11 Unsung Japanese Music Legends

Cornelius 1960
Cornelius 1960 | © TAlberto Garcia/Flickr
Lucy Dayman

Japan has a rich legacy of producing some of the most talented and groundbreaking musicians in the world. However, despite their influence and ubiquity so many Japanese names go overlooked outside of their home country. Here’s a little insight into just a few relatively unknown Japanese names that have changed the international musical landscape for the better.

Hip Tanaka

If you ever played video games growing up, or still do for that matter, chance are you’ve heard the music of Hip Tanaka aka ‘Chip’ Tanaka. The composer, musician and sound designer is responsible for some for crafting the music behind some of the biggest games in the world, think Metroid, Kid Icarus, Donky Kong Super Mario Land, Tetris, Mother, Dr. Mario and even Pokemon just to name a few. After graduating from an electronic engineering degree at university, Tanaka applied for a job at Nintendo as a sound designer. Originally he had never planned on working in sound design but he decided that the position sounded pretty stress free so he gave it a go and the rest, as they say, is history.


Forming in 1994, these guys have continued to be one of the ultimate underground rock n roll heroes of Japan. Melding bluesy influences with garage rock energy The Zoobombs have toured the world and released music relentlessly over the past 23 years. Over the decades they’ve gone through a number of break ups, reformations and line up changes but the thing that remains consistent is the band’s ability to kickstart a party. If you’re in Japan any time soon, look them up because chances are they’re playing a show near you.


In English “Hanatarash” means “sniveler” or “snot-nosed” so chances are you can gauge what this group’s attitude is from the beginning. What was so striking about Hanatarash’s creation was their shocking and boundary pushing live shows which became rather infamous. In previous appearances the band’s front man Yamantaka Eye strapped a circular saw to his back and almost destroyed a venue by driving a bulldozer through its back wall. Eye went on to form Boredoms, one of the most internationally acclaimed and successful art-rock acts to come of out Japan in recent years.


This singer-composer, multi-instrumentalist and sound artist has been a prolific force ever since the beginning of her career in the early 80s. She came to international attention after fronting the group After Dinner, a collective that was active between 1981 to 1991. Over the past few decades she’s made waves in the improv scene curating sound art exhibitions and installations across the country. If you’re a fan of Bjork, then you should check out Haco’s work, most notably the reissued release of the After Dinner album Paradise of the Replica.

Haruomi Hosono

Haruomi Hosono also known as Harry Hosono, is best known internationally as a member of the legendary Japanese rock bands Happy End and the electronic music band Yellow Magic Orchestra. Since the end of their lifespans he’s gone on to carve himself a successful solo career releasing a huge discography of electronic and ambient albums. His tireless work ethic and creative drive awarded him a position on HMV Japan’s list of the 100 most important Japanese pop acts of all time in 2003.

DJ Krush

While hip hop mastermind Nujabes gained international acclaim for his unique blend of jazz, hip hop and modern Japanese style, DJ Krush was lurking around on the scene crafting his own little niche. The DJ and producer came into the music industry after looking for something that would take him away from the seedy underworld of the Japanese yakuza (mafia) with which he was involved. In the past few decades he’s dropped 14 studio albums that marry natural sounds with hip hop, jazz and soul.

Shonen Knife

When it comes to Japanese rock icons, they don’t get more iconic than garage rock pop trio Shonen Knife. Forming in Osaka in 1981, the band have toured the world countless times and were even hand selected by Kurt Cobain (one of the band’s biggest fans) to join Nirvana as the band’s opening act for their UK tour just before the release of Nevermind (1991). Over the past three decades they’ve created a Ramones tribute band under the name ‘The Osaka Ramones’, released a whopping 22 albums, and still continue to tour to this day.


OK so KBG48 may be a little more gimmicky than the others on this list, but the fact that the average age of the members of this ‘idol’ group are 84 gives them legendary status. Hailing from the remote island of Kohama in Okinawa (home of the longest living residents in Japan) KBG48 have played a sellout national Japanese tour and offered several record deals. Like the strict rules of mainstream J-Pop acts, this 30+ member collective has one major requirement: to be in the band you must reach the minimum age requirement of 80.

Midori Takada

Though she’s been releasing groundbreaking work for around three decades, it’s only recently with the rerelease of her album Through the Looking Glass that ambient composer Midori Takada is getting the international recognition she deserves. After it almost disappeared from the face of the earth, the 1983 album was uploaded to YouTube in 2013 by blogger Jackamo Brown. Thanks to YouTube’s mysterious recommendation algorithms and ‘play next’ function this stream starting reaching new audiences with an interest in minimalist electronica. Today, the record is breaking new ground and sounding as fresh as ever.

Keigo Oyamada/

Hailed by many international critics as the ‘modern day Brian Wilson’ and the ‘Japanese Beck’, producer and musician Keigo Oyamada aka Cornelius is one of the country’s most iconic artists. After co-founding the influential Shibuya-kei (Japanese style modern pop-rock) band Flipper’s Guitar, he went on to release a collection of solo efforts and remix albums that have been warmly received by fans across the world. If you’re a fan of Beck, check out Cornelius’ 1997 release Fantasma – the album that transported him to into the indie rock limelight.

Mamoru Fujisawa / Joe Hisaishi

Though it’s clear Japan is a breeding ground for productive artists, Mamoru Fujisawa aka Joe Hisaishi would probably be up there as one of the country’s most prolific. Since beginning his career in 1981, the composer and music director has been responsible for creating over 100 film scores and solo albums. Never staying too committed to any particular genre he’s traversed the world of classical, experimental, electronic and minimalist sounds to create some of the most iconic music to come out of Japan. Working with acclaimed animator Hayao Miyazaki (Studio Ghibli) Hisaishi has composed all the scores for Miyazaki’s films, except The Castle of Cagliostro (1979).

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