Before “Gangnam Style” and K-pop‘s quest for world domination, there was J-pop, Asia’s preferred party music. You can read about how Korea overtook Japan on pop’s world stage here. Or you can bone up on J-pop’s essential sounds below! (The videos are at the bottom of the page.)
1. Kyu Sakamoto, “Sukiyaki”
The first, and so far only, global J-pop smash, “Ue o Muite Arukou” or “Sukiyaki.” Sakamoto died tragically in 1985 when Japan Airlines flight 123 crashed into Mount Takamagahara. In 1981, a version with English lyrics by the disco group Taste of Honey topped the U.S. charts.
2. Pink Lady, “UFO”
Mie and Kei were not only known for making hits, but also for having special choreography for each. “UFO,” from 1977, remains one of their most famous dance routines. The hats are pretty cool, too.
3. Pink Lady, “Kiss in the Dark”
Pink Lady’s only U.S. hit was this bit of disco boilerplate. There is, of course, special choreography, but the best thing about this 1979 clip is the introductory segment by then-idol Leif Garrett.
4. Seiko Matsuda, “天国のキッス” [Tengoku no kissu]
Perhaps the greatest of Japan’s professionally cute pop stars, Matsuda was a genuine hit machine—she had 24 consecutive No. 1’s—and the first true “idol singer.” This was from 1983, when lace and chiffon were all the rage.
5. Seiko and Donnie Wahlberg, “The Right Combination”
Not even this moody, black-and-white video, with Wahlberg doing his best West Side Story glower, could turn Seiko’s big attempt at breaking the American market into a hit.
6. Pizzicato Five, “La Régle du Jeu”
No, we don’t know why a song with all Japanese lyrics has a French title, but that sort of whimsy was typical of Pizzicato Five. A Shibuya kei duo whose sound ranged from arch retro rock to stylized dance pop, P-5 had greater success in the U.S. than in Japan (and through a contract with Matador, no less).
7. Amuro Namie and Super Monkeys, “太陽の Season”
This was the first single by Amuro, with her original group Super Monkeys. All five were graduates of the Okinawa Actors School, whose alumni included a number of J-pop stars. Super Monkeys without Amuro were renamed Max, and had a successful career of their own.
8. Super Junky Monkey, “Buckin’ the Bolts”
Unlike Amuro and Super Monkeys, the punk-funk Super Junky Monkey never had any Japanese hits. Also unlike Amuro and crew, Super Junky Monkey did have a U.S. deal, with Tristar, and released two albums on this side of the Pacific.
9. Amuro Namie, “Can You Celebrate”
Her first singles may have been built around jittery Eurodisco beats, but it was this sweepingly lachrymose ballad that cemented her reputation. A karaoke classic and a staple of her live show (hence the multiple versions seen here) it was also covered by K-pop star Seo Yeon.
10. SMAP, “Stay”
The longest-running boy band in Japan, SMAP has seen all its members develop such strong secondary careers in film and TV that music making is no longer the group’s main focus. Still, they sing and dance like champs, and know how to turn an audience out.
11. TRF, “survival dAnce ~ no no cry more ~”
In the ’90s, J-pop bands were fond of slipping English lyrics into their songs, even if they had little or no idea of how English was actually spoken. Hence this curiously titled club classic, with its unintentionally funny refrain, “Try and dance.”
12. Globe, “Faces Places”
Producer and songwriter Tetsuya Komuro wasn’t content with merely collecting royalties from the songs he wrote for Amuro, TRF, Hitomi and others; he also wanted to perform, and so assembled the trio Globe, which was for a time the biggest band in Japan. He eventually married singer Keiko, seen in this video as a blonde.
13. Speed, “Go Go Heaven”
Like Amuro and Super Monkeys, the members of Speed were all graduates of the Okinawa Actors School, and the youngest member, Shimabukuro Hiroko, was only 13 when their first single was released. Speed was aggressively marketed outside of Japan, and was the biggest girl group in Asia when they disbanded in 2000. This track, from 1997, was their first No. 1 single in Japan.
14. Morning Musume, “Love Machine”
Although this mega-sized girl group is now one of the biggest pop acts in Japan, and a huge influence on K-Pop, it started almost by accident. Producer Tsunku had a contest to find a singer for the band Sharan Q, and then offered the four runners up the chance to make a single on their own, on the proviso that they sell 50,000 copies of the single in five days. They did, and Morning Musume (literally, “morning daughter”) was born. This disco-fueled extravaganza was their biggest early hit. Notice how their costumes change mid-dance, a video trick Girls’ Generation uses often.
15. Hamasaki Ayumi, “Song for XX”
By far the most enduring of the current J-pop cohort, Ayu-chan writes her own lyrics — a rarity in J-pop — and is famed for her unique point of view. This tune was the title track from her 1999 debut album.
16. Morning Musume, “1-2-3”
Twelve years and many members later, Morning Musume keeps on churning out the hits. This went to No. 2 in Japan earlier this summer. Note the number of “cute face” close-ups, and the weird special effect winks.
17. AKB48 (pictured above), “真夏のSounds Good”
Even more mega than Morning Musume, AKB48 is less a girl group than a girl army, with four teams comprising 67 members in all. Famous in Japan for giving daily shows at their own theatre in the Akihabara section of Tokyo, they’ve managed to become hugely successful without actually learning to sing or dance well. Still, who can argue with girls in bathing suits?
18. Utada Hikaru, “Automatic”
Utada was 16 when she wrote and recorded this soulful love song, which became an immediate sensation in Japan. Given her easy familiarity with the sound and feel of American R&B, she seemed a cinch to cross over.
19. Utada, “Easy Breezy”
When Seiko Matsuda tried the U.S. market, she dropped the “Matsuda” and went by her given name. In Utada’s case, it was her given name that got the heave-ho. Recorded with producer Timbaland, her U.S. debut sold well, but was hardly as successful as her releases in Japan, perhaps because Americans didn’t quite warm to lyrics like “You’re easy breezy and I’m Japanesy.”
20. Utada Hikaru, “Goodbye Loneliness”
Her farewell single. It’s a cute concept, with Utada pretending to be making a home video like any other fan, but the cleverest thing about this clip is the way she references the videos from all her biggest hits.