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5 Obscure Japanese Music Genres You’ve Probably Never Heard

If you’re into Japanese city pop like Mariya Takeuchi, here are five more genres to become obsessed with.

By 6 min read

City pop is a genre of Japanese music that was popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It melded R&B, pop and soul into a slick whole and perfectly soundtracked urban life in a booming economy.

Recently, the genre exploded in popularity due almost entirely to a YouTube algorithm recommending Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plastic Love” to seemingly anyone and everyone. Not that it doesn’t deserve the attention.

It’s an excellent example of city pop and the Japanese music industry at its peak: strong musicianship, state-of-the-art recording facilities and a uniquely Japanese blend of popular genres. Hearing it, you can’t help but fall in love.

However, city pop is just one of many types of music that Japan was doing in the 1970s and 1980s.

As foreign music flooded Japan, local musicians took what they liked and combined the best parts into unique, new genres. Then, like city pop, they were performed by incredible musicians in top studios with the latest technology. Now, there’s an unbelievable amount of great music still waiting to be discovered.

Here are five obscure, share-worthy music genres from Japan.

1. Jazz fusion

Japan loves jazz and embraced jazz fusion—a heady and funky mix of jazz rhythms with electric instruments like guitars and synthesizers—in the late 1970s. Think Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis, Weather Report and Herbie Hancock at his freakiest. Japan’s take on the genre was less electric-era Miles and more of the quiet storm variety. It’s smooth and silky and the perfect next step for the city pop fan.

Long-running jazz fusion band Casiopeia (カシオペア) first debuted in 1979 and has since gone on to release over 40 albums. Their musicianship is absolutely ridiculous, and with so many albums, you have a lot of songs to go through.

Guitarist Ryo Kawasaki also helped popularize jazz fusion in Japan. Check out his album Juice for some of the tastiest (and funkiest) fusion anywhere.

Along with jazz, Japan adapted Brazilian music like bossa nova in a big way—such as witch Carioca (カリオカ). Their songs will remind you of soft tropical breezes blowing down Tokyo’s Omotesando district.

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2. Post-punk & new wave

Just as post-punk and new wave bands were changing rock music in the west, Japan had a similar musical sea change at the end of the 1970s.

Ippu-Do (いっぷうどう) debuted in 1979 with two albums, Normal and Real. They were grab bags of experimentation that combined reggae with electronic bands like Kraftwerk and new wave bands like Devo and the Talking Heads. Like many bands, they became more commercial as they went on, but their first two records are solid.

Juicy Fruits (ジューシィフルーツ) played new wave pop at their best in their 1980 debut song Jeni Ha Gokigen Naname (ジェニーはご機嫌ななめ, or “Jenny’s In A Bad Mood”). J-pop band Perfume would later perform the song as a staple in their live shows.

Somewhere between Devo and YMO lies Hikashu (ヒカシュー), an utterly unique band that’s best known for the pseudo-Kabuki vocal stylings of lead singer, Makigami Koichi.

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3. New age

As in the west, Japan went through a period where it embraced new-age music, floaty, often instrumental music for relaxation and meditation. Spearheaded by artists like Kitaro, the Japanese New Age certainly had its hippy-dippy side. Still, it was also a catch-all haven for experimental artists whose musical output couldn’t be neatly pigeonholed.

Akira Ito started the prog band The Far East Family Band alongside fellow keyboard master Kitaro. Ito’s prolific solo output is full of uplifting synthesizer instrumentals and is well worth delving into. In addition, his 1986 magnum opus, Marine Flowers (Science Fantasy), was re-released in 2021.

Classically trained percussionist Stomu Yamashta (山下勉) has worked with singer Steve Winwood, synthesizer wizard Klaus Schulze and others, but his solo albums, such as Sea And Sky from 1984, are very impressive. Is it new-age? Classical? Experimental? The answer is yes.

Fans of the anime film Akira should also take note. Soundtrack composer Geinoh Yamashirogumi’s 1986 album Ecophony Rinne is like a dry run for the anime classic’s score and even surpasses it. Epic doesn’t begin to describe the album.

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4. Environmental music

In the 1980s, forward-thinking Japanese musicians combined Brian Eno-style ambient music with classical minimalism and birthed kankyo ongaku, or environmental music, a newer genre that was often composed for specific events and interior spaces.

Green by Hiroshi Yoshimura is a high watermark in environmental music. Light In The Attic Records recently re-released it. Still Way, a 1982 album by Satoshi Ashikawa, recalls Eno’s long tape loop experiments with its overlapping musical passages.

Another artist to explore is Yoshio Ojima, whose two-volume Une Collection Des Chainons practically defies description. Sometimes it’s experimental. Other times, it’s surprisingly beautiful. It’s a unique pair of albums.

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  • Various Kankyo Ongaku Artists (Japanese Ambiance, New Age Music from 1980-1990): Spotify, iTunes

5. Techno pop

In the West, we called it synth pop. In Japan, it was techno pop. Then, the Japanese band Yellow Magic Orchestra got the ball rolling. By the early ‘80s, pretty much everything on the Oricon charts (Japanese corp that gives statistics on music in Japan) was electronic.

Some famous examples include YMO member Ryuichi Sakamoto.  He was classically trained. However, he was (and still is) just as interested in the avant-garde. 1980’s “Riot In Lagos” from the album B-2 Unit is funky, dubby and just a little atonal—and a blueprint for the electronic dance music that was to come a decade later.

Is it fusion? Is it techno pop? Is it the theme music for the best sitcom never made? Instrumental trio Cosmos was a little bit of all of this.

Finally, there is Miharu Koshi, who teamed up with YMO’s Haruomi Hosono for 1994’s Parallelisme. It’s a gorgeous mix of Koshi’s breathy singing voice and Hosono’s trademark electronic sounds.

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These five music genres changed the Japanese music scene forever, but what do you think? What are some of your favorite Japanese bands or genres? Let us know in the comments.

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