Idol Chatter: The Evolution of J-Pop

The following article originally appeared in the April-June 1997 issue of Japan Quarterly, a now defunct English-language publication put out by the Asahi Shimbun. For a continuation of the story, there is an article I wrote for The Japan Times in Dec. 2009 about the development of J-pop in the 00s.



Last fall, Fuji TV premiered a half-hour series called Love Love Aishiteru. Co-hosted by the teenage singing/comedy duo Kinki Kids and veteran singer-songwriter Yoshida Takuro, Love Love is what is known in Japan as a “variety show,” meaning that it is essentially a talk show centered around a theme, a gimmick, a strong personality, or any combination of the three. The theme of Love Love is music, since Yoshida is considered one of the main forces behind Japan’s early 1970s folk music boom, but most of the half-hour consists of light conversation between that week’s guest and Kinki Kids, who, owing to their sharp sense of humor and huge popularity among adolescent girls, provide the show with its strong personalities. Yoshida, for the most part, sits uncomfortably to the side during these chats. The show’s gimmick is its band, which includes several of Japan’s most respected musicians and singers. Yoshida and Kinki Kids sing on the show, but the guest always sings a song, too.

One night, the guest was Osaka comedian Akashiya Sanma, who is more than twice as old as either of the Kinki Kids and about a decade younger than Yoshida. At one point in the conversation Akashiya tried to explain the importance of Yoshida’s music to his generation. “Takuro was like a god,” he said, “like…” He paused , trying to come up with an analogy that these youngsters would understand. Domoto Koichi, the funnier of the two Kids, finished the sentence for him: “Like Johnny?” The studio audience exploded with laughter. Everyone knew that he was referring to Johnny Kitagawa, the president of Johnny’s Jimusho, one of Japan’s most powerful talent agencies. The audience’s reaction was understandable, since Johnny Kitagawa is Kinki Kids’ boss and, considering Kitagawa’s reputation as a dictatorial impresario, certainly something of a god to them.

Johnny’s handles “idols,” a term that has a specific meaning in Japan different from the one native English speakers know. Generally speaking, idols are young performers targeted at teenagers. Johnny’s idols are all male, and include almost every major boy act that has appeared in Japan in the past 30 years, from the original cute vocal group, the Johnnys, who debuted in 1962, to the late 1980s sensation, Hikaru Genji, a troupe of seven singers who performed on roller skates and used fake samurai swords in their routines.

None of these groups, however, approach the popularity of SMAP, a diverse group of six young men who made their recording debut in 1991. SMAP’s image was rather vague at first, having something to do with athletics (the acronym stands for Sports Music Assemble People), but by 1995 Johnny’s had made them the most successful act in its history. That year alone, the group sold ¥6.5 billion worth of recordings and appeared in TV commercials for 22 separate products representing 12 companies.

SMAP’s success is surprising because just a few years ago the idol genre was believed to be moribund. Kitagawa made the group an institution by bending the idol mold to fit the changing shape of television. With the end of the traditional music shows that fed off idol singers (and made idols possible), there was no place to sell SMAP as a singing group, so Kitagawa sold them as six (down to five as of 1996, when one left to become a motorcycle racer) individual personalities. On variety shows, talent is less important that likable personalities. What’s more, SMAP turned out to be funny, which makes them even more marketable. Kitagawa has a pool of several dozen boys known as Johnny’s Juniors from which to develop future SMAPs. Kinki Kids debuted in 1994 and are already huge stars. They are mainly being marketed for commercials and variety shows. In fact, a regular segment on Love Love has Yoshida teaching the two boys guitar in preparation for a concert tour. What’s interesting is that they admit to being bad musicians, even bad singers, but the revelation is not meant to be ironic. As idols, they aren’t expected to be talented. The fact that Yoshida, one of Japan’s most respected songwriters, is teaching these two tone-deaf but nevertheless incredibly popular boys how to be musicians is an apt illustration of the priorities of Japanese popular music. [note: Kinki Kids learned well and eventually became quite adept guitarists; certainly better guitarists than singers.]

