The Complicatist : Japanese Music

Japanese hip-hop, noise music, J-Pop, and a whole lot more besides….
by Gordon Campbell

Japanese music is such an ocean of different sounds and styles that I’m not – as a relative newbie to the country’s music – trying to lay claim to any expertise. The diversity is mindboggling. Japan has a number of ‘traditional’ styles, plus highly evolved traditions of experimental music, noise bands, punk, metal, shoegaze, EDM, hip hop, free jazz, reggae…. So here are merely a few tracks and genres I’ve stumbled across, that you might find interesting. Apologies for missing out the EDM.

1 Babymetal (Pop Metal)
Hard to escape the giant shadow of J-Pop, but Babymetal combine the kawaii ( “cute”) elements of the pop idol bands with some decent metal pop. “Megitsune” and “Gimme Chocolate” are good examples of the J-Pop/metal fusion they specialise in, and lead singer Suzuka Nakamoto is a compelling stage presence.

2. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu (J-Pop) The videos by Kyary Pamyu Pamyu unfold like Tim Burton’s fever dreams. Over the past five years, the tiny Harajuku fashion guru has made some of the most innovative, mind-scrambling videos in all of popular music, and has madly influenced the likes of Katy Perry and other Western pop stars in the process. “ Ponponpon” is probably the ideal Pamyu video for new entrants, but this one is just as engagingly bizarre.

3. Harumi Miyako : (Enka Music) Here’s a complete contrast. Enka is a type of traditional music, although one that uses Western instruments. Like the fado music of Portugal, enka deals in songs of loss, regret and yearning. “Osaka Shigure (“Osaka Rain Shower “)” was a big hit in the early 1980s. In this love song set in Osaka, the singer wanders the city streets expressing doubts about her chances of finding true love. There’s a great duet version of “Osaka Shigure” on Youtube, with Miyako sharing the stage with the late Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng. Overall though, I think this solo version is more intense.

Keiko Fuji had an early enka hit with “Shinjuku O Onna” set in the Tokyo suburb where she ultimately committed suicide. Her only child Hikaru Utada, has become a huge star as well. Here are clips by first the mother, and then the daughter…


4.Hanatarash, Boredoms (Noise music). This brief clip captures an early moment in the career of Yamantaka Eye (aka Yamatsuka Eye) the creative force behind the confrontational noise collective Haratash in the early 1980s….and later the influential Boredoms punk band, and Naked City. In the early 1980s, Eye became notorious for his audience-endangering stunts – there is Youtube footage of an infamous incident where he drove a bulldozer through the wall of one venue, heedless of the audience inside. Plus, here’s one of the Boredoms performance pieces with many, many, many drummers…who include Brian Chippendale (from the US band Lightning Bolt) who also knows a thing or two about noise and percussion.


And from the classic Boredoms 1989 album Soul Discharge, here’s “Pow Wow Now” which gets to be more fun as it goes along.

5.DYGL, Dive (Shoegaze) My Bloody Valentine were a hugely influential band in Japan, making it apt that MBV’s Kevin Shields got to compile the soundtrack for the film Lost In Translation. Shoegaze has made a comeback everywhere around the world in recent years, and this has inspired a number of young Japanese bands….I like the Harajuku band DYGL ( short for ‘dayglo’) a lot. Here’s a clip from a live performance in Shinjuku, plus the official video for their dreamy “Nashville.”


For a taste of the old MBV fuzz, here’s another good Japanese shoegaze band – Dive – doing the title track from their EP “Freeze Frame.” ( Dive’s excellent White Shore, White Sky album is available on Youtube.)

6.SJQ. (Experimental) This free jazz unit is from Kyoto – I think. These two videos are good examples of SJQ’s improvised, staccato path towards a higher unity. A guy in Shibuya’s Fuglen café put me onto this band, and I haven’t been able to find out anything more about them since. Sorry.


7. Rau Def, Dopeness (Japanese hip hop)
Supposedly, the structure of the sentences makes it harder to rap in Japanese than in English, where things end more tidily on a rhyme-able noun or major verb. Also, Japanese words tend to have more syllables, which compounds the problem. These grammatical issues aside, here are Chinza Dopeness and Roy Tamaki (who comprise a duo called Kakato) doing some pretty fine freestyling….

