You may have seen them in your local record store (supposing you're lucky enough to still have one), or via online retailers and resellers. Distinctive thanks to their sealed plastic wrappers with an inch-long colored column (known as an 'obi strip') on the left, Japanese CD versions of Western albums most often contain exclusive bonus tracks not readily available elsewhere.

But what are these bonus tracks, exactly? Why do they exist and where do they come from? The article below will answer all these questions and more.

So, What Is a Japanese Bonus Track?

Suppose you wanted to own a CD edition of Paul McCartney’s last studio album, 2020's McCartney III. Which version do you go for? The standard CD, which you can pick up new for around $8, contains 11 tracks.

There are, however, four additional versions of the album on colored discs — white, red, yellow and blue — each of which contains the original songs plus a special bonus track (a different track for each color). These limited editions now go for $50-up on the second-hand market, and to gain all four tracks you'd essentially be buying the original set of songs four times over.

Shameless profiteering, you might say. Others would argue that nobody is forcing you to buy these extra discs, and that collector's love, well, collecting.

Dig a bit further, though, and you may be surprised to discover that the Japanese CD release of McCartney III contains all four bonus tracks, meaning that Japanese consumers had access to the extra material as standard, for the price of a single album.

Daft Punk, Florence and the Machine, Foo Fighters, even Beyonce have added exclusive songs and mixes to their Japanese releases. These days, in fact, it's pretty much a given that you'll find extra content on the Japanese version. This extra content can be, at best, difficult to source elsewhere, and in some cases impossible. For example, American metal band Trivium’s 2021 release, In The Court Of The Dragon, contains two extra live tracks on its Japanese edition which, you won’t find on any streaming service.

Why Japan?

The short answer is that these extras exist to encourage domestic shoppers to buy physical music manufactured in Japan rather than import records from the U.S. or elsewhere. The cost to manufacture CDs in Japan is significantly higher, meaning that by the time they hit the shelves, a standard album might cost around 2,500 Yen, equivalent to $23.

The reasons behind this are complicated. The value of the Yen, the high cost of living in Japan and the national preference for using the highest quality materials, together with a complicated distribution chain involving many middlemen, all contribute to bump up in the price.

Tokyo Shibuya Life
CHUNYIP WONG, Getty Images/iStockphoto

At that cost, it would be considerably cheaper for a Japanese consumer (or retailer) to buy albums abroad. Even with shipping fees, there would still be significant savings in monetary terms. Add in the exclusive bonus tracks, however, and the playing field is more even. Do you pay less for fewer songs and a longer wait-time? Or pick up a higher quality version with all the material in-store?

Where do these bonus tracks come from?

The practice is completely legitimate. When Japanese labels acquire the rights to distribute Western albums, part of the deal will be that the artist/band in question offers extra tracks not available on the 'standard' edition. It's worth noting here that Japan is a country where physical media is still surprisingly sought after. At the time of this Reuter's report from 2020, CDs accounted for more than 70 percent of recording sales in the country.

There's certainly an incentive, then, for artists to continue to release albums in Japan on CD, but this may change in the near future. Streaming services, while still markedly less popular in the country, are gradually increasing their market share.

Are They Worth The Price?

Stack of Japanese Yen
Biscut, Getty Images/iStockphoto

This is a tricky question to answer. Some artists and labels seem more conscientious than others in providing quality material. Live versions are a staple, as well as outtakes, remixes and alternative edits. You might well ask the same question concerning Western “deluxe” or “anniversary” editions. The answer varies from case to case and very much depends on the individual buyer. For completionists, though, any bonus material is bound to appeal.

In some cases, the extra Japanese tracks might be available on alternate editions outside of the country, or via CD-single releases. Sometimes the bonus material turns up on later editions, although this is not guaranteed and, without being privy to individual contracts, impossible to predict.

Another factor is worth considering — there are many who will swear that the Japanese CDs themselves are of a higher sound quality than their U.S./European counterparts. This is particularly true of releases from the ‘80s and’ 90s, which are highly sought after by collectors. Unfortunately, the data isn't readily available to put this to the test.

Does This Only Happen In Japan?

No. Typically, an artist's first label will be a small, regional one, located in their country of origin. Traditionally, such outfits have not had the resources to distribute worldwide. They would instead lease the recordings to other labels in other locales, who will understandably want to differentiate their release from the original.

There are also some major artists who deliberately like to keep things separate. The singer Björk, for example, distributes her music via several different record companies in different territories. The advantages are two-fold, bringing greater revenue from advances and increased artistic control. The downside, of course, lies in having to negotiate and keep track of all these separate deals.

Even in cases where an album is distributed by a single large corporation, regional differences might occur for practical, political or religious reasons. Market research may suggest that certain populations might not enjoy a particular track, or even be offended by it. Negative publicity is to be avoided at all costs. One famous example comes from the British band Manic Street Preachers whose debut album Generation Terrorists, had no less than four songs removed from its U.S. edition. Over in Spain, The Rolling StonesSticky Fingers had the track “Sister Morphine” cut from its regional version because of the song's overt reference to drugs.

Conclusion and More Thoughts

As you can see, when it comes to Japanese bonus tracks, or bonus material of any variety, this is a broad and complicated subject. Which begs the question: Will album releases ever be standardized?

You might expect the rise of online streaming to be a positive in that respect, however, to take just Spotify as an example, available content still varies from country to county. It's possible that one day global standardization might happen, but in the meantime we collectors are left to play detective, hunting for “lost” treasures and rare outtakes. Then again, isn't that half the fun?

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