1

CRIMSON GLORY Dream Dancer CD Japan Single 8cm MP10-1 CRIMSON GLORY Dream Dancer CD Japan Single 8cm MP10-1

 

9. Can’t write in Japanese? Might be a problem.

Japanese, domestic released CDs are indexed on Japanese websites in Japanese text.  This is a standard, shining light on the most common mistake (or hurdle) people who cannot read & write in Japanese face when digging deep for Japanese rarities on CD: if a search is performed in Roman characters- Japanese websites will only show results of import (non Japanese editions). The distinction has been in place since the earliest days of the web: Japanese issued records and CDs had their titles written in Japanese text, while import editions in Roman characters. Searching for a Metallica CD on Amazon Japan? Type in “metallica” and 90% of the results will be non-Japanese issues. Enter メタリカ instead, and suddenly, 90% of the results will be domestic Japanese issues. If you want to find that ultra rare gem on a Japanese site for a fraction of what those unfamiliar with these tricks will pay on eBay- master some of these tricks and you’ll never pay more than you need to for a Japanese product again.

10. Many ‘first pressings’ aren’t first pressings

An interesting tidbit about Japanese first pressings that many overlooked, is the distinction between the true first editions, and more common later runs.  If we look at a given Japanese CD based solely on it’s catalog number (for example, Iron Maiden’s Seventh Son Of a Seventh Son, catalog CP32-5610) and look at the the OBI on two CDs which both have the same catalog number (CP32-5610) with very little if any distinctions- we can see one notable difference:  the price.

Iron Maiden Seventh Son of a Seventh Son CD JAPAN CP32-5610

Second run of the first pressing. Notice the price on the bottom of obi.

Iron Maiden Seventh Son of a Seventh Son CD JAPAN CP32-5610

True first edition. Notice the 3,200 Yen price on obi.

 

The reason for the discrepancy in price is actually unintentional. In 1988, the authorities in Japan introduced a new tax system in Japan which forced companies to display the pre-tax and post-tax price of products.  Thus, any CDs that were in-print during this transitional phase, gave collectors an incidental method to determine the earliest run of a CD pressed during the mid/late 80s.  Let’s say a given CD was ‘in print’ from 1986 until 1989.  Under normal circumstances, there would be no difference between a CD you’d pick up in 1986, and one you’d pick up in 1989 (aside possibly from the matrix codes on the inner ring of the disc, which simply specify the pressing plant that particular disc was made at, among a few other details that only the most ‘elite’ purists out there show interest in).  However, due to the tax regulation changes in Japan in 1988, CDs which were in-print during this time, suddenly had to change the design of their inserts, and OBI, to now reflect the pre-tax and post-tax price (in case of a CP32 CD, the price would be 3,008 yen pre-tax, and 3,200 yen post tax).  Of course, CDs that were released in 1989, after this regulation was imposed, could no longer be differentiated using this method as, all CDs would have a pre-tax and post-tax price.  This ‘trick’ works only for CDs which were released before 1988, and continued to be in print throughout 1988.  If your CD has a price of 3,200 yen on the inserts or OBI, it’s a true first edition.

 

(Bonus Tracks for Japan Only)

11. What’s in a name (or a catalog number)?

In line with the meticulous organizational prowess of the Japanese, catalog numbers in Japan (at least, as adopted by most labels in the 1980s) each had a story to tell.  To some, a catalog number prefix like, CP32, or, 35DP, or TOCJ, may have little meaning.  However, the catalog number system used by most labels had very specific design which served a purpose.  During the 1980s, and until the turn of the decade, most labels included the price of the CD in the catalog number.  For example, notice something about these:

35DP (CBS Sony Japan issues from 1982-1984)
32DP (CBS Sony Japan issues from 1985-1988)
CP35 (Toshiba EMI Japan issues from 1983-1984)
CP32 (Toshiba EMI Japan issues from 1985-1988)

The numbers in the first part of the catalog number (for example, CP35-3017) would designate the price:  3,500 yen (alas CP35).

The character “C” in the case of Toshiba EMI’s catalog numbers (CP series) stood for “Compact Disc” while “P” stood for Popular (Pop Music).

You may have seen CDs issued by Toshiba EMI with a catalog number like CC38-xxxx for example.  This would mean the CD originally cost 3,800 yen, and was part of Toshiba EMI’s “CD” catalog, in the “Classical” genre.

CBS Sony Japan, used a similar system:  35DP for example, designated “3500” yen (price), the letter “D” denoted “Digital” format (CD), while “P” again stood for Pop.

Different record labels used different structures for catalog numbers, but they all followed a similar pattern:  price of the CD, genre, and format (remember, the catalog number would often be found in catalogs, where simply looking at the catalog number would need to verify the format of the recording (Vinyl, CD, Cassette, etc).

By the early 1990s these patterns begun to disappear, as CD prices began to fluctuate significantly. A CD issued by BMG-Victor in 1987, might have a catalog number starting with R32P (R = RCA, 32=3,200 yen, P=Pop) however, by the early 90s, the catalog number structure would show a catalog number like BVCP:  no longer any mention of price.

Other notable designations included genre-specific designations.  For example, TOCJ, designated Toshiba EMI Japan’s highly prized Jazz series (TO = Toshiba, C = CD, J = Jazz).  VDJ, designated Victor Japan’s early/mid 1980s Jazz series.

 

12.  Understanding the Japanese calendar system.

While the calendar system used by most western countries is considered to be the global standard, it is far from being the only calendar system used around the world.  While Japan has, for the most part, adopted the calendar system used in Europe, they do still use their original calendar system based around what are known as ‘periods’ or ‘eras’.  Heisei (平成) is the current era in Japan. The Heisei era started on 8 January 1989, the day after the death of the Emperor Hirohito.  In Compact Disc production, during the 1980s, until 1991, an alphabetical letter was generally used to indicate the year a CD was printed/manufactured.

1984 / N
1985 / I
1986 / H
1987 / O
1988 / R
1989 / E
1990 / C
1991 / D

Thus, when looking at the back of a CD issued during this period (or the OBI strip), one can determine the date of issue by using the chart above.

 


 

Comments?  Suggestions for our next article?  Winning lottery numbers?  Leave a message in the comments section below.

 

Special Thank You to Josh Dowdle for assisting with this article.