Visual Kei Concert Etiquette: A Beginner's Guide

file - 03.02.2011 00:01

Attending a show away from your home turf can be tough. So JaME headed into the Japanese visual kei scene to debunk myths, explain the behaviors, and help a first time fan fit in during a show in Japan.

With Japanese music having boomed in popularity in recent years across western countries, Japan has found itself with more western fans than ever in attendance at shows across the nation. For many bands and fans alike, the smaller the show the more alarming this occurrence can be, especially for fans that enter with the notion that they can behave like they do at home.

Visual kei is a particularly meticulous scene with fans that follow bands often like a life line. These shows are unlike any others within Japan. While a normal rock or punk concert is reminiscent of the wild and often erratic behavior seen in western countries with crowd surfing and individualistic conduct, visual kei fans are orderly, uniform and precise – sometimes to an abnormal level.

As many foreigners know, Japanese society is very unique and one which differs vastly from western countries. The community mentality is strong, and many foreign visitors echo the experience of “inside group vs. outside group” which is sometimes present in daily life. At a concert, this theory continues to ring true. Customs and formalities should be followed and behaviors curbed - otherwise a fan eager for fun and new friends may find themselves on the “outside” quickly.

Many western fans visit Japan thinking that they can act and behave however they please. After all, they are there temporarily. The aggression seen at European and American shows is a philosophy that is carried on in the thoughts of many of these attendees determined to see their bands up close and personal. However, the belief that you, as a foreign visitor, are only there temporarily and therefore your actions do not matter is a myth that is absolutely untrue. In a society which has only 1% permanent western inhabitants, every fan that enters the audience of a Japanese concert is a representative of western society as a whole – whether we like it or not. Our actions will be burned into the memories of other attendees, and future foreign fans will face the brunt of their judgement.

By observing the routines that thrive within the scene, western fans can have their chance at a unique experience with the band – it just takes playing by the rules.

Before the Show: Tickets Numbers and Check-in

One of the famous elements of a western event is lining up. Fans come from all over to the venue, lining up for hours, sometimes days, for a chance to be closest to the stage or have the best viewing spot in the club. But many fans also experience headaches with groups which line up early, create charts and add plus-ones to the list to account for friends arriving later.

In Japan, this element is removed from the concert equation altogether by the country’s use of ticket numbers. While these offer a number of vantage points, like any system they have their draw backs. On the positive side, fans do not need to show up early before doors open and there is less need for security monitoring lines. Fans can enter the building in an orderly fashion without rushing or pushing to get in, and other nearby businesses are not bothered.

But one of the biggest drawbacks is ticket manipulation. Fans learned how to manipulate the ticket number system to ensure that the same group frequently receives the single digit tickets. For smaller bands that sold tickets early at their shows to guarantee fans could get them, tickets were sold in order of number. As soon as they went on sale, certain fans, known as jouren and saizen would quickly buy them up to enable them to hold the best numbers. Afterward, leftovers were resold to other fans in the venue. This action was similarly done if tickets were exclusively being sold in a store, such as Like An Edison. For tickets sold via telephone, even if a line is busy, particularly eager fans may pay extra to use specific telephone numbers used by police and emergency personnel to guarantee the call gets through. By holding the tickets with the best numbers, certain fans can control the front row and fan organization activity.

Over time, many bands have grown wise to this behavior and implemented ways to stop it. For small bands selling tickets at shows, the tickets are mixed up and sold in a "ticket shuffle," without the numbers shown. Two fans that buy tickets back to back after this could have ticket five and ticket forty using this method. However, shuffling can still be manipulated. When these sales occur, the saizen fans will often band together, dropping thousands of yen in the hopes that one person within the group would receive ticket number one. Even by limiting ticket numbers, with a large enough group of fans trying to obtain the best numbers, all tickets could still be purchased, so band staff has come up with new ideas. Some sell tickets in a lottery fashion; others sell tickets at a variety of locations to spread the numbers out and allow a wider audience to obtain them.

But despite all of this, the numbers still ultimately determine when you will be allowed in the venue, and the box office has a typical order which tickets are numbered, but this order is never concrete. Sometimes Like an Edison tickets may be the best, other times they may be the worst. For other shows, the event may be sold strictly through convenience store tickets, and this may result in a restart in numbers, for example, Lawson and 7-11 both having a ticket 1 through 150. In this situation, one store's ticket holders would ultimately be let in before the other, leaving a person with a seemingly good number resulting in a very poor position, should their store be the latter called in. For larger events, a band may post the ticket hierarchy according to location sold. Other times, some ticket options won't be available, such as yoyaku (reserved tickets) or pre-sale tickets. But generally, it is possible to guess the usual order in which tickets will be received.