Roots in imported folk

Mike Maki’s “Bara ga Saita”

When the American folk revival of the early 1960s finally landed on the shores of Japan, it gave rise to the “modern folk” movement. Japanese musicians copied Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary songs by rote, and as the movement spread to embattled college campuses, students started writing songs that reflected their own situations and the problems they saw around them. By 1964, the “ivy fashion boom” was in full swing. Anything considered trad was hip, and since folk music was considered at least partially trad, it became fashionable. Hootenannies and jamborees flourished at universities, but with the exception of Mike Maki‘s 1966 folkish hit “Bara ga Saita” (A Rose Has Bloomed), folk music was not reaching the general public.

In the fall of 1967, Radio Kansai started playing a single by a band of local college students called the Folk Crusaders on its late night music show. More of a novelty tune than a proper folk song (the vocals were sped up, Chipmunks-style), “Kaette Kita Yopparai” (A Drunk Returns From Heaven) had been recorded and distributed by the group itself. The song became a sensation and was picked up by a major label, eventually selling 2.8 million copies. It was the biggest selling record in Japan up to that point, and helped focus attention on what was called “underground folk,” the acknowledged father of which was Takaishi Tomoya, a Hokkaido native who wrote and sang protest and parody songs. Although Takaishi had one hit song, he shunned the limelight and essentially walked away from stardom in 1969, passing the underground baton to his acolyte, Okabayashi Nobuyasu. Record companies shied away from Okabayashi because they felt his songs, some of which utilized scatology, violated the industry’s code of propriety. Even so, Okabayashi attracted a loyal following with his independent label recordings, but he was even less impressed with fame than his mentor had been. As he told the magazine Shukan Gendai in 1994, “I was singing what I wanted to sing, but suddenly I was this Folk God. I started thinking that I had to fit the image somehow.” His concerts became erratic and many were canceled on short notice. He eventually slipped out of the business.

Okabayashi Nobuyasu

Young people who liked underground folk listened to it on the intimate and chatty midnight radio programs that were so influential at the time. Unlike the West, where the idea of an idiosyncratic popular music had been developing for years, homegrown Japanese pop–known as kayokyoku–had been static since the end of World War II. Only foreign music styles offered progressive ideas. Jazz and rockabilly were appropriated by Japanese musicians, but generally they just took the tunes and laid Japanese lyrics on top. Kayokyoku’s themes embraced an impossible idealized love and utilized poetic images, while domestic folk addressed real experiences and, by extension, people’s feelings in a realistic way. With the end of the turbulent student movement, a new form of folk emerged, referred to facetiously as “yojohan folk,” (literally, “folk songs of four-and-a-half tatami mats,” the size of the little rooms normally occupied by single young persons), which dealt more specifically with personal feelings.

Yoshida Takuro was the first yojohan folk singer to break big. Though labeled “Japan’s Bob Dylan,” he lacked Dylan’s humor and sense of the tragic. His songs were, for the most part, sentimental, as exemplified by his first non-cult hit, “Kekkon Shiyo-yo” (Let’s Get Married). Inoue Yosui was not so much angry at society as angry at himself. An avid Beatles fan as a teenager, he took up music after he failed three times to get into college. Inoue’s talent for nailing a specific mood distinguished his lyrics from those of other songwriters, who preferred stories and big, obvious emotions. More cynical than ironic, his fast, passionate delivery occasionally overwhelmed the subtle pleasures of his songs, but he was and remains a tunesmith of extraordinary gifts.

