Japanese music spans countless genres, with influences from outside nations having become just as widespread as traditional Japanese music.
If you’re looking to build a related playlist, here’s some famous Japanese songs to get you started.
1. “Soba ni Iru ne” by Thelma Aoyama
Song Year: 2008
First on our list of famous Japanese songs is “Soba ni Iru ne”, which translates roughly to “I’m By Your Side”. This popular song broke records as the most downloaded song in Japanese history. Thelma Aoyama released this song as her second official single in early 2008. The track features SoulJa and responds to their previous collaboration, “Koko ni Iru yo.”
“Soba ni Iru ne” reached the top of Japan’s Oricon charts in its second week. The song sold almost half a million CDs and seven million downloads by July 2008.
In September of the same year, the song was certified by Guinness World Records as the best-selling download single in Japan, but Aoyama held this award for less than a year.
For 2008, finding a song that made more of an impact was challenging. Thelma Aoyama’s anthem remains one of Japan’s most famous tracks.
2. “Oyege! Taiyaki-kun” by Masato Shimon
Song Year: 2003
Technically a children’s song, few songs in Japan are more recognizable than “Oyege! Taiyaki-kun.” Released by Pony Canyon (formerly Canyon Records), the song was performed by Masato Shimon in 1975 and earned its name as a “children’s song” for appearing in the Japanese children’s show Hirake Ponikki.
“Oyege! Taiyaki-kun” was the first song to debut at number one on the Oricon Albums Chart (the Japanese music industry’s version of the Billboard Chart). The song remained on the chart from January 5th, 1976, until late March. After selling more than 4.5 million copies, it surpassed “Onna no Michi” as the best-selling song in Japanese music history.
3. “Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto
Song Year: 1961
Originally titled “Ue o Muite Aruko,” “Sukiyaki” was released in 1961. Topping the charts in several countries, “Sukiyaki” also reached the United States Billboard Hot 100 in 1963 and eventually sold over 13 million copies.
The song tells the story of a man who keeps his head up as he walks to stop his tears from falling. Sakamoto’s inspiration struck while walking home from the 1960 Anpo protests. The artist kept the lyrics generic so that they could fit any heartbreak.
Interestingly, the song’s global popularity comes at the cost of changing the song. The English translation lyrics are unrelated to the original Japanese lyrics.
4. “Love So Sweet” by Arashi
Song Year: 2007
Released as the 18th single by the Japanese boy band Arashi, “Love So Sweet” was released in two separate editions. The first contains a secret bonus track and a karaoke version of both songs, while the second is a limited edition containing an exclusive track titled “Fight Song.”
Some of the track’s fame comes from its popularity as the theme song for the second season of the hit Japanese television series Hana Yori Dango 2. Listed on Japan’s Gold Disc Award’s list of the Best 10 Singles of 2008, “Love So Sweet” is one of the nation’s most famous pop songs.
5. “Gimmie Chocolate!!” by Babymetal
Song Year: 2013
Next on the list of famous Japanese songs is a more curious track. “Gimmie Chocolate!!” sits in the kawaii metal genre. Still, while some feel the song's instrumentation doesn’t fit the Jpop idol aesthetic and vocal style, Babymetal manages to make the genre their own.
Lyrically, the song focuses on a girl who enjoys chocolate and sweets, but worries about weight gain and the challenges of maintaining a figure in a world focused on physical appearance. Eventually, the lyrics decide it’s better to be happy than conform to societal expectations.
6. “Plastic Love” by Mariya Takeuchi
Song Year: 1985
Japanese pop singer Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plastic Love” is an iconic track that follows a woman making up for a break-up with retail therapy. The narrator accepts that materialistic notions may not be the healthiest, but clothes won’t break her heart. Living life day by day, it’s a melancholy celebration of finding happiness wherever you can.
The song surged again in 2017 when a lengthy video was uploaded to YouTube and remixed into several new genres.
