You may have seen one or two crossover J-Pop viral videos that crop up on ‘must watch lists’, and you might have pondered over the term Kawaii – but there’s much more to Japanese music than the odd quirky video (although they definitely have their place!). From J-Pop superstars to J-rap to J-Rockers taking Japanese music global, here are the artists that you need to know.
J-pop princess Kyary is one of the most famous musicians to come from Japan in recent years, and one of the very few to break into Western music too, largely thanks to her candy coloured viral video for track “PonPonPon”, which features dancing bread, swirling eyeballs and a pastel shark, and has more than 102 million views on YouTube. Kawaii – the quality of cuteness in Japan – informs her music and visuals though she says that “there is no right or wrong way to perceive its meaning”. Known for her bright costumes inspired by the Harajuku scene, Kyary released her first album, Moshi Moshi Harajuku in 2011, and is currently working on her fifth, due for release early next year. Watch all of her videos now for an instant mood enhancer.
Perhaps one of the biggest groups in the world (and we’re talking scale here) AKB48 may also be one of the strangest, at least in terms of how they operate. Originally a band of 48 members – hence the name – AKB48 now have approximately 140 rotating members who take it in turns to appear in music videos and sing on tracks while fans can also vote for their favourites to appear in certain videos. Older members of the group graduate and are then replaced by new singers in a talent show style competition which is held twice a year in Japan. The Kawaii movement, which has a cult following in the country, again plays a large part in the band’s popularity – so much so that their last 23 singles have gone straight to the top of the charts, they’ve sold over 40 million singles and have spawned television shows and video games. If you’re a fan of all things pop music, and indeed pop culture, AKB48 need to be on your radar. Start your musical introduction with their biggest hits “Heavy Rotation” and “Give Me Five”.
While J-pop may be the most popular genre in Japan, it’s by no means the only one. Citing Nirvana and Good Charlotte as their main influences rock band One OK Rock started in Japan in 2005 and in recent years have also had hits internationally and toured across America with 5 Seconds of Summer. 35xxxv, their most recent album was released both in Japan and globally, only furthering their international fan base. Any new comers to the band should start with singles “The Beginning” and “Taking Off”, both of which went top ten in Japan.
Rapper and producer S.l.a.c.k began rapping with his older brother Punpee, and honed his distinctive style while hanging out with Japanese hip-hop crews SICK TEAM and PSG. The rap scene may not be as established in Japan as in other parts of the world, but it’s no less poignant – one of S.l.a.c.k’s most revered tracks is 2011’s “But This Way” which was written following the Tohoku tsunami.
Any fans of Japanese music will already know the next name on our list. Often called the Queen of J-Pop and even the Japanese Madonna, 39-year-old Namie Amuro has been making her mark since the 90s, and has so far released 12 albums, sold 30 million records in Japan and still holds the title of best selling single ever by a woman in Japan for her track “Can You Celebrate”. Fusing pop with R&B and hip-hop Namie most recently released the album Genic, on which she worked with David Guetta and Skylar Mones. Don’t know her? Listen to “Girl Talk”, “Want Me, Want Me” and “New Look”.
Japanese teenage trio Babymetal bring together two musicals genres that traditionally are chalk and cheese, the polar opposites of heavy metal and cutesy pop music. On paper it shouldn’t work, but this band, that released their debut album in 2014, are gunning for world domination. They have won numerous awards in Japan and in the West, have several world tours under their high-shine leather belts and has notched up millions of video plays. Their second studio album - Metal Resistance - was released earlier this year and with more music to come in 2017, it looks like this girl band with a difference is just getting started.
The stage name of musician Ikeda Takufumi, Rekishi was a member of the band Super Butter Dog before going solo in the late noughties. Though not a mainstream icon, indie musician Rekishi has achieved cult status for his eccentric style and witty take on society and history in his songs – with the subject matter ranging from ninjas to feudal overlords to Japanese authors to rice tax. Familiarise yourself by checking out this year’s single “Shikibu”.