J-pop is an abbreviation of Japanese pop. It refers to Western-influenced Japanese popular music. The term J-pop was coined by J-Wave, an FM radio station, to denote what was once called “New Music.” The term is widely used in Japan to describe many different musical genres including pop, rock, dance, rap, and soul. In the Nagoya area the term Z-pop is used to describe songs popular in the region. J-rock, Visual Kei and J-rap are generally considered to fall under the J-pop umbrella as well. Singers of J-pop include both popular musicians and seiyū.
Japanese stores typically divide their music into 4 sections: J-pop, Enka (a traditional form of ballad), classical, and English/International. Some songs, such as those by Miyuki Nakajima and Anzenchitai, represent a fusion of Enka with J-pop.
J-pop can be traced to the jazz music which became popular during the early Shōwa period. Jazz reintroduced many musical instruments, previously used only to perform classical music and military marches, to bars and clubs. It also added an element of “fun” to the Japanese music scene. As a result “Ongaku Kissa” (音楽喫茶 – lit. music cafe) became a very popular venue for live jazz music.
Under pressure from the Imperial Army during World War II the performance of jazz music was temporarily halted. After the war ended the United States soldiers and the Far East Network – who were occupying Japan at the time – introduced a number of new musical styles to the country. Boogie-woogie, Mambo, Blues, and Country music were performed by Japanese musicians for the American troops. Songs like Shizuko Kasagi’s “Tokyo Boogie-Woogie” (1948), Eri Chiemi’s “Tennessee Waltz” (1951), Misora Hibari’s “Omatsuri Mambo”, and Izumi Yukimura’s “Omoide no Waltz” became popular. Foreign musicians and groups including JATP and Louis Armstrong visited Japan to perform. 1952 was declared the “Year of the Jazz Boom” but the genre itself demanded a high level of technical proficiency and was difficult to play. As a result many amateur Japanese musicians turned to country music which was far easier to learn and perform. This in turn led to a proliferation of country-based music.
In 1956 the rock-and-roll craze began thanks to a country music group known as Kosaka Kazuya and the Wagon Masters and their rendition of Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel. The rock-and-roll movement would reach its peak in 1959 with the release of a movie featuring performances by a number of Japanese rock-and-roll bands. However, the demise of rock-and-roll in the United States was quickly followed by its downfall in Japan due to the fact that many groups were heavily influenced by their American counterparts. Some performers attempted to merge traditional Japanese pop music with rock-and-roll. One of few musicians to be successful in this effort was Sakamoto Kyū with the song “Ue wo Muite Arukō” (lit. “Let’s Look Up and Walk”), known in other parts of the world as “Sukiyaki”. Other performers decided instead to play the music and translate the lyrics of popular American songs resulting in the birth of “cover pop.” The popularity of these individuals faded though as radio and television gave every household the opportunity to watch real musicians perform. However the concept of karaoke and its subsequent popularity can arguably be attributed to the cover pop phenomenon.
During the period from the early 70s to the mid 80s the emphasis shifted from simple songs with a single guitar accompaniment to more complex musical arrangements known as New Music. Instead of social messages the songs focused on love and other personal events. Takuro Yoshida and Yosui Inoue are two notable New Music artists.
In the 80s the term City Pop came to describe a type of popular music with a big city theme. Tokyo in particular inspired many songs of this form. It is difficult to draw a distinction between City Pop and New Music and many songs fall under both categories. Wasei Pop (lit. Japan-made pop) quickly became a common word to describe both City Pop and New Music. By the 1990s, J-pop became the common term to describe most popular songs.
The late 1980s saw the emergence of one of Japan’s most famous rock groups of all time, Chage & Aska. A massively popular male singer/songwriter duo consisting of Chage (Shuji Shibata) and Ryo Aska (Shigeaki Miyazaki), they released a string of consecutive monster hits throughout the 1980s and 1990s, establishing themselves as Asia’s most popular rock group. Their “Asian Tour II / Mission Impossible” tour was the single largest concert tour ever put on by a Japanese group – the tickets for all 61 concerts in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan sold out on the first day. Ryo Aska is widely considered today to be one of Japan’s greatest songwriters. However, with the advent of the Japanese dance-pop music pioneered by Namie Amuro and Tetsuya Komuro in the mid- to late-1990s, the popularity of rock groups like Chage & Aska has declined.
R&B got popular in Japan in the late 90’s, when young singer-songwriter Utada Hikaru debuted with her 1st single Automatic/time will tell. Her 1st album, First Love sold around 7 500 000 copies, making it the best selling Japanese album of all time, and the best selling debut album ever in the country. While she sold millions with her R&B sounds, pop music was still popular in Japan with solo female singers such as Hamasaki Ayumi, Kuraki Mai and Ami Suzuki, and female pop groups like SPEED and Morning Musume sold millions of records with their pop-techno sounds.
Now in the early 00’s, R&B and Hip Hop influences in Japanese music are stronger than ever. J-Hiphop/rock bands such as ORANGE RANGE and Ketsumeishi are at the top of the Oricon charts, with some older pop/rock groups like Mr.Children, B’z and Southern All Stars. The current charts are mainly ruled by male only bands and solo male singers, female pop has declined a lot since the 90’s but pop singers like Hamasaki Ayumi and Otsuka Ai still get to #1 with most of their releases.