What Is J-pop Music? With 7 Top Examples & History
The global phenomenon of Japanese popular music, shortened to J-pop, has been enjoyed by fans across the world for decades. J-pop experienced a massive surge in popularity during the 2010s, which led to the genre becoming increasingly diverse.
But what is J-pop music? This article will define the genre, explore some of the best J-Pop tracks, and list five of Japan’s most iconic musical artists.
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What Is J-pop Music?
J-pop encapsulates an enormous variety of music made in Japan, including Japanese hip-hop and Japanese rock. Japanese metal is usually included in J-pop, as is Japanese rock. The ‘J’ in J-pop stands for Japanese.
The genre has constantly evolved since it first emerged, pulling from influences across the board. These include the stylings of traditional Japanese music and the use of innovative technology to craft new sounds.
J-pop Music Characteristics
Chord changes are popular in J-pop, as are more complex song structures overall. Whereas the four-chord progression dominates much of American music, J-pop values motion and variety in music over familiarity.
Math rock, a genre defined by its polyrhythmic structure, is considered to be best produced by Japanese artists. However, the vocals or melody of Japanese songs may be quite simple.
J-pop often features high-pitched vocals. These vocals are sometimes not limited to the high point of songs as Western singers use them on the bridges of their songs. Some records are often several keys higher than a standard Western song.
Many Japanese artists prize cuteness, with the kawaii aesthetic acting as an anti-establishment alternative to a more conservative appearance. Much of J-pop since at least the 1990s has featured cute, pastel clothing. This clothing is often inspired by Victorian-style dresses and suits. So, for instance, a singer with a belt dripping in tiny Hello Kitty plushes is likely a J-pop kawaii artist.
The kawaii styling often extends to the music itself, though the band Babymetal is a notable exception. They are a kawaii metal band with a cute, if gothic, aesthetic. Yet, their vocals are rough and powerful, as is common in the metal genre.
7 Examples of J-pop Music
J-pop music is eclectic, electric, and unforgettable. Fans from all over the world enjoy this blended genre featuring inspiration from a variety of sources, from Japan and other countries.
Learning about J-pop can seem overwhelming at first, as countless artists have made incredible music over the decades. Even saying that these examples are representative is misleading, as it is impossible to give such a large genre justice with a handful of songs. However, these are great places to start.
These chart-topping, commercially-successful J-pop hits range from bubbly kawaii pop to emotional ballads.
“Candy Candy” by Kyary Pamyu Pamyu
This hit from 2012 is a homage to Japanese culture and its 80s-era girl groups. The music video prominently features a girl in campy kawaii fashion sprinting while holding a comically large piece of toast in her mouth. Japanese media sometimes use scenes like this to portray younger generations as messy and chaotic.
“Candy Candy” as a song is about a girl who wishes to always have candy on hand. The singer describes how negative emotions can’t penetrate the little bit of joy she gets from candy.
The themes and aesthetic of the song repeatedly show innocence and youth, with the singer reminding the audience that she is just a young girl. So, she doesn’t want to be bogged down by adult concerns or heavy emotions.
“Flavor of Life” by Hikaru Utada
This iconic single from Hikaru Utada sold nearly a quarter of a million digital copies in its first week. Released in 2007, “Flavor of Life” set records as the first ever to achieve significant success online. The song was used as the theme of the mega-hit television program Hana Yori Dango.
In the eyes of the song’s narrator, the flavor of life is bitterness. This emotional love song features a singer who feels like their relationship status is caught between friends and lovers. In their eyes, the relationship feels like a fruit that is only partially ripened.
The speaker looks back at how moments of sweetness are soured because their relationship isn't clear. That sadness leads to even the smallest thank yous causing them a lot of pain. Still, the singer wants to spend time with this person as they don’t want to lose out on being with someone so special to them.
“Soba ni Iru ne” by Thelma Aoyama, featuring SoulJa
“Soba ni Iru ne” is a response song to another Japanese hit made by these artists, “Koko ni Iru ne.” The singers in “Koko ni Iru ne” express longing and sadness about being separated. The man of the song says that he keeps letting the opportunities to express himself pass by. He regrets his weakness and lost chances, apparently unaware of the other singer.
The woman sings that she is waiting for the man and is not worried about any obstacles or distance. She promises to be there for him, no matter what.
In the sequel, “Soba ni Iru ne,” the themes of the first song are continued. However, the couple has been physically separated, furthering their anxiety even as they remain devoted to each other.
Sales of “Soba ni Iru ne” were so high that the song was named the best-selling single in Japan by Guinness World Records in 2008.
“Oyoge! Taiyaki-kun” by Masato Shimon
“Oyoge! Taiyaki-kun” is a tale of a taiyaki, a small cake shaped like a fish. This humorous song describes the struggles of life for such a commodified being, a Japanese street food. In the song, the unfortunate taiyaki and his friends end up fried in rough pans.
However, the taiyaki escapes the cruel life he was born into and swims into the ocean. The taiyaki does his best to make the most of his life in the sea. He dodges sharks and dances among seaweed, making the most of his freedom.
Sadly, while he looked for food to fill his stomach, the taiyaki got fished up by a man. As was always his fate, the taiyaki gets eaten.
“Ai Uta” by GReeeeN
The speaker of “Ai Uta” feels ignored by the person she’s interested in and begs them not to laugh or mock their feelings. They fret that they sound cheesy, even though their feelings are genuine.
As the song progresses, the narrator worries that the person they love won’t be glad their paths have crossed or even notice their feelings.
Instead, they meet awkwardly, which stands in the way of the intimacy the narrator wants. They plead to the heavens to make their love come true, and that the obsessive puppy love that grips the speaker never goes away.
