A jaunt through Japanese music

I’ve taken to using YouTube as my radio. The sound is usually FM quality, and thanks to broadband, most streaming videos load in a jiffy. What draws me the most, however, is the variety: a server that has at least an hour’s footage of the musicians at Disney World deserves a gold star at the very least. What most excites me, though, is the foreign music. The Internet’s become quite popular all over the world, so one find classics not only from America and England but also from Brazil and Germany and Uruguay. So, over the last month I’ve gained a passing familiarity with Japanese music, and I thought I’d share some of my favorites with you all. Anyone who claims it’s superior to Western music is a fanboy, but there are still some great tunes.

Disclaimer: the most advanced music theory class I’ve taken is Intermediate Theory, and I don’t know any Japanese, so I apologize if I come off as a n00b here.

One thing I’ve noticed about Japanese pop is that it doesn’t have as much local color as its Latino equivalent: indeed, it sounds just like American music much of the time. I suspect this is because ancient Japanese music is completely different from our own concept of music. Melodies sometimes aren’t clear, or else they go in circle. Here in the West, we classify this kind of thing as “meditation music,” and I can see that.

The music I’ve heard from these times is of individuals, not groups, and features certain instruments in particular.

Koto: the most famous Japanese instrument, and I imagine its sound is what many people associate with the East. It’s a five-foot long, 13-stringed instrument, and each string has a bridge which can be moved to change the pitch – like a more complete guitar capo. It sits on the floor, and the player picks the strings from his knees. This is Kazue Sawai playing “Midare.”
Shakuhachi (like a pan flute): This clip gave me the strongest impression of the amelodic style. Don’t feel obliged to listen to the whole thing as it’s 9 minutes long.
Taiko (“great drum”)
Shamisen (like a banjo): The Yoshida Brothers, “Kodo”
I had to throw this in. It’s called Shamisen vs. Tap, “tap” as in tap dancing. It has a great beat, and it’s one of the most interesting “fusion” videos I’ve seen.

Most of the other Japanese music on the server is from the pop era. It roughly sounds like ours with the jazz and hip hop influences were tuned way down. Another thing I’ve noticed is that the I-V chord progression, the bread and butter of Western music, is less prevalent; I’ve played I-IV most often. Lyrically speaking, most songs are about love. About half of them catalogue nature imagery, like all good haiku do, and it’s stylish to slip English phrases into songs. From a culture standpoint, neon hair and was big for a while, and their idol machine is as good as ours. In America, one of the best ways to make a song popular is to get it on “Grey’s Anatomy,” and this is even more common in Japan, where pop music makes up the soundtrack for even the animated shows.

My favorite female singer is Rimi Natsukawa of Okinawa. Her voice is so pure that when I first heard it, I wanted to go to confession. She’s most famous for her interpretations of her island’s folk songs. Here are a couple: Shimauta (lyrics) and Satoukibi Batake (lyrics).

My favorite male is Masayoshi Yamazaki, a singer-guitarist. I can’t think of anyone who sounds like him. His One More Time One More Chance is one of the most tender ballads I’ve heard. This is a great duet of his, and here’s an endearing clip of him meeting Paul McCartney.

For bands,

Some other recommendations:
Ring of Ruby by Akira Terao, which sounds it was a karaoke classic. As recently as a week ago there was a great Masayoshi cover of this on the server, but it’s gone for the moment.
March 9th by Remioromen
-The Pillows: Hybrid Rainbow, Ride on Shooting Star. I think this band would have the best chance to break through in America.
Sukiyaki, the first Japanese song to make #1 in the US.
Tank! by Cowboy Bebop, probably the most popular anime song in America.
Asa ga mata kuru by Dreams Come True, despite the video.
-Akon’s remix of Sweet Sweet Sweet by Dreams Come True
It’s Gonna Rain by Bonnie Pink. Come to think of it, all the songs associated with Rurouni Kenshin are solid.
Yume no naka e
Tentai Kansoku by Bump of Chicken. “Sharin no uta,” not on the Tube at the moment, is another great song of theirs.

Finally, I’d like to give a shoutout to this Yankee who records a song in flawless Japanese each week. Nice work.

So, I hope you find something in this entry that you like and that you explore the world’s musical archives even more than I have!

Explore posts in the same categories: Japan, Music

One Comment on “A jaunt through Japanese music”


  1. […] the LSAT and working on the database at Dad’s office. I pulled my BGM from YouTube, and I was exploring foreign music at the time. This is one of the songs I found and couldn’t let go of. I didn’t know any Japanese, […]


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