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Japanese Music: Your In-Depth Guide

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Japanese music is incredibly diverse and culturally rich. Whether you’re into anime theme songs, J-Pop, or traditional Japanese instruments, there’s something for everyone.

Plus, listening to Japanese music is a great way to learn the language – it certainly helped me! In fact, I have been using Japanese songs since I started learning Japanese years ago. How can you make it work for you too?

Stay with me, and I’ll give you an overview of the various types of music in Japan and how songs can help you achieve fluency. I’ll also introduce you to my favorite Japanese singer. You’ll be ready for a Japanese karaoke session in no time!

An Overview of Japan’s Music

Music in Japanese is 音楽 (ongaku). These two kanji characters mean “sound” and “enjoyment”/”music” respectively.

Alternatively, Japanese people also often refer to their own music, particularly traditional music, as 邦楽 (hougaku), or “home country music.” This often is in contrast to 洋楽 (yougaku), or Western music. (You might find this labeled as such in a music store, for example.)

Now, music has a long history in Japan. Some of the oldest forms of Japanese music date back to the 8th century!

But in Japan, music isn’t just a thing of the past. In fact, Japan was cited as the second-largest music market in the world in 2017. You can follow Oricon to see what’s at the top of the Japanese music charts.

By the way, Japan is also the #1 market for physical music media. This means that while much of the world is consuming music in purely digital forms (think apps, downloadable content, or websites), CDs are still big business in Japan.

Why? I’ll get to that in a bit. But first, let’s take a step back to traditional Japanese music.

Traditional Japanese Music

Japan has a diverse range of traditional music. Many forms are indigenous to Japan, and some have been influenced by its neighbors (such as China and Korea).

Traditionally, music in Japan has served many purposes. For example, historically, music was closely tied with religion. Folk songs started off mostly for Shinto rituals. Buddhism also features 声明 (shoumyou), or religious, music-like chanting.

These religious roots influence some classical Japanese music performed today. Classical Japanese music tends to be quite ritualized rather than improvised. It tends to value meditation and mastery rather than individual creative expression.

Imperial courts also significantly developed Japanese classical music since around the 10th century. This genre of imperial court performance music is called 雅楽 (gagaku, literally “elegant music”):

Speaking of the imperial court, did you know that arts were incredibly important to the samurai? This included music! This is because samurai were expected to be educated warriors of high culture. (This, in turn, helped them dominate the government eventually.)

There’s so much more I could tell you about here. But I’ll give you an overview of some main instruments and then look at one genre in-depth: folk music!

Traditional Japanese Instruments

So what is traditional Japanese music like? First, here’s an overview of instruments you might hear:

  • Koto (琴): A long, zither-like instrument with 13 strings that are plucked with the fingers or with picks attached to the fingers. Its music is often characterized by its flowing, melodic sound.
  • Shakuhachi (尺八): A bamboo end-blown flute with five finger holes. The shakuhachi produces an ethereal sound and is often associated with Zen Buddhism as a tool for meditation.
  • Shamisen (三味線): A three-stringed, fretless lute played with a large plectrum. The shamisen is known for its distinct, percussive sound and is used in various traditional Japanese music genres.
  • Sanshin (三線): An Okinawan traditional instrument, resembling a banjo, with a snakeskin-covered body and three strings. It is played with a small plectrum, and its sound is central to Okinawan music.
  • Taiko (太鼓): Taiko refers to a variety of Japanese drums and to the ensemble drumming style. Taiko drums have a mythic status and are often used in festivals and performances to create powerful, rhythmic sounds.
  • Mukkuri (ムックリ): An Ainu traditional instrument similar to a Jew’s harp. It’s made from bamboo and is played by vibrating a thin strip attached to a frame between the lips, creating a distinctive twanging sound.
  • Hichiriki (篳篥): A double-reed wind instrument often used in classical court music. It has a penetrating, reedy sound and is similar in appearance to an oboe.
  • Komabue (高麗笛): A transverse bamboo flute with six finger-holes, used in traditional court music. It has a high-pitched tone and is similar to the Western flute in some ways.
  • Shou (笙): A mouth organ made up of 17 bamboo pipes, each fitted with a metal reed, used in traditional Japanese court music. The sho’s airy sound is said to imitate the call of a phoenix.
  • Biwa (琵琶): A pear-shaped, lute-like stringed instrument with a short neck and four to five strings. It is played with a large plectrum and is often used to accompany storytelling and in traditional music.

