Japanese Pop Music History: From Indie to Commercial Rock Must Have Keywords

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Japanese pop music has a long and storied history, beginning in the country’s early days as an indie scene and eventually evolving into the commercial rock that we know today. Join us as we explore the origins and influences of Japanese pop music!


Japanese pop music has a long and storied history, from its early-’60s roots in American and British pop and rock to the present day. Though it has often been overshadowed by J-Pop, Japanese indie music has been thriving for decades, with a vibrant and ever-changing scene. In recent years, Japanese indie bands have begun to find success both at home and abroad, paving the way for a new generation of Japanese musicians.

Pre-War Japanese Pop

It’s safe to say that pre-war Japanese pop music was largely defined by its Western influences. Around the turn of the 20th century, a growing number of young people in Japan were exposed to Western music, particularly via military bands and via gramophone records. This Western influence can be heard in early Japanese pop hits like “Aoki Hagane no Arpeggio” and “Ryuuseigun,” both of which were released in 1907.

Traditional Japanese music

Traditional Japanese music has three main categories: court music, folk music, and theater music. Court music, in turn, can be divided into ceremonial and non-ceremonial subcategories.

Ceremonial court music was performed primarily for the imperial court and religious ceremonies. The best known form of ceremonial court music is gagaku, which dates back to the 7th century. Gagaku is a form of orchestral music that uses a variety of instruments, including stringed instruments, flutes, drums, and gongs.

Non-ceremonial court music was performed for social gatherings and entertainment purposes. This type of music is often lighter and more upbeat than ceremonial court music. One well-known form of non-ceremonial court music is biwa hōshi (“household biwa player”) music, which was originally performed by itinerant musicians who played the biwa (a four-stringed lute).

Folk music includes a wide variety of regional traditions from across Japan. These traditions include both vocal and instrumental pieces. Folk songs often tell stories or express the emotions of the people who perform them. One popular type of folk song is the min’yō (“people’s song”), which dates back to the Edo period (1603-1868). Min’yō songs are typically about love, work, or daily life.

Theater music includes both Kabuki and Noh theater. Kabuki is a form of musical theater that emerged in the early 1600s. It is known for its elaborate stage productions and dynamic acting. Noh theater arose in the 14th century and is known for its highly stylized acting and singing.

Western influence

Though the roots of pop music in Japan can be traced back to the 1920s, it wasn’t until after World War II that the genre began to take on a more distinctly Japanese sound. This is due in large part to the fact that during the war, Western music was banned from being broadcast on the radio. As a result, when Allied forces began broadcasting American shows like “The Lone Ranger” and “The Jack Benny Program” in the late 1940s, they were met with great enthusiasm by the Japanese people.

One of the first Japanese pop songs to gain widespread popularity was “Yozora no Hoshi” (“The Evening Star”), which was released in 1949. The song, which was written by Japanese composer Hibari Misora, was heavily influenced by American country music. Misora would go on to become one of Japan’s most popular singers, and her influence can still be heard in contemporary Japanese pop music.

In the 1950s and 1960s, many Western artists found success in Japan, including Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and The Beach Boys. These artists had a profound impact on the development of Japanese pop music, and their influence can still be heard in contemporary artists such as Utada Hikaru and AI.

Post-War Japanese Pop

While the exact origins of Japanese pop music are unknown, the genre has roots in American and British pop music of the early 20th century. Japanese pop music first gained widespread popularity in the 1960s with the advent of commercial rock bands like The Spiders and The Tigers. These bands brought a new sound to the Japanese music scene, blending Western influences with traditional Japanese instrumentation. The Spiders and The Tigers were followed by a wave of other successful bands in the 1970s and 1980s, solidifying Japanese pop music’s place in the country’s musical landscape.

American Occupation

After World War II, the American Occupation of Japan led to a major change in the country’s pop music scene. There was a sudden influx of American music, which quickly gained popularity among the Japanese people. This included genres such as jazz, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll. Many Japanese musicians began to experiment with these new styles, creating their own unique fusion of Japanese and Western sounds.

During this time, the first ever Japanese pop song was released: “Ue o Muite Arukou” by Kyu Sakamoto. This catchy tune quickly rose to the top of the charts and has since become an international classic. It remains one of the most well-known and beloved Japanese pop songs of all time.

