The final full year of the Heisei Era was one of the most discombobulating for Japanese music this decade. Nostalgia for the soon-to-end era clashed with efforts to figure out where J-pop goes moving forward. Tunes covered in cobwebs suddenly became the soundtrack for viral dances on trendy video apps.
It was a weird time for the industry, with traditional chart metrics failing to capture the musical mood of the country and the big international crossover hit being more than 30 years old. Yet from all this chaos came some clarifications: how the Heisei Era will be remembered, where Japanese music will go and where it could go.
Reflection was the dominant trend of the year, though. Namie Amuro loomed large over the country’s pop culture landscape due to her retirement from the entertainment business in September. For many growing up in the 1990s and 2000s, Amuro wasn’t just a superstar, but the very definition of what J-pop became during Heisei. While the era proper comes to a close next spring, Amuro’s exit served as the end of an era for millions.
But J-pop’s nostalgic streak didn’t end with Amuro. The industry relying on compilations from established acts isn’t anything new, but it went into overdrive in 2018. One of the best-selling albums of the year was a highlight collection from venerable band Southern All Stars, while a fresh longplayer from Mr. Children sold well. J-pop singer-songwriter Thelma Aoyama found some Internet shine by celebrating the ’90s — complete with chunky flip phones — in video form. YouTube functions as a time machine for many, and it helped turn T. M. Revolution’s “Hot Limit” from 1998 into an online summer anthem. It’s not surprising that the Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” is also doing so well in Japan.
And there were anniversaries — so many anniversaries. Idol institution Morning Musume and parent organization Hello! Project celebrated 20 years, earning some love after feeling overlooked within J-pop recently. Beloved singer-songwriter Hikaru Utada also marked her two decades on Dec. 9, which fittingly fell on the last day of her “Laughter In The Dark” tour, her first nationwide jaunt in 12 years. While that performance at Chiba’s Makuhari Messe leaned heavily on material from recent releases, such as this year’s well-received “Hatsukoi,” the weight of history pressed down on the whole event, with Utada herself looking genuinely overwhelmed with emotion while reflecting on the past. When she rolled out her debut single, “Automatic” as an encore, the hall lost it.
Nostalgia in Japanese music was far more complicated in 2018 than simply pulling up Wikipedia pages. This was also the year of TikTok, a short-form video platform from China that became one of the biggest smartphone apps in the world, including in Japan. Memes and challenges birthed by teenagers on TikTok helped push a handful of older songs back into relevance, most notably with singer-songwriter Koda Kumi’s year being defined by her 2010 tune “Megumi no Hito” that mutated into a megatrend on TikTok.
The rise of TikTok underscored a trend that has been bubbling for the past few years. Japanese music has fragmented to an incredible degree. Most people go to YouTube to listen to songs now, but the Oricon Charts still don’t really incorporate that data. And that’s before figuring in streaming services — fledgling but not invisible — and apps like TikTok, which often push numbers to popularity in a way not measured by traditional metrics.
Despite a scrambled landscape, 2018 saw a handful of acts rise up and become positioned to be big names post-Heisei, each taking advantage of different lanes. Pop-punkers Wanima eschewed streaming and embraced old-school physical sales en route to a breakout year seeing them fill ballparks. Singer-songwriter Aimyon went the other way, becoming one of J-pop’s first stars to really shine on services such as Apple Music and Spotfiy, while also nabbing millions of views on YouTube.
Largest, though, was Kenshi Yonezu. He’d already appeared on 2017’s biggest song and released one of that year’s most popular albums, but he went even further these past 12 months. His video for the single “Lemon” stands as 2018’s most-viewed clip on YouTube in Japan, with Billboard Japan declaring it the tune of the year and Yonezu the No. 1 artist. (Album of the year: “Finally,” the last Amuro best-of).
Yonezu’s popularity exists almost entirely in Japan, which could be seen as a troubling sign for J-pop’s hope to spread beyond its borders moving forward. But 2018 also saw new potential for Japanese artists to make inroads internationally, for fresh faces and familiar ones alike. Mariya Takeuchi’s 1984 song “Plastic Love” ended up being the biggest Japanese hit in the West, showing what happens when digital platforms like YouTube are tolerated rather than shunned. Younger performers such as Haru Nemuri, Chai and Otoboke Beaver got nods from overseas media, and toured this year or will play abroad in 2019. They reminded us that, even if J-pop proper lacks sizzle, the country’s rock community still gets plenty of love.
