The Unexplored World of Japanese Domestic Gear

Japan is famous the world over for its musical instruments and hardware. Roland, Korg, and Yamaha are some of the most respected musical instrument manufacturers in the world, with products that are well built and—more often than not—pretty good value for the money. With all three manufacturers cranking out top-quality products, you might be surprised to learn that Japan has an entirely separate domestic market of instruments and hardware that was never intended for export. And, unlike other domestic markets like that of the former Soviet Union, the rest of the world has yet to tap fully into the local Japanese market.

Japan is a unique place. Although it has a relatively small landmass, the country has a rather large population. At roughly 127 million, it's the 11th largest in the world. It's also a wealthy nation, with the world's third largest economy. Add these to a love for music and a passionate hobby culture and you end up with a large consumer base with money to spend on musical instruments and gear. With import prices being high (Japan is an island nation on the other side of the world from America and Europe), it makes sense that domestic companies would step in to satiate the needs of music-loving Japanese. This was particularly true of the era from the 1960s to the end of the 1980s, when Japan experienced huge economic growth coupled with an increase in the number of young people.

A surprising aspect of Japanese domestic music gear is the tendency for the company names to not sound Japanese. With names like Elk, Hawk, Evans, and Vesta Fire, you'd be forgiven for thinking they were American or European companies. This was likely the point, at least as far as it concerned Japanese consumers. With most popular music coming from overseas and anything foreign being cool, it's no surprise that local companies went out of their way to sound exotic.

Since audio gear from this time period is plentiful in Japan, why hasn't it caught on in the West like other gear? There are a few factors at play here. Shipping from Japan is expensive, for one. There's also the language barrier. Unlike Europe, Japanese people tend to not speak English and so prefer to sell domestically. This has kept the lid on Japanese domestic gear, but with so much amazing stuff out there, it's time to shine a light on the world of Japanese domestic gear.

For those who do make the plunge and buy from Japan, you're likely to find gear that is in excellent condition, even 40 or 50 years after manufacture. These machines were also exceedingly well made, and while anything this old may require occasional maintenance, they are usually still in good working order.

Let's look at some of the highlights of gear available from Japan. Many of the pieces mentioned here are available through the shop Vintage Audio Nagoya. Stick around for an interview with the shop as well.

Echo Units

The Evans Sound Creator Nova 400 is a combination tape echo and PA system, perfect for rocking the local bar. The name Guyatone should be famous to guitar players. The company also made tape echoes, such as this EM-606. Of course, Guyatone also made regular tape echo units. The EM-78 has dials for mode, speed, echo and repeat. This lunchbox-sized Kastam Concert Echo Chamber SS-100 is another 8-track unit, with six tape speeds and independent mic and instrument inputs. The Ace Tone EC-10 is the predecessor to the Roland Space Echo.

Most everyone is familiar with Roland's line of Space Echo tape echo units. While they are undeniably incredible, they're only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Japanese echo machines. It's almost as if there was an overwhelming need for vocal echo machines. Well, actually, there was.

The 1970s was the start of the karaoke boom in Japan and you just had to have an echo unit as part of your karaoke rig at the time. This included Space Echo–style tape units as well as cheaper 8-track cassette units for the less successful watering holes. As a result of all this inebriated singing, there are plenty of unique tape echoes around.


Guitar music was incredibly popular Japan in the 1960s and 1970s, so of course there are tons of local stompbox pedals available, like the Maxon Jetlyzer phaser JL-70. Kallio is a name you don't hear very often. The company's JE-6110 is a tabletop delay unit that looks more like a piece of hi-fi equipment than an effect. Guyatone made a few different distortion pedals built around tubes. This TD-1 gets its dirt from a 12AX7. Like the more-popular Boss pedals, Aria made single-effect stompboxes that look great as a set. Shin-Ei has a few world-famous effects, but have you heard about its Echo Reverb Master ER-23 Adaptor Special Expander? It's a spring reverb in a heavy enclosure. This Aiwa MIX-5 is a BBD delay with a front panel display that gives off a light show.

There were plenty of effects made for the Japanese domestic market in the 1970s and 1980s, both stomp boxes and tabletop units. They run the gamut from distortion and chorus to bucket brigade analog delay. Here are some examples.


This Evans MA-100 has four channels with EQ and a big reverb tank. This Aiwa Mix-600 is a 6-channel suitcase mixer. This tabletop mixer from Azden includes digital reverb as well. The solid-state Elk PA-151 pictured here is paired with the company's EM-4 Echo Machine. The KM-600 was Boss' 1980s follow-up to the KM-60.

Producers and musicians are starting to catch on to the power of 1970s mixers for adding warmth and character. They're great for dirtying up a signal or summing mix buses or entire mixes through. Vintage Yamaha EM series mixers are pretty incredible, and the Boss KM-60 is also worth a look. There are plenty others available as well.

Poke around Japanese thrift stores and antique shops enough and you'll come across plenty of PA mixers. Most have built-in EQ and spring reverb, and some even have delays (or at least delay sends).

Drum Machines

Ace Tone is perhaps the best known of the Japanese domestic brands largely because they transformed into Roland in 1972. This FR-6 Rhythm Ace drum machine has a number of preset rhythms including samba, ballad and rock'n roll. There's even a footswitch for remote starting and stopping Now here's one you probably haven't seen before. The Rhythm Box MK-2 has a number of different preset rhythms, including beguine, rock, and waltz, plus tempo and volume controls. This Keio MiniPops Junior is a less well-known sibling to the SR-120 MiniPops.

Everyone knows the Roland TR series of drum machines (TR-808, TR-909, etc.) but there's plenty more to be found in Japan if you dig a little deeper. This is doubly true when you go back to the 1970s and the era of the rhythm machine, preset boxes meant to add rhythm accompaniment to organs.

Vintage Audio Nagoya

Lastly, we asked Vintage Audio Nagoya owner Mark Oman about his passion for Japanese domestic audio gear, and for any tips on buying it.

Have you noticed any difference between Japanese domestic audio gear and overseas gear?

I'm mainly into vintage gear. I grew up with Fender, Marshall and Peavey in the USA but have really gotten into Japanese brands. I'm a huge fan of Ace Tone, Roland, and Guyatone stuff. I really admire the build quality of the late-'60s/early-'70s Japanese gear.

What's your favorite piece of Japanese domestic gear?

It's probably the Roland RE-201. I have lost control of my tape echo addiction and that was a big contributor.

What's the most unusual piece of gear you've come across?

I am always searching for tape echoes and I can't name just one. Japan had so many small, independent companies making tape echoes in the 1970s. I keep finding amazing echo machines of all shapes and sizes.

Do you find that Japanese gear generally has been well-taken care of?

Yes, typically vintage Japanese gear is in good condition. Some items suffer from rust issues, and it seems a lot of people smoked around the older equipment.

What's something that people should keep in mind when ordering gear from Japan?

Just realize that shipping is expensive and returning items is cost prohibitive in many cases. So be sure you know what you're getting before you buy it. Also most Japanese items work fine in America but other countries with higher voltage will need transformers.

Is there anything else you'd like people to know about Japanese domestic audio gear?

I scour all the recycling shops, antique stores, junk shops, etc., and almost every day I find something I've ever seen before. There are so many hidden vintage gems in Japan. Keep looking.

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