Yoshida and Inoue could sell records without having to appear on television or in record stores, activities that were expected of most popular singers. Concerts and midnight radio were enough, and in 1973, Inoue’s fourth album became Japan’s first million seller. The folk sensibility was duly absorbed by the musical establishment. Nevertheless, though much Western-influenced popular music was still being labeled “folk,” Inoue’s music was closer to rock, specifically the kind of rock produced in Los Angeles, and eventually several singer-songwriters who strove for a broader appeal tried to distinguish themselves in this regard. This new form of kayokyoku was stamped with the broad English moniker New Music, a term attributed to pop singer Arai Yumi, who said she couldn’t call herself a yojohan artist because she didn’t wear jeans. In a way, the term described perfectly what was happening in popular music. What is now referred to as enka was, until the 1970s, simply standard kayokyoku. Because popular singers were expected to handle all styles, distinctions weren’t stressed. But Japanese folk was different, and once it entered the mainstream as New Music, and thus became the new kayokyoku, the older style had to be given a special name.

The word enka means, literally, “performance song,” and was coined during the Meiji Restoration to describe a kind of public performance. Musicians explained the new civic rights and responsibilities through the medium of song. As this style of music spread, it came to be known as ryukyoka, or simply “popular song.” The word enka reentered the lexicon after World War II, but there is some argument among scholars as to what exactly it is, although young people who profess to dislike it can usually tell you what it isn’t.

Miyako Harumi

Kitajima Saburo, one of the most enduring enka singers, once defined it as “any song in the Japanese language sung by a Japanese person.” Kitajima wants to avoid any discriminating categorization of Japanese popular singing, but he inadvertently makes a valid claim for enka being Japan’s de facto indigenous popular music. The overriding theme of enka is patience and perseverance in the face of the lowest despair and the emptiest loneliness. Though not as openly sexual as the more European-influenced kayokyoku of the 1960s, enka can be downright operatic when dealing with romantic misery. Singer Yashiro Aki has said that “there is absolutely no difference between enka and the blues,” and one can make a good argument that enka star Miyako Harumi ranks with Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday as one of the world’s great torch singers. The kind of tortured vocal style that the genre demands–tight vibrato, sing-shouting, full-throated growling–is inseparable from the verbal idiosyncrasies of Japanese speech. It’s why enka cannot be performed by anything less than excellent vocalists trained in the art. And that, as Kitajima implies, is why only Japanese people can do it. [note: There are many Korean singers, whether raised in South Korea or in Japan, who are popular enka artists, and one of enka‘s newest stars is an African-American from Pittsburgh named Jero, whose grandmother is Japanese. Their success doesn’t necessarily negate Kitajima’s proviso, but it does expand the meaning of what it means to “be Japanese.”]

Popularizing popular music

Until the mid-1960s, popular music was for adults, since most of the themes were about love and, therefore, considered inappropriate for children. The Group Sounds movement that peaked with the Beatles’ Japan concerts in 1966 was the first homegrown commercial pop music directed at teenagers. Like the bands that formed practically overnight, the Group Sounds fad was doomed as soon as it appeared. The genre was characterized by a numbing sameness: It was essentially kayokyoku against a background of Ventures-like guitar arrangements. Most GS hits were penned by the same stable of composers, who quickly ran out of ideas. The music was tame, but the screaming girls and the musicians’ slightly long hair scandalized the authorities. The Ministry of Education forbade local governments from presenting GS bands at their public auditoriums. During this period, the Blue Comets were the only GS band to be invited to perform on NHK television’s annual New Years Eve music show, Kohaku Uta Gassen, which is still considered the single greatest honor for any popular singer. But rather than fortify the GS audience, the appearance actually diluted it. The Blue Comets performed only one song, “Blue Chateau,” which wasn’t much different stylistically from most kayokyoku at the time, and, subsequently, every record company demanded that their GS artists come up with something similar, since the Kohaku imprimatur seemed to indicate that that was the kind of song the Japanese public liked.

By 1969, with the end of the GS boom in sight, youth culture had taken hold and wouldn’t let go. The audience for popular music had splintered along generational lines: Parents who listened to kayokyoku, young adults who listened to foreign music and folk, and teenagers. New stars had to be provided for this last demographic, and since 95 percent of the country’s households now had television sets, that was where idols were created. Producer Ikeda Kenichi once observed that idols would not have been possible without television.

