Japan is a wellspring of crossover genres and music that hasn’t necessarily hit your ear canals yet. It’s time to change that. Here’s a glance into the incredible variety of artists and genres Japan has gifted us over the years.
A band who proudly waves the flag of funk and big band rock music. Formed from the ashes of the now defunct Gold End, Bradio is an acronym for “Break the Rule And Do Image On.” Certainly, their music provides positive vibes and great grooves. Singer Takaaki Shingyoji, the man with one of the best afros we’ve seen, has the ability to hit that Bruce Springsteen rock snarl just before flipping into a super clean and smooth falsetto. Their videoclips are often very silly, abusing bad green-screen for comedic effects—overall a ton of fun to watch.
Misia is the stage name of one Misaki Ito. Famed for her five-octave vocal range, she is widely recognized as the first Japanese R&B superstar. Melancholic and soulful, her 13 studio albums have garnered a slew of Japanese Gold and Record Awards, put her among the all-time best selling Japanese music artists of all time—having sold more than 20 million records—and making her one of the top-touring artists in Japan and the first female artist to play all five of Japan’s largest stadiums. Her debut album, Mother Father Brother Sister (1998), became the seventh best-selling Japanese debut album of all time, with her single Everything (2001) becoming the best-selling single of all time in Japan and the third best selling physical single by a Japanese solo female artist of all time. That’s a helluva a lot of all-times. In other words, she was Japan’s answer to Adele before Adele was even a thing.
The indie rockers, who claim their name has several meanings, including “excellent weakling” and “superlative coward,” climbed to fame independently in their home country in 2003, before gaining a significantly larger audience following their work with animated movie genius Makoto Shinkai, scoring two of his latest movies: Your Name, one of the highest-grossing Japanese animated films, as well as the soundtrack to 2019’s Weathering With You. Best known for their 2008 singles, Order Made and Dada, their sound is the soft encouragement and tender understanding of the woes of the everyday man and woman. Sometimes accompanied by an orchestra, their sound ranges from rollicking, fast paced numbers to power ballads, with fusions of hip hop and metal weaved throughout.
B’z is probably one of, if not the biggest band in all of Japan and one of the best-selling music artists in the world, having released 49 consecutive number one singles, 25 number one albums, three number one EPs, and have sold more than 100 million records worldwide. Their tours span hundreds of dates across eastern Asia, filling stadiums everywhere they go. In 2007, B’z even became the first musical act from Asia to have their handprints and signatures put up in the Hollywood’s RockWalk.
Guitarist Tak Matsumoto has his own signature Gibson guitar, having worked with legends like Jimmy Page and Scorpions across a variety of styles, and has released his own jazz and blues albums. The man is considered by many as one of the most underrated guitar players in the world. Singer Koshi Inaba is a powerhouse who, at 57, still puts most teenagers to shame.
ALI (acronym for Alien Liberty International) is a multinational hip hop and funk band formed in Shibuya, Tokyo and relatively new on the scene, having formed around 2016. With all members of the band of mixed race—with roots in Japan, Europe, America, Asia, and Africa—it’s no surprise that their music draws from such diverse styles from smooth vocals, jazzy interludes, and the occasional rap.
10-Feet are an energetic band hailing from Kyoto, producing an undeniably catchy mix of rock, punk, heavy metal, reggae, hip-hop, guitar pop and even bossa nova. This power trio came onto the scene some time in the late 90s, and despite never hitting the top of the charts, they are a staple of summer festivals across Japan.
Founded in 1996 by Kenji “KJ” Furuya and Sakurai Makoto, they were one of the first groups to popularize hip hop in Japan. Having formed their own record label, they now almost exclusively play sold out arenas and stadiums. The band fuses rap and punk rock in an exciting, fun, loud way, usually sending audiences into a frenzied mosh-pit.
Takehara Pistol is the name of this actor and solo musician. And when we say solo, we do mean solo. Most, if not all, of his concerts are an intimate affair, with Pistol playing his acoustic guitar alone to a devoted following in generally small venue crowds. Singing about everyman struggles, fans love the relatable touch his lyrics add to his mostly folky rock tunes.