Japanese Folk Music

Japanese folk music is called 民謡 (min’you). Generally, min’you songs fall into one of five categories:

  1. Workers’ songs (such as farming or fishing songs)

Folk music usually features the shamisen, taiko, and shakuhachi. It might have more instruments as accompaniments.

These days, musicians might also integrate electric guitars and synthesizers. This is often used in 演歌 (enka), which is like a modern take on traditional Japanese folk music, dating back to the early 20th century.

There is usually a main singer who might be accompanied by some “backup singers.” These people shout and cheer certain phrases at particular points in the song. This is called 掛け声 (kakegoe)

These kakegoe often differ depending on what region of Japan you’re in. For example, in Okinawan folk music, a common shout is ハイヤ、ササ (haiya, sasa). But on the mainland, you’ll often hear サテ (sate) or ドッコイショー (dokkoishou), like in this song:

(Actually, my university town had a Japanese teacher who was trained in min’you, and I was recruited to be her kakegoe for a few festivals.)

Also worth mentioning is Ainu folk music. Since the Ainu didn’t have an indigenous writing system, they often enjoyed and passed down their culture orally. This includes through music! The two main genres are upopo (linked below), or lighthearted ballads centered on rituals or daily life, and yukar, a type of epic poetry.

Modern Japanese Music: J-Pop and J-Rock

Many modern genres of music are popular in Japan. These include J-Pop, J-Rock, reggae, jazz, anime music, and video game music. These have heavily adopted Western music styles but sometimes still show traditional influence!

I’ve already mentioned enka, which is like folk music with a mid-1900s twist:

Musicians also might blend traditional indigenous music with a modern flair, such as OKI, an Ainu artist:

Now, the two biggest genres in modern Japanese music are J-Pop (Japanese Pop) and J-Rock (Japanese Rock). These two Japanese music genres became really mainstream around the 1990s. They are rooted in 1960s pop and rock music like the Beatles. You may even hear your favorite J-Pop or J-Rock artist making songs for anime or video games – some, even, rise to fame because of that!

The Top 5 Most Important Modern Japanese Music Artists

There are so many artists it’s hard to name all of them, but I’ll give you a rundown of the biggest names in the Japanese music industry you must know for any night out at karaoke!

  1. Hikaru Utada (宇多田ヒカル): Hikaru Utada is a highly influential artist known for her powerful vocals and heartfelt lyrics. With both international and Japanese upbringing, her music has a blend of pop, R&B, and sometimes rock. She skyrocketed to fame in the late 90s and remains iconic with hits like “First Love” and the “Kingdom Hearts” theme songs. She has some songs in English as well, although she never broke into the Western mainstream music scene.
  1. Namie Amuro (安室奈美恵): Often called the “Queen of J-Pop,” Namie Amuro has been a defining presence in the Japanese music scene with her stylish music and fashion. Her career spanned over two decades before her retirement in 2018, and she is beloved for her dance-pop and hip-hop hits and her impact on Japanese pop culture.
  1. Ayumi Hamasaki (浜崎あゆみ): Dubbed the “Empress of J-Pop,” Ayumi Hamasaki is one of Japan’s best-selling and most prominent music artists. Renowned for her distinctive, powerful voice and fashion-forward image, Hamasaki has influenced the Japanese pop culture landscape since the late 1990s. She is known for her ability to write her own (and I can’t stress this enough) gorgeous lyrics, which often reflect personal experiences, and for the visual flair of her music videos and live performances. She’s my absolute favorite J-Pop artist, and since I’m biased, I’ll give you two songs for her:
  1. X Japan (エックス・ジャパン): X Japan is considered a pioneer of the visual kei genre (think androgynous looks, including dramatic hair and makeup) and one of the most influential rock bands in Japanese history. Formed in the mid-1980s by drummer and pianist YOSHIKI and lead vocalist Toshi, X Japan’s music is a fusion of heavy metal, hard rock, and classical music. Known for their elaborate stage shows and the members’ flamboyant costumes, they garnered a cult following that turned into mainstream success. With chart-topping hits like “Kurenai” and “Endless Rain,” X Japan maintains a legendary status even after years of hiatus and lineup changes.
  1. GACKT (ガクト): With his versatile vocal range and flamboyant stage presence, GACKT is an artist who has built a career as a successful solo musician after his time with the band Malice Mizer. His music style ranges from rock to pop, and he is also known for his work as an actor and author.