Another aspect that was central to the development of the idol phenomenon was singing contests, which provided both official certification (important in Japan) and public relations. The most important proving ground for idol singers was Nippon TV’s Star Tanjo (Star Birth). Prior to the idol era, the word “star” referred to personalities beyond common reach. But one of the premises of the post-GS pop music business was that the audience for teenage pop music and those who performed teenage pop music were interchangeable. Idols and their audience, though on opposite sides of the footlights, occupy the same plane: Everyone is a potential star, regardless of skills or lack of them. Idols are born fully grown when they are crowned “stars” by judges, and their lack of discernible talent is actually central to their appeal. According to Ikeda, idols “perform on behalf” of their audience in the theater of their lives. On Star Tanjo, young singers would perform in front of a panel of professional composers and musicians. Winners were given the chance to study singing in classes sponsored by Nippon TV. Months later, the young hopefuls would appear on a special program with an audience made up of talent agents and record company A&R people who carried placards with their companies’ names on them. Agents who liked a particular performance would raise their placards, indicating that they were interested in offering the singer a contract.

Yamaguchi MomoePromoting idols is not an exact science: Success is almost completely a matter of timing and investment. Legend has it that Sony Records producer Sakai Masatoshi, prior to an installment of Star Tanjo, caught a glimpse of Yamaguchi Momoe’s photo on a desk in the Nippon TV offices. He had been looking for an idol to succeed Amachi Mari, a singer with a clean image (her nickname was Snow White) whose popularity was on the decline. Sakai, however, wanted to find someone like the pre-idol-era singer Minami Saori, who, with her mixed Filipino-Japanese heritage, had a more exotic image. His plan was to develop the new singer gradually, with the audience following her maturity from a girl to a woman. When he saw the 13-year-old’s picture, he knew she was exactly what he was looking for. Apparently, others felt the same way. Of the 44 talent agencies and 14 record companies attending the program that day, 13 raised their placards.

On her second single, “Aoi Kajitsu” (Green Fruit), recorded when she was 14, Yamaguchi sings, “Whatever you want from me, it’s all right.” The sexual innuendo was unmistakable and laid a foundation for the strategy that Sakai had envisioned. Yamaguchi later turned into a woman who could stand up to men, thus implying, if not sexual experience, then at least knowledge of what men are capable of. What’s more, Sakai hired Uzaki Ryudo of the Downtown Boogie Woogie Band, a popular rhythm and blues group with an unsavory image, to write rock songs for her. The strategy was a huge success, but Yamaguchi reportedly resented the role, which required her to never smile. Perhaps to placate her, Sakai also commissioned more sentimental pop songs from Sada Masashi of the folk duo Grape and Tanimura Shinji of the folk group Alice. Uzaki, Sada, and Tanimura were not the first outsiders to be brought into the kayokyoku machine. The shelf life a single was about three months, after which a new single had to take its place, lest the singer be replaced in the minds of distracted youth by a newer singer. The scramble for material was endless and eventually led to singer-songwriters. Okabayashi wrote a song for Misora Hibari (1937-1989), certainly the greatest and most beloved singer of the postwar era. Yoshida wrote many songs for kayokyoku singers, from enka star Mori Shinichi’s biggest hit, “Erimo Misaki” (Cape Erimo), to “Un, Deux, Trois” for the Candies, a female vocal trio who were the hottest idol act in the mid-1970s. Inoue wrote for idols. So did Arai and Nakajima Miyuki. The folk aesthetic had flowed into the mainstream.

After Yamaguchi retired to marry actor Miura Tomokazu in 1980, most girl idols fell into a set pattern, which found its ideal exemplar in the idol’s idol Matsuda Seiko. Matsuda’s background was just the opposite of Yamaguchi’s. Whereas Yamaguchi had grown up in an impoverished fatherless household, Matsuda was from a good, stable Kyushu family. Her popular image was different, too. Yamaguchi sang about confronting the male libido, while Matsuda cooed about chaste romance. Matsuda wasn’t the first virginal, chiffon-draped teenage singer–Amachi Mari had blazed that trail, while Asaoka Megumi had perfected the requisite cute choreography–but Matsuda personified the image better than anyone before or since, partly because she was a slightly better singer; partly because her voice had a natural plaintive quality that fit the syrupy lyrics; but mainly because her handlers just got her the best songs and the best exposure money could buy, resulting in an unprecedented 25 number-one singles and 18 number-one albums. Matsuda practically invented the sub-genre called burikko, which refers to a kind of assumed, childlike cheerfulness that is meant to put men at ease.

