Despite Japan’s reputation as a high-tech wonderland, the number of musicians making electronic music is surprisingly small. Sure, there are techno-influenced pop groups like Capsule and Perfume, and plenty of bands incorporate elements of EDM (electronic dance music) into their compositions. Still, compared to Europe, the UK or even America, where genres like techno, house and trap are well-represented, Japan is relatively quiet.
However, this can be seen as a blessing in disguise. Whereas overseas artists can’t help but be influenced by their e-music peers, Japanese artists tend to do their own thing, turning out music that’s unique and genre-bending. That makes it all the more special.
Here are five Japanese artists to add to your streaming music playlist. No matter your genre of choice, you’re sure to find something here worth checking out.
1. Ken Ishii
Techno was born in America and popularized in Europe. One artist who’s remained outside of this the entire time is Ken Ishii, a Sapporo-born producer and DJ active since the early ‘90s. While Ishii has always been influenced by overseas techno—the melodies of Detroit techno and moody sound design of European bangers—the result is always his own. An Ishii cut, whether it’s from the ‘90s or this year, always sounds just like him: crisp TR-909 drums, unique melodies and futuristic sound design.
His extensive catalog can be intimidating if you’re new. So the best place to start is Jelly Tones, his breakout 1995 record. Released on Belgian taste-maker label R&S, it features the classic “Rise.” Check out the video, helmed by anime director Koji Morimoto, which pairs Akira-style dystopian surrealism with Ishii’s beats.
Pete Rock. Timbaland. J Dilla. These are all titans of hip-hop production whose sample-based beats changed how we think about music. However, another hip-hop producer, a Japanese one, deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as these artists: Jun Seba, better known as Nujabes.
Blending jazz samples in with smooth beats, he created tracks that instantly evoke a mood, a vibe. Because of this, he’s been called the godfather of lo-fi, that internet-based genre that’s soundtracked many a late-night study session. Check out “Luv(sic)” or “Shiki no Uta” from the Samurai Champloo soundtrack for examples.
Nujabes sadly died in a traffic accident in 2010, cutting a rising career short. But his music influence lives on.
Go out for a night of clubbing in Tokyo, and you’ll likely hear something fairly commercial, like an upfront house or banging EDM. One man who’s made it his mission to ensure those aren’t the only options is Goth-Trad. He’s been busy with his night Back To Chill since the 2000s, providing a space for bass-heavy genres to move some air.
He’s also an artist. Although he’s best known for dubstep, don’t expect Goth-Trad to be a kind of Japanese Skrillex. His output is much darker and more varied than Sonny’s. Breaks, distorted, industrial beats, booming bass, and a penchant for experimentation align him more with post-rave artists like Blawan or The Bug, with whom he shares a love of reggae.
His breakthrough album Mad Raver’s Dance Floor is the best place to start, but don’t sleep on more recent albums like New Epoch and Psionics, which are equal parts noise and rhythm.
4. Soichi Terada
Where Goth-Trad makes music for long, dark nights of the soul, Soichi Terada is just the opposite. The nicest guy in dance music and always with a big, beaming smile, he crafts a feel-good deep house that you can’t help but feel.
Initially inspired by the music he heard in New York clubs in the 1980s, Terada has been plowing a particularly fertile field of the classic deep house ever since. Punchy basslines and sleek rhythms provide the foundation for smooth synth chords and just enough melody to keep the dance floor moving. For old-school house fans, his music will feel satisfyingly familiar even if you’ve never heard him.
Non-house fans may want to check out his chiptune work, such as the soundtrack for the classic video game, Ape Escape, or his Omodaka project, which marries 8-bit sounds to Japanese folk music.
What is it about Sapporo? The northern city is not only home to Ken Ishii (see above) but also Qrion (pronounced like “Korean” but meaning maple leaf in Russian), an up-and-coming dance music producer making serious waves around the world. Forbes Japan even put her on their 30 Under 30 list in 2020.
While most Japanese teens spend their free time shopping or in club activities, Qrion spent hers in front of a computer, making tracks. Her breakthrough was “iPhone Bubbling,” a catchy tune that cleverly looped the iconic iPhone message alert tone. Now working in the tech house/melodic techno genre—think slower tempos than techno with more of an emphasis on melody—her releases have seen her go from strength to strength, with the latest being a massive collaboration with dance music veteran, Sasha.
Qrion has since left Sapporo behind for the more cosmopolitan San Francisco, but the style she developed at home in her bedroom continues to inform her production. One to watch, indeed.
Who are some of your favorite Japanese electronic musicians and DJs? Let us know in the comments.