City Pop: Big In Japan?

One of my favorite releases from last year was Tokyo Nights, a compilation featuring Japanese disco and pop from the 80s. I love it because it’s just so upbeat and fun. The tunes just bounce in a way that I don’t hear that often. The best tracks on the CD remind me of early Madonna or Sheena Easton – unabashedly positive pop music made 100% for dancing.

I adore this record, and wanted to hear more from the artists on it, so I went down to Mecano, a record store located in Nakano. Mecano specializes in 80s music, so I figured that it would be the place to go to get my 80s J-pop disco fix. I talked to the owner, reading off some of the names I was looking for, like Hitomi Tohyama and Junko Ohyashi. 

He laughed.

He laughed a lot.

“No one cares about those artists!” he explained in English before spontaneously launching into a fairly long rant in Japanese. My boyfriend summarized it for me: almost none of the acts on that CD were ever popular in Japan, and they certainly weren’t known for any kind of revolutionary pop music. They were just singers or idols who happened to record a few catchy tunes. No one cares about them now.

Basically, I bought an album of has-beens and never-wases. It would be like a Japanese label putting together a compilation in 2018 that featured hits by Melissa Manchester, Kim Carnes, and Laura Branigan. Not bad artists at all, but not exactly relevant by any stretch of the imagination.

I was the first person to show the guy at Mecano Tokyo Nights, but he says that I’m far from the first foreigner to come into his store and ask for obscure J-pop. It’s becoming a trend for him. One artist he said that people repeatedly come in and ask for by name is Taeko Ohnuki. Specifically, they want her 1977 album Sunshower. He said that the only people who come to his store looking for that record are foreigners. No one in Japan cares about it. Now, I know that’s not entirely true. That album was actually just re-released on vinyl in Japan, so there are some Japanese people out there who dig it. But I do know that westerners are almost solely responsible for the album’s renaissance. 

Remember vaporwave? That short-lived blip of a micro-genre that was all the rage on Tumblr a few years back? Well, that ironic version of ambient music didn’t die – it just morphed to something called “future funk,” which, from what I can gather, is vaporwave you can dance to. It relies heavily on samples, and for some reason, the J-pop of the 70s and 80s (often, and somewhat erroneously, referred to as “city pop”) has proven to be a fertile ground for such samples. 

So many online musicians have been cribbing from the city pop records of the 70s and 80s that now some foreigners are now coming to Japan and buying the source material direct. In turn, Japanese people want to see what all the fuss was about and are now listening to it again as well. This means that acts like Taeko Ohnuki are now returning to the spotlight, while artists like Tatsuro Yamashita, who have always been popular, are finding new audiences.

This is not wild speculation on my part. This is a fact.

That’s a photo I took today at Tower Records in Shibuya. It’s a showcase of Taeko Ohnuki, Tatsuro Yamashita, and other “city pop” acts. None of these albums are new, but they earned a showcase display on the main floor of the store. Why? Because a foreigner was on Japanese TV saying that he came to Japan to buy “city pop.” And he’s not the only one, I’ve gotten several emails now from people who have read my guide to Tokyo record stores, and they all ask the same thing, “where can I buy city pop?”

What’s personally tragic for me is that I’m not really a city pop fan. Disco-influenced tunes aside, it’s just too mellow for me. I prefer Japanese synthpop, that’s my jam. But whatever gets people interested in Japanese music is okay with me. I also just find the whole thing fascinating because it’s basically a reverse “big in Japan” situation.

As you’re probably aware, “big in Japan” is used to describe something or someone, usually a band, who is disproportionately popular in Japan when compared to the rest of the world. Previous examples of this would include The Ventures, Cheap Trick, and Mr. Big (seriously). When I tell people about acts that are big in Japan but completely forgotten elsewhere, they tend to laugh in a dismissive “oh Japan is so weird” kind of way.  And you’ve probably done the same thing, I know I have, so I don’t blame you.

But the next time you hear about some American or European artist who is inexplicably popular in Japan and you start to laugh, stop yourself and remember that as of right this minute, a cottage industry is springing up in Japan to support people from other countries coming over in droves to buy the Japanese equivalent of Belinda Carlisle records and ask yourself: who’s really the weird one?

4 Responses to City Pop: Big In Japan?

  • Nicolette says:

    So many great city pop tracks out there! Oh, I love this genre, and Ohnuki! She can be a hit or miss, but she has some amazing tracks. “4:00am” from her album Mignonne is a wicked track (but I think it’s a weak album as a whole). I’d also recommend the albums Love Trip by Takako Mamiya and Mysterious Girl (Fushigi Shoujo) by Chiemi Manabe.

  • Brian West says:

    I was very surprised when I found this (excellent) UK release from last year in my local record shop:

    Plus there was a reissue last month of Yasuaki Shimizu’s wonderful Kakashi. Good news if like me you want this music on vinyl but can’t afford the originals. Nice article, thanks.

  • Roberto says:

    Chiemi Manabe isn’t city pop, it’s just plain synth pop – her lp was partly produced by Hosono. Or techno kayo, as are sometimes named the more commercial productions with YMO members involved (or not). Who cares about thoses labels… Don’t get me wrong, it’s a really good record, one of my favorites in that style. But it’s not city pop. I have almost the same story as James about city pop – driven by all the enthusiasm I’ve read here and there about it, I decided to give it a try – basically I listened to the compilations by labels, Bmg, Columbia, Sony & Warner. Several times. And I tried to like it, I really did, I couldn’t accept to be out of the loop. But I just couldn’t see the appeal. Sure, it’s very professionally produced – but it’s way too mellow. It sounds like some californian music, or Hall & Oates, and it’s definitely not my cup of tea. My comparisons may sound very ignorant, I’m aware of that. Sure, I like Jun Fukamachi – but isn’t it funk ? I love Hosono’s exotica-inspired music, but it’s very much its own thing – not city pop. So I’ll stick to YMO & co, Jun Togawa and such, I need beeps and synthesizers. It’s fine that way. By the way, thank you James for all the music you’ve been sharing on your other blog. I don’t comment very often because I don’t value my opinion enough to share it publicly (except today it seems). Congrats for meeting Hideki Matsutake, I’m quite jealous. Best of luck for your life, your health etc.

    • James Eldred says:

      Very nice of you to say, thank you!

      Discussions of what is city pop and what isn’t are difficult, as the definition is always changing. I agree that Chiemi isn’t really city pop, but she’s of that era, and her fanbase overlaps, so I get why many would say so.

      Pick up that compilation I mentioned, it really straddles the line between synth-pop and city pop, which is probably why I like it so much, you probably will too.

      By the way, you know what’s great, dope comments that are nice. You may not value your opinion, but I do, so thanks.

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