The Musical Phenomenon You’ve Never Heard Of

Written by Sophie, May 2021

Last weekend marked the 65th Eurovision Song Contest, and the United Kingdom celebrated it by getting Nul Points, a feat deemed ‘almost impossible’ since the new voting system was introduced in 2016. If you are a Eurovision fan then you probably know that it isn’t really limited to Europe anymore, as Australia, Israel and Morocco have all competed at one point, or currently compete in the contest. This got me thinking about Japan and Japanese music. Other than AKB48, the idol girl group with around 100 members, I really don’t know much about Japanese music.

There is an entire music industry in Japan that most of us in Europe and the US know nothing about. In fact, Japan is the second largest music market in the world, behind the US, so it stands to reason that they produce their own musicians. J-pop accounts for a large proportion of the musical success in Japan, with idol groups becoming more and more popular.

The success of idol groups can be a little hard to comprehend in the UK, where by and large bands are formed by groups of friends, and manufactured groups rarely do well (with some notable exceptions such as One Direction, Little Mix and Girls Aloud). In Japan, as well as Korea, China, and some other countries (although to nowhere near the same extent), creating groups is the norm. Thousands of people audition for a chance to become a trainee and eventually join a group. In Korea young teens train intensively in idol schools for up to 10 years for the chance to ‘debut’, i.e. start performing professionally, although it is supposedly far less strenuous in Japan. The aforementioned AKB48 (possibly Japans most famous girl group) are the fifth best-selling girl group of all time. And that’s in the world! (the spice girls top the list unsurprisingly!).

Japan also has some very successful rock stars. Possibly one of the most well know is Hyde from the band L’Arc-en-Ciel. In 2012 L’Arc-en-Ciel were the first Japanese band to sell out Madison Square Gardens in New York. The YouTuber Chris Broad, from Abroad in Japan, spent a week with Hyde and made a video on it, which I highly recommend you watch.

Of course you can’t talk about Japanese music without talking about traditional music. Japan has an abundance of traditional instruments, with the shamisen being perhaps one of the most well-known. The three stringed instrument, similar to a lute or banjo, is played with a bachi, a large pick usually made from wood or ivory. Maiko (trainee Geisha) usually learn the shamisen and other traditional instruments that they use to entertain guests. The Yoshida Brothers have helped to increase interest in the shamisen, with their modern arrangements using the traditional instrument.

I asked Ai whether people in Japan listen to western music or mostly Japanese, and she told me that Japanese and Korean music was the most popular in Japan. Knowing now what a booming industry it is, it isn’t hard to see why! Of course I’ve only scratched the surface of Japanese music, and will definitely be exploring other genres and areas, but I hope I’ve piqued your interest!

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