A Brief History of Japanese Pop (J-pop) Music
"J-pop", as Japanese pop music is affectionately called both in and outside of Japan, is the mainstream form of music in Japan and has a large cult following all over the world. While J-pop gained its name and status as recently as the 1990s, it gained its first footholds in the 1960s and can even be traced back to the pre-war era in Japanese history.
Many faces and many names carved themselves into the history of J-pop - this hub will explore the origins of J-pop and the movers and shakers who formed it into what it is today, while highlighting the fads and eras that will not be easily forgotten....all while embracing brevity. Let's get going.
The Earliest Days: Jazz and Ryuukouka (1920s-1950s)
Modern Japanese popular music can be traced as far back as the Taisho (1912-1926) Period, when Western instruments such as strings and harmonica became popular to use in musical performances. During this time Western jazz and blues also saw a rise in popularity throughout Japan, and modern composers began to infuse Western jazz elements into their works. However, these songs were written using the pentatonic scale, which was considered the "Japanese" way of singing.
Jazz continued to ascend in popularity leading up to the Pacific War era, in which it was banned by the government in favor of propagandist "war songs" that incorporated traditional marches. Many pioneering composers of the pre-war era were enlisted to write these songs or otherwise marked as antinationals.
With the end of the war came Western soldiers, and with the Western soldiers came jazz again. Japanese popular music returned to jazz and blues fusions, and cafes where one could go and listen to "authentic" jazz, called "jazz kissas", sprang up all over. In order to keep Western soldiers entertained, Japanese musicians turned to covering Western hit songs while slowly infusing their styles into their own Japanese music. Ryuukouka, literally "the popular music", was in full swing until the infamous "split" of the early 60s.
True Origins: Kayoukyoku (1960s)
Although once used interchangeably with ryuukouka, kayoukyoku (lit. "Lyrical singing music") officially refers to the fusion of Japanese compositions with Western elements, and is what's considered the true origin of modern J-pop. During the 60s kayoukyoku ruled alongside the more traditional style of enka, with artists embracing the "rockabilly" (an introduction of rock and roll music) movement. One thing that became particularly popular was translating Western songs into Japanese and covering them, lending kayoukyoku to the "cover pops" boom. But as time went on, musicians would begin writing their own Western inspired music set to their own original lyrics.
Rock and roll brought with it the electric guitar, and Beatlemania could also be spotted throughout Japan. Through the popularity of both a new sub-genre of kayoukyoku called "Group Sounds" sprang up, although its tenure was tenuous at best. Group Sounds attempted to recreate the rock band motif with Japanese musicians, but controversy abounded when members argued about whether or not rock and roll could be done in Japanese. Many bands struggled to gain a foothold as they debated between singing in English or Japanese. Eventually Group Sounds died away for a few years when nobody could come up with a clear answer.
Perhaps the biggest success story of this era belongs to ex-The Drifters member Kyu Sakamoto, whose song "Ue wo Muite Arukou" was renamed "Sukiyaki" and released in the United States. The song became an instant hit, even in Japanese, and reached the top of the Billboard chart. It remains the first and only Japanese popular song to ever reach #1 on the American Billboard.
Alongside Sakamoto in fame and distinction were The Peanuts, a pair of female twins who left their mark in the classic Japanese monster movie Mothra. The Drifters also saw a resurgence in popularity and became one of the first popular groups to acquire their own variety show. Meanwhile, on the enka side of things, artists such as Keiko Fujii smashed Oricon records towards the end of the 60s - she would become a lasting symbol of the perceived feud between kayoukyoku and enka, especially since the 70s and the idol era were dawning.
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Developing a Voice: New Music and City Pop (1970s-1980s)
Although "folk" music saw underground popularity during the 60s, most of the songs were either covers of Western hits or held simple universal messages. Beginning in the early 70s, however, trends turned towards personalizing and complicating folk music and the dominating era of the singer-songwriter was born. Singer-songwriter Yosui Inoue set an unprecedented record with his album "Kouri no Sekai" when it stayed at the top of the Oricon charts for 35 weeks straight. During the same time women began to be recognized as musical forces with the likes of Yumi Matsutoya (known by her maiden name "Arai" during the early and mid 70s) and Miyuki Nakajima. This era of the passionate singer-songwriter was known as the "New Music" era.
