If you were to stop a pedestrian on the streets of Tokyo and ask them “What bands or singers do you like?” you may receive an answer of “I really like Arashi, Dir En Grey, and Utada Hikaru.” If you don’t know these bands, imagine you have asked the average Westerner their favorite musicians and received the response, “Oh! I love Justin Beiber, early Nine Inch Nails, and Sade.”
Here, there is usually not the personalized dichotomy of musical tastes we find in the West — the idea that if you like death metal, you have “sold out” by listening to pop, or if you like the sweetness of mainstream music, you could not possibly appreciate the depth of industrial electronica. People just like what they want to like. Imagine if you will, a land where a trance/shoe-gaze mix is heard in the McDonald’s dining area. Actually, don’t imagine; I am writing this while at my nearest Mickey D’s, and that is exactly what is being played!
Many people are not familiar with the Japanese music scene. Perhaps a distant memory of some band called Yellow Magic Orchestra comes to mind or a recent mention of Boom Boom Satellites from an animÃ© convention participant. While it is true that many Japanese bands or pop groups are never heard of outside of Asia, there is no shortage of musical styles and musicians to hear.
Through “Tokyo Calling,” each month I will introduce you to a variety of musical styles and musicians from Japan. From the insanely popular idol groups/boy bands like Arashi (think N’Sync), to hard-working alternative rock bands like tobaccojuice (think Vampire Weekend), to strong female singers like Yui (think Jewel). One month may feature a live show report of a well-received alternative rock band, another month could showcase an interview with a member of one of the “idol groups.”
As I live in Tokyo, I admit, it will usually be bands that perform here. In a metro-area of about 27 million people, I think that gives no shortage of live music! The population in this city is larger than some countries, so pardon my lack of regular “touring!” There may be a surprise now and then if I stumble upon a regionally well-known group while on vacation to Fukuoka, or am given tickets to a rock showcase of touring “aggressive rock” bands from China.
To make this journey all the more pleasant, here are a few of the terms or phrases you may hear in connection with the Japanese music scene:
J-POP: J-Pop is an acronym for Japanese Popular music. It’s a generic term that is often used to describe many different genres of current musical styles such as pop, rock, dance, rap and soul. Some people only use the term j-pop to describe the mainstream “pop” groups here; those that while heavily influenced by Western pop, are reminiscent of the Western pop heard and seen between 1995-2003.
IDOL groups: Remember bands like N’Sync, Spice Girls, and Backstreet Boys? Those groups of well-groomed men or women, singing pop songs, while dancing a carefully choreographed routine? You never saw them play a musical instrument, but they looked cute? Well, Japan has their own home-grown groups like these, but don’t call them boy-bands or girl groups! They are IDOL groups, and almost everyone loves them!
J-ROCK: By the late 1960s, Japan had taken Western rock influences and added in elements of native folk and pop elements to make Japanese rock music.
VISUAL KEI: Seen starting in the late 1980s, visual kei (visual style) is characterized by the wearing of heavy make-up, huge or unique hairstyles, androgynous behaviors, and unusual costumes. The look often has a sort of “Gothic aristocrat” look to it, but not always. The music tends to be a bit more guitar heavy than usual j-rock.
GAME music: Some Japanese composers are hired to work for Nintendo and Mistwalker to compose those long-running pieces of music heard throughout video games. They often take elements of trance and techno, add them to their orchestral score, and engage the services of a well-known singer. You can buy these on game soundtrack CDs, and every few months, there is a large “concert” by some game music composer or another.
The Japanese music scene is one that engaged me even before I moved here, probably through my constant viewing of Japanese movies and TV dramas, and some of the more prominent acts have started to make an impact in the alternative or underground music scenes in America and Europe. From straight-up pop to avant-garde noise music, the Japanese scene has created, embellished, and maintained music choices admired by its citizens and recently being discovered by people around the world. I hope to bring some of its variety and creativity to you.
**Apryl Peredo is an American living in Tokyo. She has worked off and on in the music industry for several years. Her time is spent writing a variety of music industry articles, teaching English, and organizing small to mid-size live music events. She promises to rarely write about bands she is personally involved with, and will do so only if they actually are at least a moderate “force” on the Tokyo scene. Or maybe if they are just really COOL!
By: Apryl Peredo – firstname.lastname@example.org