A single decade in Japanese music history is so replete with the idiosyncratic, the unique and even the bizarre, that it warrants a serious reexamination. In this essay I intend to examine the fascinating and important body of music known as “Japanese pop” or, as it was called in Japan, “J-pop”.
This decade of music began in 1980 with the release of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s single “Tong Poo” and ended in 1989 with Kome Kome Club’s “Dokkoi! Dokkoi! Stand Up!!” The bulk of J-pop’s most important hits were recorded during this period, but a few notable songs did precede and follow it. This decade saw what many consider to be Japan’s greatest songwriter emerge (Yoshihiro Kai), its first superstar solo singer (Takuro Yoshida) and its greatest producer (Tak Matsumoto).
Before going any further, it is important to understand that the very term J-pop has a specific meaning. Japanese pop music is not simply popular music from Japan but rather represents a genre of rock music that is influenced by Japanese culture. J-pop is generally thought of as being a combination of Western rock music and the traditional Japanese arts. Of course, this is a gross over-simplification but it at least is a good starting point for understanding J-pop.
The term “J-pop” also has been used to describe all popular Japanese music, regardless of genre. This is not completely accurate since there have been many popular Japanese songs that don’t fit into the standard definition of J-pop. For example, there was a period in the 1970s when disco influenced pop was extremely popular in Japan. This type of music was called “Disco J-pop”, but very little if any of it would be considered J-pop by the strict definition stated above. Another example would be the group Pink Lady, who had several hits during the late 1970s and early 1980s that were not considered to be at all like typical J-pop songs.
Basically, what I am trying to say is that in order to understand what J-pop really is, we should create a list of characteristics that most or all J-pop songs possess:
Japanese lyrics: The majority of songs are sung in Japanese rather than English or some other language (there are a few exceptions, like Pizzicato Five’s “Twiggy Twiggy”).
Japanese musical influence: J-pop is influenced by Japanese music. In other words, it is not just a copy of an existing Western genre.
The use of traditional Japanese instruments or styles: Some songs are influenced by traditional Japanese instruments or styles (e.g., shamisen music).
Japanese subject matter: The lyrics are about things that are only found in Japan or things that are particularly Japanese (e.g., cherry blossoms).
A J-pop song will exhibit most if not all of these characteristics. If a song does not have any of these characteristics, then it is not a J-pop song by the strict definition. It could still be considered J-pop by the broader definition, but it would be incorrect to say that it is a true example of this genre.
Some of the most popular J-pop groups include Yellow Magic Orchestra, Pizzicato Five, Seiko Matsuda and Tatsuro Yamashita.
The Biggest J-pop Hits:
“Omoide Breaker (Memory Breaker)” by Jun Togawa (1986)
Omoide Breaker was Jun Togawa’s final single released before she went on hiatus in 1986. It is also the biggest hit of her career and one of the biggest hits of all time. It is interesting to note that she wrote this song in response to the massive popularity of Hikaru Genji.
“Kimi no Tonari ni (Next to you)” by Seiko Matsuda (1986)
This song was made famous by the anime movie Harmagedon and has become one of Japan’s most popular songs.
“Dancing Hero” by Yoshihiro Kai (1984)
Yoshihiro Kai is generally considered to be Japan’s greatest songwriter, because he has written many well-known songs for other artists as well as his own solo projects. He is also one of the most prolific songwriters in Japan, having written over 1000 songs during his career. Before he became a solo artist, Yoshihiro Kai was the keyboard player and songwriter for a band called The Checkers, who were active during the early 1980s. This is their best known single and it’s representative of their sound, which fuses melodic pop with elements from traditional Japanese music such as J-pop and enka.
“Koisuru Onnatachi (Loving Women)” by Seiko Matsuda (1985)
This was the most popular song from Matsuda’s 1985 album Best Selections. This album also includes her hit song “Twiggy Twiggy” and is a great introduction to her work during the 1980s. It was the third biggest hit of 1985, behind only Hikaru Genji’s “Tsubasa wo Kudasai” and Yellow Magic Orchestra’s “Kimi ni Mune Kyun (Don’t Stop Me Now)”. Matsuda was Japan’s best selling female solo artist for 5 consecutive years, beginning with the release of this album in 1985.
“Mabataki (Flashes)” by Takuro Yoshida (1987)
This is one of Takuro Yoshida’s biggest hits and it helped make him one of Japan’s biggest solo singers during the late 1980s. It reached #1 on the Oricon chart in July 1987 and sold almost 1 million copies, making it one of Japan’s best selling singles of all time. Although Yoshida has many other good songs, he never had another big hit like this one.