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J-Pop Is the Quiet Storm in American Culture

BY Austin Osueke, Jul 07, 2006

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 of J-pop.

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 Kuri.

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 overwhelmed them.



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 “Heartbreak Hotel.”



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 Oricon charts.

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.



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.



The Japanese rock band — the pillows, best known internationally for their music in the anime series FLCL (Furi Kuri), made a special appearance inside Kunokuniya Bookstore in San Francisco’s Japantown on June 28, before their evening concert at Slim’s.

The trio participated in a Q&A and autograph session for their fans.

The band was in town wrapping up their North American tour for their latest CD, My Foot.

The band formed in 1989 originally with four members — vocalist and guitarist Sawao Yamanaka, drummer Shinichirou Sato and lead guitarist Yoshiaki Manabe.

Bassist Kenji Ueda left the band three years later and was never officially replaced.

GAINAX, an anime studio, approached the pillows in 1999, to license their three most recent albums for the anime FLCL.

The band agreed, even composing two new singles specifically for the anime, “Ride On Shooting Star” and “I Think I Can.”

AsianWeek interviewed the pillows, thanks to translator Tetsuro Mori.


What is your favorite thing about being in a rock band?


SY: “Performing live on stage. Seeing the crowd. It feels good.”


How do you like being in San Francisco?


SY: “We don’t know much about the city. Even though we’ve come here before, we don’t get to see the city.

We just come here to play music and then we leave for our next city. The only place we know is here [Japantown].”


How does the current American music scene compare to the one in Japan?


SY: “We’re too busy touring, so we don’t follow the current U.S. scene.”


What made you decide to tour the U.S.?


SS: “I love the U.S.A.”


How do you like the food in the U.S.?


SY: “The portions are too big!”


SS: “I can eat more now. I got used to it.”


Who are some of your musical influences?


SY: “Simon and Garfunkel.”


SS: “Bob Marley.”


YM: “The Clash.”


Of your own songs, what’s your favorite?


All: “Hybrid Rainbow.”


Any advice you’d like to give people who want to get into the music business?


SY: “Don’t start! We don’t want any rivals!”


What are your future goals and plans as a group?


SY: “We want to write more good songs and make more albums.”


Anything you’d like to say to your fans?


YM: “The next album will be great.”

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Gerald Carroll   Jan 20, 2007 15:19:27  
Nice piece. As a journalist, I can also sense a sea change in U.S. music as a result of J-pop's influence. I attended my first Puffy Ami Yumi concert in San Francisco a couple years back, and I have now discovered the distinctive sounds of Morning Musume and Hello! Project, both of which were not mentioned in the story. It's all good.  

Kristen Shiraki   Jul 28, 2006 17:19:38  
The only thing I disagreed with from this article, was stating jrock was a subgenre as jpop as well as further emphasis on that. An American parallel to this would be like saying that the rock scene including bands like Korn and slipknot is a subgenre of pop. Jpop tends to have the connotation of the manufactured and marketted boy/girl bands while jrock you almost immediately identify a band with vocals, guitars,bass, and drums. They are two separate genres of music.

Matthew Doyle   Jul 26, 2006 19:31:56  
Yes, Jpop has lots of influence here in the USA...Hopefully this will inspire many asian artists to sing a little bit of english to make it down here in the U.S. (like Utada for example)...  

tokumei   Jul 25, 2006 23:26:48  
"J-rock music and composition often sound distinctly like Def Leppard and the ‘80s metal bands."

Wow. Have you really heard any J-rock?  

Christine Xiong   Jul 22, 2006 16:13:03  
i think it's great how the american culture is adapting to asian music and how asian music is becoming more like the music in america...asian music is great by itself but it's better with a little taste of other cultures along with it..  

Christina   Jul 08, 2006 06:56:10  
Great article. The only mistake I want to point out is the amount of time it took Hyde's venues to sell out. :) In the article it says 3 hours, when it was actually almost exactly 3 MINUTES. All of his CA dates sold out in less than 10 minutes but I specifically remember the San Fransisco Slims show selling out in 3(it was the first date announced.)  

Christina   Jul 08, 2006 06:55:04  
Great article. The only mistake I want to point out is the amount of time it took Hyde's venues to sell out. :) In the article it says 3 hours, when it was actually almost exactly 3 MINUTES. All of his CA dates sold out in less than 10 minutes but I specifically remember the San Fransisco Slims show selling out in 3(it was the first date announced.)  

EJG   Jul 07, 2006 15:12:04  
its about time!  
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