There's big in Japan, and there's Michael Jackson.
Fans ranging from teenagers to 50-somethings -- many dressed in Jackson's trademark outfits—staged an impromptu candlelit memorial June 27 in Tokyo's Yoyogi Park. While some showed off dance moves and sang songs, others wept openly and prayed at makeshift altars.
"It's funny," one attendee said. "The gathering at [Harlem's] Apollo Theater was like a celebration of his life, but Japanese people go straight into mourning."
Jackson won over Japan like few Western stars before or since. Famous in the country since the release of "Off the Wall," he became even bigger in 1987, when he started his "Bad" world tour at the Tokyo Dome. He sold out 14 shows, drawing about 450,000 fans and taking in an estimated 5 billion yen ($52 million). Hundreds of screaming girls greeted his arrival at Tokyo's Narita Airport, which was covered by 1,000 journalists; another 300 covered the arrival of Bubbles, Jackson's chimp, who came on a separate flight.
"No other performer had Michael Jackson's star power in Japan," says Archie Meguro, senior VP of Sony Music Japan International. "He was so loved for his talent, his music, his dance and his gentle soul."
Sony reports career album sales of at least 4.9 million for Jackson in Japan, making him one of the top-selling international artists. "Thriller" alone sold 2.5 million copies. But his impact went beyond sales. His 1987 tour helped reshape J-pop's choreography, as performers tried to appropriate his moves.
The news of his death caused such a stir in Japanese society that three cabinet ministers took the unusual step of commenting on his passing.
Sales of Jackson's catalog have spiked, and six of his albums made SoundScan Japan's Top 200 Albums chart. By the morning of June 27, Tower Records' seven-story flagship store in Shibuya had three displays of his albums and DVDs. Jackson had attended an event there in 1996, presided over by then-Tower Records Japan president Keith Cahoon. "The fan club members who attended were mostly young girls who shrieked ‘Michael!' in incredibly loud and high-pitched voices," he recalls, "and Michael replied in a soft voice that was nearly as high."
"Michael is the biggest entertainment influence on the Japanese people after the Beatles," says Ken Ohtake, president of Sony Music Publishing Japan. "He will always remain in the hearts of the Japanese people as an extraordinary and unparalleled artist." --Rob Schwartz