Rock music slowly crept back into the mainstream during this time, although it took the help of electronic synthesizers for it to be truly recognized. The bands Yellow Magic Orchestra and Southern All Stars debuted in the late 70s: the former focused heavily on electronica and the latter proved that rock music could be sung in Japanese. Both overtook New Music as the trend of the times, and both are considered J-pop pioneers with great popularity to this day.
Yellow Magic Orchestra paved the way for "City Pop" to emerge as a popular trend during the early 80s. City Pop focused on urban and big-city living themes with electronic elements and jazz fusion at its back. Most City Pop reflected the economic boom of the 80s in Japan with its themes of excess and frivolity, which lead to its ultimate demise during the "bubble burst" of the late 80s.
Likewise, with bands such as Southern All Stars proving that rock and roll could be done in Japanese, Japan's rock scene flourished during the 80s. Bands such as The Alfee, The Checkers, TM Network, and Boøwy were all male bands who broke records and took names. Women also succeeded in rock music, as evident by all female band Princess Princess who had both the #1 and #2 spots for top singles in 1989.
Japanese rock music took a particularly interesting turn starting in the late 80s with the arrival of "visual kei", an infamous sub-genre of rock music that focused on the appearance and theatrics of its band members as much as it did the sound of its music. Elements such as androgyny (including "female clothing" on men, big hair, and make-up) came to define the entire "visual kei" movement. The biggest name in "visual kei" is also one of its founders: to this day X Japan remain one of Japan's most famous rock bands.
The Golden Era: Rise of the Female Idol (1980s)
Women saw a surge in popularity beginning in the 70s with the likes of Momoe Yamaguchi and the colorful duo Pink Lady. During this time a shift occurred in kayoukyoku, with Yamaguchi becoming one of the first artists to ever use a special type of pronunciation that was akin to English in her songs. While still considered a kayoukyoku artist, this style would later come to be a defining separation between classic kayoukyoku and modern J-pop.
Yamaguchi and her female contemporaries, such as Junko Sakurada and Candies, were known for their wholesome image while singing songs with occasional sexual undertones. Their popularity lead to further branding by record companies for female solo and group acts to take on a "girl next door" charm. By the 1980s, the era of the "idol", or a (usually) female singer expressing a clean image, exploded.
The "Golden Era" idols mark the end of the kayoukyoku era, with many older kayoukyoku style composers and lyricists switching to producing female idols before retiring. Kayoukyoku saw another bump in popularity when artists like Seiko Matsuda broke an unprecedented 24 #1 single streak on the Oricon charts. Other female artists such as Akina Nakamori dared to defy the "girl next door" idol image by taking on a more direct sexual approach and singing songs about heartbreak and betrayal. Her eventual suicide attempt lead to a sharp decrease in her popularity, however, showing that Japan was not ready for the gritty reality that the idols offered an escape from.
And yet the idol era, along with most of kayoukyoku, saw its ending when Seiko Matsuda's #1 streak was broken by TM Network mastermind Tetsuya Komuro's single "Gravity of Love". In the 90s, Komuro would go on to define "J-pop" as kayoukyoku began to be called.
An Economic Power: Being and Tetsuya Komuro (1990-1997)
The 1990s marked a huge turning point in Japanese popular music. Not only did the term "J-pop" come into play, but J-pop in general became an economic superpower as Japan moved up to claiming the honor of having the second largest music industry in the world (second only to the USA). This was accomplished with clever marketing techniques, most notably the "tie-in", or pairing newly released songs with commercials, dramas, movies, anime, video games, and other media outlets. Music sales reached unprecedented highs, with albums and singles breaking new sales records every year.
In the early 90s, the "Being System" dominated most of J-pop's sales. Bands like B'z would go on to become the best selling music act in Japanese history, although other acts like Wands, ZARD, and Maki Ohguro also played large roles in Being's sales. Almost all these groups focused on either harder or folk rock elements, although this would quickly change as the decade progressed and Euro-style dance music came into vogue.
At the forefront of the dance movement was "the invincible producer" Tetsuya Komuro. Komuro's signature electronic sound would go on to make huge hits out of his personal band globe (who once held the record for most copies sold of one album) alongside solo powerhouses Namie Amuro, Ami Suzuki, Tomomi Kahala, and hitomi. Overall during this time period, Komuro's sales totaled over 170 million copies, making him the most successful producer in Japanese history.
