Last year we took seven weeks to dive into Korean pop music, ostensibly to help us create a playlist to accompany us as we go on a vacation to Seoul. That resulted in a pretty intensive playlist and me having a deeper-than-expected appreciation for Korean culture, complete with a substantial list of biases (and reasons for said biases) and an ability to carry conversations about Big Bang with my sister. We’re repeating the same thing this year, only this time we’re diving into Japanese pop music – a much bigger beast, arguably, what with its rich history, diversity, and that intimidating sheen of cool it always has. That, and the fact that it’s really hard to listen to J-pop on their radio stations, because you can’t stream them. First, like before, we begin with some history.
How did it all begin? Japan’s isolation policy – which prevented foreigners from entering the country, and locals from leaving it – was slowly being dismantled by the 1850s, and by the time it was officially lifted in 1866, western countries have entered the country through trade and diplomacy. It would take a while before it could impact on the country’s music, however. Japanese styles would mingle with western instruments, giving birth to the genre now known as ryukoka. The popularity of jazz saw a setback when the Imperial Army discouraged its playing during World War II, but more western styles, such as country and blues, were brought over by American soldiers occupying the country – and embraced by Japanese acts performing in their military bases.
In 1956, Kayuza Kosaka covered Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel”, ushering the rise of rock and roll in Japan, and the birth of the Cover Pops movement, where Japanese performers translated American hits before covering them. Another one of those groups, the Drifters, was best known for being the starting point of singer Kyu Sakamoto: his song “Ue o Muite Arukō” topped the Billboard charts in 1963, under its (admittedly irrelevant) English name, “Sukiyaki”. Later, another international powerhouse – the Beatles – inspired the Group Sounds movement; it’s essentially Japanese rock, although they weren’t sure if the Japanese language suited the style, a question only definitively settled by the rise of Happy End in the early 1970s.
The 1970s also saw the rise of New Music, characterized by more complex arrangements and lyrics that spoke of personal struggles rather than social movements. At the end of the decade, rock band Southern All Stars and synthpop pioneers Yellow Magic Orchestra emerged; these two musicians remain an important plank of Japanese music. That, and the birth of the City Pop movement – characterized by big city themes and a leaning towards soft jazz sounds – in the early 1980s marked the transition towards what we now know as J-pop.
The term J-pop emerged in the 1990s, as labels sought to market their songs more effectively. Acts such as rock group Chage and Aska – whose popularity were so massive, they actually performed for MTV Unplugged – later gave way to the work of Tetsuya Komuro, a producer whose acts include Globe and Namie Amuro. (There’s a big chance you know that Globe track.) At the same time acts such as Pizzicato Five (representing the Shibuya-kei movement) and L’Arc-en-Ciel were bringing Japanese music to international acclaim. J-pop hit its peak in the late 1990s, with the emergence of acts such as soloists Utada Hikaru and Ayumi Hamasaki and idol groups like SMAP and Morning Musume.
So how does it all break down? With J-pop, you don’t know where to start. Historically it’s always been diverse, embracing many genres and fostering many scenes. It’s a fascinating rabbit hole, seeing how all these genres relate to what we now call J-pop – it is an umbrella term, really – but from a blogger’s perspective, it can be quite annoying compressing all this down to seven parts.
Chances are, you’ve stumbled into J-pop through any of these three ways. You may have embraced the pop side of J-pop; that splits further into two sides. There are the soloists, such as Utada Hikaru, Ayumi Hamasaki and Namie Amuro, whose sounds are rooted in R&B and dance. Then there are the idol groups such as Arashi, Morning Musume and AKB48: packaged for wide appeal, they usually work across many genres, depending on what’s popular.
Or you may be a fan of J-rock, a genre which endures despite the rise of pop styles in the country. Guitars have been intrinsically linked to the evolution of Japanese music, embracing whatever was a hit at the time: country, rockabilly, folk and electronica. The popularity of acts like Boøwy in the 1980s led to the first so-called “band boom”, where acts such as Shonen Knife and Mr. Children gained popularity. The visual kei movement – think of it as Japanese glam rock – also emerged around the time, first led by X Japan, and now by L’Arc-en-Ciel and Glay. The country’s rock acts have adapted with time and their veterans remain crowd draws to this day.
Or maybe you’ve been watching a lot of anime. Their theme songs are a good starting point towards J-pop: with so many shows coming out every year, there’s bound to be a good theme song somewhere. (I discovered Unlimited Tone for the theme to Tanaka-kun wa Itsumo Kedaruge, and Michi for the theme to Dagashi Kashi. Yes, I prefer slice-of-life shows.) Anime themes tend to be based on popular genres and the visual kei movement, although lately the emergence of image songs – tie-in songs sometimes sung by the voice actors in character – have given things an extra dimension. Some voice actors have also parlayed their popularity to a music career, like Nana Mizuki.
Of course, there are other genres. The Shibuya-kei movement has waved the flag for a more alternative side to Japanese pop, gaining recognition from tastemakers all over and giving Japan yet another sheen of cool on its image. The country also plays host to a strong hip-hop scene. Finally, the more traditional genres persist: enka – an offshoot of ryukoka characterized by emotive singing and more traditional arrangements – has seen a resurgence with the involvement of idols past and present.
What makes this all different? Well, to be frank, not much. Like Korean music, Japanese music takes a lot of its cues from western pop. But the Japanese tendency to do things differently like everybody else makes J-pop both fascinating and hard to decipher at the same time.
First off, people in Japan still buy their music – physical copies of it. 80% of music sales there are still in CDs, although annual sales are sliding and digital downloads, a small market, aren’t making up for the difference. Streaming services have just begun breaking through in Japan; Spotify only launched a couple of months back, behind Apple and Google, and way behind Line, who was first to the race when it launched its streaming service last year. This is why it’s also been particularly difficult to find YouTube clips of Japanese songs: while some acts (especially those with an international following, like AKB48) upload full music videos (what they call PVs, or “promotional videos”) online, others would just upload short clips – the expectation being, you buy the song. (I learned this the hard way while writing about Sakura Fujiwara’s “Soup” a few months back.)
Some have argued that the big percentage of CD sales in Japan is down to obsessive fans buying every edition of their favorite groups’ new album. But that aside, you have to admit that there’s some logic to why western acts routinely add extra tracks to the Japanese editions of their new records, as well.
It would be easier for us if we had access to Japanese radio stations, too, but – and this is a problem I raised in the very early days of the blog – the bigger ones don’t stream on the Internet. Or even in Japan. If you’re in Osaka and want to listen to J-Wave, which is based in Tokyo, you’re out of luck; you can only listen to it online if you’re in Tokyo. Something about skyscrapers, or something about advertisements. That said, it’s interesting how all of this J-pop bleeds out, nonetheless.
The diversity of the Japanese music scene means many of the acts have at least some degree of creative control over their input. Here, record labels as we define it exist – but then again, this is a country where talent agencies are king. This is especially true for idol groups: for instance, Amuse are the team behind Perfume; AKS are behind AKB48 and their many offshoots; and Johnny & Associates are behind many male idol groups, from SMAP to Arashi to Hey! Say! JUMP. Some talent agencies run their own record labels – the biggest one in Japan, Avex Trax, is one example – while other artists have separate management and record contracts – take AKB48, who release albums under King Records. [NB]
[Next week: we get down and dirty with five essential J-pop acts.]