Idol Groups

Now, I can’t talk about modern Japanese music without mentioning idol groups. This is a common subgroup of J-Pop and J-Rock, and the most popular ones are AKB48 and Arashi (嵐). These are sort of like girl and boy bands that were popular in the West particularly in the 90s and early 2000s, although they’re not quite the same.

Perhaps quite pessimistically, “idols” are entertainers who don’t necessarily need to have any particular talent in their entertainment industry. Rather, they sell for their manufactured and often carefully controlled image, personality, and attractiveness.

So, even though many idols sing and dance in music groups, idols aren’t actually expected to have a high level of professional skill or talent. They’re not my cup of tea, but they’re big money in Japan.

The Popularity of Physical Music Media in Japan

It might sound odd, but physical music media, including CDs, vinyl records, and special editions, continue to sell well in Japan. This is for several reasons:

  • Collector’s Culture: Japanese consumers have a strong collector’s mindset, enjoying the ownership of tangible goods. Physical media often come with extras like photobooks, posters, and other collectibles, which are highly valued by fans. This is related to:
  • Limited Editions and Exclusivity: Limited edition releases and bonus items exclusive to the physical versions of music albums encourage purchases. They can include special artwork, additional tracks, or merchandise that can’t be obtained through digital purchases. With this in mind, I must mention:
  • Incentives and Promotions: The Japanese music industry often uses handshake events, photo events, or lottery tickets for exclusive goods or experiences as incentives. Fans purchase physical albums to participate, leading to higher sales. You see this as a major facet of idol culture in particular. And next up:
  • Chart Influence: Physical sales in Japan weigh heavily in music chart rankings. Artists and fans often strive for a strong chart showing, which can lead to buying multiple versions of singles and albums to support their favorite artists. Now, lastly:
  • Cultural Habits: Unlike many Western markets, where digital streaming has taken over, Japan still has a divide between those who have embraced streaming services and those who prefer physical formats, which include older generations less inclined toward the use of digital services. Although Japan has a reputation of being a technological giant, a lot of technology we use in the West every day has still not taken as strong of a hold in Japan.

Quite a different culture, no?

Language Learning with Japanese Lyrics

Using Japanese songs can really help you learn the language! Here are some of the major benefits of listening to Japanese music:

  • Listening Practice: Songs provide excellent listening practice, helping you to become accustomed to the natural flow and rhythm of the language. You’ll improve your ability to distinguish and understand words in context.
  • Vocabulary Acquisition: Music often uses repetitive choruses and verses, making it easier to pick up new vocabulary. You can learn words thematically based on the song’s subject.
  • Pronunciation Aid: Mimicking the pronunciation of the singer can improve your accent and intonation. Singing along helps with practicing difficult sounds and syllables.
  • Grammar and Sentence Structure: By analyzing the lyrics, you can observe how sentences are structured and how different grammar points are used in context.
  • Memory Boost: Music can act as a mnemonic device. The catchy melodies can help you remember phrases and vocabulary better than rote memorization.

So pay attention to the lyrics, maybe peek at a translation, and don’t be afraid to belt out your favorite song at karaoke!

Japanese Music: Listen and Sing to Fluency

The music scene in Japan is broad and booming, so I hope with this article you found an artist you like or know where to look next!

Whether you want to listen to your favorite songs to relax, join Japanese friends in karaoke, or attend a concert in Japan, listening to Japanese music will help you take your language learning to the next level!

author headshot

Kelsey Lechner

Translator, teacher, interpreter

Kelsey is a writer, translator, and educator. She is an avid lover of dance, dogs, and tea. LinkedIn | Contently

Speaks: English, Japanese, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Swahili, Bengali

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