As cloying as her image was, Matsuda was an aggressive star. She defied the unwritten rule that idols retire when they marry and continued her career after her televised wedding to actor Kanda Masaki. (The couple’s divorce in January received more media attention than Japan’s ailing economy) Though Matsuda wanted to change her image, her millions of fans wouldn’t tolerate it, and she was forced to continue her burikko ways well into her late 20s and was called mama-idoru after she gave birth to a girl. (She has pursued a more mature line of pop music in the United States with minimal artistic and commercial success) Other idols, however, had to diversify their images to survive, and most could not. Nakamori Akina became what the fictionalized Yamaguchi character would have turned into if she had grown up: Sultry, sexually confident, darkly appealing. She remained popular into the late 1980s, even beyond the idol period, supported by boy fans attracted to what they perceived as acute loneliness under the cosmopolitan veneer. Almost as if by design, she now has an image in the popular press of being damaged goods, depressed and desperate.

The cancellation of prime time music shows like Hit Studio Deluxe and The Best Ten in the late 1980s finished off the idol era. Many singers have survived on mere nostalgia power, drawing upon the corps of loyal fans who will pay up to ¥48,000 for a seat at the occasional hotel dinner show, where they can bask in the old songs and the small talk and, at the end, even get up and touch their idols. Now older and less confident of the future, the fans have at last put their idols in their proper places, on pedestals.

Un-idol-like twist

During the idol era, music fans who preferred rock listened to foreign artists. They watched the Saturday night American chart roundup on TV Asahi, Best Hit USA, and listened to Shibuya Yoichi’s survey of new rock releases on NHK-FM. College rock bands banged away happily as college rock bands are wont to do, but major labels didn’t court them openly, since they were busy manufacturing idols. The Southern All Stars, a group of students from Tokyo’s Aoyama Gakuin University, mixed rock and pop in the usual manner, but the band’s lead singer and songwriter, Kuwata Keisuke, managed to fit Japanese lyrics to standard Western rock conventions in a smoother, more natural way than his rock forebears had. In traditional kayokyoku, since lyrics are meant to sound like Japanese poetry, the verses tend to follow poetic meters, with alternating lines of five or seven syllables that dictate the rhythmic structure of the songs. The English lyrics to American and British songs, on the other hand, can be placed rather freely on top of musical phrases, since pronunciation is more liquid. Dropped consonants and diphthongs allow for a certain amount of latitude within the confines of a given phrase. When Japanese lyrics are transplanted onto these phrases, however, they tend to sound stilted, since one note is usually assigned to each syllable.

Kuwata didn’t try to force the Japanese language to fit rock, he simply changed the way it was sung, adopting English phrasing, sometimes even English pronunciation, for his Japanese lyrics. And though he wasn’t a technically proficient singer like greaser Yazawa Eikichi or a particularly distinctive one like Imawano Kiyoshiro, the shaky-voiced leader of the demented soul group RC Succession, he was a more personable one. His lyrics were often nothing more than nonsense, but he delivered them with an artless fervor missing in Japanese pop, which tends to favor studied emotionalism rather than spontaneity.

