By Brody Nixon
Living in Japan is a great opportunity to dive into the rich world of Japanese music, but getting to the good stuff can be difficult. If you’re only living in a place for a year, how are you supposed to find all the best music in that short time? This article will serve as a starting point, offering just a few suggestions to help you get into the music here. These aren’t just my personal suggestions, because that wouldn’t be terribly useful to most people. Rather, the stuff listed here is material that also tends to be popular with most JETs…assuming they ever have a chance to hear it!
Let’s start with pop. By now, most of you are more than likely familiar with names like Ayumi Hamasaki, Hikaru Utada, or Ai Otsuka, a few of the reigning pop queens, but let’s talk about a few others. One of the new big names on the pop scene right now is Ayaka, a girl who has rocketed to stardom at the age of 19. And as opposed to many other pop stars, she writes her own music, and has legitimate talent. Her songs usually come in the form of slow ballads, full of emotion and great melodies. Try her smash hit debut song “I Believe,” the more recent “手を繋ごう (te wo tsunagou),” or her hit collaboration with the male pop duo Kobukuro, “Winding Road.”
If you’re looking for pop with a more alternative vibe, try the stunningly eclectic Shiina Ringo. Equipped with one of the more unique and powerful voices in the pop world, this diva has made songs in almost every conceivable musical style over the years. Her music is wonderfully original, and rarely disappoints. A few years ago, she formed a band called Tokyo Jihen (東京事変) and has been producing great material with them — their most recent album, “娯楽 (goraku),” is one of the best pop rock albums I’ve heard in years. Try her song “ここでキスして (koko de kisu shite)” for straight pop, “遣っ付け仕事 (yattsuke shigoto)” for something more offbeat, or anything from the Tokyo Jihen album I mentioned.
Now, let’s talk rock. Japanese rock music is some of the best in the world, in my armchair opinion, and there are a great many bands to sift through. Here are a few particularly good ones. If you like laid-back, acoustically driven rock, then you’ll love Bump of Chicken, a band with a funny name and some great songs. They’re very big right now, and chances are at least 75 percent of your high school students love them. Try “花の名 (hana no na)” for something slow, “Sailing Day” for something faster, and “supernova” for just a damn good song.
Another band that’s becoming big recently, and has a growing following among foreigners, is Radwimps. They started off as yet another melodic pop-punk band but with songs better than most, and their songwriting has matured over the years to cover a broad range of styles — again, eclectic is the best word here. The vocalist has great range, and speaks natural-sounding English thanks to his years of living in the States as a child (though the English lyrics don’t make much sense if you actually listen to them). Recommended songs: “ふたりごと (futarigoto)” “05410-(ん)”, and “いいんですか? (iindesuka?).”
And I can’t write about Japanese rock without mentioning my personal favorite, the pillows. Many people back home and in Japan know them from the soundtrack to the anime show “Furi Kuri (FLCL),” but they’ve made tons of great music since then as well. Their music is rock, plain and simple, with tremendous hooks and a lot of energy. They have too many songs to pick just a few, but their most recent album, “Pied Piper,” is very good! They tour Japan (and the States) pretty often, so keep an eye out for them.
So those are a few of the top artists that I like, and that other JETs tend to like too. There are countless more of course, but my space is limited. A few final suggestions: Soul Flower Union (rather obscure and eclectic folk rock), YMCK (the biggest stars in the Nintendo-inspired chiptune genre), GO!GO!7188 (girl-fronted rock, with bite), Ketsumeishi (laid-back Japanese-style hip-hop), and X Japan (old-school heavy metal with a dramatic flair).
So, the final question is, where can you find this music? Not that we want to condone piracy, but the Internet is always a great place to start. At the very least, you can find many Japanese music videos on YouTube. Another option is to head to a large record store and see if you have some luck with what they have available at the many listening stations. Finally, if it’s convenient, you can try finding a JET in your area who has some music to share. Happy listening!