Tokyo Nights - The Story of Female J-Pop

BUBBLE - Step into the Light

From 1986 to 1991, Japan experienced an economic Bubble in which real estate and stock market prices soared to stratospheric heights and the Gross Domestic Product rose to the second highest in the world. Following a three-decade long “Economic Miracle,” in which rapid re-industrialization and urbanization brought steady economic growth, the Bubble was the pinnacle of Japan’s post-war recovery.

In a mere four years from 1986 to 1989, Japan’s Nikkei stock index tripled and land prices inflated to where some of Tokyo’s prime neighborhoods were over 300 times more expensive than their Manhattan counterparts. The saying went that the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo were worth more than the entire state of California and that if you dropped a 10,000 yen note (roughly $90.00 USD today) on the streets of Ginza, it was worth less than the tiny amount of land it covered.

As Japan Inc. was buzzing along, standards of living soared to among the highest in the world.  Young Japanese left their hometowns in search of upward mobility and big city life. Japanese men sought to become “salarymen” (サラリーマン), white-collar professionals working for major corporations. Their relentlessly long hours and blind loyalty to their companies was rewarded with lifetime employment and the promise of middle class lifestyles. Tokyo, Osaka, Yokohama, Nagoya, and other cities across Japan transformed into neon wonderlands where the cityscape inscribed itself into the Japanese urban identity. None more so than Tokyo, with the image of Tokyo Tower (immortalized in Toshiki Kadomatsu’s song of the same name) looming in the distance. 

The Bubble can be characterized as an endless, extravagant party. Companies spent generously on entertainment. From sponsoring weekend golf getaways to Hawaii or Saipan, to limitless expense accounts at hostess bars, debauchery became a normal part of the workday. Indulgence spilled into all facets of pleasure. Japanese became connoisseurs of imported wine and liquor, luxury clothing brands, art and international travel. Their taste for nightlife, from flashy restaurants to glitzy discotheques, was unquenchable.   

Japanese companies were on the forefront of technological innovation, producing the world’s finest stereo equipment, efficient cars, and cutting-edge home entertainment. Video games hit the market, arcades popped up across the country, and through the success of Nintendo and Sega, Japan became an 8-bit utopia. 

The Japanese public needed a soundtrack to this new, lavish lifestyle (lest their Sony Walkmans go empty) and the latest sound, City Pop (シティーポップ), epitomized these attitudes.


CITY POP - Bright Lights, Big City

Music journalist Yutaka Kimura defines City Pop as “urban pop music for those with urban lifestyles.” Its visual aspects can be divided into two camps - sandy beaches and metropolitan skylines. The feeling of movement, from a coastal highway stretching toward the horizon or the city sprawling into the future, is prominent. Themes of illumination, romance, automobiles and beach travel were common.

While influenced by American R&B and boogie, elements of fusion, YMO style Technopop and adult-oriented rock (AOR) were front and center. Sung primarily in Japanese (with a word or two of English sprinkled in), City Pop was Japanese music for the domestic market. Lyrics were apolitical and introspective, emphasizing personal as opposed to communal struggles. This was a distinct break from the folk and rock ballads of the ‘70s that spoke to spiritual/economic struggles and emphasized social messages.  The jump between styles was not immediate and “New Music” (ニューミュージック) artists such as Sugar Babe, Yumi Arai (later Yumi Matsutoya), Off Course and Godiego bridged the gap between the two sounds with their west coast pop influences.

Male artists like Tatsuro Yamashita, Toshiki Kadomatsu and Haruomi Hosono were equally recognized for their production of other artists in the genre as their own work. They were quick to embrace the latest studio equipment and technology. Synthesizers like the Yamaha DX7, Roland Juno-60, ARP Quadra, Moog Polymoog and Oberheim OB-8, as well as drum machines like the Linndrum, were prevalent. Digital reverb was applied liberally.

Women played a large role in City Pop, usually as vocalists or solo acts. Kimiko Kasai, Anri, and Minako Yoshida were unmistakable stars. Many other female singers, like Momoko Kikuchi, were “idols” (アイドル). Carefully manufactured by talent agencies to appear on TV, talk shows, and in anime (アニメ), their rise to stardom was as often abrupt as their crash while the public looked for the next flavor of the month.


WOMEN - Sea is a Lady

This era saw women entering higher education, and in turn the workforce, in record numbers. Advanced degrees opened up higher paying roles for women aspiring to be more than “OL”s (Japanese term for “Office Lady,” often relegated to clerical duties and serving tea). Single women in Japan customarily live rent-free with their parents until marriage, so employment provided a substantial amount of expendable income. Women embraced the same excesses as their male counterparts, enjoying cosmopolitan indulgences like fashion, fine dining, travel and nightlife. While institutional expectations still pressured young women to marry early and become a ''good wife, wise mother’’(良妻賢母), it was not frowned upon to have a little fun before then.

This newfound financial independence coincided with changes in morals, values and identity, which are reflected in some of the lyrics on this compilation. Themes of passive, innocent love, pervasive in older music, were replaced by women voicing their own desires and feelings. Singers like Hitohmi Tohyama and Junko Ohashi sang about the inner workings of their bedrooms as they addressed risqué and sometimes taboo subjects like one-night stands and the pursuit of men. While most Japanese love songs hesitate to express emotions directly, this allusion to physical relationships encouraged women to take an active role in their own sexuality. 

LEGACY - After 5 Crash 

By August 1990, the Nikkei stock index had plummeted to half of its peak just a few years earlier. Soon after, real estate prices crashed. The bubble burst and Japan entered an era of economic stagnation, limited growth and declining employment known as the “Lost Decade” (失われた十年). The feeling of exhilaration and invincibility went with it. 

While the party didn't last forever, the influence of City Pop can be heard today domestically and abroad. As evidenced by the growing number of reissues on foreign labels and explosion of prices these records command on the resale market, the rest of the world is beginning to embrace this unique sound. Elements of City Pop can be heard in new Japanese singers like Hitomitoi, Tofubeats, Junk Fujiyama or Monari Wakita as well as the groups Especia, DORIAN and Greeen Linez. 

In clubs from Berlin to New York it is not uncommon to hear Yukihiro Takahashi or Mariya Takeuchi mixed with house and disco. Shibaura Sound System led the resurgence celebrating Japanese music through festive parties in London and Paris. City Pop has surprisingly seen its greatest supporter on YouTube as legions of vaporware artists sample, pitch down and loop these tracks for their cassette/internet based genre. As the world shrinks and record pilgrimages to Japan become a rite of passage for DJs and collectors alike, these records have become commonplace in discerning collections around the world. The themes of big city life and unbridled optimism still feel fresh today. There is something we can all identify within these songs, even if only through our imaginations rather than our experiences.


Eli Cohen

Alliance Upholstery

NYC, 2017

Purchase Tokyo Nights Here:

Older Post Newer Post