In a year that jumped back and forth between nostalgia and modernism — like Marty McFly in “Back to the Future” — you’d think it would be impossible to find one song to encapsulate it all. Thankfully, Japan had “U.S.A.,” the zeitgeist-defining and continually vexing creation of 2018.
Pop outfit Da Pump were huge at the turn of the 21st century, but soon found themselves in the musical wilderness. All but one member, Issa Hentona, bailed on the project, meaning a whole new cast of performers stepped in. “U.S.A.” was released in early June and confounded critics almost immediately. Here was a semi-cover of Italian artist Joe Yellow’s 1992 Eurobeat bop “U.S.A.,” but with lyrics actually referencing the country itself. The video saw Da Pump sporting a mishmash of eye-wrecking fashion while pulling off choreography inspired by (sometimes taken wholesale) American hip-hop, most notably BlocBoy JB’s “Shoot” dance.
This isn’t what a pop smash looks like anywhere in 2018, and Hentona admitted that when it was presented to him, his reaction was mostly, “Huh?” Initially, “U.S.A.” and its midlife crisis of a video appeared to be bound for Web ridicule, being met with calls of “dasai” (“lame”). But that evolved into “cool dasai,” and it became a legitimate hit. On YouTube, it counts nearly 129 million views. It was all over TV and radio. It inspired the “U.S.A. game” among YouTubers, which saw people parodying the song with fact-based lyrics about the United States, and spurred a TikTok meme too. This was even more impressive considering the song’s theme is built around one of the least joyful nations going.
Da Pump’s comeback is a fitting end to the Heisei Era, because, wherever we go next, I doubt you’ll see something like “U.S.A.” again.
Five 2018 tracks signaling the future
Haru Nemuri —‘Sekai o Torikaeshite Okure’
The very concept of “genre” has been dissolving over the past 10 years, as younger artists raised on the everything-all-the-time nature of the internet start making their own music, borrowing from everything they’ve encountered. Singer-songwriter Haru Nemuri‘s album “Haru to Shura” captured this borderless reality in all its glory. The songs here touch on rock, hip-hop, beat music and more, often blurring together over the course of one song. All of that gets summed up in “Sekai o Torikaeshite Okure,” a roaring number — both musically adventurous and vocally cathartic.
Izone — ‘La Vie en Rose’
For decades, Asian pop music has eyed the United States as the ultimate prize. Say goodbye to those days. The continent’s own music market provides one of the best opportunities for ambitious companies, thanks to a burgeoning fandom in Southeast Asia along with the continued growth of China and India. Izone brings together Korean performers with a trio from the AKB48 universe to create a soft-power station, helping both sides make inroads into the other.
Division All Stars — ‘Division Battle Anthem’
Anime stays unbeatable as a way of pushing new musical ideas and names further in Japan. Rap has long been positioned as the next big thing in the country’s music scene, but keeps coming up “wait until next year” to see actual impact. The “Hypnosis Mic” project, however, might just be able to do with 2-D characters what flesh-and-blood folks couldn’t. Squads of illustrated boys serve as avatars for voice actors battle rapping against one another, leaving fans to vote on who wins.
Aimyon — ‘Let the Night’
Singer-songwriter Aimyon appears poised to be one of the biggest stars in J-pop going forward. “Let The Night” showcases her skills well, being a song built on a familiar structure guided by an acoustic strum, but with lyrics hiding a slightly downbeat edge. But what Aimyon really highlights is someone embracing digital platforms such as YouTube and streaming services, while many legacy acts still shun these services and younger ones opt for physical.
Mariya Takeuchi — ‘Plastic Love’
Sure, this song originally came out in 1984 and owes its 2018 status to a combination of mysterious internet algorithms and memes. But its success on YouTube underlines one way Japanese music could go moving forward to connect with international listeners. City pop has become a trendy style among online music fans, with the status of “Plastic Love” showing just how far it might spread.
(Patrick St. Michel)