Navigating the musical scenes in Japan today isn’t an easy task – Tokyo alone is bustling with a wide variety of sounds, and that’s just within the confines of one city. To make things a touch easier, we’ve compiled the five most influential musical communities in Japan today. Our criteria ranges from commercial success to artistic daring to pure intrigue, but each of the below are worth your time.
1. Idol Pop
Japan’s most popular domestic music also happens to be its most colorful and hyperactive. Idols have been the dominant face of J-pop since the 1970s, when young women saturated the media landscape as singers and actors. The following decade saw a rise in idol groups, collectives of spritely girls performing chirpy songs and choreography, and today the same model holds commercial dominance in the country. Idol singers and groups come in all forms, from school-uniform-clad units selling youth to fake-chainsaw-wielding outfits aimed at those into grislier fare (well, as grisly as up-tempo pop can get). AKB48, a 60-member-strong group based out of Tokyo’s Akhibara area, is the most popular pop act in the nation today, highlighted by their August album “1830m” being the first Japanese CD since 2010 to sell more than a million units. It isn’t just a girl’s game though – there is an equally vibrant male idol scene, topped by long-standing group Arashi, who were the last act to move more than a million albums.
2.Tokyo’s Alternative Rock Districts
Tokyo’s bustling rock ‘n’ roll community practically acts in opposition to bright idol pop. The music is often loud, feedback drenched and imperfect, perfection pushed aside in favor of an “anything can happen next” vibe. It’s centered in two parts of the city specifically – trendy Shimokitazawa and scuzzy Koenji, both locales packed with live houses on nearly every street. Bands playing regular gigs in these neighborhoods take inspiration from all sorts of styles – new wave, metal, punk (many consider Koenji ground zero for punk in Japan). It isn’t an off-the-beaten-path treasure however, as bands who make a name for themselves in these areas can be picked up by major Japanese labels and pushed into the mainstream.
3. Visual Kei
If idol pop got really into heavy metal as a teenager, it might mature into visual kei. This type of music is buzzy and dramatic, but the sound is only half of the equation, as visual kei group’s also dress in eye-grabbing costumes, complete with makeup. Extravagant bands like X Japan and Luna Sea established the style of visual kei while also turning it into a commercial success, helping groups like Malice Mizer and Dir En Grey (both of whom eventually edged away form visual kei) achieve nationwide attention. Visaul kei was at its commercial peak in the 1990s, but plenty of groups still demand attention today, from relative newcomers like the GazettE to old hands X Japan, who regularly perform to huge crowds overseas.
4. Kansai’s Electronic Scene
The Kansai region of Japan lies in the middle of Japan and includes major cities like Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe and Nara. It also houses the most forward-thinking electronic music in the country, propelled forward by a handful of fledgling labels and parties scattered across the area. This new movement was spearheaded by an Osaka-based event called Innit, which urged local music makers to bring their own music to the club where it would get played (and earn them a discount on the front-door ticket). From those get togethers came labels like Osaka’s Day Tripper and more parties like Kyoto’s IdleMoments, which helped foster new talent. The actual music sometimes resembles the sounds coming out of American producer Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder imprint – the founders of Innit admire his work great – but it also can go into headier directions all its own. Some highlights include the wonky Seiho, the gloopy beats of Avec Avec and the constricting creations of Eadonmm.
The world of Vocaloid music is the most intimidating to approach because of how big it is – it’s not tied to one geographic location but rather spread all over the Internet. It’s also the most sonically varied of any scene in Japan – tracks can be pop, rock, techno, death metal, dubstep, whatever you want. The only unifying trait is the use of Vocaloid, a singing-synthesizer software that allows users to input vocals and then generate an electronic voice that drips “1s” and “0s” from each syllable. The avatar for Vocaloid has become Hatsune Miku, a character cooked up by Vocaloid-maker Crypton Future Media, who has become one of the most recognizable characters in Japan – she even promotes convenience stores and performs live as a hologram. Several artists, like kz and ryo (supercell), who make heavy use of Vocaloid have become mainstream music features, but the heart of the Vocaloid scene is online, where bedroom-based producers collaborate with artists and music-video makers to create their own digital pop wonderland.