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The History of Japanese Pop Music
by Alex Cosper (2/5/13)

Traditional Japanese music, unlike much of the top selling pop music in the nation, is tied to the Buddhist religion and goes back many centuries. While Japan has been one of the top music markets in the world for decades, there is a big difference between the music its citizens buy and the music that's engrained in the culture. While most cultures use mathematical intervals for their music scales, traditional Japanese music is based on human breathing, which incorporates a wider spectrum of sounds.

The first big selling record in Japan was the 1914 hit "Kachūsha no Uta" (also known as "Katyusha's Song") by actress Sumako Matsui. This recording ushered in a genre called ryūkōka songs (meaning popular music), which was heavily influenced by European classical music based on the major pentatonic scale. Popularizing the genre even more, despite resistance from the establishment, was singer/actor Ichirō Fujiyama, who had a string of big hits starting with "Camp Kouta" and "Sake wa Namida ka Tameiki ka" in 1931. He later sang war songs during World War II, which was common among Japan's top artists.

Although jazz was discouraged in Japan during World War II, due to its link to America, it ultimately became an influencial and widely embraced genre following the war. One of the biggest hits ever to come out of Japan was "Sukiyaki" by Kyu Sakamoto. The song, sung entirely in Japanese, hit number one in America and other countries in 1963. The song was a big hit again by American R&B acts A Taste of Honey in 1981 and 4 P.M. in 1995.

From the sixties on, a big influence on Japanese music was The Beatles and other popular rock artists. The Beatles were well recieved in Japan on their final tour in 1966. Lyrical pop music known as kayōkyoku fused with sixties rock to form a genre called group sounds, which was popularized by The Tigers, The Tempers, The Spiders, The Golden Cups and The Mops. A separate genre, also influenced by The Beatles, called J-pop, emerged in the nineties as somewhat of a flashback form of lyrical melodic music, picking up where kayōkyoku had left off. Eventually J-pop came to have a broad definition to mean any kind of popular Japanese music.

In the 1970s the impact of folk/rock influenced the rise of fōku music. Another trend that developed during the later part of the decade was electronic synth pop, led by Yellow Magic Orchestra, fronted by Haruomi Hosono. The band's innovative sounds shaped elements of electronica, house, hip hop and later J-pop. Inspired by Kraftwerk's experimental electronic music, YMO scored international hits in 1979 such as "Firecracker" and "Computer Game." Their recordings for Fuji Cassette commercials further elevated their brand of technopop. Considered pioneers of electronic music they were early adopters of drum machines and sampling. The band remained on top of Japan's music scene through 1984, when the members began to pursue solo careers.

Part of the reason Japan was a key launching pad for the development of electronic music was that a lot of the technology originated in Japan. Roland, for example, is a Japanese company that marketed the first commercial synthesizer, the SH-1000, in 1973. Four years later they began putting out digital sequencers with microprocessors along with guitar synthesizers. In 1978 they introduced a drum machine that could be programmed by musicians. Their TR-808 drum machine, which defined the sound of early techno pop, first came out in 1980.

Yamaha, another Japanese instrument maker, has been a leading manufacturer of keyboards, guitars and other instruments since the late 1800s. They were the first company to successfully market digital synthesizers starting with the DX7 in 1983, based on research from Stanford University. It was this keyboard and its imitations that defined much of the world's pop music of the 80s. Other important Japanese synthesizer manufacturers have been Korg and Akai. Important guitar manufacturers from Japan besides Yamaha have included Takamine and Ibanez. Sony has also had a huge impact on global music, with its divisions in consumer electronics and recorded music.

Japan's first notable pop music charts were published by the Tokushin Music Report in 1962. Then in 1967 Kabushki-gaisha Orijinaru Konfidensu (also known as Original Confidence Inc.) became the more recognized music survey in the Japanese music industry. A subsidiary of this corporation called Oricon has issued weekly music charts and data since 2002. The nation's all time top selling single was "Oyoge! Taiyaki-kun" by Masato Shimon in 1975. One of the top selling Japanese artists of the 21st century has been female solo singer Misia, whose hit "Everything" was a huge hit in 2001. In 2010 and 2012 Japan was the top market in the world for music sales, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI).

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