One of the many things that Japan is quite well-known for is its artistry. There are several famous Japanese artists that are popular not just within the borders of the country but overseas as well. Art in the form of painting, sculptures, and architecture are promoted in the Land of the Sun. Among its many beautiful art forms would also be its music. Japanese music is comprised of a wide range of genres, both in traditional music and in modern Japanese music. The term “music” in Japanese would be “ongaku,” which is a combination of two kanji words: “on” and “gaku.” The word “on” stands for “sound” while the word “gaku” translates to “enjoy.”
In the year 2014, with US$2 billion, the country of Japan was the biggest physical music market on earth. Furthermore, with a total retail value of US$2.6 billion also in the same year, Japan was the second biggest overall music market. Obviously, the Japanese love their music as local songs typically appear in karaoke places.
Traditional Music of Japan and their Instruments
Japanese music can be generally divided into two categories: traditional music and modern music. Despite the modern advancement of technology in Japan, traditional music can be considered vintage but is still very much alive in the country. This may be attributed to the Japanese people’s love for their history, tradition, and heritage, wherein there are many citations of Japanese music on print. Traditional Japanese music can be divided into two forms, both considered as the oldest forms in history. These two are shomyo and gagaku. Shomyo stands for Buddhist chanting while gagaku stands for orchestral court music. Both forms of traditional music date back to the Nara period and Heian period.
A type of Japanese classical music, gagaku has been performed at the Imperial court since the Heian era. Indigenous repertories include Azuma-asobi, Yamato-uta, and Kagura-uta. Gagaku can be further divided into two categories, namely, kangen and bugaku. Kangen stands for instrumental music while bugaku stand for dance accompanied by gagaku.
On the other hand, there is also Japanese folk music called min’yo. This type of Japanese music can be divided into four different categories, namely, work songs; religious songs like sato kagura; songs performed in gatherings like weddings, festivals, and funerals; and children’s songs known as warabe uta. Singers of min’yo are generally accompanied by the shamisen, which is a Japanese three-stringed lute, taiko drums, and a bamboo flute known as shakuhachi.
There are also other instruments that can accompany min’yo singers such as the shinobue, which is a transverse flute; the kane, which is a bell; the tsuzumi, which is a hand drum; and the koto, which is a 13-stringed zither. On the other hand, on the island of Okinawa, the primary instrument would be the sanshin. Due to the modernization of music, modern instrumentation is now also being used when playing this type of music. Instruments like electric guitars and synthesizers are now also being utilized by enka singers who cover some traditional min’yo songs.
Certain terms are also associated with min’yo folk music, namely, ondo, bushi, bon uta, and komori uta. An ondo is basically any type of folk song that has a distinct swing to it, which may be heard as 2/4 time rhythm. An example of this would be the folk songs commonly performed during Obon festival when dances are performed. On the other hand, a bushi is any song that has a distinct melody. Just the name itself translates to either “melody” or “rhythm.” However, the term “bushi” is not typically used on its own. It is typically used as a prefix following a word that refers to a location, occupation, or personal name. As the name suggests, bon uta is songs that are performed during Obon festivals, which are lantern festivals for the dead. As for komori uta, these are songs considered to be lullabies for children.
Okinawan Folk Music of Japan and their Instruments
As for Okinawan folk music, it is quite different in comparison to mainland Japanese folk music. First of all, this type of folk music is commonly accompanied by the sanshin instead of the typical shamisen in mainland Japanese music. Other instruments used in Okinawan folk music include the taiko and the sanba, which makes a clicking sound that resembles that of castanets. A sharp finger whistling may also accompany Okinawan folk music known as yubi-bue.
The second difference between the Okinawan folk music and the mainland Japanese folk music is tonality. Min’yo songs from mainland Japanese folk music is usually based on a pentatonic scale that eliminates the subdominant and leading tone. Hence, its musical scale has no half steps between every note. However, this is not the case for Okinawan min’yo. For the latter, the music is characterized by scales that is comprised of half-steps.
There are also various instruments that accompany the general traditional Japanese music. An example of this would be the honkyoku. Translating to “original pieces,” honkyoku are single pieces of shakuhachi that is played by mendicant Fuke sect priests. Known as komuso in Japanese, which translates to “emptiness monk,” these priests play the instruments for not just alms but also enlightenment. With this, one can see how even Japanese instruments shape the life of the locals.
Another traditional Japanese instrument is the biwa. A type of short-necked flute, the biwa is usually played by a group of itinerant performers known as the biwa hoshi. They play the biwa while telling stories. The most famous story told accompanied by the biwa is “the Tale of the Heike,” which is about the triumph of the Minamoto clan against the Taira during the 12th century. The taiko, on the other hand, is a traditional Japanese drum. This musical instrument is quite versatile as it can be played for a wide range of musical genres. Through the years, the taiko has become the central instrument of percussion ensembles that are focused more on folk and festival music of the past. Other traditional Japanese instruments include the fue, the hichiriki, the hyoshigi, the kokyu, the ryuteki, and the shime-daiko.