Rau Def broke through in 2008-2010. Here’s a new track he released only a few months ago. It has a noticeable Soulja Boy/Chance the Rapper vibe to it…

And for some old school stuff….Kenji Furuya and his band Dragon Ash ( who were heavily influenced early on by the Smashing Pumpkins) were among the first bands to popularize hip hop in Japan. Here’s a live version of one of their early hits from the late 1990s…

8.AKB48. ( J-Pop] As the quintessential J-Pop outfit, AKB48 have taken merchandising to a level that makes Madonna, Bjork and Justin Bieber look like pikers. AKB48 has upwards of 140 performers. divided into rotating touring teams from which AKB48 members eventually “graduate” into retirement, or solo career spin-offs. Annually, there are audition schools for new recruits. You may get older, but AKB48 generally stay the same age.

In December, I visited the band’s retail complex in Akihibara, Tokyo’s geek town/cosplay suburb. It included an AKB48 theme café, an AKB48 hair salon to help you look like them, and an AKB48 movie theatre devoted to screenings of their films, music videos, dramas and the four reality TV shows (so far) devoted to them. In the main merchandise store, you could buy laminated glossies of each member, photo-embossed cups, plates, spoons, chopsticks, hand fans, playing cards etc etc Oh, and they’ve just opened a theatre in Singapore devoted to their works, and released their 42nd hit single. Last year, a furore erupted over whether they should be invited to perform at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

Here’s one of AKB48’s less annoying tracks. It is a breakup song, and therefore not as relentlessly chipper as usual. Still, by song’s end, any sad sacks out there are being told to sanitise their eyes with tears, to cleanse the virus of sad, sad love, and to start all over again.

9.Merzbow (Noise, Experimental) Masami Akita aka Merzbow has been a dominant figure in Japanese noise music for decades. He’s prolific…in 2000, his record company released a 50 CD box of his works which span all kinds of noise, drone, dark metal, sound collage industrial music and experimental. Merzbow has also become committed to animal rights, and that activism now features in his work. Here’s one of his more accessible pieces :

10.Chairlift “I Belong In Your Arms” (Japanese version)
To take things full circle, here’s Caroline Polachek of the New York duo Chairlift singing in Japanese the band’s 2012 hit “ I Belong In Your Arms”. Polachek spent her early childhood in Japan. Mindful of the polysyllables involved, she trimmed some of the words, and localised the references. Thus, the ‘banana split’ in the US version becomes ‘kakigori’, which is a sugary, shaved-ice treat. The bit where she goes ‘something, something’ is in both versions.

But this cool little number has to be the real finale.

2 Comments on The Complicatist : Japanese Music

  1. Interesting piece
    Merzbow played NZ in Nov 2013 as part of the Audi Foundations ‘Altmusic’ programme. He has collaborated on numerous occasions with Japanese stoner/doom band Boris. New recordings by the two are about to be released. A good place to be an overview of the Japanese noise scene is David Novak’s book ‘Japanoise’, published by Duke.
    The obvious (?) genre missing from the overview is psychedelia, either from the late 60’s, early 70’s or its re-mergence in the 90’s via Tokyo’s PSF label.
    The touchstone for the former is Julian Cope’s book ‘Japrocksampler – How the post-war generation blew their minds on rock’n’roll’. It concludes with a list of his top 50 Japanese psyche LP’s. His top 5 are worth checking via youtube, even get the benefit of some great vintage footage.
    1= Flower Travellin Band – Satori
    1= Speed, Glue and Shinki – Eve
    3 Les Rallies Denudes – Heavier than a death in the family. A personal favourite, featuring the completely OTT guitar histrionics of Takeshi Mizutani.
    4 Far East Family Band – Parallel World
    5 JA Caesar – Kokkyo Junereika
    Any investigation of the PSF needs to start with guitarist Keiji Haino’s Fushitsusha, and their first two releases – both entitled ‘Double Live’.

  2. I’m in agreement with Simon Baker’s comment. I also feel that Boris (for their variety,if nothing else) & GHOST should have deserved a mention. Each to his own I know, but both very important Japanese bands.

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