Big In Japan: Tokyo Mourns Jackson's Death

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Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

The 'Jackson 5' holds a press conference before their concert on May 7, 1973 in Tokyo

In Tokyo's bustling Shibuya district, a woman makes a beeline for the Michael Jackson display on the second floor of the HMV music store. Crying under her green knit cap, she reaches for "Visionary," a black box of video singles from the King of Pop and a few of the Michael Jackson boxed figurines on display. Sho-ma — a dancer whose first exposure to Jackson was the album "Off the Wall" when she was in the third grade — said she first heard the news of Michael Jackson's death at 8 a.m. at her home in Tokyo. Another fan in the shop, 23-year-old Toshiki Nakamura, pulls out his iPhone and scrolls through a long list of Jackson albums. "I was so shocked when I heard," he says.

As the news of Michael Jackson's sudden death dominated Friday morning television programs in Japan, Tokyo music stores didn't miss a beat. The singer's death has already spurred album sales worldwide. The HMV display was hastily set up in the Summer Sale section with more than ten of Jackson Five and Michael Jackson solo albums. A sign read: "MICHAEL IS FOREVER. R.I.P. JACKO."

Around the corner Tower Records blasted music outside from "Bad," Jackson's seventh album, and had also set up three displays devoted to the his music inside. Fans started trickling in when Tower opened at 10 a.m.; a die-hard fan dressed like Jackson in his "Billie Jean" video even entered the store and flipped through the albums. Tower's clerks said they had been fielding calls all morning asking about Jackson's albums in stock, and expected more as the news spread. Masayuki Ikeya, 30, says he first saw and heard Michael Jackson when his parents showed him a videotape of Moonwalker. "I was really young and when I saw him, I knew he wasn't Japanese," he says. "But by the way he danced, I didn't think he was human — he was unbelievable."

Jackson's fan base in Japan started to grow after the Jackson Five's first tour here in 1973. Sales of "Off the Wall" (1979) reached 500,000, followed by 2.5 million copies sold of "Thriller", which sold an estimated 105 million copies worldwide. The star did a scooter commercial for Suzuki Motors in 1982 — the year "Thriller" came out — in which he says "Love is my message" and winks.

And unlike some corners of the globe, where tabloid infamy and legal troubles started to make inroads on his ticket sales, Japan proved to be a more forgiving audience for Jacko. In 1996, two years after he paid some $22 million to the family of a child he was accused of molesting, he performed eight sold out concerts at Tokyo Dome. In 2007, Jackson hosted about 300 of his loyal fans who each paid more than $3,500 for a buffet dinner and concert by Japanese Jackson impersonators — with the main attraction being a 30-second private meeting with Jackson. Jackson seemed to reciprocate the love of his Japanese fans. Before that trip, he had said, "I love Japan...It is one of my favorite places in the entire world." Footage taken during the visit shows Jackson referring to it as a "second home."

On Friday, even Japanese government officials were saddened by the news of Jackson's death. Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Tsutomu Sato told reporters, "I feel sad as I had watched him since he was a member of Jackson Five." And Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada has credited him with building a generation with his music. Back at HMV, using her scarf to dab her eyes now and again, Sho-ma says that she wasn't completely saddened when she heard the news. "I felt relieved for him," she says. "I think he was kind of a true angel."