Band tickets are usually the earliest numbers. The band receives a certain number of tickets when they first book the event, and these numbers will usually be best. Yoyaku tickets can either be the next in line, made up of tickets the band previously held, or be the numbers let in last, so certainty with yoyaku is never guaranteed. After this will be Like an Edison or Club Indies tickets, or tickets from any other music store which sells them, followed by all of the electronic tickets from Lawson’s, 7-11, E+, Pia and so on. Finally, there are the “at door” tickets. A few days before the show, all vendors selling tickets return unsold tickets to the box office, and what is left is rolled over and sold the day of. These tickets are usually the worst numbers and are risky to obtain – the larger the band playing, the more likely the show will sell out before doors.

Checking in is a simple process. If you have a ticket, many venues will accept your ticket and ask you which band you are there to see. Even if you want to see every band at the event, your money will specifically need to go into a cup so that one band receives a cut. Make sure to name someone, otherwise the staff will choose for you and it may end up in the cup of a band you don’t like.

If you are checking in via yoyaku, pick up your ticket from either the reception desk, at-door ticket booth or the merchandise table of the band you are there to see. Within 24 hours of the show, reservations occasionally get lost, so it’s wise to print out the email you receive. If for some reason they do not have your reservation, don’t panic - they usually have extra tickets.

Before the Show: Drink Fees and Merchandise

You have your ticket, but that is not your only expense before walking through the door. With many venues throughout Japan having bars, a drink fee is a requirement to enter. Nearly every visual kei venue has a bar, but fans luck out when visiting Meguro Rockmaykan, which due to its small size has no room for a bar and therefore has no fee.

To compensate for the fans who won't drink during the event, this fee gives the club extra money. The fee varies and can be from 300yen to 600yen, but the typical amount seen is the one coin 500yen drink fee. Many venues, such as Shimokitazawa ERA, Takadanobaba AREA and Urawa Narciss will give you an alcoholic beverage for this fee, with Shibuya O-EAST even supplying a full can. Shinjuku LOFT is particularly well known for their cocktails. Others, like Shinjuku Holiday used to carry ice cream. The O’s in Shibuya will sometimes give you a water bottle. But for the most part, expect a plastic cup full of ice with a little carbonated beverage.

While some venues may allow you to turn in your drink ticket during any period of the event, some bars will close by the end of the show, such as Takadanobaba AREA's. To ensure you can claim your drink, it is best to either inquire when the bar will close, or visit between bands or prior to the start of the event.

Merchandise tables are frequently within the hall that the band performs in, as done in the Holiday venues and Liquid Room Ebisu. However, it is very common for the merchandise to be outside of the venue. Some venues which frequently hold their merchandise outside include Takadanobaba AREA and Shibuya O-West. While this is great for sold out shows - if you could not obtain tickets you can still buy goods - this is tough for a fan who wants to get the newest item before the crowd rushes the table at the end. Before you enter the venue, verify with staff that re-entry to the tables is allowed, otherwise a quick peek at a table between sets could find you stuck outside the venue, permanently.

Crowd Behavior: The Jouren, Saizen and Shikiri

Every fan wants to have front row for their favorite band but at a visual kei show, the front row is almost always strictly held for the hierarchy that is formed among Japanese fans. While many western fans think they can simply push Japanese fans from the bar or seize open spots, upon attempting this, the results tend to be unpleasant.

Saizen literally means “front row,” and this is the name of the fans which stand in the front row for a particular band’s set. These fans are often labeled jouren, or "regular customers," but this title is not all-inclusive. Some saizen fans may not be considered jouren, as they may stand at bar for their home town, but do not follow the band nationwide. Other fans who remain in rows behind the bar may be labelled as jouren as they travel across the nation and sometimes even abroad to see their favorite band. Classifications aside, the saizen fans remain a stable structure within the scene and in smaller band fan circles may even become acknowledged by other fans and receive status. These fans are typically the same group who dominate the front row during most events for their band, but this may change for larger events or various circumstances. With the scene ever evolving, the front row fans ultimately change over time, and as a result, the demeanour of the saizen will continually change, with some saizen and jouren being friendlier and others being less accommodating.

