For most, cassette tapes are a cultural artifact from days past. They conjure images of friends sharing Walkman headphones after school or painstakingly creating mixtapes for crushes. When cassette tapes were replaced with newer products like CDs and less clunky alternatives like the iPod, they were packed away, inhabiting basement corners next to boxes of old toys.
But now in Japan, these tapes are making their way out of the storage unit and into the spotlight. Packs of 10 are selling for over 158,700 Japanese yen ($1,517). Popular J-rock band Quruli released a single on cassette tape in 2018 and other musicians have adopted the retro format too. Loyal customers who have always preferred listening to music on cassettes have been at the forefront of its longevity, but at the heart of the trend is, surprisingly, Gen Z, many of whom were not even alive when tapes filled record stores.
Just as record players have made a comeback thanks to vintage-stanning youth, cassette tapes have found their lifeline attached to the larger Showa Era craze in Japan. This period from the late 20s to late 80s saw influences of Western culture on Japanese clothing and home goods, allowing Japanese youth to embrace global popular media. The Showa Era trend has even become a permanent hashtag on Japanese TikTok.
Atsuko Fukumoto, a staff member from Showa music store Jimbocho Tacto, said that though they’ve been carrying cassette tapes for the last decade, it only saw a rise in demand in the past two to three years.
“We’ve had to designate a corner in the store for the tapes. Young people in their 20s and 30s are seeking music and culture from the 70s and 80s, which has a certain charm not evident in today’s works,” she told VICE.
“We’ve had to designate a corner in the store for the tapes.”
Fukumoto added that though the internet makes it easier to obtain new information on music and culture, much of the art made “...before information was digitized hasn’t been discovered yet.”
“It’s not as easy to enjoy older art, but when customers do, they get to experience such a variety of works — through listening to records and cassette tapes, reading paper magazines. I think it’s a refreshing change for many,” she said.
Most cassette tapes at Jimbocho Tacto are priced anywhere from 1,100 yen ($10.50) to 1,980 yen ($19). Rare spools, or tapes made by famous musicians, can go for 5,500 yen ($53). But if the type of tape is no longer produced, such as the highly sought after metal tape, then prices can inflate even more.
Seiichi Kato, a longtime retro lover, said: “I think cassette tapes are popular across all generations. They’re quite easy to use and understand. It’s also fun to make your own tapes and CDs. I just want to bring my favorite radio cassette player and go to the beach.”
Like Kato, most people purchase tapes to listen to old-school music on retro players. According to Fukumoto, customers seek the tapes’ “...sound quality, retro feel, and package design that’s different from CDs.”
“I think the effort of rewinding reels to listen to music, and the tapes’ retro-futuristic quality, are refreshing to some,” Fukumoto added.
Maxell is the only remaining cassette tape maker in Japan. The company first sold tapes in the 60s and when Sony developed the Walkman in 1979, its popularity ballooned. Peak sales in the country were seen in 1989, when 500 million cassette tapes were sold. When digitized music became the norm, sales of tapes fell sharply. TDK, another manufacturer, stopped making metal tapes — recordable tapes with the highest quality sound — in 2001.
Though Maxell still sells an annual average of 8 million cassettes nationally, it owes its over 50-year track record to faithful aficionados and new supporters. Miyuki Katamine, public relations representative for Maxell, said that celebrating the cassette tape’s 50th anniversary in 2012 helped kick-start the fad.
“Young people became interested in them. They thought it was cool, or retro. Some musicians abroad also released music on cassette tapes, and young people who listened to those would say ‘It’s thrilling listening to these works because you can’t edit them,” she told VICE.
Recent Japanese artists who have reignited this format see value in its structure, which is far more organic than edited digital songs. According to Katamine, young musicians like that fans can’t randomly access their work and have to listen to their music according to the sequence they made.
“Famous modern musicians are making cassette tapes for resale. Musicians who aren’t as successful still use cassette tapes for their demo work,” he said.
Though it’s difficult to imagine a world where Spotify’s slew of top hits gets abandoned for spools of tape, the sentimentality associated with cultural relics keeps cassettes popular in Japan.
“We get a lot of customers asking us, ‘Where do I go to buy Maxell’s tapes?’” Katamine said. “We’d like to continue delivering to our customers, just as we’ve been doing since our founding.”