So you’ve started learning Japanese, and read through all the clever blog posts about how one can learn the language without ever actually, you know, studying, by listening to Japanese music—around the house, in the car, in the shower, and last but not least, in one's sleep.
The next thing you know you’ve thrown away all your textbooks and rushed to the nearest record store. Let’s see what we have here... Ayumi Hamasaki... Hikaru Utada... Thelma Aoyama... Waaaait a minute, but I’m a
metalhead hipster rockabilly kid just can’t stand pop! Is there really no good music coming out of my beloved island?
First, let’s set something straight—you can’t learn Japanese just by keeping headphones on your head all day long. You just can’t. Still, there’s certainly some benefit, if not educational, then at least cultural, to listening to Japanese music every once in a while, or at least whilst you’re studying kanji ;)
It can certainly seem at first like Japanese listen to nothing but pop (and Korean pop at that), with the occasional koto or shamisen intermezzo when they feel particularly nostalgic. Though the genre does tend to top the charts, I’m sure it’s no different wherever you’re from, and the modern Japanese music scene is just as vibrant and varied as any in the world...
- Reggae & dub
- Hip hop
- Rockabilly, surf & garage
- Electronic music
- Classical music
- Game & movie soundtracks
Reggae & dub
This music genre first gained momentum when the Jamaican reggae legend Bob Marley visited Japan in 1979. During his trip, he planned to attend a concert by Flower Travellin' Band, but got informed that by then the group had already disbanded. Fortunately, he happened to meet a famed Japanese percussionist Pecker which led to a fruitful collaboration between acclaimed Japanese and Jamaican artists.
There’s no way I could start a post like this without mentioning our very own Machaco, who’s behind the hours of pitch-perfect Japanese pronunciation audio over at LinguaLift.
When she’s not busy recording more beautiful words for avid learners of Japanese like yourself, Machaco keeps bringing Japanese reggae to the world, be it through frequent concerts, or equally good albums.
Dry & Heavy
A predominantly dub music group, Dry & Heavy was formed in 1991 and enjoyed a fair deal of popularity ever since. It appeared at every major Japanese rock and reggae music festival and headlined several events around Europe.
A form of a sentimental ballad, enka is possibly the closest thing to traditional Japanese music that could still be categorized as pop within the country. A Japanese counterpart of French chanson and good old American blues, enka rose to prominence in the post war period and remains relatively popular to this day.
Shizuko Kasagi is the quintessential enka artist and, for its pure educational value, Kaimono boogie (買物ブギ, shopping boogie) is a must see for any Japanese language student, whether you end up liking the genre or not.
Some of the most moving Japanese music I’ve had the opportunity to listen to. A Japanese actress renowned for her outlaw characters, Meiko Kaji’s vocal talents finally got the attention they deserved when two of her songs were used in Quentin Tarantino's Kill BIll. Her music was released on CD for the very first time and in 2011 she put out her first new album in 31 years.
- Hachiro Kasuga (Amazon | iTunes)
- Michiya Mihashi (Amazon | iTunes)
- Keiko Fuji (Amazon)
- Hideo Murata (Amazon | iTunes)
The Japanese ska scene appeared in the 1980s and is what has been called the "third wave of ska [that] combines the traditional Jamaican Club sound with metal, punk, folk, funk, and/or country." The interest in the genre died out in the late 90s but many Japanese ska bands continue to persist despite a lack of mainstream support.
A Japanese pop authority remarked that some see “...similarities between the highly stylized ‘skanking’ dance style associated with ska music and Japanese ‘bon odori’ festival dances. And reggae’s syncopated rhythms are echoed in the rhythm of Okinawan music—so much so that Okinawa music is sometimes called ‘Japanese reggae.’”
Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra
Formed in 1985, this is arguably the original and best-known Japanese ska ensemble. Despite the recent drop in popularity of the genre, they continue releasing new albums and are touring regularly to this day.
Another great Japanese ska band, formed the same year as TSPO, Ska flames plays some awesome music, and also survives to this day.
- Cool Wise Men (iTunes JP)
You might not have heard about it, but Japan now also has a thriving hip hop scene whatever particular style you tend to prefer. Quoting from the definitive history of Japanese hip-hop, “the hardest fact for most Americans and Japanese to understand is the abject difficulty in trying to translate the roaming and beat-driven English into the very restrictive linguistics of a verb-ending language.” This couldn’t be closer to the truth and it’s worth keeping in mind what a feat some of the pioneer Japanese rappers have accomplished.
Rakuen Baby was probably the first Japanese language hip hop hit, and even if it might be too dancey for your tastes, it would not be an exaggeration to say that RIP SLYME pushed the entire genre closer to prominence.
MURO is an important Japanese musician on many levels, and his production might be the closest you’ll get to the American East Coast in Japan. Check out the video below for an interesting interview from the Tokyo City series by Spine TV:
One of the oldest Japanese hip hop acts, Rhymester formed in 1989 and perform without break to this day. They got more commercial over time but continue to put out some of the best hip hop in Japan.
