How did Japanese city pop evolve?

From 70’s to early 80’s: “City” was LA

As a Japanese, I would define Japanese city pop as the pop music from the late 70’s to early 80’s that was almost exclusively influenced by American music through the window of the West Coast. Americans led the post-WWII occupation that started in 1945, so American culture had dominating influence on how Japan shaped post-war modern culture. Such influence peaked during the city pop era. There was also a reason why the West Coast was the “America” for Japanese until the 70’s. As it’s directly connected to Japan via the Pacific Ocean, LA (and Hawaii that sits in between) was the most realistically accessible dream city. Coming from a devastating loss, it was way too expensive for ordinary Japanese to go farther.

In the meantime, by the 70’s, musicians who were born after WWII and grew up listening to American music for their entire life started to emerge in Japanese music industry. Many of them were eager to produce songs that were fully influenced by American music, and used California as the source of inspiration, both musically (West Coast sound with smooth and melodious types of jazz/fusion/AOR, or disco) and conceptually (new urban lifestyle that was freer, more mobile and affluent). The word “city” – an English word used as is in the context of Japanese domestic culture – during the city pop era represented an LA-like dreamland that Japanese had yet to experience.

Here are some songs/albums with strong California vibes.

“Sparkle” by Tatsuro Yamashita, 1982.

Here are some Japans’ top-notch jazz/fusion musicians during the era that produced West Coast-influenced albums.

“California Shower” by Sadao Watanabe (saxophone), 1978.

“City Connection” by Terumasa Hino (trumpet), 1979.

”To Chi Ka” by Katsumi Watanabe (guitar), 1980.

Mid 80’s: “City” goes global and local

As I wrote in my previous post, Japan’s economy started booming during the city pop era. When you were in the middle of it, it felt like the country were noticeably richer every quarter. By 1985, the whole country was going crazy with bubble economy. Money – a lot of money – was just about everywhere. Things that were impossible 5 years ago were now a piece of cake. People started traveling anywhere they wanted, and buying anything they wanted (even the Empire State Building in NYC. Ouch.) Los Angeles was no longer the only accessible dream land. As Japanese quickly went on to explore other cities and cultures, the definition of “city”  changed quickly to become an assortment of cool stuff around the world. At the same time, Japanese no longer had to look for other countries for dream urban lifestyle, as Tokyo had become the epicenter of global culture; it was now the “city” they’ve dreamt of.

Such rapid social transformations changed how Japanese musicians approached “city pop,” or rather, urban contemporary music in general. Simply put, Japanese music became a lot more diverse, as musicians gastronomically absorbed different types of music, art and culture around the globe for inspiration. It really worked, as Japanese are good at meticulously learning foreign subjects, and music wasn’t an exception. The power of money of the bubble economy also helped all kinds of niche genres to thrive.

Here are some songs that has diverse “city” vibes. Just to make the list manageable, I focused on musicians that were associated with Haruomoi Hosono and Eiich Otaki, two iconic musicians that helped Japanese music industry and city pop in the 70’s. (Although both are far bigger than the narrow definition of city pop.) Hope you can feel how the “city-ness” of Japanese music shifted from California-centric to any cool place in the world.

Let’s start with some tunes from an album titled “Niagara Triangle Vol.2.” “Niagara” had been the name of Eiichi Otaki’s multi-faceted projects, and “Niagara Triangle” was a one-time collaboration by Otaki and two musicians. Vol.1 was made in 1975 with Tatsuro Yamashita and Ginji Ito, and Vol. 2 was released in 1982 with Motoharu Sano and Masamichi Sugi. Tatsuro Yamashita, who participated in Vol 1. is known for his strong LA-vibes, but by the Vol.2, the “city” was becoming more diverse.

Motoharu Sano wrote a song titled “Standing on Manhattan Bridge.” You can see New York City was becoming more relevant for Japanese.

Masamichi Sugi wrote “Lover Her, ” which has strong “Beatles (Liverpool)” vibes. Japanese love the Beatles, and it would be safe to say that UK has been the second major source of music influence for Japanese. (For example, Japanese found Queen before most British did.) As a matter of fact, British music sort of took over the US in the 80’s post-city pop era via the second British invasion, but it seems like it didn’t quite fit the “city pop” category. It definitely influenced other types of music.

Bubble economy also stimulated Japanese snobbism. They rushed to buy European high brands, eat at posh Italian restaurants, were extravagant to go after Vincent van Gogh etc. European culture quickly became part of accessible everyday entertainment.

You can see such trends cynically, or self-ridicule. Here’s “Modern Things” by Hajime Tachibana in 1985. Tachibana produced techno-oriented sound from a record label founded by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Hosono’s ex YMO-colleague. Both the sound and the lyrics are interesting. (spoiler alert: though he was recognized as a great sound creator, he wasn’t considered a very good singer!)

Did you find “Francoise Sagan” in Tachibana’s lyrics interesting? Well, French culture has also been occupying certain places in Japanese people’s heart. Paris-style sophistication has always been the source of inspiration for Japanese urban lifestyle. Here’s ”Sticky Music” by Sandii &The Sunsetz (1984). Haruomi Hosono started producing Sandii in 1980, and comically appears at the beginning of the video. In 1985, they re-recorded the song in French. Hope you capture the Paris-style urbaneness imagined by Japanese.

Late 80’s: “City” goes cyber

Bubble economy was fast and furious. It quickly oversaturated Japanese culture to the point where people kind of felt that they discovered everything on this planet, and little excitement was left. What do you do when the future starts to look boring? With the advancement of technology, some artists sought inspiration from apocalyptic, cyber world. Ryuichi Sakamoto released an album titled “Miraiha Yaro” (Futurism guy) in 1986, which was opened by “Broadway Boogie Woogie” featuring conversations from the movie Blade runner. Just in case you are wondering, Futurism is an art movement that started in Italy in early 20th. Futurism artists focused on the (almost grotesque) dynamism or speed of the emerging technologies that felt overwhelming back then.

Such a bit pervert “Futurism” sentiment was also carried by Yoshiyuki Osawa, who released “Infinity” in the same year. It opens with a song titled “彼女は (She’s) future-rhythm.”

90’s: “City” goes Tokyo

The bubble economy crushed in early 90’s, and the “lost decade” started. Music industry-wise, Japanese started lookin domestic: the 90’s became the era of J-POP. Instead of eagerly listening to American or other international music, young generations in the 90’s grew up listening Japanese music made by Japanese musicians almost exclusively. It’s a stark difference from the generations like Haruomi Hosono and Eiichi Otaki, who almost took pride to listening foreign music when they were young.

While most young generations in the 90’s listened to J-POP that was an adapted version of American pop, British rock etc, musicians that were behind the evolved version of city pop in this era were really crafty blending and mixing international music to produce something unique. They were called Shibuya-kei. Here’s “東京は夜の7時 (It’s 7 o’clock in Tokyo)” by Pizzicato Five. Tokyo was the “city,” but it was no longer an extravagant place where everyone wants to be posh. It was much more a down-to-earth place in which “being cool” was a lot more diverse.