Music in Japan

Seikai no Owari (Mobile Billboard for Their First Album)

There are several things in life that help us remember the past.  We have 5 senses that help us in remembering the past and quite often we rely a lot more on our sense of sight.  Photos are one of the most vivid methods as we can see pictures of what we did and relive what we were doing on that day at that time.   Our sense of hearing is second only to sight and with our sense of hearing we can gain an aural delight that we never could have imagined.  Music is something that people remember, even when they are old.  I remember watching an excerpt of the documentary “Alive Inside” where an old American man who was very unresponsive with a form of dementia put on a pair of headphones with his favourite music playing from when he was younger.  It was night and day as he was capable of responding to simple yes or no questions with amazing detail.  His eyes literally glowed as the music soothed his soul.  Music has a lot of power to invoke emotions within people that we couldn’t conceive compared to a photo.  Emotions tend to be stronger and we tend to feel things differently.  Due to the language and cultural barrier, Japanese music is something that can be difficult to imagine, let alone feel that it has any power over our own emotions.  While this may be true for some, the fact that music has no boundaries can easily be seen as many Japanese people love English music or even Korean music even though they often don’t understand what is being said.  We may not even notice it but listening to music in a shop can help create a memory and emotional bond to that memory that we don’t even realize.


Japanese music is something that can be difficult to understand due to the language barrier.  It is often said that Japanese music adds English words in order to sound cooler but in reality don’t make sense within the song itself.  This is very true but it is what makes Japanese music Japanese.  The beats tend to be repetitive and a lot of the music can easily be classified as being derivative.  However, most people are only exposed to music that is popular and like music in North America or anywhere in the world, pop music is repetitive by nature.  As the saying goes, if it isn’t broken, don’t try to fix it.  Japanese music is very similar in this regard. One of the biggest problems in Japanese music is the love affair with boy bands.  Japan is one of the powerhouses in producing boy bands.  In fact, there is one company, Johnny’s (pronounced “Jan-eez”) Entertainment that specializes in boy bands and has created most if not all of the top boy bands in Japan.  Johnny’s Entertainment is headed by Johnny Kitagawa.  While the company was started in 1962, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the company started seeing widespread success.  One of the most popular groups to come out of Johnny’s Entertainment is SMAP.  It was originally a 6 member boy band that was reduced to 5.  They were the first group from Johnny’s to expand outside of music and into the variety television show market.  They have their own shows and personalities that help increase their exposure.  Several other groups have followed in their heels such as Tokio and Arashi.  In recent history, Johnny’s Entertainment created a “breeder” program for their artists.  They start off with a lot of training as a junior member.  There is a Johnny’s Junior group whose main focus is to help the aspiring artists hone their dancing and acting skills.  They do have various concerts where they sing cover songs of existing Johnny’s groups in order to gauge their viability as a group member.  Many of these kids eventually move on to become full fledge members within a group such as SMAP.  Generally they are chosen based on their looks rather than their overall talent.  Sometimes they are chosen for the strangest reasons such as being the only person left that had a passport so that they could fly out for an announcement of the new group.  Johnny’s is considered a low point for Japanese music as the groups that come out of Johnny’s Entertainment often lack vocal talent.  They often lip sync their songs during concerts and other television appearances.  It is not unheard of to see them messing up the lyrics or just taking a short break all together during a concert.  While it may be a low point in music in Japan, it is still a very strong point in entertainment.  It is hard to argue that they aren’t successful because they do make millions of dollars for Johnny’s Entertainment.

Musical Art

Avex is one of the most famous record labels in Japan.  While Johnny’s Entertainment is famous for their boy bands, Avex is famous for their female singers.  Avex is short for “Audio Visual Expert” and it was born in 1988.  In my own opinion, Avex is most popularly known for their Japanese female singers.  Famous singers such as Ayumi Hamasaki and Namie Amuro come to mind.  They are some of the biggest powerhouses of Japanese music internationally.  While they may be some of the most well-known artists outside of Japan, Avex is also known for many of their other talented artists that don’t always garner international attention.  Their theme tends to be geared towards three main genres.  In my own personal opinion, their main area of expertise is in the female pop genre.  The main act of Avex is Ayumi Hamasaki who is capable of selling millions of records and selling out concert stadiums all the time.  She has gotten a little old in the market but she still powers through and is a favourite amongst her fans.  There are lesser known artists in this genre as well and they do relatively well within Japan.  Avex is also home to Exile, a soul/R&B group.  Exile represents the R&B and hip hop side of Avex.  They are a very strange group that consists of 14 men, but in reality the music consists of only two men.  The group does its regular soul/R&B songs with two singers, but occasionally with two more singers.  The main singers are Atsushi and Takahiro and they are the voice of Exile.  In all of their videos, you will see these two singers standing in the middle of the stage singing very beautifully.  All around them are the remaining 12 dancers.  These guys have no other tasks within the group other than to dance their hearts out.  It is really strange to think of a musical group that consists of 2 singers and 12 dancers but in Japan that isn’t strange.  Perhaps the dancers also help produce the songs but I have no information to confirm that this is true.  I would say that they do add to the entire atmosphere of the songs and helps a lot during concerts.  It is also nice to see the dancers get equal billing to the singers as they are just as talented as the singers themselves, only in a different way.  Avex is also a major importer of music to Japan.  They are heavily invested in the K-pop industry as well with the rights to distribute many major Korean pop idols such as Girl’s Generation and 2NE1.  Avex, like any other music label, has expanded under many various names to focus on different genres.  It can be difficult to know which label is under the Avex group but with the Avex group being the second largest record label in Japan it can be difficult to figure out which name they are running for which artist.

