After a recent trip to Japan, Dj Fiskars feels inspired and goes deep into J-pop, guiding you through some of his favourite artists.
Dj Fiskars: Japan Only
I visited Japan for the first time in 2007. I was digging for some records with Dj Anonymous and by coincidence Tipa Hiihtopipo was around as well. He had a stack of self-made, laminated “postcards” with six record covers per side that he handed out to the record store clerk (because it’s impossible to ask “do you happen to have 古家杏子?”, obviously). Now, I’m not on that level. However, inspired by my recent trip back, I wanted to compose a short list of a few Japanese favorites. Tanoshinde Kudasai!
Tatsuro Yamashita: Dancer
Tatsuro Yamashita’s jazz-rock monster was one of my first contacts with Japanese music (outside of the chiptunes of video games, obviously – isn’t this the most beautiful melody?) It was sampled on Nicole Wray’s Can’t Get Out Of The Game, a track I used to play in my hip hop dj years. Both sound pretty sweet after all this time.
Yellow Magic Orchestra: Cue
YMO’s contribution to Japanese music (and electronic music in general) can’t be stressed enough; there’s a ton of YMO songs that could end up on the list. Cue is an all around perfect synth-pop song and most likely my personal fave from their catalog. With 1000 Knives on the B-side, we’re truly talking about an über 12”.
Logic System: Unit
Logic System is a project of Hideki Matsutake, a master sound programmer and the “fourth member” of YMO during the late 1970s and early 80s. Ahead of it’s time to say the least.
Akiko Yano: Rose Garden
Akiko’s debut LP Japanese Girl was somewhat a sensation when it came out, breaking out from the conventional Japanese ‘idoru style’ (young manufactured stars or starlets marketed to be admired for their cuteness). She went to become the wife of Ryuichi Sakamoto (of Yellow Magic Orchestra) and she toured with YMO as support keyboardist. This 1981 track Rose Garden is a delightfully raw yet sweet new wave tune leaning heavily towards the leftfield.
Makoto Matsushita: Love Was Really Gone
As surprising as it may seem, Japan is not really a country of innovation, and originality doesn’t seem to be an issue for Japanese musicians, either.¹ Shibuya-kei might be the culmination of the curation-as-creation model, but the Japanese artists have always mimicked Western music; let Makoto Matsushita’s AOR (or in this case city pop) banger serve as an example.
Tatsuro Yamashita: Love Talkin’ (Honey It’s You)
In Japan there are many kinds of elusive, local “genres”; for example you would file this song under city pop – it’s essentially Japanese soft rock or boogie disco with a “cosmopolitan” vibe to it. Please be warned: city pop is not entry-level smooth music and quite frankly the sleekness of most of the songs is close to painful. But, if you dig deep enough, there are gems.
The blatant yuppie-esque qualities of city pop – after all it was music for those who benefited from Japan’s post-war “economic miracle” – make it beloved sample material for “anti-capitalist” vaporwave artists
The blatant yuppie-esque qualities of city pop – after all it was music for those who benefited from Japan’s post-war “economic miracle” – make it beloved sample material for “anti-capitalist” vaporwave artists, too. This song was sampled on Saint Pepsi’s easily forgettable Skylar Spence. While on the subject of vaporwave and Japan, I need to recommend this 45 minute ambient trip of a record. It’s by UK artist David Russo and has grown to become one of my favorite releases from recent years.
Magical Power Mako: East World . . I Love You
Another exclusively Japanese genre is techno kayo, which is basically a mix of synth-pop, new wave and j-pop – typically with a delightful outsider vibe to it. Members of YMO were heavily involved in the genre. Just listen to the programming here: it’s basically a trap tune from 1981.
Chiemi Manabi: Targeted Girl
This is a more approachable example of techno kayo. From the record collecting point of view the genre has exploded in an unsatisfying manner: it’s displeasing to put down 300€ for a record that – I imagine – was a bargain 10 years ago (cf. the so called Euro cosmic scene). YMO is once again involved: Discogs says the record was “supervised” by Haruomi Hosono.
Sandii: Zoot Kook
Yet another Hosono production. Sandii had a versatile career in music and is still recording. Besides that she’s heavily involved in Hula culture and runs two Hula schools in Tokyo and Yokohama (!)
Kyoko Furuya: Harumi Futoh
Better Days was an offshoot label of Nippon Columbia, focusing largely on the jazz and fusion music of the late 1970s. Last year, Organic Music’s head honcho Chee Shimizu curated an interesting two-disc compilation from their vaults; this is one of the 7 inches that chipped off from the set. It was released on Record Store Day this year – get it while you can, because it’s blazin’ hot.
Yasuaki Shimizu: Semitori No Hi
Another one from the Better Days catalog. The original pressing will set you back a couple hundred euros; luckily the record is freshly re-issued. Amazing cover art, too.
Yoko Hatanaka: More Sexy
Osamu Kitajima: Waterman Beetle
There’s a great record store in Shimokitazawa called City Country City. Aside from carrying a sweet selection of records they serve around 30 portions of pasta a day(!) I picked up this balearic jazz-funk LP while enjoying a delicious carbonara. Lovely Get It Up For Love gone East -vibe in Waterman Beetle.
Junko Yagami: Zyohanasubargu
Cool yet not cold wave-y reggae tune par excellence.
Nami Shimada: Sun Shower
Just to go out with a bang, I present to you Soichi Terada’s treatment of the classic j-pop song Sun Shower. I really can’t imagine a party this wouldn’t start. The 1989 original is impossible, but the reissues are plenty.
¹ To broaden the understanding of the mental landscape of Japanese people I heartily recommend Alan MacFarlane’s book Japan Through the Looking Glass (suom. Japanin sydämessä).