You don't have to be an 8-year-old to feel a little hesitant about the idea of spending 30 seconds alone with Michael Jackson. But here in Japan, fans were lining up and paying up for face time with the King of Pop. Earlier this month Jackson came to Tokyo for a series of "fan appreciation events," including a VIP party on March 8 for which guests shelled out $3,500 a ticket to enjoy a buffet dinner, a concert by Japanese Jackson impersonators rather than by the King himself, and a brief one-on-one moment with Jackson in a private cubicle. The event's promoters declined to say how much Jackson was paid, but some 400 people attended including about 100 orphans and handicapped children invited for free.
It was Jackson's second trip to Tokyo in less than a year. "I love Japan," he told AP before his visit. "It is one of my favorite places in the entire world." Then again, not many other countries would see so many people willing to pay so much for a brush with an artist now better known for his legal troubles than for his music. But Japan has always been a lucrative circuit for musicians and bands otherwise confined to the "Where Are They Now?" genre of music TV programming.
From Boston to Chicago to Asia the early '80s supergroup sold out a recent Japan tour the bands "of yore," as Japanese concert promoter Keisuke Hirano calls them, can fill the halls of Yokohama or Osaka or Nagoya with middle-aged salarymen recapturing the youth they wished they had. And being "big in Japan" has kept many a washed-up rocker in leather pants and alimony payments.
Sky-high ticket prices mean artists and promoters cash in even on a relatively small show. "Before, you could see foreign artists for 4,000 [$34] or 5,000 yen [$43]," says Hirano, who books gaijin acts for Creativeman Productions. "Now it's 8,000 [$69] or 9,000 yen [$77]."
High ticket prices prey on the obsessive nature of many Japanese fans, who will happily spend their money on collecting every recording, attending every show and buying the T-shirt. "Artists can be hot one day and not hot the next," says Roderick Morris, the promoter who organized Jackson's Japan events "But they can still come to Japan because fans are still loyal here."
Few more so than Smelly. A Tokyo-based performance artist who idolizes Jackson, Smelly takes his stage name from an old nickname of Jackson's. Smelly has been a fan for 22 years, and he doesn't let Jackson's personal troubles or lack of recent musical output dent his worship. "Michael's private life is in shambles," says Smelly. "But that is life, which shows on the stage and in his music. Despair, egoism and karma are revealed and there for everybody to see. Compared to Michael, other musicians are hicks."
Smelly couldn't make Jackson's VIP party earlier this month, but he says that if Jackson returns to Tokyo, he'll gladly pay over $400 for a ticket.
Japan's proverbial reputation as an easy target for promoters is not, to be fair, entirely deserved. One of the great pleasures of being based in Tokyo is the fact that you can catch a great cutting-edge international rock, hip-hop or electronic music act on any given weekend. Japan practically keeps jazz alive, with legendary performers playing most weeks at clubs like Tokyo's Blue Note provided you're willing to mortgage your house to pay the admission. So, if the same country that turns out for the likes of Bloc Party also keeps Michael Jackson's career on life-support, it's a small price to pay. Unless, of course, you're attending the VIP party.
With reporting by Michiko Toyama/Tokyo