There’s no longer a doubt in anyone’s
mind that there is Japanese influence in American pop culture like never before.
With the mainstream and commercial success of anime and video gaming, Japanese pop
culture is gaining greater acceptance in American society.
But after video gaming, anime and manga, what’s the
next wave? Is there a quiet storm brewing? If you ask any otaku — a
hardcore anime fan — they would tell you that Japanese pop music, or “J-pop,”
is what’s catching on fast.
J-pop refers to Western-influenced Japanese popular music. In
Japan, it describes many different musical genres including pop, rock, dance and
hip hop. J-pop has also spawned sub-genres like J-rock. All of it is heavily influenced
with Western composition, but with its own distinct sound and style.
J-rock music and composition often sound distinctly like Def Leppard
and the ‘80s metal bands. But the vocals and lyrics feel different. The lyrics
are in Japanese regardless. The symphonic sound of the Japanese language —
with limited use of English peppered throughout the song — is what adds to
J-pop’s appeal to American fans.
The newest shift among American teenagers is happening with J-pop
idols like Hyde and Glay. At anime conventions, American fans go so
far as cosplaying (masquerading) as their favorite J-pop performers. The cultural
and language barrier doesn’t stop American fans from connecting with the music
And, the sound is everywhere in Japanese pop culture: anime, stores,
commercials, movies, radio shows, TV shows and video games. Some television news
programs even run a J-pop song during their end credits.
The pillows is one notable J-pop group that has found an American
audience. Many of their songs are used in the popular anime, FLCL or Furi
In 2003, a multiplatinum selling J-pop artist, TM Revolution performed
at an anime convention in Baltimore, Maryland. Over 3,000 fans packed the stadium.
Two years later, L’arc~en~Ciel (one of Japan’s most successful
rock bands), performed at the same venue; this time, over 12,000 fans came out.
In March 2005, The pillows played their first-ever U.S. show in
Austin, Texas, and then toured New York City, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco and
Los Angeles. Band members told interviewers the American welcoming and adulation
So how did J-pop begin? J-pop can be traced back to jazz music,
which became popular during World War II, but was eventually outlawed in Japan by
the Imperial Army. In the postwar U.S. occupation, American soldiers brought more
genres of music to Japan.
Japanese musicians began performing American styles such as mambo,
blues and country for the American troops. U.S. musicians like Louis Armstrong frequently
performed in Japan. Around the 1950’s, rock and roll became popular, but the
music’s high level of technical skill became difficult for Japanese musicians.
Some performers merged traditional Japanese pop music with rock and roll.
Eventually, a number of Japanese rock-and-roll bands such as Kosaka
Kazuya and the Wagon Masters gained popularity with their renditions of Elvis Presley’s
From the early ‘70s to the mid ‘80s, J-pop’s general
music style shifted from rock and roll, which contained social themes, to simpler
songs about love and life experiences. J-pop music also was being played with a
single guitar accompanied to more complex musical compositions. This sound became
similar to new wave.
Tokyo also started to heavily influence the sound and theme, adding
elements of disco and techno. In the ‘90s, many groups such as SPEED began
to emerge and experience mainstream success throughout Asia. Now J-pop is influencing
other Asian countries like Korea (which helped spawn K-pop music).
American urban music R&B and hip hop also gained some popularity
in Japan in the ‘90s. R&B singer-songwriter Utada Hikaru debuted her first
single “Automatic.” Her first album, First Love, sold 9,500,000
copies, the highest-selling Japanese album of all time.
The new wave sound was also still popular, led by solo female
singers like Ayumi Hamasaki (Japan’s bestselling female artist) and BoA. Currently,
J-hip-hop/rock bands like ORANGE RANGE and SOUL’d OUT are at the top of the
Another shift in trend is that solo male singers and male-only
bands like L’arc~en~Ciel now dominate the charts, while female pop
artists have declined since the ‘90s.
ANIME AS J-POP’S GATEWAY TO AMERICA
As J-pop performers began seeking worldwide success, they looked
to the United States. Artists like Utada Hikaru signed with Def Jam Records. In
2004, she released an album for an English-speaking audience, but the crossover
album was not commercially successful. Unfortunately, no J-pop artists have experienced
commercial success in the United States.
Sony Music Japan’s U.S. record label, Tofu Records, has learned
to successfully target the anime fan audience. They affiliate with J-pop artists
who have produced music as anime theme songs. For example, Nami Tamaki, whose
music is in the anime, Mobile Suit Gundam Seed Destiny.
Tofu Records’ most successful J-pop act to date is the duo
Puffy Ami Yumi. The Cartoon Network animation series based around the group has
been a hit ever since its release. It instantly catapulted Puffy Ami Yumi to a mainstream
audience. Since 2003, Tofu Records has had national tours for Puffy Ami Yumi.
Up until now, J-pop performers have relied on the anime market
to enter the U.S. market, often performing live concerts at anime conventions. However,
there is a growing trend to limit and even distance ties to anime.
L’are~en~Ciel’s front man, Hyde, for example,
is launching a U.S. concert tour in Hollywood and San Francisco. He will be performing
at concert venues such as The House of Blues, despite the fact that he will be in
the same town as North America’s largest anime convention, Anime Expo (which
registered over 33,000 attendees in 2005). The pillows have also passed on Anime
Expo, and instead chose to finish their tour at San Francisco’s Slim’s.
J-pop is also using alternative channels to enter into the American
market. Many close-circuit college networks began featuring J-pop music videos.
Distribution firm eigoMANGA jointly worked with Sony Music Japan to produce and
distribute the J-pop music video show, Pop Japan TV for the U Network.
Pop Japan TV’s weekly run broadcasted to 8 million university
dorms nationwide, and quickly became the top program for the U Network. A San Francisco-based
radio program on KYOU Radio 1550 AM called Shibuya Airwaves plays J-pop music,
and their DJs try to educate their listeners about J-pop music and its artists.
J-pop isn’t a phenomenon like The British Invasion. Platinum-selling
groups in Japan haven’t made a dent on the U.S. Billboard’s chart. Yet
J-pop is a quiet storm. Hyde sold out his San Francisco performance in three hours.
Puffy Ami Yumi successfully fills concert venues throughout the country.
The pillows’ finished successful U.S. tour in San Francisco
last week. J-Rock group Dir~en~Grey is on a U.S. and international tour
with the mainstream rock band Korn. Lemon Drop Kick recently produced original music
for the video game, The Fast and the Furious 3: Tokyo Drift.
Although anime has been the launching pad for J-pop in America,
J-pop is now developing an identity of its own.
Austin Osueke is the publisher and CEO of eigoMANGA, an anime-themed
production and marketing firm.