Other dance crazes hit J-pop, including "eurobeat" and trance. Eurobeat oriented groups such as MAX (who were ex-bandmates of superstar Namie Amuro) dominated the charts for a time as well, while eurobeat and trance remixes of popular songs were guaranteed high sells. The remix era arguably began during the 90s, when singles switched over from 8cm to 12cm CD format and could hold more content. Trance and eurobeat began to fall out of favor in the early 00s, but not before groups like globe could transition from traditional J-pop to a trance sound.
Return of the Idols: Women vs. Johnny's (Late 90s-Early 00s)
The success of Komuro's female solo artists paved the way for an idol "resurgence" in the late 90s, although not every successful female solo artist during this time period is considered an "idol". Perhaps the most notable of which is singer-songwriter Hikaru Utada (daughter of enka legend Keiko Fujii), whose American-raised sensibilities lead her to debut with a heavier RnB sound than had been heard in J-pop before. Her debut album "First Love" went on to sell over 7 million copies in 1999, making it the best selling J-pop album to this day.
Utada was not without her "rivals", however. During the same time as her economic reign, idol Ayumi Hamasaki debuted with heartfelt lyrics that captured the attention of the Japanese public. Hamasaki enjoyed massive success with a peak between 1999-2004 when all nine of her albums during this period sold millions of copies each, and even her multiple remix albums topped the charts. Hamasaki would eventually go on to break Seiko Matsuda's record for most consecutive #1 singles (still continuing) and become the best selling female artist of all time in Japan.
One of the biggest trends to come out of this new idol era was the multi-member female group, spearheaded by Tsunku (of Sharam Q) who produced the super popular idol group Morning Musume and went on to found the Hello! Project, which consisted of multiple female groups, sometimes with member overlaps. Morning Musume followed in a similar vein of the original idol era's Onyanko Club, with multiple generations of members that continuously evolved but arguably found much more success. The Hello! Project enjoyed considerable success throughout the early 00s, but eventually saw a large dip in popularity that saw the "graduations" of a majority of its members.
Women were not the only big news during this era. Boy band powerhouse Johnny's & Associates established themselves as "the" male idol factory in the late 90s. Although a factor in the J-pop scene since the kayoukyoku days, it wasn't until the late 80s when roller-blading group Hikaru Genji made a splash for the agency. Many backup members splintered off to form the megagroup SMAP who were a part of the sales force throughout the 90s, although many of its members became famous in their own rights as talents and actors. Johnny's expanded in the new millennium with groups such as Tackey & Tsubasa, Arashi, NEWS, KAT-TUN, Hey! Say! JUMP and Kanjani 8. Each group has formed their own various levels of massive success, and sales in the mid-00s were primarily dominated by Johnny's groups. Such groups also remain one of the few "sure sellers" in today's declining market.
The Urbanization of J-pop: Hip-Hop and Rnb (Mid-00s)
Artists such as Zeebra and DOUBLE had been performing Japanese flavored hip-hop since the 90s, but it wasn't until the 21st century that the sound really took off as a legitimate sub-genre of J-pop. Utada's perchance for American-based RnB in her earlier music seems to have played a big part in popularizing RnB in Japan, although many other artists worked to get its notice as well. Duo Chemistry in particular enjoyed success in 2001 with the release of their album The Way We Are which sold over a million copies. Around the same time EXILE made their debut and went on to sell millions of copies of their singles and albums while establishing themselves as faces of "J-Urban".
Namie Amuro saw a resurgence in her popularity around 2005 with the release of her album Queen of Hip-Hop which began her new signature sound of a fusion between normal J-pop and hip-hop music. Amuro had attempted a more RnB sound in the late 90s after separating from Komuro, but her popularity had suffered for it. 2005 marked a return to prominence for Amuro as she reestablished herself as a formidable performer. Meanwhile, RnB focused artist Kumi Koda suddenly saw herself at the height of popularity around the same time with the release of her first best album "BEST~First Things~". Before Koda had struggled with her RnB styled-songs, but when this best passed a million sells she became one of the most popular and prolific artists of the time. One of Koda's biggest notes was her heightened sexuality and departure from the "wholesome" idol image. Her erotic style became known as "ero-kakkoii" and marked a change in expectations from female solo artists in J-pop.