“Aishiteru” by Ken Hirai
Song Year: 2010
Ken Hirai wrote and composed his 33rd single, “Aishiteru,” released in November of 2010 and landed on his eighth studio album, Japanese Singer. “Aishiteru” debuted at tenth on the Oricon Daily Singles Chart, making it one of the year's most popular songs.
The song became the theme song to Ghost: In Your Arms Again, the Japanese remake of the famous American film Ghost.
8. “Jupiter” by Ayaka Hirahara
Song Year: 2003
Released as part of the 2012 album Doki!, Ayaka Hirahara’s “Jupiter” is one of this list’s most emotional tracks. Based on a melody similar to the famous “Thaxted,” “Jupiter” was released in December 2003 and became an instant hit. The song sold nearly a million copies by landing in second on the Oricon charts.
In 2004, the single “Jupiter” was the third best-selling song in Japanese pop music. It maintained its position in the charts for over three years, solidifying its status as one of the most iconic tracks in Japan.
9. “Futatsu no Kuchibiru” by Exile
Song Year: 2004
With over three million sales, Exile’s “Futatsu no Kuchibiru” remains one of Japan’s best-selling multi-format singles. This love song tells a touching story brought to life in an action-packed music video.
The romantic pop track blends pianos and quiet vocals to help perfectly blend genres. Whether you’re looking for heartbreak or soft instrumentation, this song is flawless. If you’re making a playlist with a theme toward love, leaving this stunning track out is a mistake!
10. “Please Stay With Me” by Yui
Song Year: 2010
Japanese singer-songwriter Yui’s 2010 album Holidays in the Sun features the single “Please Stay With Me,” a quiet acoustic track that tugs at your heartstrings. Much of the song is melancholy acoustic guitar instrumentation but quickly climbs up. The acoustic guitar then meets with a piano, electric guitar, and a string section.
11. “Forever Love” by X Japan
Song Year: 1996
Heavy metal Japanese band X Japan is known for pushing boundaries. One of the pioneers of Visual Kei, X Japan helped bring metal and glam prog to the Land of the Rising Sun. For “Forever Love,” the band dropped their heavier tones for a somber track.
Much of “Forever Love” is a love ballad with a piano, vocals, and soft instrumentals accompanied by drums and a distant, reverb-heavy electric guitar. This single offers a profound and emotionally charged listening experience.
Since 1996, the band X Japan group broke up, but the song has been covered by several other artists, including Eric Martin, and used in commercials for the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party.
12. “Winding Road” by Ayaka
Song Year: 2007
Ayaka’s “Winding Road” is the first collaboration between Japanese singer-songwriter Ayaka and the pop-rock duo Kobukuro. Commercially, the track was used to help promote the Nissan Cube in 2007. This platform helped the song reach incredible popularity, including 2nd on the Oricon Singles Chart of 2007.
The physical copy of the single included only the lyrical and instrumental versions of “Winding Road” and sold for just over 500 yen, with the price justified for having two songs instead of the standard four on a single.
13. “Michi” by Exile
Song Year: 2007
The pop band Exile makes its second appearance on the list of famous Japanese songs with one of their landmark tracks, “Michi.” Translated as “Road,” the track was released in February of 2007, and while it was limited to 100,000 physical copies, the song achieved online success with over 250,000 downloads. It also became a popular late-2000s ringtone with more than one million downloads.
The song’s CD includes instrumental and piano versions of the single, with the latter clocking a few seconds longer than the original pop track.
14. “LIFE” by Kimaguren
Song Year: 2008
The Japanese pop and reggae duo Kimaguren comes in next on our list with the single “Life.” The song is a mix of English and Japanese lyrics, and the athletic brand au Smart Sports used the single in a 2009 commercial, where it quickly gained popularity.
Selling more than 3.5 million copies, “Life” is one of 2008’s top songs. The acoustic rhythms of the guitar max with a beachy, reggae feel for a motivational hit.
