What is Japanese City Pop and Why Have You Heard it Before?

Put on “Out of Time” from The Weeknd’s Dawn FM and describe the sample. Cascading pianos, a seductive synth, an alluring bassline. The lush, funky, disco instrumentation sounds like a sample straight from an early 80s pop, r&b, disco record like Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall produced by the legendary Quincy Jones. It would be easy to assume that the production is from Quincy Jones seeing as he features in the preceding interlude. Now put on “GONE, GONE / THANK YOU” from Tyler, The Creator’s, grammy winning, Igor. The heartbroken lyrics, thanking someone for their time despite the relationship failing, are an interpolation from another lesser-known song, also from the 1980s. Now, if you went digging for these samples by shuffling through your favorite 80s r&b, disco, and pop hits, odds are that you would never find the origins of these borrowed parts. What these two songs have in common is that they both draw from one of the most influential genres you have never heard of, Japanese City Pop.


Japanese City Pop emerged in the 1980s as a result of the post-war economic boom. As Tokyo modernized and Japan became more prosperous, many looked to indulge in aspects of American culture, notably its music. City Pop can be traced back to the 1970s, particularly to the band Happy End, which featured Haruomi Hosono, often credited as the father of City Pop, in its lineup. The band, like many others, borrowed from American music, but their significant contribution was singing in Japanese and vividly describing city life in Tokyo—giving Japanese pop a more unique identity. Haruomi Hosono went on to form the highly influential synth-pop group Yellow Magic Orchestra, whose innovations with synthesizers and electronic music would influence both synth-pop globally and City Pop. Japanese City Pop reflects the romanticization of Japan, and Tokyo, residents’ craving for city and nightlife depicted by its pristine production, breezy melodies, disco grooves, and nostalgic lyricism.


Why now, though? Why are the biggest pop artists of the day, and many young Americans suddenly getting into a previously region-locked genre of music nearly forty years after its peak? Many listeners are already primed to be nostalgic for the genre’s sound. For instance, if you’re interested in disco-revivalist duo Daft Punk, the band borrowed many aspects of their sound from early City Pop hits. The blend of disco music with electronic synthesizers and funk grooves used in City Pop laid the groundwork for Daft Punk’s Discovery and Random Access Memories, two of the biggest albums of their respective decades. Additionally, like with many strange unpredictable trends in the last few years, City Pop saw a resurgence in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic. With many relying on YouTube, TikTok, and other social media platforms for entertainment to escape boredom, the nostalgic, vivacious sounds of City Pop made for the perfect mental escape outside the walls of one’s bedroom.


The most frequently cited point of origin for City Pop taking off during the pandemic is YouTube. For many avid music listeners, fans of Japanese culture—and all others with adjacent interests—there’s a significant chance the YouTube algorithm recommended you listen to the song “Plastic Love” by Mariya Takeuchi. Featuring a young Mariya Takeuchi on the cover in a bowtie and suspenders—her hair flowing in the wind—many viewers either allowed this video to play next as the YouTube algorithm intended or clicked on this video in part because of its playful cover. With fifty-four million views to date, it’s evident that many listeners have found themselves “danc[ing] to the plastic beat [until] another morning comes.”


“Plastic Love” makes for a strong, distilled gateway into the genre, so now here is a starter pack of other records to get you further into the magical, and formerly under appreciated, world of Japanese City Pop so you can satiate your new craving.

Image Credit: Sabrina Shaffer

Variety – Mariya Takeuchi


Mariya Takeuchi, known as “The Queen of City Pop,” struck gold on Variety with the aforementioned “Plastic Love,” but don’t let the fame of the single distract from the excellent deep cuts this record has to offer. Check out track 3: “Honki de Only You (Let's Get Married).”



For You – Tatsuro Yamashita


Known as the “The King of City Pop,” For You may be the best the genre has to offer. With a tight tracklist, this record is all killer, with no filler. You can’t go wrong. I recommend listening to the entire album from start to finish, but if I had to pick one, go with the track “Love Talkin’ (honey it’s you).” Fun fact, Tatsuro Yamashita, “The King of City Pop,” is married to Mariya Takeuchi, “The Queen of City Pop.” He even produced Variety.



Ride On Time – Tatsuro Yamashita


Another nearly impeccable album from “The King of City Pop.” While longer than For You, Ride On Time manages to be a quality and ear-grabbing listen from start to finish. Check out the highlight, "Daydream," which shows off Tatsuro Yamashita’s stunning vocal range and knack for catchy hooks.



Love Trip – Takako Mamiya


With stronger jazz lean than many other records in the genre, Love Trip captures the romantic aspect of Tokyo’s nightlife with just a few saxophone riffs and vocal harmonies. What Takako Mamiya demonstrates perfectly about the genre on Love Trip is its affinity for vocal layers, shimmering keys, and also sharp horn lines. Check out the title track for the best this record has to offer.



Magical – Junko Ohashi


With one of the most powerful voices in the genre, Junko Ohashi’s vocal performances on Magical stand out among her contemporaries. Pair that with her ear for a catchy vocal melody and you have a cornerstone of the genre. Check out “Telephone Number” for the best example of her talent for earworm choruses.



