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Hikaru Utada is Japan's reigning Pop Empress

Find how who's who in Japanese pop with our interactive sound sampler!

From cotton candy to acid rebels, Japan's pop scene heats up

Web posted on:
Tuesday, June 15, 1999 5:48:09 PM EST

From Tim Lister
CNN WorldBeat Executive Producer

(CNN) -- Think of Japanese music. Maybe the world-renowned Kodo Drummers come to mind, their 900-pound odaiko resonating with ritualistic power.

But the Japanese beat of 1999 comes in many genres.

"The prevailing sort of music coming out of Japan is mainly Japanese pop right now," says Alecia Cohen, publisher of Rhythm Music Magazine. "A lot of this has to do with the influence of American pop. During World War II, there was a lot of rock and country and American pop music that was exported there through different radio channels."

The Japanese have always had a taste for pop idols. Right now, most are female. Ami Suzuki is typical prefabricated pop, highly derivative of Western artists. Out of the same stable, the slightly more sophisticated Ayumi Hamasaki is currently in Japan's Top 20 with the single "Love Destiny."

But the new princess is 16-year-old Hikaru Utada. In just a few weeks, her soul-tinted "First Love" has sold five-million copies. The New York-born teen could soon boast Japan's all-time top-selling album.

"A lot of these younger female artists are singer-songwriters," says Archie Meguro of Sony Music International. "And then Hikaru Utada just kind of blew the ceiling out. She's a great singer. At the same time, there are a lot of riffs in the song that kind of are from, like, the '60s and '70s, that even older people can identify with the song."

Shonen Knife

Veterans cut through the sweetness

But Japan's pop musicians are spinning more than just cotton candy from pert wonder-kids. Shonen Knife, for example, is a band of Japanese veterans at the cutting edge. The all-woman band from Osaka -- with guitarist Naoko Yamano, bassist Michie Nakatani and drummer Atsuko Yamano -- has toured with Nirvana and built an American following.

"Shonen Knife is like a girl grunge band," says Sony's Meguro. "They've been touring America for a very long time. I think they started out in the late '80s and have a constant following, a little bit more outside of Japan than in. And I think they bring something new, a quirky 'Japanese-ness,' to the music they do."

By contrast, the visual Kai bands -- roughly translated as "glam rock" -- are much bigger at home. Of these, Glay is the epitome, playing to huge audiences and selling more than 12 million albums in their backlash against saccharine pop.

The Boom Boom Satellites pour a Japanese cocktail of dance, techno and hip-hop, stirred with guitar. Meguro predicts this band is likely to break out onto the international scene, as well.

Tomayasu Hotei

Western influences

Japan's 20-somethings are less inhibited than their elders. There's more than a whiff of rebellion in bands like Audio Active. Now some six or seven years old, they made their major debut five years ago. The band's Masa says the group is "influenced by free jazz, techno, dub, funk, Jimi Hendrix. The river is wide but not deep."

A melange of Western influences may have contributed to this rebellion in newer music. But guitarist Tomayasu Hotei -- the veteran of Japanese rock -- cites a single English musician for his life's work.

"I was walking down the street, and I saw a Marc Bolan poster, the famous black-and-white one. And I saw his face and his face is just in an ecstasy moment. And my eyes went down, and there's a guitar. So I thought, 'Ah, this instrument makes him happy.' So I started going to the music shop, and I bought this very cheap Stratocaster, and stood in front of the mirror."

Since then, Hotei has sold 25 million albums in Japan, and has collaborated with Jeff Beck and Richie Sambora.

DJ Krush

Dance, techno superstars

While Japan's pop and rock movements are strong, perhaps the most intriguing sounds out of Japan right now come from dance and techno musicians.

Their mixes are creating "Japanese superhits and superstars," says Meguro, but "that music really doesn't transfer very well across our borders yet. We find that a lot of techno music, a lot of hip-hop, techno, acid jazz, that type kind of club culture is doing very new things in Japan."

Among the leading exponents, DJ Krush, who's not immune to remixing Lennon songs.

Is nothing sacred?

"Kodo" means both "heartbeat" and "children of the drum." And it seems that the kids are finding new ways to adapt venerable Japanese traditions.

Tsumura Collection: Hip to be square
May 12, 1999
Japanese drummers combine art and athleticism
July 21, 1997
Japanese troupe keeps Taiko drumbeat rolling
July 20, 1997
Groundbreaking duo Cibo Matto return with 'Stereotype A'
April 5, 1999

World of Sony Music
Shonen Knife
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