TOKYO -- Motohiko Hino began his musical career when he was 8, tap-dancing in his father's shows at U.S. military bases. That's when he first heard jazz and, like many Japanese, fell in love with it.

That growing affection for jazz has been a lifeline for American and European jazz musicians over the past decade, ensuring a market for records and concert tours even for such giants as fluegelhornist Art Farmer and saxophonist Dexter Gordon.

"Jazz was the music that the American occupation brought," Hino said. "After hearing those wonderful bands, I decided to devote my life to jazz, whether it made me successful or not."

Now 41, Hino has become one of Japan's best known drummers, while his brother, cornetist Terumasa Hino, is among a handful of Japanese jazz musicians who have gained recognition playing overseas.

Jazz is featured here on radio and TV shows and in commercials for products ranging from cigarettes to health tonics. Thousands of fans, many in their twenties, crowd Japan's three annual international jazz festivals and dozens of other smaller concerts. Jazz coffee shops dot most cities, with a recent guide to jazz listing more than 100 in Tokyo alone.

"The support for jazz in Japan is immense," said Ralph Bowen, saxophonist for the American-based jazz group O.T.B. "Out of the 23,000 copies our first album sold around the world, about 10,000 were bought in Japan."

"Japan almost single-handedly kept the jazz record business going during the late 1970s," said Michael Cuscuna, producer of Blue Note Records.

While jazz's popularity in Japan is easy to document, reasons for its success are less clear.

"Americans are too close to jazz to love it," said Hitoshi Namekata, director of jazz for Toshiba-EMI Records. "In the same way, some foreigners know Japanese wood block prints and kabuki theater much better than Japanese do. To Japanese, wood block prints are just cartoons, but to Americans and Europeans, they are art."