In the beginning, the Southern All Stars offered up the same grab bag of ballads and pep, but with each subsequent album Kuwata’s songwriting became more assured. In late 1983 and early 1984 the group released two watershed albums that established them as Japan’s premiere rock band: Kirei (Beautiful) and Ninkimono de Iko (Let’s Get Popular). Kuwata’s singing style was revolutionary, since it proved that “Japanese rock” could be more than an awkward hybrid. What’s more, Kuwata’s songs conveyed a distinct sensibility. He didn’t have to tell stories or strike poses to make an impression. But despite the Southern All Stars’ popularity and their regular appearances on TV music shows, mainstream pop didn’t catch on right away. The most popular rock acts during the TV years were groups like Chage & Aska and The Alfee, who displayed a predictable penchant for melodramatic overstatement. In the latter half of the 1980s, two artists, The Checkers and Ozaki Yutaka (1966-1992), captured the imaginations of more self-aware teenagers with their sensitive but rocking paeans to dropouts and the disaffected.

By the late 1980s, however, there had developed a substantial rock underground that made good on the Southern All Stars’ promise. This so-called “band boom” operated separately from the mainstream, collecting fans almost exclusively through “live house” concerts and word-of-mouth, but it wasn’t long before underground artists got caught up in the star-making machine. Cult bands started making videos and getting them aired on midnight video programs like Sony Music TV. They eventually were given their own Star Tanjo, a late-night audition program known as Ikaten, where some of today’s top bands, like Original Love and Tama, came to the attention of major record companies. According to Kawasaki Daisuke, a former staff writer for the magazine Rockin’ On and now the president of the indie Cardinal Records label, “In the late 1980s, Japanese rock fans stopped listening exclusively to Western bands. ‘Made in Tokyo’ was cool and Japanese rock essentially became the new kayokyoku.”

Idols anything but idle

Uetake Takayuki, a publicist for the artists management company Amuse Inc., doesn’t personally work with idols, which he defines as multi-purpose products, but his company does. “They sing, do TV commercials, dramas–whatever. They’re easy to handle, but it’s gotten very risky. Just because an actress is a hit in a TV drama, it doesn’t mean people are going to buy her record. We manage about 20 female artists right now. All of them released records at one time, and none sold enough to justify the investment. But they’re all successful actresses.” Kawasaki defines an idol as “a puppet that producers, record companies, and advertisers use to carry out their plans.” Uetake sees the term “idol” as representing a kind of merchandise, while Kawasaki sees it as more of a job description. Neither, however, considers idols creative agents, an opinion that most people, even the idols themselves, would probably share. Even so, years of raw teenage singers coached in an identical singing style and stage demeanor have resulted in what can safely be called the idol aesthetic, which, in terms of the music itself, is best exemplified by the vocal style most idols adopt by necessity: The voice originates in the head rather than in the chest, since it is easier to hit a note that way, even if the vocal timbre ends up weak and nasal. Such a singing style invariably makes the singer sound like a child.

Nothing has sustained the idol aesthetic as much as karaoke. If the original theory behind the marketing strategy for idols was to find kids who would sing on behalf of their fans, then karaoke can be seen as fans singing on behalf of their idols. And since there really isn’t that much of a qualitative gap between the vocal facility of the amateur and that of the professional he or she is covering, verisimilitude is easier to achieve. Every pop single put out by a major label includes a karaoke version of the song, and when singers perform on television the lyrics are always superimposed at the bottom of the screen so viewers can sing along.

Karaoke has, in fact, paved the way for music’s return to television. One of the more popular new TV shows of the past year is Nippon TV’s Yoru mo Hit Parade, usually referred to by it katakana abbreviation, Hippare. Professional singers and TV personalities sing the week’s top 10 songs. Though popular singers often appear, they never sing their own songs; someone else does. It’s karaoke for professionals. The genius of Hippare is not so much the way it exploits karaoke culture, but rather the way it targets its audience. Many of the singers are veterans from the 1970s, artists who are virtually unknown to the kids buying the songs they’re performing. The producers can attract two demographics: Boomers who want to see old favorites and kids who want to hear the songs. The same strategy can be seen in the pairing of Kinki Kids and Yoshida Takuro on Love Love and on the variety program Sokuho! Uta no Daijiten, where the top 10 songs of the week are compared to the top 10 songs of a randomly selected year in the distant past.