Homage to the Past: Folk, Shibuya, and Seiyuu (Late 00s)
Two previously "dead" styles from the 70s and 80s saw a sudden new wave of popularity in the 00s, beginning with a new "folk" fad reminiscent of the glory days in the 60s and 70s. In particular, male duos like Yuzu and Kobukuro became very popular. Kobukuro's first best album "All Singles Best" was the first multi-million seller by a male act in the new millennium. Likewise, Kobukuro became the act to end Ayumi Hamasaki's #1 album streak in 2008.
On the other side of the musical coin, shibuya-kei was making a return in the form of producer Nakata Yasutaka, a member of the electronic duo capsule. Originally the duo started as traditional J-pop before evolving into shibuya-kei before finally finding popularity in electronica. Yasutaka himself went on to produce the female idol group Perfume, who released the first electronic album to top the charts since the 80's Yellow Magic Orchestra - they then released the first electronic single to ever top the charts, "Love the World". Yasutaka also became popular for remixing songs for both Johnny's groups and attempting to revive the careers of the likes of Ami Suzuki.
Another trend occurring in the late 00s was the rise in popularity of seiyuu, or anime voice actors. In the 90s seiyuu such as Megumi Hayashibara enjoyed great popularity in anime circles but barely broke the J-pop market. In the late 00s, however, seiyuu became a formidable force in the market when Nana Mizuki's album "ULTIMATE DIAMOND" topped the charts. Other seiyuu, both established (such as Maaya Sakamoto) and new, followed in her footsteps.
Asian Idols: AKB48 and the Hallyu Wave (Early 10s)
In the throes of Hello! Project's success in the early 00s, Yasushi Akimoto decided to return to multi-member female idol groups and held auditions in 2005. What resulted was AKB48, a very large female group that was based on theater performances in Tokyo's Akihabara district. AKB48 struggled with moderate success the first few years before finally hitting the top of the charts with their 2010 single "Sakura no Shiori". Later that year their single "Heavy Rotation" sold over 800,00 copies. Two months later their single "Beginner" sold over one-million copies, a rarity in the current market. Since then all of their singles have consecutively sold over one-million copies, sometimes on the first day. AKB48's success lead to other geographic splinter groups, such as SKE48 in Nagoya, NMB48 in Osaka, and even JKT48 in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Earlier in the 2000s Korean pop artist BoA made a splash in Japan with her original J-pop music, becoming one of the biggest female tickets of the time. Although her popularity waned in Japan as the years went by, other Korean acts attempted to break into the Japanese market. Five member male unit Tohoshinki made their Japanese debut in 2005. Although huge stars in their home country of South Korea, Tohoshinki saw minimal success in Japan until the release of their sixteenth Japanese single "Purple Line" in early 2008, which topped the charts. Tohoshinki would go on to become the first male-foreign group to top the charts and the first Korean group to perform in the Tokyo Dome. Even after a member split that shrunk the group to a duo, Tohoshinki continues to enjoy huge success.
Following Tohoshinki's success, other "K-pop" groups, both male and female, crossed over to the Japanese market and began releasing both original music and Japanese covers of their Korean songs. One of the first groups to break through was KARA, an all-female unit that made waves with their infamous "butt dance". Behind them came Shoujo Jidai / Girls' Generation who were known as top-rated dancers. Other groups, such as 4minute, 2NE1, BIGBANG, After School, Rainbow, Secret, Super Junior, SHINee and others tried their luck in Japan with varying success: some found better sales in Japan than their home base of South Korea, and others struggled to make the crossover worth it. Regardless, this sudden surge in K-pop interest was known as the "Hallyu Wave", and K-pop groups continue to influx the J-pop market with critics pointing out rough pronunciation and recycled Korean songs.
The history of popular Japanese music is obviously a continuing phenomenon with twisting trends and links to its Western counterparts. Although "J-pop" wasn't officially coined until the early 90s, the entire history of its origins reach as far back as the 1910s and the original jazz age in Japan. With decades of talent at its disposal, it's near impossible to sum up the history of J-pop in a few short paragraphs.