Most of us have that image of Japan as funky, out-of-the-ordinary and flat out wacky. Fair enough, the country has its fair share of unique subcultures, bizarre trends and unusually eccentric music.
But if you dig deeper, the Japanese music scene — while those standing-out-of-the-crowd ones dominating the media — is pretty diverse. There is something for everyone — from the popular J-pop and loud metalheads to the ones that are peaceful and calming for the soul.
Japan’s music industry is huge, and having to shortlist to the top 10 was quite a painful process — picking from lists of popular as well as influential, new and old. Regardless, these Japanese musical artists are definitely ones you have to know, both familiar names and new ones.
Let’s get right into it!
1. Utada Hikaru
First on the list is one that every Japanese person will know: Utada Hikaru. She has been on the Japanese music charts since 1997 — that’s over two decades! She’s not just on it; she basically rules it.
This half-Japanese half-American artist’s music is on the slower-paced side that’ll tug on your heartstrings, but her music can be classified under a few categories — J-pop and R&B are just to name a few, so there’s a song for everyone
Utada Hikaru is a perfect artist for those looking to train their Japanese listening skills using music as she pronounces her lyrics clearly and slowly. Give First Love and Heart Station a listen — you’ll definitely be hooked…and maybe even in tears.
2. Shiina Ringo
This is one of the Japanese artists you don’t want to miss out on. In fact, the West has already caught on to her musical talents. Shiina Ringo is an avant-pop queen — everything from her music and performance to her style and personality screams unusualness. You might think, “is her last name really ‘apple’ (りんご)?” Her real name is actually Shiina Yumiko but took on the stage name, Shiina Ringo, from a childhood nickname.
Anyway, her music is not the usual ones you’d expect — there are influences from J-pop, enka (演歌) which is a genre of traditional Japanese music, jazz, rock…you name it, there’s probably a song with it. They all combine seamlessly together, though. That’s the best part.
That’s not all — Shiina Ringo’s performance hints at the traditional Japanese style. What a way to represent your own culture even after going international!
If you’re looking for an artist that offers amazing techno-pop, Perfume is your girl — or girls. This girl group made waves in the Japanese music industry as soon as they first got onto the scene in 2008, and their popularity hasn’t wavered since. If you watch more than a few Japanese dramas and movies, chances are you’ve probably heard their music before.
Perfume is not only a big hit in Japan but also overseas — I mean, it’s quite obvious, what with their numerous international all-English fanbases. Even famous EDM DJs like Zedd and Madeon have acknowledged the group.
While their sound is nostalgic and refreshing at the same time, Perfume’s performances are definitely ones to keep an eye out for. There’s always something new in them, whether it’s an unconventional choreography or using new technology.
4. ONE OK ROCK
Anyone who’s into rock and has looked into the rock scene in Japan definitely has heard of ONE OK ROCK. They’re kind of like the most essential Japanese rock artist. Influenced by bands like Nirvana and Good Charlotte, this high school-formed band entered the industry in 2005, and has continued creating milestones after milestones for the Japanese rock scene.
Since their exposure and opportunities to go international, ONE OK ROCK has been including more and more English lyrics to cater to their expanding audience — but don’t worry for those Japanese language enthusiasts, if you listen to their earlier ones, you’ll still get them in full Japanese.
But hey, music has no boundaries — not even language, I dare say.
A list of Japanese musical artists is not complete without one of the most famous and influential Japanese groups, AKB48. This group is not your average one where there’s only a handful of people — it actually has over a hundred people!
You heard me; as of this day of writing, AKB48 has 135 members — don’t let the number 48 in the group name fool you. It did start off with 48 members and expanded to include more, but their front members are ever-changing, joining in and coming out of the groups as fast as one could blink.
Those who have left actually become stars on their own, but not without grabbing a few loyal followers from being in the group. AKB48 is also great for anyone who’s looking to learn Japanese through music, as their song lyrics are repetitive and catchy.
Of course, I have to include a Johnny’s group, and what better group than Arashi? We have an all-female group AKB48, so it’s only fair to have an all-male group on the list. This charming five-member collective has been around since 1999, and every generation in Japan would either be swooning over them or at least know of them. While they do fall under the category of J-pop, Arashi has a softer, slower tune. From upbeat to ballads, they have it all.
If you haven’t heard of the group, you must have at least heard of their members — they are all very active. Hana Yori Dango is a perfect example of Arashi’s exposure through the form of one of their members.
7. Keiji Haino
As I’ve mentioned before, Japanese music is more than just J-pop, and Keiji Haino is the definition of that — in fact, he’s the extreme other end with his avant-garde music genre, combining minimalism with power.
This is not your average music — think of normal, everyday noise with rock and percussion. It’s kind of hard to really put a pin on Keiji’s music, and any description doesn’t really do them justice. It’s the kind where you have to hear it to understand it.
Oh, and of course, some people would even argue that Keiji Haino is a fashion icon — the hair, ‘nuff said.
8. X Japan
One of the oldest on the list, X Japan was formed in 1982. You can’t miss them — you literally can’t overlook them. Not only does their music stand out but also visuals; they are kind of the pioneers — some would say they are the leaders and creators — of the Visual Kei subculture.
If I had to describe their sound, X Japan has put quite an emphasis on ballads, focusing strongly on theatricality — as you can tell by their dressing. Watch their videos and live performances and it’ll be very obvious of the passion they have for their band concept.
Recently, X Japan has been leaning towards the metal genre but without sacrificing up fully their original tunes.
9. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu
While her original name is Kiriko Takemura, she goes by her stage name, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Extremely famous and influential, I bet everyone in Japan knows of her. Some of you might already know her as her fame is not limited to just domestic fans — the West has grown a liking to her music and performance, with videos going viral and raking high view numbers.
It’s very obvious that her music genre is J-pop — the fast and upbeat tune is hard to miss. They make excellent karaoke songs, if I do say so myself. Some argue that Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is kind of like the Japanese version of Lady Gaga when it comes to her fashion style.
Last on the list is Nujabes — this one is pretty underground compared to the rest on the list. It’s the classic case of idolisation after the artist’s passing. Nujabes is without a doubt one of the pioneers of instrumental hip hop as well as a legend of bridging various music genres through his creations.
This artist has influenced many other artists, during his life and even after. His beatmaking has been an inspiration to not only local artists but Western ones as well, including Pete Rock and A Tribe Called Quest, both of who are American jazz rap artists.
And that sums up the top 10 Japanese musical artists who you have to know — everyone from the mainstream J-pop and sensational pop stars to pioneers of subcultures and music genre legends alike. If you’re a music enthusiast like me, you’d want to check every single one of the artists on this list out, and even do a little bit more digging on the ones I left out (because I had to). I bet your playlist is hours long now — you’re welcome!