One of the regulars on Hippare is 19-year-old Amuro Namie, who is the most popular singer in Japan right now. Originally from Okinawa, Amuro has spent the better part of her teenage years breaking into the Tokyo disco scene. She eventually came under the tutelage of Komuro Tetsuya, a freelance songwriter and producer who has developed several platinum artists for the dance label Avex Trax, including his own Eurobeat group, globe, whose eponymous 1996 release is the biggest-selling album in the history of Japanese pop. [note: Utada Hikaru’s 1999 debut album has since become the biggest-seller in Japanese pop history, while Komuro famously flamed out in the mid-2000s.]

Amuro’s fan base in overwhelmingly female. Young Japanese women have become the most savvy consumer group in the 1990s, and in Amuro they found someone on whom they could project their image of the perfect modern girl. As with Yamaguchi 20 years earlier, Amuro just happened to appear at the right time, but Yamaguchi’s timing was taken advantage of by the industry, whereas Amuro’s was seized upon by the public. If we define an idol as someone who performs on behalf of her fans, then Amuro is the epitome, since she achieved her position almost in spite of her handlers, who can’t keep up with her skyrocketing popularity.

Amuro is considered a good singer, but that’s probably because she is being compared to the other singers in the “Komuro family”–globe’s Keiko, Yuki of the dance group trf, and the somewhat infantile Kahara Tomomi–who definitely aren’t. If anything, the idol singing style is even more pronounced among the current crop of dance divas than it was during the idol era. “What Komuro is doing is similar to what producers were doing with idols in the 1980s,” says Kawasaki. “He makes the British instrumental genre called drum-and-bass acceptable to Japanese people by placing pop melodies and idol singing on top.” Horiguchi Mayumi, the vice president of Cardinal, adds, “The music is popular because everybody can dance to it, and then when they go to a karaoke room they can all sing it, too.”


Komuro’s success points to the ascendancy of the independent producer. According to Uetake, “Record companies no longer produce their own artists, they look outside. Kobayashi Takeshi is a good example. He’s one of the most successful freelance producers right now.” Kobayashi, a former rock musician, produced two of 1996’s top 10 albums, Evergreen by the idolish pop trio My Little Lover, and Shinkai by Mr. Children, the most popular rock band in Japan right now. He also produced a record for pop mainstay Watanabe Misato and composed a song for idol holdover Koizumi Kyoko. (Komuro produced three of the top 10 albums of 1996, including numbers 1 and 2.)

The most popular new artist last year was Puffy, two young women who sing in the idol style. Puffy is basically the creation of producer Okuda Tamio, who until recently was the leader of the rock group Unicorn. Horiguchi points out that “a lot of girls liked Unicorn’s songs but didn’t like Okuda’s voice or his looks,” thus making a solo career something of a gamble. Neither of the two women in Puffy could be called a good singer, but Okuda’s songs are fool-proof pop constructions that steal boldly from the Beatles and popular British bands of the 1970s. Puffy’s cute, street-wise appearance and straight-forward, non-harmony vocal style give Okuda’s melodies an irresistibly playful appeal and, in Horiguchi’s estimation, “convey perfectly Okuda’s strengths as a songwriter and producer.”

Talent not defined by talent

Like “idol,” the English word “talent” has been commandeered by the Japanese media to fit a new kind of occupation, the TV personality who, in fact, has no talent but who does have a distinctive persona that can be exploited.

Yamase Mami is the perfect example of an idol-cum-talent. Originally scouted as a singer at a regional singing contest when she was in her mid-teens, Yamase is closing in on 30 and yet still effects the nasally, whiny tones of a precocious pre-adolescent. Her demeanor is childish, naive, sensitive, and sexless. The singer and comedian Chiaki speaks in even more puerile tones, but she uses them to talk about adult things. Burikko irony reaches its apex with Shinohara Tomoe, even though she is 17 years old and has more of a right to act like child. She is a regular on Love Love, where her routine is to act so cute as to be actually threatening. Every week, she barges into a dressing room back stage clad in layers of pink and orange clothing and accessories and badgers the guest with squeals and stupid questions. She’s the pixie from hell.

