An A-Z Guide to Japanese Music

Koenji│© Danny Choo / Flickr
Koenji│© Danny Choo / Flickr
Photo of Lucy Dayman
25 August 2017

Though from the outside it may not seem it, Japan’s musical world is a lot more than just J-Pop idols and pineapple pens. From some of the best record stores to some of the strangest laws ever enacted, the country has a fascinating relationship with music. Here’s an A-Z guide.

A – is for AKB48

The biggest players in Japan’s J-Pop game, quite literally. With a café, store, their own theatre, daily shows and an ongoing string of pop hits, ABK48 have 130 members on rotation just to keep up with their fans’ demands.

B – is for Babymetal

One of the country’s most successful contemporary musical exports. Responsible for bringing ‘idol metal’ – a unique type of Japanese pop/ thrash metal hybrid to the international mainstream. As the Babymetal legend has it the three vocalist fronted group didn’t even know what metal was until they were brought together by the legendary ‘Fox God’.

C – is for Cat

Actually known as Nyango Star, this metal drumming kitty has become a cult online sensation in recent months. Super cute and badass, Nyango Star’s video covers of popular Japanese songs are incredibly addictive.

D – is for D

The visual kei metal/ prog-rock from Kanagawa prefecture. Mixing darker rock aesthetics with melancholic ballads and a medieval influence they’re your next goth obsession.

E – is for Ebisu Liquid Room

One of Tokyo’s popular live music venues and a regular home to international touring acts. Located a few minutes from Shibuya, Liquid Room has become a ‘go-to’ for die hard music fans across the country.

F – is for Fueiho Law

Also known as The ‘Flashdance Law’ or the no dancing law. Coming into effect around 70 years ago, just after the second world war, the Japanese government made it illegal to dance inside music venues which didn’t have a certified ‘dancing licence’. Luckily this law has been lifted in recent years in an assumed attempt to become a little more foreigner-friendly.

G – is for ‘Graduation’

The Kanye West album. The iconic album artwork was created by Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami, who still to this day remains close friends with West. After visiting Murakami’s studio back in in 2006, a year before the album release, Kanye dubbed Murakami Japan’s Andy Warhol.

Long time no see @kidcudi and #kanyewest. Thank you for coming to my studio. It was fire 🔥🔥🔥

A post shared by Takashi Murakami (@takashipom) on

I – is for Idol Metal

One of the nation’s biggest musical genres. A hybrid of J-pop and thrash metal, idol metal has become a crossover hit between pop and metal heads alike. Some notable names in the idol metal scene are the aforementioned Babymetal and the newly formed Deadlift Lolita.

J – is for J-Pop

Of course. Arguably one of the most fascinating genres in the world of music, what defines J-Pop today isn’t really clear. From the thrashy Babymetal, to the weirdo experimental sounds of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu to the long living boy band dreamboats SMAP, J-Pop’s diversity is never ending.

K – is for Koenji

Tokyo’s original live music suburb and the home of Japanese punk. Located close to the heart of Tokyo, Koenji packs a lot into its little corner of the world. Overflowing with live music venues and other creative hubs it’s the perfect place to lose yourself in the city’s nightlife.

L – is for leasing

The rental market in Japanese media is still pretty huge. In today’s world of of Netflix Hulu, Spotify and Apple Music seems bizarre, but it is Japan a country that really likes to move to the beat of its own drum so don’t question it. Given that CDs are still the most popular way to consume music, and they’re around $25 USD a pop, renting a CD from the local Tsutaya (Japanese Blockbuster) is still a common practice.

M – is for Manhattan Records

The unofficial home of Tokyo’s hip-hop community. Based in Shibuya, this independent record store has been stocking the widest collection of rap, funk and RnB and everything else on vinyl for over 30 years now.

【SALE情報】 6/17(SAT)-6/18(SUN) MANHATTAN RECORDS × FACE RECORDS 合同 100円(税抜)セール開催中!

A post shared by ManhattanRecords® (@manhattan_records) on

N – is for Nujabes

The forefather of Japanese hip-hop. Tragically passing in 2010, the legacy of Nujabes’ work can still be felt throughout the streets of his home city of Tokyo to this day. Mixing hip-hop with jazz, soul and house music he broke barriers musically and culturally working with artists across the world.

O – is for O Group

One of the most popular homes of live music in Shibuya. This monolithic building is actually home to four separate venues of differing sizes: West/ O East/ O Nest/ O Crest. It’s a pretty common stop off for local and international indie bands touring the country so if you’re in town and want to check out some live music, you can’t miss this place.

P – is for Pikotaro

The man responsible for the inescapable ear-worm PPAP aka ‘Pen Pineapple, Apple Pen’. Released in late 2016, the nonsensical viral hit saw the Japanese comedian’s popularity skyrocket both in Japan and abroad and saw him collaborate with Justin Bieber.

Q – is for ‘quiet please’

On all public transport in Japan speaking on the phone is a major faux-pas, and though it’s technically not illegal, the side glances you may receive from fellow passengers can be worse than a fine. In recent years with the invention of the iPhone/ iPod and everything else, playing music loudly on your headphones is a social crime, so much so that many trains display signs asking you to be wary. Turn it down.

R – is for Ryuichi Sakamoto

The super talented and fascinating musician, composer, record producer, pianist, activist, writer, actor and dancer. Film buffs will recognise him as the Grammy award winning composer behind the music for the 1987 film The ‘Last Emperor’.

S – is for shamisen

Japan’s iconic traditional folk instrument. This recognisable high-pitched three stringed instrument was derived from the Chinese instrument sanxian, it’s like a Japanese banjo essentially. If you want to see a live shirimasen performance head to this history suburb of Asakusa where local izakayas (Japanese bars) host performances nightly.

T – is for Tower Records

Bookstore, Store, Shop
Map View
Tower Records in Shibuya
Tower Records in Shibuya | © Daniel Ramirez / Flickr
The most iconic music store in the country. Towering 5000 square meters over the bustling streets of Shibuya, this store has a café, book shop, live performance space and the biggest collection of CDs and music merch you’ll probably ever see in your life.

U – is for Ultra Japan

One of the biggest festivals to make its way to Tokyo. Though it started in Florida, this mega-electronic music event is now a mainstay on the Japanese festival circuit.

W – is for whiskey

Which is equally as popular as beer when it comes to live music drinking establishments. If you pop by a local venue to see a show, chances are the bar will stock Suntory, the country’s most popular and easy-on-the-palette whisky on the market.

X – is for X Japan

Arguably Japan’s biggest heavy metal act. Originally forming in 1982 under the name ‘X’, the band’s popularity skyrocketed during the mid-80s all the way through the 90s until they broke up in 1997. In 2007, after 10 long years they reformed and renamed themselves X Japan. Today they’re still touring and releasing music. Reportedly they’ve sold over 30 million records during their illustrious career.

Y – is for Yoko Ono

Potentially the most famous Japanese artist outside Japan. The multimedia artist, singer, and songwriter is known for her marriage to John Lennon of course, but in her career she’s released a string of influential, genre defying records under her own name and under the project Plastic Ono Band.

Z – is for Zushi

The beachside town not far from Tokyo. A common summer escape for many tired city goers Zushi is home to one of the country’s best regular film festivals which runs from late April to early May. The selection of films on offer is always eclectic and often includes music documentaries, this year the event saw Ice-T-directed hip-hop documentary ‘The Art of Rap’ make its way to the big beachside screen.

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