For smaller venues, especially in Tokyo, the fans on saizen frequently use lists which are similar to western line-up lists. These lists show the bar, the amount of people that can fit for that venue, and then have placement for names to be written in. While each individual saizen may have one fan typically in control, for larger events it's usually the shikiri, who may or may not hold ticket #1 but acts as the fan organizer for that event. Other times, the shikiri is chosen because she is well known among the fans or friends with those in saizen. By having the shikiri run the procedure, she can ensure the saizen lists are handled smoothly. Shikiri means “to divide,” and much like the organizer who divides up the front bar, this term is also used to describe the method of asking the organizer or saizen fans for permission to join the bar.

The shikiri has options as to how she decides saizen for the show: some go by ticket numbers, others by jouren. For a small event, there is a number of saizen, each with their own list. Determining which is being conducted at your event will be important so you know who should be approached to koushou, or negotiate, switching spots for your band.

For many western fans, we follow a series of bands and while we have a favorite, our tastes are varied. For some visual kei Japanese fans, this behavior is also common. However, for a jouren, it is very different. While many foreign fans as visitors believe that we have spent an exorbitant amount to visit Japan and attend this show, in reality, our expenses frequently are dwarfed by that of a jouren. Between shinkansen, flight or bus costs, tickets and accommodations, even traveling within Japan can become a more costly experience than that of someone visiting from outside the country. Therefore, it is not fair to use money as a bargaining chip for a position in the concert hall, as these fans attend shows of their band year round and devote much of their lives to following it.

The distinction between jouren and fans who are frequently saizen tends to become muddled when it comes to their devotion for the band, as both show their adoration in similar yet different ways. While a jouren member may travel worldwide to follow their band, some saizen members may remain local but be just as devoted – sometimes even more so. This type of fan will own every item of their merchandise and offer extremely expensive gifts to band members. She may attempt to befriend the staff and band, and often will wait around after the show for a chance to talk with them alone. Many will additionally be accepted as saizen for many shows they attend, regardless of location. The motivation for jouren and saizen varies, but is often sexual in nature.

Since the saizen is there for only one band, they always know when the band they are following will play. The venue will never tell attendees this information, so the word is spread by the saizen. When the band’s performance ends, the entire saizen will switch, making room for the next set that is there to follow their special group. It is important when asking for permission to show that you know about this and will move when the set is over. Your request may be denied if they are worried you will linger on the bar for the remainder of the show.

Small venues and bands may mean small saizens, resulting in frequent gaps on the bar. The saizen will sometimes seek out familiar faces of other jouren to fill these gaps, others find fans with good ticket numbers; but depending on their structure they may not be welcome to outsiders at all. Other saizen with gaps may simply spread their arms out to take up the extra room. With event concerts continually taking place at increasingly bigger venues, the saizen process in a hall such as Shibuya O-East or Akasaka BLITZ becomes a complicated venture but is still widely practiced.

If arriving early enough, the front bar may be entirely empty but that is never an invitation to approach: even walking up or leaning on the bar will have a saizen member quickly asking you to move elsewhere. Trying to push into saizen, whether there is room or not can cause a variety of problems: in the mildest of cases, you'll be asked to move. In other cases, fans have experienced being yelled at, ostracism, and even physical violence.

For a fan that is in Japan for the first time, an avid fan of underground bands with extremely minimal fans may never encounter this issue; they may be able to easily obtain bar due to the amount of open space at every event. However, for first-timers asking for permission to join saizen for a band with a healthy fanbase, the chance is not likely to happen. Many fans will visit Japan and never receive this opportunity as joining saizen for such a band requires exposure, conformation and patience. However, it is not impossible. Western fans must simply remember that Japanese people do not say things directly. When asking for permission, the saizen may say "today seems difficult" or "I don't know if there is room" in an attempt to say no. Knowing that you may receive an answer like this is important so that miscommunication does not occur. What's more, obtaining front row once does not guarantee you will get the same right the next time you see the band, even when you are friends with saizen members.

Over the years, some bands have tried to banish the practice of making the front row exclusive. Like many fans, bands acknowledge that this is an unfair process and it prevents newer people from participating on the bar; banning the practice of saizen also gives the band an opportunity to see new faces. By mixing up the ticket numbers or making prohibition announcements, this offers new fans the opportunity to experience the show from the front row. Despite these efforts, the act of saizen is still alive and thriving within the scene today, even when running under the radar of the bands and staff.

The prevention of shikiri practices has been conducted in a number of ways. Bands such as D, Jinkaku Radio and lynch. have had declarations from their record label presidents stating they dislike the practice. Some companies, such as Sherow Artist Society, Maplekiss and LOOPASH, have completely outlawed the practice for all fans following bands they manage. Even some event organizers, such as Speed Disk, Plug and Death trap-ID have spoken out about the activity. Pro-active bands such as Deluhi and megamasso have information about prohibition clearly posted, while members from other bands, such as 9 GOATS BLACK OUT, bergerac and the Underneath, have written about it on their member blogs.

