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Think of music from Japan, and some of us may remember “Sukiyaki,” the 1963 #1 pop hit sung entirely in Japanese by Kyu Sakamoto (and a hit again much later both for “A Taste of Honey” and ‘90s R&B group “Four P.M.”), or think of another Sakamoto, the groundbreaking electronic composer Ryuichi Sakamoto behind the techno-pop trio Yellow Magic Orchestra whose biggest claim to stateside fame was his Oscar-winning score (co-written with David Byrne) of the soundtrack to Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 masterpiece “The Last Emperor”.

More recently, Pizzicato Five, prime purveyors of the Western-influenced “Shibuya-Kei” pop music style (named after Tokyo’s chic Shibuya shopping area) gained a foothold in the U.S., as did Cibo Matto, the New York-based female Japanese duo that also borrowed heavily from Western pop/techno and featured Sean Lennon, boyfriend of keyboardist/sampler Yuka Honda, on bass. And Shonen Knife should not be left out- the female trio scored with the college/alternative rock crowd in the late ‘80s and ‘90s with its Ramones-inspired power pop.

But that would probably be it when it comes to familiarity with Japanese pop music—not to be confused, of course, with the traditional music of shakuhachi flutes, taiko drums, the koto zither and shamisen lute—unless, that is, you’re hip to J-Pop.

As the name suggests, J-Pop is the name given to the contemporary Japanese pop music scene—though it’s still sometimes referred to as “idol music,” out of respect to the mostly female pop singing “idols” of the mid-‘80s to early ‘90s. While much of the current J-Pop output is largely a blandly generic if varied rehash of teen-targeted Western pop and “J-rock” bands (Porno Graffiti, Chemistry, Gospellers, Smap, Glay, B’z, Kinki Kids, Mr. Children) and girl groups (most prominently Morning Musume, or Morning Girls, whose mostly teen members have varied since its founding in 1998, with many of them breaking away into other groupings or going solo).

Some of these artists, however, do stand out. / Issue 38 - September 2018
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