Boom box the latest retro musical fad in Japan as millennials embrace 1970s portable players

Portable transistor radio-cassette players are making a comeback in digital music age thanks to nostalgic older generations and curious millennials

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 September, 2017, 1:17pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 September, 2017, 1:17pm

Along with vinyl’s recent resurgence, another throwback from the 1970s that is gaining in popularity in the digital age is the boom box portable music player.

While radio-cassette players are viewed with nostalgia among older generations, they represent something new and fresh for young people, even if the machines themselves are considered dinosaurs.

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At a “big radio-cassette player” exhibition held at Tokyo’s Seibu Shibuya department store in August, 24-year-old Takuya Gomi’s eyes sparkle with excitement as he checks out the clunky, unsophisticated music players lining the shelves.

“They’re big, heavy and awkward, but that’s why they’re unique,” says Gomi, who bought a boom box about a year ago. Gomi, an office worker who plays guitar as a hobby, says he enjoys the sound of cassettes when he practises. “You can also record the atmosphere of the occasion,” he says.

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Junichi Matsuzaki

In Japan, manufacturers of household electric appliances began producing radio-cassette recorders in the 1960s. According to the Japan Audio Society, the portability of the machines made it possible to listen to music outdoors, leading to their widespread use. But the advent of the internet changed how people consumed music, and the boom box all but faded into the shadows.

According to the Japan Electronics and IT Industries Association, domestic deliveries of radio-cassette recorders, which peaked at about 6.1 million units in the 1989 financial year, plunged to about 1.1 million in the 2010 financial year.

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The current excitement over the machines is being boosted by demand from older generations who want to hear the sounds of cassettes once again and young people who are perhaps experiencing radio-cassette recorders for the first time.

According to Sogo & Seibu, operator of Seibu Department Stores, the exhibition mostly drew men in their 40s and 50s, along with many young people. “There is increasing attention being given to nostalgic items,” the organiser says.

Manufacturers have not been slow to notice. In June this year, Sony began selling a simple portable CD radio-cassette player. Last year, Hitachi Maxell replicated the design of one of its throwback cassettes that was popular in the ’70s, making a limited number available for sale.

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Junichi Matsuzaki, 57, a collector of home electronic appliances who supervised the exhibition, confirmed that analogue devices are making a comeback, even in an age where digital music reigns supreme. “People don’t just want to hear digital music, they want to listen to music on many platforms. The fascination with records and other analogue goods is spreading,” Matsuzaki says.

He says what makes boom boxes popular is “their unique designs … that make them instruments that speak to one’s personality”. He also notes the “strong fashion element” that is attached to the player.