Japanese popular songs after the 1990s

The transition from kayou-kyoku to J-pop and the trivialization of enka

A fundamental structural change took place in the music business of Japan at the end of the 1980s. 1989 marked the end of the Cold War for the world and the end of the 64-years lasting Showa period (1926 -1989) for Japan. Kayou-kyoku, Japanese pop-songs, started to exist with the begin of the Showa period, but ended their dominant position in the Japanese everyday music life around the time when the Emperor Showa passed away. It was no coincidence that the greatest kayou-kyoku singer Hibari Misora also died in the same year(*).
The last song by Hibari Misora "Kawa no nagare no yō ni" was released on 11 January 1989 - only four months before her death.
"Kayou-kyoku" literally means "music for singing". This was invented in the 1920s by the radio station for the popular songs they broadcasted, so that they could differentiate their songs from traditional popular songs which were sung by street performers and despised by intellectuals. The birth of kayou-kyoku was almost identical with the start of the commercialization of popular songs by the record, publishing and broadcasting industry(**).
Please check the article "Popular songs (19c - 45)" to learn more on the earliest period of kayou-kyoku.
Japanese popular songs have always been under the influence of Western music since Japan opened its door to the world at the beginning of the Meiji period. People tried to reform traditional music by incorporating the elements of various types of Western music they encountered. The disappearance of "kayou-kyoku" meant that the rich variety of Japanese popular songs from the previous decades totally disappeared and that the traditional Japanese elements in the popular songs were trivialized into the enka format.

Enka represented from its beginning the sentiments of the weakest people in the society and thus formed the most vulgar section of kayou-kyoku. However, in our contemporary prosperous society, its patterned rhythm, its melody based on minor scale and the texts can only keep the sympathy of certain old fans and now forms a small enclave in the popular song world.
"Kawa no Nagare no yoni" (Like the flow of a river)
by Hibari Misora
Hibari Misora

Music by Akira Mitake & text by Yasushi Akimoto
    I have been walking down
    This narrow and long road.
    Without much thinkin about it.
    When I look back,
    I can see my hometown far far away.
    A bumpy road, a meandering road and
    A road not on the map.
    However, this is also a man's life.

    Ah, like the flow of a river
    Slowly have passed many days and years.
    Ah, like the flow of a river
    Unstoppably colored is the sky by the twilight.

    To live a life is like to travel on an endless road
    With your beloved partner and in search of your dream.
    The road might be muddy after rainfall.
    But, sunny days will certainly come again ....

Origin and development of J-pop

"J-pop" is the abbreviation of "Japanese pops". The starting point of J-pop was no doubt the Beatles. After the visit of the Beatles in Japan in 1966, the character of Japanese popular songs changed drastically. The most important change was the introduction of the eight-beat rhythm. Eight beat rhythm enchanted many young people and they tried to accommodate the Japanese language to the new rhythm, which is unfortunately very contradictory to the rhythm and intonation of the Japanese language. (*)
The Japanese words consist of a sequence of vowel-consonant combination. When a text is used for a song, each syllable must be given a note, whose relative height is decided in principle by the original Japanese words. For example, "a-ka to-n-bo" (red dragonfly) should have five notes and the relative height of the tones should reflect that of the spoken language, if the composed song should be a well understandable one.

If we want to emphasize certain word, we need to distribute more time to the high tone of the word. Consequently, Japanese songs traditionally did not have so many syllables and words within a certain time frame compared to European songs.

On the other hand in English and other European languages, each word has one or more accents, and the key to emphasize a text is to synchronize accents with beats. If this system is applied to Japanese, it only makes the meaning of the text incomprehensible, because we don't need accents but differences of tone height to convey the meaning.

In addition to the factors mentioned above, I have to underline the difference of song texts between European languages and Japanese. While European song texts traditionally use rhymes, Japanese texts use the numbers of syllables as basic structures and they are either seven or five. This is the same for traditonal poems. For example, "Haiku" has 5-7-5 syllables and "Waka" 5-7-5-7-7. The typical lines of Kabuki theater are also based on the sequence of words with either seven or five syllables. Please see the first two lines of the famous Japanese song "Kojo no Tsuki" which uses 7-5 7-5 syllables and they are vital for melodies and rhythms.
Anyhow, the popular songs sounded more and more Western. They were called "wasei pops", i.e. "pop songs made in Japan".
While the word "kayou-kyoku" gradually came to be used only for the songs that were produced commercially and professionally and featuring idol singers, new styles such as folk song(*), "new music"(**) and rock became popular one after another and increased their influence.
American style folk songs were already introduced into Japan in the 1950s. College folks and underground folks performed by semi-professional musicians became the mainstream around 1970. After the end of the student movement, a new wave of singer-songwriters emerged and they sang songs on topics from daily life.

