As Japan prospered and rapidly urbanised in the economic bubble of the 1970s and 1980s, popular music mirrored the futurism, luxury and optimism of sprawling cities and increased wealth.
The style of that period, adopting the aesthetics of global contemporary pop trends such as funk, disco, AOR, boogie and exotica, became known as city pop. It has, in the years since, proved perhaps the most influential and most well-known of any period of modern Japanese popular music.
City pop was another reaction to the “Japanese-language rock controversy” of the early 1970s. Pushing beyond the hard rock- and folk rock-centricity of Happy End and other early performers of “New Music”, city pop’s first musicians saw the potential for cultural transformation and, within a decade, achieved it.
Sure of their beliefs in the newfound pliability of the Japanese language in pop music, some -notably Tatsuro Yamashita and Taeko Ohnuki’s Sugar Babe- created pop music that was radically smoother, that made use of fractured and major seventh chords, and that sounded like no previous kind of Japanese pop.
Others took less drastic steps. Jazz pop of the likes of Minako Yoshida, Kimiko Kasai and Junko Ohashi brought in elements of disco and funk to a sound that remained somewhat rooted in the ballads of kayōkyoku.
While Sugar Babe enjoyed little success -the foundational importance of their singular record went unrealised until years after their breakup- these ballading city pop artists went some way to gradually normalising funkier, more danceable styles.
City pop was, however, more than simply Japanese-language imitations of American pop trends. Following Japan’s occupation, many city pop artists matured under the dominant influence of American pop culture.
The likes of Haruomi Hosono, Tatsuro Yamashita and Toshiki Kadomatsu felt more attuned to contemporary American music than traditional Japanese pop, yet they were also distanced from American genres’ historical and social contexts. They were freer: unburdened by cultural norms, they merged genres like funk and yacht rock, sunshine pop and disco, vocal jazz and synthpop.
City pop dominated Japanese mainstream pop music for two decades – but its definition covered an immensely broad variety of styles. Many city pop records were primed purely for pop success but they ranged vastly – and were capable of experimentation and politicisation.
Some early city pop works attempted clever subversion of the post-war Americanisation of Japanese air waves. Self-orientalising exotica works like Pacific and Orient were academic and political in a particularly subterfuge, cheeky way. Much of the techno-kayo and Japanese new wave that followed was similarly political – though often more openly so.
But city pop also remains well-known for its non-musical characteristics. Cover artworks of lush vistas and panoramas (by the likes of Eizin Suzuki and Hiroshi Nagai) combined pop art with surrealism and American advertising, making for some of the most identifiable and iconic album covers in Japanese pop.
Linked to those aesthetics was city pop artists’ fondness for themed records – be it resorts, sun, sea, sand or nightlife – and a certain sense of collaboration. Throughout city pop’s first decade, liner notes were often filled with the same reputable names, each contributing to the others’ pop experiments.
Check out our City Pop playlist!