The Different Genres of Modern Japanese Music
Today, there are more genres of music that have been developed through the years. There are many factors that affected these changes, one of which is the exposure of Japan to the culture of the West. One of the most popular genres of Japanese music at present would be J-pop. Standing for Japanese pop, J-pop is a musical genre that is loosely defined. It was introduced to the musical mainstream of the country during the 1990s. Its roots date back to the pop and rock music of the 1960s when bands such as The Beatles were introduced to the Japanese youth. Japanese bands like Happy End infused rock with Japanese music. This genre was further developed by Japanese new wave bands, an example of which would be Yellow Magic Orchestra and Southern All Stars. Currently, J-pop is at the peak of its popularity wherein one can listen to in almost all radio channels.
Another genre of modern Japanese music would be Idol music. Considered a significant part of the Japanese music market, idol musical artists in the country are usually composed of either girl groups or boy bands. These bands and their music are so popular that it was common to see their singles topping the charts on a regular basis. One of the most popular boy bands in Japan of all time would be Arashi, a group that had the best-selling singles in the years 2008 and 2009. As for the girl groups, one of the most popular would be AKB48, which had the best-selling singles every year since the year 2010.
As the year 2011 began, more and more idol groups were introduced to the public. There is even a term that refers to the high number of idol groups in the music industry of Japan, known as “Idol sengoku jidai,” which literally translates to “Idol war age.” Just in the year 2014, fans of the girl group Momoiro Clover Z flocked to the group’s live concerts and amounted to about 486,000 people. This was the highest record for female artists in the music industry of Japan. From the year 2013 to the year 2016, this girl group was also ranked as the most popular girl group in the country.
There are still other genres of modern Japanese music. This includes dance and disco music, home-grown Japanese folk rock, electronic rock, alternative rock, punk rock, and heavy metal. Just from the list, one can already deduce that the rock genre has developed quite a lot in the music industry of Japan.
Scale-Up: The Top Music Videos in the Charts Today
Currently, there are a lot of songs in various genres that are competing for the top spot in the charts. In order to make it more popular, music videos are usually produced to entertain not just the ears but also the eyes of the audience. Generally, these music videos are comprised of either dance numbers or stories. At present, the following is a list of the top tracks in Japan today, though the positions may change every week or so:
1. “Peace Sign” by Kenshi Yonezu
2. “Osaka Ai.Eye.Ai” by Johnny’s WEST
3. “Aisaeareba Nannimoiranai” by Angerme
4. “Kowareyasuki” by Guilty Kiss
5. “TT” by TWICE
6. “Canaria” by Yuzu
7. “CQCQ” by Kamisama Bokuwa Kizuite Shimatta
8. “Destiny” by Che’Nelle
9. “Rain” by SEKAI NO OWARI
10. “Non Fiction” by Ken Hirai
11. “Influencer” by Nogizaka 46
12. “Signal” by TWICE
13. “Just You and I” by Namie Amuro”
14. “Seimei” by B’z
15. “Koi” by Gen Hoshino
16. “Fukyouwaon” by Keyakizaka46
17. “Tsunagu” by Arashi
18. “As If It’s Your Last” by BLACKPINK
19. “Chi.Ase.Namida” by BTS
20. “Intersect” by Maaya Uchida
21. “Ribbon” by BUMP OF CHICKEN
22. “I Need Your Love” by Beverly
23. “Pa” by Kana Nishino
24. “Charm” by WANIMA
25. “Himawari No Yakusoku” by Motohiro Hata
Music Box Office Hits: The Best-Selling Japanese Music Artists of All Time
If one would like to try listening to modern Japanese music, it would probably be best to first try listening to the top, best-selling Japanese music artists of all time. After all, there must be a reason as to why their music stayed in the industry for a long time. Furthermore, there must also be something about their music and their song that thousands, even millions, of people supported these artists.
Oricon began accumulating the physical sales of the singles that entered their charts in the year 1968. Two years after, Oricon also began accumulating physical sales of the albums that entered its charts. On the other hand, kindly note that it does not include record sales that either did not enter the chart in the first place or fell off the charts later on. Nonetheless, it has some record on the best-selling Japanese music artist from the year 1968 onwards.
First place goes to AKB48 for best-selling artists that sold the most number of singles, which was 40.4 million. B’z comes in second place with 35.8 million, Mr. Children in third place with 28.45 million followed by Southern All Stars at fourth place with 25.179 million. On the other hand, the best-selling solo artist and also the lone artist to sell over 50 million in total would be none other than Ayumi Hamasaki.
Artists that sold over 50 million records in sales are B’z with 86 million, Mr. Children with 59.12 million, and Ayumi Hamasaki with 80 million. B’z has been active in the industry since the year 1988 until present. Mr. Children has been active in the industry from the year 1989 to the year 1997 and again from the year 1998 until today. Ayumi Hamasaki has been active in the industry since the year 1998 until present.
There are, of course, a lot more Japanese music artists and genres to check out. What is great about music in Japan is the diversity of the styles and forms. Furthermore, Japanese music is continuously being developed to cater to the many fans not just in Japan but also overseas. This just goes to show how influential their music is to the point that these artists even have fans from other countries such as South Korea and Taiwan.