One of the truisms of so-called post-modernism is that irony has become an end in itself rather than just another rhetorical tool. Foreign music critics who champion the all-female surf punk band Shonen Knife because they see them as Japanese women trying to break out of the mold that society has forced upon them misunderstand the stuffed animals and the references to cake. If Shonen Knife adhere to the idol aesthetic, it’s because they idealize their lost girlhoods, not because they want to be ironic rebels.

This is perhaps the most salient characteristic of mainstream J-Pop (and not a few indie artists): Its carefree, childlike sensibility. One need not even listen to the songs to figure this out, just the names of the groups are enough: Mr. Children, My Little Lover, Smile, Sunny Day Service, Judy and Mary, Flying Kids, The Chewinggum Weekend, Dreams Come True, Puffy, The Pillows, Merry Go Round, Blueboy. In this regard, the most representative artist at the moment is Ozawa Kenji, who emerged during the band boom as half of the pop duo Flipper’s Guitar. “Flipper’s Guitar changed a lot of young people,” recalls Horiguchi. “Originally, their lyrics were in English, and then they signed with a major label and switched to Japanese. But they didn’t sound like a major label band. They sounded like a British indie pop band. They became very popular among young women who thought they were cute and knew how to dress. A girl once told me that Flipper’s Guitar changed her life, and made her decide to study design. She wanted to create cute things.”

After Flipper’s Guitar split, Oyamada Keigo redubbed himself Cornelius (after Roddy McDowall’s character in The Planet of the Apes) and now produces a clever hybrid of house music and Latinish pop. Ozawa has become much more popular. His bouncy songs combine Motown arrangements and Brill Building melodies punctuated with rapid-fire syllables sung in the sweetest idolesque style.

Early in January this year, media maven Kuroyanagi Tetsuko had Ozawa on her afternoon TV chat show, Tetsuko no Heya (Tetsuko’s Room). Ozawa is not the kind of person Kuroyanagi normally invites to her single-guest program, but it soon became clear why he was there. He happens to be the nephew of conductor Ozawa Seiji, one of Kuroyanagi’s oldest and dearest friends. It also means that Kenji is from one of Japan’s finest families. He even went to the prestigious University of Tokyo. The interview revealed why Ozawa is so popular. He represents the ideal Japanese boyfriend: Good family, good education, good taste in clothes, successful, cheerful, creative, considerate, and sexually non-threatening (he turned 29 in April this year but looks 13). Moreover, his songs contain absolutely no conflicts, either interpersonal or internal, which makes them the antithesis of enka. When Kuroyanagi asked him what he wanted to accomplish with his music, he gave the perfect answer: “I just want to make people happy and enjoy myself.”

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2 Responses to Idol Chatter: The Evolution of J-Pop

  1. Miko says:

    What a great article, Philip! I can’t believe I missed it the first time around. You do yourself proud. I’m going to be spending the next few weeks chasing all the links and references, with great pleasure. I think that this post should be compulsory reading for any person who has any kind of interest in contemporary Japanese pop culture.

    Thank you!

  2. Jeffrey says:

    Great piece.

    One thing I would add is that before the mid-1980s, there were no full-time pop/rock stations in Japan, and even Tokyo, if I remember correctly, had only about four FM radio stations prior to that.

    I can remember sitting at the table in my dingy 1LDK in Nagoya in the summer of 1979 and radio stations played music by genre only in short blocks not more than a couple hours long. Because of this, the, predominately, American/British pop music played was all across the spectrum. The newest, hippest thing I can remember that summer was Graham Parker and the Rumour’s “Squeezing Out Sparks” getting played for “Waiting on the UFOs” and, of course, “Discovering Japan.”

    It wasn’t until I returned a decade later that Nagoya (can’t speak to Tokyo or Osaka then) had a full-time pop station that was, if I recall correctly, put on the air in conjunction with the World Design Expo being held in Nagoya in 1989.

    Today, there are still relatively few pop radio stations in Japan. So how anyone becomes popular nationwide is still something of a mystery to me.

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