Cologne – Kaoru Akimoto


Perhaps the most seductive entry on this list, Cologne leans more into the synth-pop influences that Yellow Magic Orchestra imparted to the genre. With buzzing, searing, and satisfying synthesizers laced throughout, Cologne demonstrates how dynamic synthesizers can be when producing pop and dance music. Highlight “Dress Down” is one of the best tracks Japanese City Pop has to offer. Its impeccable groove will have you dancing like you’re in a 1980s Tokyo nightclub.



Sunshower – Taeko Onuki


Sunshower stands out as one of the oldest records on this list. Coming out in 1977, the record shows the midpoint between early and middle-period City Pop. Like the title suggests, Sunshower is a summery record doused in piano, strings, and the occasional flutebringing to mind visions of laying beachside as the waves crash against the shoreline. Not every track on here is an upbeat pop song, but all are evocative of relaxing in the summer heat, carefree.



Mignonne – Taeko Onuki


The followup to Sunshower, Mignonne is a City Pop odyssey. If Sunshower was a relaxing summer day, Mignonne is a night out in Tokyo where one second you’re meeting the love of your life at a smoky bar downtown, and the next moment they break your heart and leave you driving alone through the neon-lit streets of the city. Check out “4:00 A.M.” for (bold claim ahead) the best song the entire genre has to offer. Imagine the most extreme, soul-crushing, heartbreak you could ever imagine…“4:00 A.M.” is the soundtrack to that and the whirlwind of visceral emotions that come afterward, but produced in such a way that you could still boogie to it at the disco.



Pacific Breeze 1 & 2 – Various Artists


Pacific Breeze: Japanese City Pop, AOR and Boogie 1976–1986 (Pacific Breeze 1) and Pacific Breeze 2: Japanese City Pop, AOR & Boogie 1972–1986 (Pacific Breeze 2) are two modern compilations of Japanese City Pop hits and obscurities put together by Seattle, Washington based record label, Light in the Attic Records. These compilations make for great ways to cover a lot of ground quickly in the genre. Check out highlights “Say Goodbye” and “Lady Pink Panther” from Pacific Breeze 1, and “Hidarimune No Seiza” and “Blind Curve” from Pacific Breeze 2.



Timely!! – Anri


Timely!! is the sound of summer in the city. Featuring some of the most layered and polished production the genre has to offer, Timely!! is Anri’s magnum opus. Like For You, this record is worth listening to from start to finish—as it works best as a cohesive piece. Highlights include, “WINDY SUMMER” with its romantic breezy energy, and “STAY BY ME” for its funky—yet romantically longing—undertones.



First Light – Makoto Matsushita


An album made for driving through the deserted streets of a big city as neon billboards pass you by. First Light is an anthem for the lonely soul wandering the big city in search of company as they hop from one hazy, smoke-filled, closing bar to the next. Listen to the title track the next time you go for a late-night drive in the city.



Adventure – Momoko Kikuchi


A synth-filled wonderland, Adventure seeks to capture you in a suffocating haze with its tight production. Momoko Kikuchi’s voice glides effortlessly over each instrumental, juxtaposing nicely with the sparkling yet foggy production. Check out the hypnotizing title track for an example of this juxtaposition at work.



Summer Breeze – PIPER


Released with the slogan “Good Weather! Good Sounds!” Summer Breeze achieves the beach resort theme it was going for while staying true to the sounds of City Pop. Check out the title track for a summer anthem.



Full Moon – Junko Yagami


A highly concentrated, distilled example of the more pop-focussed side of Japanese City Pop. Full Moon’s dynamic production manages to keep listeners wondering where the record will turn next over its runtime. Featuring the iconic, “黄昏のBAY CITY,” the record stands as a testament to the timeless nature of Japanese City Pop’s pop anthems.



Pocket Park – Miki Matsubara


Miki Matsubara’s revelation. When Pocket Park isn’t defining the genre, it’s leaning into the more metropolitan influences of Japanese City Pop. With songs about other big cities like Manhattan, and homages to American rock like on the track “Trouble Maker,” Pocket Park is sprawling with different production styles and genre fusions. However, the highlight here is easily the potent disco hit “Mayonaka no Door / Stay With Me.” If you were not introduced to the genre through “Plastic Love” then it probably was through “Mayonaka no Door / Stay With Me” on TikTok—one of the most successful City Pop songs to date in terms of influence and popularity. There’s a reason why this track is so revered, it’s because it has managed to become larger than the genre itself, putting it in an echelon alongside “Plastic Love.”



Fuyukukan – Tomoko Aran


The most experimental album the genre has to offer. Fuyukukan is robotic, at times isolating, and ethereal. One minute you are being challenged with plucking synths on “Lonely Night” and the next you are awash in cascading pianos, seductive synth, and the alluring bassline of “Midnight Pretenders,” which is the track sampled on The Weeknd’s “Out of Time.” Check out the latter for one of the most hair-raising listens you will ever experience.



After 5 Clash – Toshiki Kadomatsu


One of the funkiest and most blistering releases Japanese City Pop has, Toshiki Kadomatsu showcases the full range of the genre. Featuring electrifying guitar solos, groovy slow jams, and funky club bangers with rapped vocal passages, After 5 Clash keeps you on your toes. Check out one of the genre’s rare hip-hop-inspired hits, “Step Into The Light,” for rapped verses from Toshiki Kadomatsu over City Pop instrumentals.

 

Connor Lammas is a Senior in the College studying Government. He is the Managing Editor of the INDY.