"New music" is the terminology created in Japan to appeal more effectively to young listeners. "New music" is usually produced by singer-songwriters and its world is characterized by the modern urban life. Female singers make up the majority of "new music" musicians.
Since the end of the 1980s, record sales and broadcasting has become less important for the promotion of new songs than before, while live concerts or event performances have gained absolute importance. At the same time, performances in small live houses or on the street, for example in Shibuya, became popular and new talents were discovered there. The encounter between musicians and audience did not take place through media but directly on the street.

CDs started to dominate the record market in the 1990s in place of LPs and independent CDs could be easily produced without the intervention of big capital. Small CDs meant thatlive concerts could be bigger in size and more entertaining in content. Together with this shift, the leadership in record production also moved from the existing record companies and publishers to the new music agencies that specialized in J-pop, and TV stations also started to participate in music production.

With its eight or sixteen beats J-pop music makes a more lively and energetic impact on young people, but it has lost the nationwide support that was the case for kayou-kyoku until the 1970s. The central essence of the present J-pop is not so much the text but the rhythm. Japanese words are in many cases just allocated to the notes and their meanings can only partially be detected - among the following examples, Amuro is most typical in this context.

Japanese popular songs have gradually reduced the traditional Japanese elements. J-pop songs have at last eliminated all the Japanese elements, in other words sentimentalism and pessimism and instead acquired very dry rhythmic sounds. Thus, J-pop has become a much more international type of music than its predecessors.

The word "J-pop" was invented in 1988 to refer to this new type of popular music. This is the culmination of the process which started after the Beatles' visit forty years ago.

Female J-pop singers and groups

While many singers who made their debut by the end of the 1990s are still popular and active, I will concentrate in this essay on the introduction of some famous and interesting singers and groups who have entered the music scene in the J-pop era.

"Dreams come true" (Usually called with the abbreviation "Dorikamu") is a two-persons group (at the beginning it was three) led by the female vocalist Miwa Yoshida. Yoshida is a highly talented singer, and writes all texts and almost all music for her group. Her fresh and warm singing is the reason for their high popularity.
"Haretara iine" (I am happy if the weather will be fine) by Dreams Come True
Miwa Yoshida

Music & text by Miwa Yoshida
This is a song of a girl who went on a picnic with a young man when she was in a kindergarden. This time she wants to take her boyfriend and wants the man to talk with him. The song was used as the title song of a TV drama called "Hirari".
Go to the mountains, next sunday!
If it will rain as it did in the past,
We will cross the bridge sunk in the river.
You advanced through the bushes
as hign as my chest height.
I then followed your back
so that I would not lose you out of sight.
You held me to cross the river,
which I can jump over this time.

Let us go together.
Pick kokuwa nuts for me as you did last time.
I will be a reliable navigator ....

Namie Amuro" comes from Okinawa, the southernmost prefecture of Japan. Amuro integrated dance and song and got enthusiastic support from fans of her generation. Amuro's exotic features made her so popular that her popularity stimulated a boom of Okinawan music.
"Want me, want me" by Namie Amuro
Namie Amuro

Music & text by Michico
The combination of Japanese and (broken) English texts is often used in J-pop songs. I don't think that the most Japanese young listerners can understand the meaning without knowing the translation beforehand, but they maybe enjoy the sound effect of English words.
"Want me, want me" burst out
The buttons on the breast, as you are too hasty
"Wait a minute" wait a minute
Keep your head, I will guide your hands
Both are so unskillful "like a virgin
But, don't forget "Trojan"
"I am oochie, lala poppin' coochie
Cannot stop "want me, baby" ...

"Ayumi Hamasaki" is not only a singer, but a fashion leader or a charisma for teenage girls. She writes texts for her songs and also tries to compose. In her text, including "Days", she often uses "boku" for "I", though "boku" is usually used by men.
"Days" by Ayumi Hamasaki
Ayumi Hamasaki

Music by Kunio Tago & text by Ayumi Hamasaki
She recently announced that she had lost the hearing in her left ear, but energetically continues her music activities. From the text of this song it is not clear whether she is singing about the soul of a girl or a boy, because she deliberately uses men's words.
Each of the words
exchanged without particular significance
is a precious treasure
for me.

But, I myself feel almost ashamed of this word.
You would therefore laugh at it,
if you come to hear the word.

I want to see you so much.
I want to hear you at least.
I call you though it is not necessary.

You are there.
Only that makes my heart very warm.
My wish is only one.
May I continue to love you this way? ...

"Hikaru Utada" made her debut in 1998 when she was only 15 years old with "Automatic / time will tell". Her music and singing style are characterized by American rhythm and blues and are perfectly free from the traditional Japanese style.

"First Love" by Hikaru Utada
Hikaru Utada

Music & text by Hikaru Utada
Such a music has long been a dream for many people engaged in popular music. Therefore, Hikaru's debut was a shock for everybody. Her first album "First Love" sold more than 8 million and was the biggest selling album ever.
The last kiss had a "flavor" of tobacco.
Bitter and heartrending fragrance.