In the 1960s, Japan began to develop its own commercial rock music industry. This was led by bands such as The Tigers and The Spiders, who were heavily influenced by British Invasion groups such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. These bands helped to popularize Western rock music in Japan and laid the foundations for subsequent generations of Japanese rock musicians.

The 1970s saw the rise of homegrown Japanese electronic music, with artists such as Isao Tomita and Yellow Magic Orchestra becoming internationally renowned for their groundbreaking work in this field. This decade also saw the birth of Japan’s now-legendary punk rock scene, spearheaded by bands like The Blue Hearts and The Stalin.

Today, Japanese pop music is more diverse than ever before, with a wide range of genres being represented within the country’s musical landscape. From catchy J-pop tunes to heavy metal anthems, there’s something for everyone in Japan’s dynamic pop music scene!

The Beatles

In 1963, the Beatles began their first world tour in support of their debut album Please Please Me. The tour included stops in Sweden, France, and the United States, where they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. The exposure helped to make them one of the most popular bands in the world and influenced a new wave of British rock groups that would come to be known as the “British Invasion.”

The Beatles continued to enjoy success with subsequent releases such as A Hard Day’s Night (1964), Help! (1965), and Rubber Soul (1965). In 1966, they released Revolver, an album that saw them experiment with new sounds and styles. The following year, they released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album that is widely considered to be one of the greatest albums of all time.

The band continued to release successful albums throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, including The Beatles (1968), Abbey Road (1969), and Let It Be (1970). In 1970, the band officially split up, although they have since been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and have been recognized as one of the most influential bands in history.

Japanese Rock

After the war, American troops stationed in Japan helped to spread the popularity of Rock and Roll, which quickly caught on with young people across the country. In the early 1950s, a new style of music called Group Sounds (GS) began to emerge. GS was heavily influenced by Western rock and roll, but also had a distinctly Japanese flavor. The end of the decade saw the rise of folk rock in Japan, with bands like Happy End becoming hugely popular.

In the 1970s, Japanese rock began to take on a more experimental edge. This was largely due to the influence of Western artists like David Bowie and Kraftwerk. This new wave of Japanese rock is often referred to as City Pop. Some of the most popular City Pop bands included Taj Mahal Travellers and Godiego.

The 1980s saw a return to more traditional forms of Japanese rock, with bands like X Japan and Loudness becoming enormously successful. In the late 80s and early 90s, a new subgenre called Visual Kei emerged. Visual Kei bands are known for their flashy dress sense and over-the-top stage shows. Some of the most popular Visual Kei bands include X Japan, Malice Mizer, and Dir en Grey.

Today, Japanese rock is as popular as ever, with many young people turning to it as an alternative to mainstream music.

Modern Japanese Pop

Indie music

The history of Japanese popular music can be traced back to the early 20th century, when Western styles such as jazz and blues started to become popular in the country. In the 1930s, Japanese musicians began to experiment with combining Western music with traditional Japanese music, creating a unique genre known as “Enka.” This style of music became very popular in the post-World War II era, and continues to be popular today.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Japanese rock bands such as The Blue Hearts and The Yellow Magic Orchestra rose to prominence, starting a wave of commercially successful rock acts that would continue into the 1980s and 1990s. In more recent years, Japanese pop music has been increasingly influenced by Western styles such as hip-hop and electronic dance music.

Commercial music

Commercial music is any music that is created or performed for the purpose of making money. This can include anything from major label pop songs to independent artists selling their music on sites like Bandcamp.

The term “commercial music” is often used to distinguish it from “art music”, which is music that is created for artistic or intellectual purposes rather than financial gain. However, there is a lot of overlap between the two, and many artists who create art music also release commercial recordings of their work.

In Japan, the line between art music and commercial music is often blurred, and many artists who are considered to be part of the “avant-garde” or “underground” scenes also release records on major labels. This has led to a rich and varied musical landscape, with a wide range of sounds and styles being explored by both independent and commercial artists.


In conclusion, the history of Japanese pop music is a long and varied one, filled with both commercial and indie artists. While the genre has often been overshadowed by other Asian music scenes, it has still managed to produce some truly wonderful and innovative sounds. We hope you have enjoyed learning about this fascinating corner of the music world.

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