Keisuke Kuwata of Southern All Stars

When looking at the rest of the music industry in Japan, it can be a little difficult to see who is who.  Many of the international labels, such as Sony Music and Warner Music, have Japanese branches.  They all advertise under their own names and various subsidiary names as well.  It can be difficult to figure out who is who in the music industry in general.  For artists under the “international” labels (do note that Sony is a Japanese company but I use the term international in regards to companies with a heavy global presence) the association of that artist with their label is not as strong.  The two main “domestic” companies, Johnny’s Entertainment and Avex, are very vocal about telling the world about who they are.  When I see advertisements about other artists, they generally don’t promote their label as much as those from Johnny’s and Avex.  There are many famous people and groups under international labels such as B’z, Hikaru Utada, Yuzu, and so on.  It is impossible to mention each and every group in Japan.  A lot of the music to come out of the “domestic” labels tends to be derivative.  Many of the songs and groups tend to sound similar to each other but the “international” labels can often take a chance and provide some interesting music.  With higher budgets and the ability to hedge their risk globally, they can afford to take a chance once in a while on a strange song or a strange character.  Recently I was introduced to the model come business woman come singer called “Kyary Pamyu Pamyu”.  I have been slightly obsessed with this girl whose full artist name is “Caroline Charonplop Kyary Pamyu Pamyu”.  Try saying that 10 time fast!  She is in the category that I’d call Electropop but her music videos and style is a pure acid trip.  I have never taken LSD or any other psychedelic drugs but after watching her videos several times, I feel like I have.  It is something that is out of this world and hard to stop watching, at least personally.  I neither hate nor like her music but it shows how crazy music can be within Japan.

SMAP (Adverstising for “Moment”, their Olympic Song)

Music in Japan is an integral part of life.  You can see it and hear it everywhere you go.  Whether you are walking down the street or sitting at home, you are exposed to Japanese music at all hours of the day.  The most popular way to hear music is to just watch TV.  Music invades commercials at a much higher rate than back home in Canada.  I hear various artists promoting everything from beer to housing companies to hospitals.  Music is a major part of sporting events.  Every world event from the World Cup to the Olympics has their own official song.  Each studio either designates their own song for the event or at times they do commission a song.  For the past World Cup (2006), Kazutoshi Sakurai of Mr. Children and Gaku-MC created the song “Te wo Dasuna”.  It was a song that was explicitly written with football in mind as well as being a very energetic adrenaline pumping song.  You can find examples of these songs everywhere during these world tournaments.  For this year’s Summer Olympics, Ikimonogakari will be performing the theme song for NHK; Nippon TV has Arashi; Superfly and Tortoise Matsumoto collaborated to write and sing the song for Fuji TV; SMAP is singing for TBS’s Olympic Theme song; Bradberry Orchestra f/ Suga Shikao, Crystal Kay, and Salyu performed together for TV Tokyo.  When living in Tokyo, you will probably hear these songs over and over and over again from now until the Olympics finally finish.  Even then you will still hear it for a few weeks as they continue to do interviews with various Olympians and medal winners.  It is a tradition that will live on in Japan for decades to come, if not forever.

Music Shop

After reading all of this, you now have a good idea on how to get started into the world of Japanese music. There are hundreds of artists out there at this moment and dozens of them are popular.  There are various ways to listen to the music and learn more about them.  I find that just listening to the music itself is the easiest way to learn about them.  Living in Japan is obviously the best way as you will be exposed to music at all hours of the day, aside from being in a closed room with little to no communication methods to the outside world.  Even if you don’t watch TV, you will be exposed to Japanese music if you live in Japan.  Japan is well known for its noise pollution.  You can see various trucks running all over Tokyo and other parts of Japan with advertising for the latest single for an artist.  They continually drive around the popular areas such as Shibuya or Shinjuku and they often have speaker systems that blast the music for everyone to hear.  It can be very annoying when you don’t like the music but it is something that Japanese people are content to deal with.

Music Information:

Alive Inside Documentary:
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu:
Gaku-MC & Kazutoshi Sakurai (Mr. Children) – Te wo Dasuna:
Superfly & Tortoise Matsumoto – Stars:
Ikimono Gakarai – Kaze ga Fuiteiru:
SMAP – Moment [TV Concert]:
Arashi – Akash [Olympic TV Clip]i:

Note:  Some of the videos are not official videos and some are.  Please support these groups if you enjoy their music and purchase their songs if possible.  If any of the links no longer work, please leave a comment or e-mail me and I will fix it ASAP.