In recent years, the development of kojin koushou within certain band fan circles was born from the banishment of shikiri and saizen exclusivity at events. Kojin koushou, or private negotiations, eliminates the usage of shikiri and the saizen lists but produces a similar environment of fans swapping with others for usage of the bar during their favorite band’s set. For an event where shikiri is banned, fans holding good ticket numbers merely approach others previously on the bar and ask for permission to switch. While in theory it is a fair process which eliminates the necessity of connections, it can become tricky and be troublesome when multiple fans make exchanges during a single event.


Crowd Behavior: During the Show

The saizen not only run the front row but much of the crowd's activity during a band’s set. While a group may create some of the furitsuke, or hand dances, that are mimicked by the audience, nearly all of the complicated hand gestures are products of the saizen who have plenty of time to create them. In between sets, saizen sometimes will sit in a group teaching new moves to each other so that they are usable during the show. These moves are soon followed by the other rows and become copied by other fans throughout the entire venue, with many following suit for conformity. If you want to participate, following a saizen member’s hands are the key to learning the furitsuke for a particular song.

Saku started with oshare kei but has spread through much of the visual kei scene. This is when a person leans forward and crosses their arms and then stretches them outwards as if they are “blooming” for their band members; it is done in between songs when fans are cheering or at the end of the band’s set. While this is often done for sex appeal, not all band members are thrilled with the action; others enjoy and even encourage it.

While American fans tend to sing and shout during the songs, the Japanese take a much more reserved approach. During the songs, fans let the band perform, and show their appreciation in between breaks. Most frequently heard are high-pitched calls for members with girls trying to sound meek and cute, but in recent years even at more oshare-styled shows, the "death growl" has grown popular with fans throatily shouting for their favorite band member. Saku-ing or the "rock" hand sign is also done heavily during this time. For a slow song, don't pull out your cell phone or lighter, because you will be the only one doing so. Stand silently, and appreciate the mood that the band creates. After a slower song, the reactions tend to be mixed - some audiences clap, others will begin cat-calling.

At western shows, mosh pits tend to form in the back, but the key players in a particularly violent action during visual kei shows called gyakudai (or reverse dive) are usually in the first few rows. Gyakudai is an activity unique to the visual kei scene and is done during a fast "rush" song, and some events have been devoted to the practice. The saizen members will bend over the bar, and the other rows will take turns flinging themselves forward, either running forward with their elbows out or diving backwards against them. Sometimes the gyakudai bar will become several rows deep when more people begin to participate, resulting in a crowd similar to a mosh pit. However, for smaller shows, people make space and take turns so that no one is seriously hurt.

For wild dancing, mosh pits, crowd surfing and gyakudai, many fans will remove their shoes as they often come to shows in stilettos and other heeled shoes; this provides a safer atmosphere for all. If this is being done and you wish you participate, you may be asked by fans around you to remove your footwear.

While the organization and structure of these audiences may seem like a large scaled clique, many fans are actually extremely agreeable and pleasant. Many will be willing to try to speak to you, involve you in furitsuke and even enable you to participate in group activities for the band (such as signing cards or participating in a group present.) As Japanese fans are much more conscientious of those around them, you should be too. They will often quickly apologize for hitting you, or ask if you are alright after a particularly violent song; it is always nice to do the same. As in any country, this philosophy is certainly not absolute: in every audience there are rude people. However, fans both living in the country and visiting temporarily can surely find friendship with others, especially those who are polite and mindful of those around them.

Crowd Behavior: When You Don’t Like a Band - The Rotating Audience

We all attend concerts where a band plays and we don’t like it. In western countries, out of politeness we stand and watch sullenly. However, in Japan, their approach is very different.

Universally, fans that come to a multi-band event are there only for a handful of the performers. When there is a famous headliner, the venue may stay fairly empty until the end, where it will suddenly be found at near capacity. Japan’s approach on how to handle this, rather than the American approach where all late comers are stuck in the back, is crowd rotation.

Much like the change in saizen, after a band performs and then leaves the stage, the crowds themselves will change. In an extremely large and sold out venue like Shibuya O-East, only the first couple rows may move, but in a smaller venue with more space, it could be the entire room. Between each set change the rows will move, with people coming and going and switching back. The crowd will never remain stable for two sets in a row.

