28/07/2022

J-pop: Defining Japanese Pop Music, its Genres, and Songs & Artists You Need to Know

J-pop is hard to define - but if you look at the long list of genres that fall under J-pop, the reason becomes clear. And why hasn’t it become more popular internationally? We explore all of these plus a list of songs and artists you have to know whether you’re new or a long-time fan. 


Table of Contents

  1. Defining J-pop
  2. K-pop vs J-pop: Accessibility
  3. Genres in Jpop
    1. Idols & Groups
    2. Rock Bands
    3. Solo Artists
    4. City Pop
    5. Anisong
    6. And more...
  4. 33 J-pop Songs & Artists to Know from the 90s to 2022

Defining J-pop

J-pop, an abbreviation for Japanese popular music, is exactly that - mainstream music in Japan. For some, a particular genre of music might come to mind when they hear the word “J-pop”. However, it’s actually a wide range of genres that can’t really be defined in one way...except, well, J-pop. 

Some cite Eurobeat as the main influence on the birth of J-pop. On the other hand, according to J-wave, a popular radio station, they are the ones who coined the term and spread the popularity of 「J-pop」in 1988. They had only been playing Western music on their station until then and wanted to start playing Japanese music, and decided that the songs played would be called J-pop which sounded distinctly “western”.

※J-wave, “「J-POP」という言葉、J-WAVEが生みの親って知ってた? その意味は…

But does that mean anything before that, or things that J-wave didn’t consider J-pop is not J-pop? Not necessarily.

Traditional Japanese music like 「演歌 enka」 is not and never has been considered J-pop. But some of the music that J-wave considered too Japanese-influenced, or what was called 「歌謡曲 kayoukyoku」at the time, is now considered J-pop. (Of course, opinion of what counts as J-pop will vary from person to person.)

But the definition of J-pop has definitely changed from absolutely needing western influence or sounds to count, to simply meaning music that is popular among the general public

Thus when asking - What’s the song or artist that represents J-pop? - you will get an incredibly wide range of answers and genres. 

K-pop vs J-pop: Accessibility & Recognition

We won’t get too deep into comparing K-pop and J-pop, as that often leads to discussion about which is better and that’s not the point of this section or article.  

But one objectively different aspect about K-pop and J-pop that we’d like to discuss is accessibility and recognition in the international market. 

Japan is the 2nd biggest music market in the world, yet in terms of international recognition and popularity, K-pop seems to dominate between the two. 

But why is that? 

There are a few factors.

1. Japan markets domestically

As such a large music industry, Japanese record companies have mainly focused on selling to the Japanese public. The lyrics are mainly in Japanese, the shows and promotions are in Japanese, and content for the fans are also in Japanese - which makes sense because the core base of fans are Japanese. However, even when people become fans overseas, not a lot of priority has been given by many labels or groups to provide translations or even promote overseas to gain more of an international fanbase. 

2. Strict Copyright Laws

Japan has stricter copyright laws, especially in regards to entertainment. What counts as “fair use” in many countries is not considered as such in Japan. The artists’ photos, magazine and filmed interviews, video footage, etc. are prohibited from being uploaded without permission. Some online content posted by the artists or labels themselves, such as music videos on YouTube, even are or have been region-locked. Recording performances at concerts is prohibited and even putting clips of concert DVDs online is also prohibited - so the popular “fancam” videos we often see online of K-pop or other artists outside of Japan don’t really exist for Japanese artists - and if you see them, they’re often considered illegal uploads.

3. CD sales and live concerts in Japan over streaming

And then we come to CDs. People in Japan still often buy physical CDs released by their favorite artists. Of course the practice of doing so is often dominated by idols, as buying their CDs come with perks like meet-and-greets. However, as streaming was not really implemented or popular until recently, the way to support your favorite artist was to actually buy physical copies of their music. CD shops are still thriving in Japan - and there’s an 8-story Tower Records in Shibuya, Tokyo to prove it (along with 2 other major CD shops in Shibuya!).

The other aspect that leads to revenue for artists is live concerts in Japan. Fans buy concert goods and attend the concerts as much as they can to support the artists. And of course, many buy the DVD footage that is later released of the concert tour.

Of course this poses difficulties for international fans - to listen to their music, you would have to pay a lot of money to ship CDs to your country, go to Japan to attend concerts, and then pay more shipping fees to get the concert DVDs. Some fanclubs even limit their membership to those with addresses in Japan, so international fans pay extra to go through a proxy service. 

You could call these factors simply Japanese culture on one hand, but honestly outdated in the current digital and globalized world on the other hand, depending on who you ask. 

However things are definitely changing, if not slowly. 

Streaming services have become more popular in recent years. Spotify and Apple Music have taken off in Japan, and many artists, although slowly at first, have put their music on streaming platforms. More and more artists are uploading (non region-locked) music videos to YouTube, and have opened social media accounts, making them much more accessible to international fans. While concerts may still be mainly in Japan, there have been live-streams that are accessible from around the world. 

Genres in J-pop

While it’d be impossible to cover ALL genres that are represented by J-pop - as we've said above, it covers all popular music - but here’s a list of the major ones. 

Japanese Idols & Groups

Perhaps there are many people that think of idols and similar groups first when hearing the word “J-pop”. But even among the J-idol industry, there’s a huge range of artists and genres. 

J-idols and what is known as “dance & vocal groups/units” include:

  • Boybands like the ones managed by Johnny’s & Associates (E.g. Arashi, King & Prince, Snow Man, Naniwa Danshi, etc.), J01, BE:FIRST, Da-iCE, EBiDAN groups managed by Stardust Promotions (M!LK, DISH//, Choutokkyu, etc.), EXILE and related groups, and so on

  • Girl groups like AKB48 and its sister groups, Nogizaka46 and its sister groups, Morning Musume and its sister groups, Momoiro Clover Z, Happiness, Perfume, NiziU and so on.