This all-female rock band originally started back in high school, when they met at singing and dancing lessons. Deciding they were a good match, they picked from one of the many adult shops which could be found in the building where they met to come up with their band name. From indie street performances to a major label deal, Scandal’s rise was meteoric, as the quartet exploded onto the Japanese scene in the early to mid 2000s.
Over the years they have regained control over much of their songwriting, marking a notable break from the sound of their earlier catalog, and reclaiming their rock edge. They still sell out shows anywhere they go, and their music has arguably gotten deeper and better as they continue to incorporate different influences and explore their sound.
DIR EN GREY
By far the heaviest and most out there band on this list, Dir En Grey are hard to describe in full. The Osaka band originally started as a Visual Kei band. Visual Kei is a subset of rock music in Japan, notable for a heavy focus on shock value. However, not content with limiting their talents to that tried and trite formula, the band decided to spread their musical wings into heavier, more prog-heavy, and more avant-garde territory. Their lyrics are as hermetic as could be, with nary a translation to be found, but even if you won’t understand a word of what they’re saying, you’ll still get the full effect of their performance thanks to singer Kyo’s transcendent vocals.
Ayumi Hamasaki is a singer, songwriter, record producer, actress, model, spokesperson, and entrepreneur who was Japan’s top selling artist for four straight years (from 1999 to 2002). Throughout her entire career, she has written all her own lyrics, and sometimes composed her music. Often referred to as Japan’s answer to Madonna, Hamsaki is known as “The Empress of Pop” due to her influence in music and fashion, the former often dictating the entire course of the music industry at large in the far east. Many aspects of Japan’s fashions, from clothing, hair, nails, and accessories, have in some way been influenced by the singer. Her brand of pop is full of pristine sounds, rocking guitars and sincere lyrics which her fans have latched onto, with her shows a spectacle to behold. Despite going deaf in one ear, which has slowed her touring over the years, she still remains a titan of the Japanese music industry.
FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS
Named after the eponymous book and film, this band plays top notch electronicore. Blending vocoder and synthesizer, clean vocals, alongside screamo, metalcore and dance music, they carved a niche in the mainstream Japanese music scene. High in intensity, energy, visual spectacle and always catchy, FALILV skyrocketed in popularity in Japan, thanks in part to some of their music being chosen for the opening of a number of anime shows in their home country.
LING TOSITE SIGURE
Ling tosite Sigure (or Rin Toshite Shigure depending on your preference), literally means “cold as a rain shower in late autumn.” This Saitama trio play some wicked post-hardcore, math rock, and prog rock, often incorporating rapid changes of tempo and mood, framed in complex guitar melodies and technical drumming. They utilize both male and female vocals, ranging from soft singing to loud wails and screams.
The band got its start in 2002 with a few demos, leading to their head-scratching debut album #4 (2005). They gained quick recognition throughout Japan, with each new single charting higher and higher, and some of their songs being picked for famous anime shows, doubling the fruits of their efforts. One of their songs was also picked for the Japanese dub of Spiderman: Far From Home. Singer and guitarist TK has also had stints as a solo artist, with the band seemingly gearing up for a new album this year or next.
What do you get if you cross Japanese traditional instruments with pop and power metal? Wagakki is the term used to refer to Japanese traditional instruments, such as tusgaru-shamizens (a sort of 2 string guitar you’ve surely seen before), koto (a horizontally played harp), shakuhachi (bamboo flute) and taiko drums. Add to that some shigin (the art of reciting Japanese poems) and the end result is mesmerizing and exciting, especially for many of us in the west not used to the sounds of all of those deeply rooted Japanese elements.
Probably the least known group internationally out of this entire list, King Gnu are slowly but surely gaining in popularity in their home country. Playing some variety of indie pop, nu-jazz, and classical music, theirs is a relaxing yet challenging sound for the average radio and Spotify listener. However they certainly retain your attention through sheer compositional brilliance. Even when simplistic, every note and arrangement feels meaningful and rich with band-wide chops. The band’s main songwriter, Daiki Tsuneta, also performs as part of the Japanese creative collective Millennium Parade.