Tomorrow around this time,
Where will you be and
What you will think about.

"You are always gonna be my love"
If I fall in love with somebody sometime.
"I'll remember to love
You taught me how
You are always gonna be the one

I am still sad
Before I can sing a new song "love song". ....

"Yo Hitoto" was born between a Taiwanese father and a Japanese mother. She made her debut with "Morainaki", and thereafter has remained highly popular. She writes all the texts of her songs which are quite unique.
"Morainaki" by Yo Hitoto
Yo Hitoto

Music Satoshi Takebe and others and
text by Yo Hitoto
I feel that her songs cannot simply be labeled as J-pop, but are somewhat akin to Asian songs. Her texts are full of symbolic words, which are not clearly logically linked each other!
Eeh-iah, I got weeping from you.
I was moved to tears. We two are so isolated.
Eeh-iah, I began weeping from sympathy.
Which of us is so kind?

From early morning sticking to TV with many subtitles like a noctiluca,
Looking for my corner in a spacious living room
Then you cross my mind.

I cannot tell good friends
who are experienced in love affairs, and
I am dreaming off and on in a carton box where I retreat.
But, listen, listen, only listen to me.

Eeh-iah, I got weeping from you.
I was moved to tears. We two are so isolated.
Eeh-iah, I began weeping from sympathy.
Which of us is so kind? ....
(*) Morainaki" means "weep in sympathy with a person" and a common expression in Japan.

"Chat Monchy" - The last group I introduce here is probably not yet as major as the other musicians I take up on this page. But, I am very much enchanted by their ingenuous and lovely music.

Chat Monchy started its activities in 2000. The three members of Chat Monchy are all from the Tokushima prefecture, Shikoku island, in other words from a typically rural area of Japan. They demonstrate how deeply J-pop is now rooted in Japan.

"Shangri-La" by Chat Monchy
Chat Monchy

Music by Eriko Hashimoto and
text by Kumiko Takahashi
Though all the members are girls, the text of this song seems to describe the mind of a boy caring his girlfriend who is not good at expressing herself naturally. This might be a reversal expression of the mind of Chat Monchy members.
Shout that your are happy.
Cry in my arms now and then.
You cannot smile well even in a dream.
I would scold you and love you.

I dropped my mobile phone into a river.
It flew away like a ship made of a bamboo leaf. Ah!
I cannot sleep again tonight if I think about you.
Where shall we go? Ah! ....
(*) Since July 2011, Chat Monchy consists of only two members: Eriko Hashimoto and Akiko Fukuoka.

Male J-pop singers and groups

As my last contribution to the page on contemporary Japanese pop-songs, I would like to introduce a few male singers. We have of course many more younger singers. But, I prefer these musicians to others!

"SMAP" is an idol group formed by Johnny & Associates, the most influential "talent agency" that promotes groups of male idols. All five members of SMAP have been active for a decade or more in TV dramas, variety programs, TV commercials and movies.
"Sekai ni Hitotsu dake no Hana" (A flower unlike any other in the world) by SMAP

Music & text by Takayuki Makihara
Translated by Brian Stewart and Takako Sakuma
One of the members, Takuya Kimura (nickname is "Kimutaku"), is currently the most popular personality among women in Japan and the most popular Japanese personality in Asia. Their biggest hit "A flower unlike any other in the world" released in 2003 was the best seller of the year.
I saw many kinds of flowers lined up in front of the flowershop.
everyone has their favorite kinds but all of them are pretty.
Without competing to see which was the best among them,
they were standing straight up proudly inside the bucket.
So why then do we humans have to compare ourselves to one another?
Eventhough each and every person is different, why do we want to be number one?
Yes we are each..

"Kazuyoshi Saito" is a rock singer-songwriter and sings to the accompaniment of his own acoustic guitar. Since his debut in 1993 he has not been influenced much by commercialism, but worked in his own way and steadily attracted fans to his numerous live concerts.
"Utautai no Ballad" (Singer's ballad) by Kazuyoshi Saito
Kazuyoshi Saito

Music & text by Kazuyoshi Saito
I saw his video crip in a midnight TV program just after his TV debute and got instantly enchanted. Thereafter, I visit his live concerts and buy many of his CDs including his earliest albums..
Ah, it is not difficult to sing.
I only have to rely on my voice and
keep my brain empty.
Ah, when I close your eyes, I can see in my mind
sweet memories and the days with you.

The truth exists in the song.
Though you cannot say it otherwise,
as it is too shameful

The singer can sing today,
while thinking about you.
There are words I could not say for a long time.
Listen! They are short.
I love you. ....
2009.1.8, rev. 2009.10.26, 2014.08.24, 2020.12.9