  • Mixed groups (although more rare) like AAA and Genic

Japanese Rock Bands

You might think - wait, rock is not pop music though? - but in Japan, if your music is popular, you may get grouped into the overall category of J-pop. (But of course, they are also known as rock bands within J-rock as well).

And they also cover a huge range of genres within rock, from punk rock to soft rock.

Popular examples include ONE OK ROCK, XJapan, Mr.Children, Glay, SCANDAL, Southern All Stars, BUMP OF CHICKEN, Radwimps, King Gnu, B'z, backnumber, Official Hige Dandism, Sekai no Owari, etc. 

Take a look at our J-rock article here for bands and rock events to go to. 

Japanese Solo Artists

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by ayumi hamasaki (@a.you)

And of course there are many famous solo artists as well. While there’s too many of them to cover, here are just some that are considered J-pop legends

  • Utada Hikaru

  • Ayumi Hamasaki 

  • Koda Kumi

  • Amuro Namie

  • Hirai Ken

  • Fukuyama Masaharu

  • Kuwata Keisuke

  • GACKT

More recent popular singers include LiSA, Hoshino Gen, Yonezu Kenshi, Yuuri, Aimer, Aimyon, milet, etc. The list is honestly endless, and as singers are more easily discovered nowadays with the rise of social media, the list of popular singers is constantly changing. 

Japanese City Pop

As City Pop has made a comeback thanks to streaming and sampling in recent years, this goenre is being explored by people around the world. 

Popular and legendary artists of City Pop include Yamashita Tatsuro, Takeuchi Mariya, Matsutoya Yumi, Otaki Eiichi and Matsubara Miki.

Anime songs or Anisong

Is anisong or songs written for anime considered J-pop? People used to disagree because a lot of anisong had that “sound” that was perfect for anime but not really mainstream. The artists tended to be lesser known, or would mostly write songs for anime. And anime, of course, is popular enough on its own. 

However, in more recent years, more mainstream artists have begun providing the opening and ending theme songs for anime, especially popular ones. 

And as certain anime in recent years have seen immense popularity with the general public, such as 鬼滅の刃 (Kimetsu no Yaiba; Demon Slayer) and SPYxFAMILY, the theme songs have been extremely popular. 

And more…

As we stated above, J-pop covers such a wide range of music that we can’t list all of them, and some of the genres are still being argued about whether it counts as J-pop or not. 

In more recent years, genres like vocaloid and singers who don’t show their face but use animated characters or shadows as their avatar have found popularity on streaming platforms, such as the singers Ado, Yama and Yorushika. 

So the range of J-pop is ever growing and changing!

33 J-pop Songs & Artists to Know from the 90s to 2022

Last, if you’re new to J-pop, here are some of the most popular songs of all time, old and new, compiled through checking karaoke rankings and generally how recognizable they are to the general public. If you know these songs, you’re sure to be able to sing along at karaoke parties or recognize them when they’re played on tv shows and such.

Note: We list them by when the song itself was released, but a lot of these artists are still very popular today! 

Listed by era and in no particular order:

90s

  1. クリスマス・イブ (Christmas Eve) by 山下達郎 (Yamashita Tatsuro) - This one is actually from 1983 but became a hit in 1988 when it was used in a commercial and grew even more in popularity over the years

  2. やさしさに包まれたなら (Yasashisa ni Tsutsumaretanara) by 松任谷由実 (Matsutoya Yumi)

  3. Over Drive by Judy and Mary

  4. 硝子の少年 (Garasu no Shounen) by Kinki Kids

  5. Everything by MISIA

  6. 残酷な天使のテーゼ (Zankoku na Tenshi no Teeze) by 高橋洋子 (Takahashi Yoko)

  7. HOT LIMIT by T.M.Revolution

  8. First Love by Utada Hikaru

  9. チェリ― by Spitz

  10. 夏色 (Natsuiro) by ゆず (Yuzu)

2000s

  1. 世界に一つだけの花 (Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana) by SMAP

  2. Love So Sweet by 嵐 (Arashi)

  3. ハナミズキ (Hanamizuki) by 一青窈 (Hitoto You)

  4. 粉雪 (Konayuki) by Remioromen

  5. HANABI by Mr.Children

  6. キセキ (Kiseki) by GReeeeN

  7. 青春アミーゴ (Seishun Amigo) by 修二と彰 (Shuuji to Akira)

  8. (Hana) by ORANGE RANGE

  9. 愛をこめて花束を (Ai wo Komete Hanataba wo) by Superfly

2010s

  1. 紅蓮華 (Gurenge) by LiSA

  2. 恋するフォーチュンクッキー (Koi Suru Fortune Cookie) by AKB48

  3. Pretender by Official髭男dism (Official Hige Dandism)

  4. Lemon by 米津玄師

  5. マリーゴールド (Marigold) by あいみょん (Aimyon)

  6. (Koi) by Hoshino Gen

  7. 白日 (Hakujitsu) by King Gnu

  8. 夜にかける (Yoru ni Kakeru) by YOASOBI

  9. (Neko) by DISH//

2020 - 2022

  1. ドライフラワー (Dryflower) by Yuuri

  2. うっせぇわ (Usseewa) by Ado

  3. きらり (Kirari) by 藤井風 (Fujii Kaze)

  4. Stand by Me, Stand by You by 平井大 (Hirai Dai)

  5. us by milet

We’ll continue to update with more recommendations and articles as more time passes!!

We hope this list and article as a whole gives you a good taste of J-pop. The options are endless, so please keep exploring until you find something (or many!) that you love. 

You don't have to worry alone anymore A Q&A community about Japan

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