- Kick the Can Crew (Amazon | iTunes)
- Shing02 (Amazon | iTunes)
- Scha Dara Parr (Amazon | iTunes)
- Takagi Kan (Amazon)
- Nujabes (Amazon | iTunes)
Rockabilly, surf & garage
Rockabilly is not a genre one would tend to associate in Japan, but it has a strong presence in the country, including some stellar acts and an active subculture. You can get a look at the latter in this video by the Swedish band Peter, Bjorn, and John:
Another band you might be familiar with from Kill Bill (they’ve even appeared in one of the izakaya scenes), and later The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, though this time one that has been successful long before they happened to attract Tarantino’s attention. An all-female trio, they’ve been playing some energetic surf and rockabilly since the late 80’s and still enjoy popularity around the world.
Quoting from This Japanese Life, who introduced me to this band, “Guitar Wolf came out of Nagasaki in 1987 and left a trail of blown-out eardrums. Their live shows are non-stop onslaughts of testosterone.” Some really good music in case you’re into trashy garage rock. Oh, and did I mention their horror B-movie Wild Zero? Have a look below:
There’s no doubt in that Japan had contributed enormously to the development of electronic music throughout the 20th century—not only musically, but also technologically—and the country remains one of the largest scenes for this genre in the world.
Yellow Magic Orchestra
YMO is easily one of the most important electronic music bands in the world, let alone in Japan. Formed in 1977, they contributed to the development of synthpop, ambient house, electronica, electro, j-pop, house, techno, and hip hop music, and had profound influence on many other genres.
An internationally successful Tokyo darkwave music duo consisting of Exo-Chika and Raveman, Aural Vampire is definitely worth a listen if you’re a fan of energetic gothic synthpop.
- Fantastic Plastic Machine (Amazon | iTunes)
- Ryuichi Sakamoto (Amazon | iTunes)
- Perfume (Amazon | iTunes)
- Denki Groove (Amazon | iTunes)
- I've Sound (Amazon JP)
- Pizzicato Five (Amazon | iTunes)
Japanese metal scene is not as strong today as it has been in the past, and the few prominent acts there are tend to wander into rock and punk territory ever more often, but there’s still plenty to choose from, and visual kei often makes it a very different experience from what you’d find in the West.
Dir En Grey
Founded in 1997, Dir En Grey is one of the most successful metal bands from Japan. They changed their image and music style numerous times throughout their career and so have something to offer to everyone.
If you’re more into avant-garde and progressive, Gonin-ish is for you. A fairly successful band, still active today, it tends to experiment as much as any Western counterpart.
- Onmyo-Za (Amazon)
- Head Phones President (Amazon | iTunes)
- Gonin-ish (Amazon | iTunes)
- Seikima-II (Amazon | iTunes)
- Sex Machineguns (Amazon | iTunes)
A band whose sole purpose for existence has been the popular anime series Cowboy Bebop. And how lucky are we for that, as whether they play jazz, or blues, or something else entirely, their tunes are nothing less of exceptional. Oh, and as a little trivia, according to the fictional description in the anime, derives from how the performers wear seatbelts to be safe while they play hardcore jam sessions. Now how cool is that?
I wasn’t quite sure whether to put this entry under electronic music or jazz, and even considered filling it under both—that good is their music! Combining jazz and house, theirs are some of the most original sounds on this list.
Though it only got exposed to its beauty in the late 19th century, Japan was quick to catch up, and it is now one of the most important markets for Western classical music and home to many important composers and performers.
A Japanese composer and writer on aesthetics and music theory, Takemitsu was famous for combining elements of oriental and occidental philosophy and fusing opposites such as sound with silence and tradition with innovation. He scored several hundred independent works of music, composed more than ninety films (including Woman in the Dunes and Kurosawa’s Ran) and published twenty books.
This Japanese composer has been forgotten outside of classical music circles, but that does not make his music any less beautiful. Abe was strongly influenced by his teacher Klaus Pringsheim (who himself had been a pupil of Gustav Mahler), and his knowledge of the late romanticism period and neo-classicism.
Purchase at: Amazon
Game & movie soundtracks
While one could argue that soundtracks are not a genre per se, I’d tend to disagree, and whatever the verdict, the Japanese game and anime industries are home to such exceptional musicians that it would be a disservice not to include this category.
I doubt there’s a person in this world who never heard a sound by Koji Kondo. From Mario, to The Legend of Zelda, he’s behind many a Nintendo masterpiece, and is possibly the most important video game composer in the world.
Best known for his eerie Silent Hill soundtracks, Yamaoka still remains one of my favourite artists when it comes to dark, atmospheric ambient music that sends the chills down the spine (probably a close second behind Chris Vrenna).
Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Sonatine, Hana-bi, you name it... This exceptional composer, student of the legendary anime composer Takeo Watanabe, is behind over 100 film scores and solo albums, including every single Ghibli anime and several films by Takeshi Kitano.
One of the most well known Japanese composers today, Uematsu scored the majority of the titles in the Final Fantasy series and countless other games by Square Enix. If you’re interested in his life and work, I wholeheartedly suggest you to watch Early years on YouTube.
- Tomoyasu Hotei (Amazon | iTunes)
- Toshiaki Tsushima (Amazon | iTunes)
- Koichi Sugiyama (Amazon)
- Kota Hoshino
- Hideki Sakamoto (iTunes)
- Shohei Tsuchiya
- Yuko Komiyama (Amazon | iTunes)
- Akira Ifukube (Amazon | iTunes)
- Masaru Sato (Amazon | iTunes)