“Qba-Q Ondo” by Machiko Soga
This romantic ballad centers around the struggle between star-crossed lovers trying to find their way home to one another. Each verse switches the point of view to show the different ways the distance affects them.
The woman is trapped on one side of an unclimbable mountain. Her lover has left to the other shore by sea, and if all has gone well he is only a handful of meters away, on the other side of the mountain.
However, she has no way to know whether he made it safely to shore, or drowned in the ocean. This emotional ballad features grief, hope, and the nature of love thriving even when it faces obstacles.
“Heavy Rotation” by AKB48
The title of this pop hit by AKB48 refers to the frequency the singer thinks about the person she likes. AKB48’s track is all about need and obsession. The English refrains feature the singer repeating a chorus declaring how much she needs someone.
The song’s lyrics reveal how much the narrator thinks about this person, similar to a pop song that experiences frequent, or heavy, rotation on the radio. This 2011 hit put AKB48 on the map and is a great example of how J-pop artists often blend English and Japanese to emphasize themes.
5 Top J-pop Musicians
Now you have the answer to the question, “what is J-pop music?” you might be wondering who the best J-pop artists are. Hundreds of singers, groups, and producers vie for the top spots on the charts, not only in Japan but in multiple countries.
What makes a top J-pop artist depends on who you ask. Commercial success is one indicator used to decide which artists are the best. To others, the most successful artists are the ones pushing the boundaries of traditional genres. Still, others may consider an artist successful if they’ve had a long-lasting career.
From kawaii pop, metal, and even the Japanese-invented Vocaloid, the genres of these artists are diverse and significant to both Japanese culture and the global music scene.
Hatsune Miku is not a human being, but an eternally 16 years old pop star that can sing whatever fans of hers program her to sing. Her name is a combination of words and translates as the “first sound of the future.”
Essentially, she is a “voicebank” powered by Vocaloid technology. It was created in the early 2000s and has expanded the possibilities of music since its debut. The music synthesizing program uses pre-recorded voicebanks of sounds and syllables to create a library that users can use to piece together songs.
Beyond her capacities as a Vocaloid, Hatsune Miku has performed “live” at several concerts as a hologram. In 2007, Hatsune Miku’s program was the top-selling software on Amazon.
Her most famous song is “The World is Mine,” a track that perfectly captures the sassy, idol personality that she was designed to represent.
Utada began writing music at age ten, a prodigy child of a music producer. She debuted on the Japanese music scene in 1998 and spent some time as one of the most promising new singer-songwriters in her home country.
When she released her first album in 2004, it immediately became the top-selling album in Japan, shattering records. She began to grow her following in Japan and the United States while living and producing music in New York.
International audiences may know her best for her 2002 hit, “Simple & Clean,” which featured prominently in the popular computer game franchise Kingdom Hearts.
Since 2013, BABYMETAL has been consistently topping charts with genre and expectation-defying music—a blend of kawaii metal mixed with J-pop elements and imagery.
BABYMETAL’s name is especially appropriate given their founding as a group of junior high students.
It was videos of young, middle-school-aged girls that helped propel this metal group to stardom. While the two founding singers are not always able to perform due to health issues, the group performs original songs that combine kawaii aesthetics with traditional metal elements.
At the end of 2021, the band indicated they were considering entering a hiatus or even disbanding.
Arashi is a five-member Japanese boy band with a name that means “storm.” Their commercial success lives up to their name. Finding massive success at the turn of the 21st Century, the boy band was active up until the group announced its disbandment in 2020.
In their two decades of being active, Arashi netted dozens of Billboard awards, earned several Guinness World Records, and received international acclaim for their pop music. Their YouTube channel has racked up over half a billion views.
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu
With nearly a million physical albums sold in Japan, kawaii star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is a force to be reckoned with. She has ruled the airwaves for over a decade and is also a prominent tarento (a television personality) and model. Her style is heavily influenced by the Harajuku neighborhood, where much of kawaii culture concentrates.
Takemura Kiriko began work as a child star under her real name, though records of that phase of her life may have been destroyed. She started her career in earnest in 2009 and became an international star in 2011 with her single ”PONPONPON.”
The tooth-rotting sweetness of “PONPONPON” and Takemura’s kawaii influence made it a viral sensation on YouTube and beyond. This success perfectly set up her single “Candy Candy” to also top the charts.
In the years since her breakout, Takemura has continued to put out critically acclaimed and commercially successful. She is considered to be one of the most influential artists in the J-pop genre. International reporters occasionally refer to her as “Japan’s Lady Gaga,” so distinctive is her songwriting and aesthetics.
The History of J-pop Music
Like much of the world, Japan was exposed to Western music following the end of World War II. US troops stationed in Japan during the post-war occupation introduced several genres to the country. That built on the existing genre of Kayōkyoku, which happened to also be a blend of Japanese and Western styles.
By the 1950s, jazz clubs existed all over Japan. Rock-and-roll bands of fierce musicians began to dominate the scene and expanded the definition of J-pop music.
Cover-pop, a genre in which Japanese artists covered Western music, skyrocketed in popularity into the 1970s and 1980s. By the 1990s, J-pop was a well-established, internationally recognized genre that earned respect and admiration as more and more artists contributed their unique visions.
In the 21st Century, the massive popularity of anime and Japanese culture, in general, brought about a renewed international interest in J-pop.
What Is J-pop Music? Final Thoughts
So, what is J-pop music? It can be ballads and hip-hop, dance house music, and hard rock. Moreover, J-pop extends to anime themes, memetic dances, and serious critiques of the country of its origin.
J-pop is as varied and complex as Japan itself. No matter what style of music you’re a fan of, you’re likely to find something appealing in J-pop’s impressive back catalog.
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