15. “Koko Ni Iru Yo” by SoulJa
Song Year: 2007
Japanese hip-hop singer-songwriter SoulJa released “Koko ni Iru yo,” meaning “My Dear Friend,” in 2007. This song is the counterpart to “I'm By Your Side,” one of Aoyama's tracks (and first on our list).
It is challenging to disconnect the success of the two songs as they are frequently linked, but “Koko Ni Iru Yo” remained on Oricon’s list of top 10 singles for five weeks. This B-side track was utilized as the conclusion theme for the Japanese television program Japan Countdown.
16. “Yasashiku Naritai” by Kazuyoshi Saito
Song Year: 2011
Japanese singer-songwriter Kazuyoshi Saito’s love song “Yasashiku Naritai” was originally written as the ending theme song to the Japanese television drama Kaseifu no Mita. The song has sold over 2.5 million copies, but it is difficult to find outside Japan due to strong copyright laws.
The romance song tells the story of wanting to find love in a world that seems to fight against such things. Promising to be gentle, kind, and strong, the narrator insists they can find love. A thumping bass line and addictive guitars accompany the touching lyrics and earned Saito the Excellent Work Award at the 54th Annual Japan Record Awards.
17. “Kiss In The Dark” by Pink Lady
Song Year: 1979
Released in May of 1979, “Kiss in the Dark” was a global hit. Debuting during the Leif Garrett TV special, the song peaked at 19th on the Oricon charts, making it the first Pink Lady single that failed to make it into Japan’s top 10. In the United States, the Billboard charts saw the song land at 37th.
Still, Pink Lady became the first to have a hit sung in English for the American charts. They passed Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki” for this record and the first song since “Sukiyaki” to chart in the States.
18. “First Love” by Hikaru Utada
Song Year: 1999
Japanese-American recording artist Hikaru Utada’s title track from her debut R&B and pop album First Love focuses on love and relationships. Mixing English and Japanese helped the song grow worldwide, with the artist fluent in both languages.
Born in New York City, Utada dreamt of debuting a single in the United States and Japan. “First Love” became a hit in both nations, eventually re-issued in 2014 with a live DVD. The album remains one of Japan’s best-selling albums of all time, selling over 11 million albums to date.
19. “Yuki no Hana” by Mika Nakashima
Song Year: 2003
Released in late 2003, “Yuki no Hana” was the fifth single for Nakashima’s album Love. The song utilizes soft vocals and string instrumentation.
The romantic song focuses on winter, calling snowflakes “snow flowers” and meditating on love. “Yuki no Hana” was received positively, peaking at number three on the weekly Oricon Singles chart. The song has also reached global popularity with several cover versions.
20. “Homura” by LiSA
Song Year: 2020
Japanese singer LiSA is well-known among anime fans. Her music has been featured as the opening and closing for numerous popular shows, including Sword Art Online.
The song “Homura” was featured in Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train and translates to “flame” in English.
“Homura” won the grand prize of 2020’s 62nd Japan Record Awards, and, as a ballad, the song fits thematically with the anime it was composed for. The single also landed on Japan’s Hot 100, giving LiSA the record for the first act in history to have a song and an album debut at number one.
21. “Towa ni Tomo ni” by Kobukuro
Song Year: 2004
Closing our list is Kobukuro’s “Towa ni Tomo ni,” a calm and quiet piano ballad. The duo mixes soft keys with a serene vocal performance.
Lyrically, the single takes the form of a longing love song. The narrator focuses on the object of their desire, meditating on how they feel nothing in particular. They know they’ve yet to find their happy memories, longing to win over their beautiful lover and begin living a life worth living.
Best Japanese Songs, Final Thoughts
From Babymetal’s genre-bending fusions to Kobukuro’s piano-led ballads, there’s always something new in the Japanese music scene. Use our list to start your playlist as you broaden your horizons!
Did we forget your favorite Japanese tracks? Let us know what songs you’d like us to cover next time!