One irritation from many Japanese fans is when a western fan walks into the second row and refuses to move for the entire event, claiming to be there for every band. In some cases, this is genuinely true – the line up may be your dream concert, and you’re in heaven. But in most realistic cases, there’s a couple bands in there you’re just checking out or don’t particularly follow but listen to now and then. Your refusal to move is holding back another attendee who could love the band about to take the stage.

So what should you do then, if you don’t like the band or aren’t particularly determined to see them up close? Look around you when they start. If the fans in your immediate area start to go wild as the band starts, offer them your spot. They will probably be smaller than you and being able to see better will make them extremely gracious; not to mention you increase the chance of receiving similar favors in the future. Plus, the fans you allow in front of you will just about always move back without asking when the set is over.

For smaller or less crowded venues, fans cope with boredom in a variety of ways while waiting for their band to come on stage. In western audiences, we will typically stand still with somber faces and daydream. The Japanese approach can be much more callous; often fans will abruptly sit down, even if it is a sold out event. Fans will talk amongst themselves, eat or drink, check their phones, fill out the band’s survey, sleep or redo their hair or make-up. Shibuya O-East, Nagoya Heartland and Osaka Big Cat are all examples of venues with monitors outside of the main room so that fans can leave and watch from hallways where it is quieter. When there is a merchandise table within the venue however, many close during a performance out of politeness to the band playing. Additionally, many drink fee redemption counters will also close during this time; you may only be able to get your drink between sets or at the end. You have plenty of options to pass the time while waiting for your band to perform, as long as you aren’t being distracting to the band or other fans.

Crowd Behavior: Don’t Touch the Band!

Many fans have heard the horrors of damaged costumes, injured attendees and angry band members. Despite this, western fans have a continual propensity to try and touch the band members, whether it’s visual kei, American rock or even pop music. For a culture with few barriers on personal space, we need to learn when it is appropriate to touch, and when we should just be looking.

For a small Japanese band, the amount of money invested into the band is often more than they receive out of it. Between the costs for equipment, costumes, advertising, venue costs and recording, expenses add up quickly. Most visual kei bands wear costumes that are carefully designed and intricate, resulting in expensive one-of-a-kind pieces. Just like any other prized possession, they don’t want these damaged.

Touching a band member not only causes problems for other fans that you could potentially injure, but for the band and the staff. While bands may voluntarily crowd surf and are naturally touched in the process, pulling them in can cause serious injuries to the band member and also to the staff that have to fish them back out. Additionally, their instruments can be irreparably damaged.

Being a foreign fan, many band members may seek attention from you specifically because they are excited that their music has spanned into western audiences. Some western fans have been filmed, other grabbed by band members and pulled into the front row or given special attention and tossed drum sticks, towels or picks. This alone may have other fans glaring at you with jealousy.

While some band members gravitate towards lewd attention, this action doesn’t give an automatic free pass to sexual touching. In Japan, this behavior is less frequent and even when it does occur, many fans won’t get mixed up in the action. It is unacceptable to assume “he was asking for it,” especially when they try to move out of arm’s reach. Remember, groping the vocalist doesn’t make people jealous – it makes them feel disgusted.

After the Show: Demachi

Once a heavily practiced activity, demachi, or hanging around the venue to try and meet the band, has become mostly prohibited at many venues. Places like Takadanobaba AREA will have their staff chase you away pointing at signs written in several languages, and the Shibuya O’s will have police and staff ensuring everyone continues to move as the concert lets out. However, smaller venues have different policies, and fans throughout the scene continue to demachi after events, hoping to exchange small talk, get an autograph, offer gifts or even just glimpse the band getting in their van. It is never appropriate to give a band member a gift or letter during their performance, and if demachi is unavailable, items can be given to the staff to be passed on.

Demachi is very similar to the western style of waiting, but it is important to be respectful of the band and give them space. Some bands don’t like to see anyone after the event concludes, while others gratefully welcome it but may be prevented from it by management. Play it by ear but don’t overstay your welcome – if you manage to catch a member for a few minutes, chances are there are a handful of other fans waiting for their opportunity after you.

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Many western fans have entered venues to hear whispers about them. Sometimes fans move away from us uneasily. Others murmur about gaijins (foreigners) underneath their breath. For many Japanese fans, having foreign fans at a show can spell trouble, and those feelings come from personal bad experiences they have encountered with another western fan in the past. However, good behavior and conformity opens a number of doors that many fans didn’t dream were possible. By following their customs and playing by their rules - just as we would want them to do at our shows - we can show Japanese fans that music truly has no barriers and hopefully change their opinion of foreign fans, one show at a time.
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