While in Japan, my students would often tell me about their favourite band or musician. This was my first introduction to the world of J-Pop, and I confess I didn’t recognise many names. In fact, I was surprised to find just how wide and varied the Japanese music scene is. Fast forward to now and I’m speaking to Just Panda, Tom and Kelly. They are the team behind the popular music and culture webzine Beyond Senpai. They focus on the Japanese music and idol scene and have even interviewed several J-Pop stars. I’m here with them to learn more about this unique cultural phenomenon, J-Pop.
J-Pop is short for Japanese popular music, but it would be a mistake to think it’s the same as western pop. While some bands may seem to have familiar styles, there is a fantastic variety of groups and genres to choose from. From metal bands like BabyMetal and Necromonidol to pop groups like AKB48. There is some of everything under the J-Pop umbrella. One of the most popular is Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, notable for her creepy-cute style. Bands experiment with many styles and are often challenging to nail down into a particular genre, just like western groups. As Kelly tells me, “J-Pop is really fluid”.
One of the most significant parts of J-Pop is the focus on idols, the name for the performers in Japan. However, Just Panda was quick to point out that these aren’t just musicians. They appear in Japanese dramas, voice acting and game shows. Unlike in the West, fans can really get to know their idols and easily talk with them on social media or live streams. Just Panda commented, “I like the fact that I can send a tweet to someone and get a reply, even if I have to translate it”.
The fan community is closely knit and often transcends borders. They are welcoming, supportive and always happy to talk about their favourite groups and idols. Kelly explained that “We call our favourite members oshis, and your kamioshi is basically your godlike favourite”. Fans will often follow their oshi if they move to another group, even if it takes years. The passion and dedication these fans have for their favourite idols to travel across the world is awe-inspiring.
While it may seem modern, J-Pop can be traced to the jazz boom of 1926 and the end of WWII in 1945. Previously the modern instruments were only used in military marches. Still, they quickly began to be used for making contemporary music. As a result, modern J-Pop predates even K-Pop (Korean Pop). It owes its influences to many other styles, from classical Japanese music to western groups.
Western influences can be found all over J-Pop. Tsunku, one of the primary songwriters for Hello Project, a huge record label, “would be pretty open about the fact that he was inspired by the Beatles”, Kelly told us. The group London Blue was also inspired by the Beatles and British Prog Rock, which clearly comes across in their music. This trend has continued into the present day, with modern artists drawing inspiration from the west. Mikuromika, whose album is coming out this summer, tells us that she was inspired by Lady Gaga and Cindy Lauper. Despite these influences, J-Pop is clearly unique and blends these styles to create something I find new and fun.
J-Pop is a growing scene and is gaining traction in the west, even to the point of western music drawing on Japanese styles. For example, the UK’s Kero Kero Bonito employs Japanese lyrics and a J-Pop spirit. Kelly was happy to comment, “to know that there are groups in the UK that are inspired by Japanese groups, it’s awesome”. This works both ways, as there have been more and more English lyrics in J-Pop songs, and Just Panda told me that J-Pop’s presence in the West has boomed “with the explosion of K-Pop”. Certainly, before looking into J-Pop myself, I had heard and knew more about K-Pop.
Unfortunately, this has caused its own problem as J-Pop and K-Pop are often categorised together. This is great for introducing fans of one type to the other, but it is difficult to separate them. Tom said, “I think that the major problem is breaking the rule that it’s not K-Pop. It’s J-Pop,” and commented that the media often groups them together.
For me, J-Pop is a whole world of unexplored music that I am only just delving into. Many people in the west are content with music in English, yet in my opinion, language shouldn’t be a barrier for enjoyment but an exciting part of a new musical experience. J-Pop is also easy to get into as it lends itself well to a variety of tastes. As Tom said, “it’s just great because you never know what’s going to happen”. So all I can say is go check it out for yourself. There’s something for everyone and no shame in experimenting. Even the artists do.