Music | Heisei Icons

Tetsuya Komuro: J-pop inventor's synth-powered dance tunes set the tone for post-bubble Japan

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

This is the 11th in a series on influential figures in the Heisei Era, which began in 1989 and will end when Emperor Akihito abdicates on April 30. In Heisei, Japan was roiled by economic excess and stagnation, as well as a struggle for political and social reform. This series explores those who left their imprint along the way.

Tetsuya Komuro’s J-pop legacy had already been cemented by 1999. That year, the iconic musician and producer appeared in “Tetsuya Komuro History,” a special television program that reviewed the highlights of his career up to that point.

Indeed, it doesn’t take long to realize just how prolific Komuro was by the turn of the new millennium, with the show filled with chart-topping songs from his own projects and those created for other marquee performers.

A similar story unfolds when perusing any best-of collection from Komuro, or even the box sets that resemble a library of mega-hits that dominated and defined Japan’s music scene for the better part of the Heisei Era, which began in 1989 and will end when Emperor Akihito abdicates on April 30.

For the first decade of this era, Komuro’s work with his own groups, such as TM Network and Globe, alongside songs created for such acts as Namie Amuro and Tomomi Kahara, defined the sound of the then-fledgling notion of J-pop.

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko speak with musician Tetsuya Komuro at their annual autumn garden party on Nov. 9, 2017.
Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko speak with musician Tetsuya Komuro at their annual autumn garden party on Nov. 9, 2017. | AP

The term J-pop, a Heisei invention, needed a defining characteristic to make it stand out from the Showa Era’s soundtrack, and Komuro provided a synthesizer-powered foundation that drew from various global dance communities stretching from Eurobeat to jungle to trance, all while placing them in contexts built for the karaoke crowd.

“I think he had a big influence in Japan even before the word J-pop was invented,” says Taku Takahashi, a member of the group M-flo and a figure with feet in both Japan’s electronic and pop communities. “He opened the door to the idea that something alternative can become pop in Japan as well.”

Born in Tokyo in 1958, Komuro’s path to omnipresence came peppered with biopic-ready details, like being inspired by the gigantic synthesizers at Expo ’70 in Osaka, or selling his violin and guitar as a teen to scrounge together funds for a Roland SH-1000 synth.

After dropping out of elite Waseda University in the early 1980s, Komuro formed the band TM Network with two classmates and soon found success by taking the techno-pop sound that was then in vogue thanks to groups such as Yellow Magic Orchestra, and nudging it back toward rock. Holler-along numbers like “Get Wild” turned the group into a household name, giving Komuro the chance to produce songs for other acts.

A pivotal moment in Komuro’s career came in 1988, when he spent an extended period in London working on TM Network’s concept album opus “Carol: A Day In A Girl’s Life 1991.” This stretch exposed him to the country’s burgeoning underground dance community and got him moving toward the digital dance floor upon his return to Tokyo.

Elements of European electronic music soon started appearing in tunes he penned for others, and even in his own works.

Musician and producer Tetsuya Komuro attends a news conference in Tokyo in May 2001.
Musician and producer Tetsuya Komuro attends a news conference in Tokyo in May 2001. | KYODO

But it didn’t really explode until the debut of TRF (Tetsuya Rave Factory) in 1993 on the nascent Avex label. This group featured five members, including a DJ, but its music was completely created by Komuro. Though it was more like a mixed-gender Eurobeat idol group, TRF was marketed to everyone. Singles such as “Ez Do Dance” and “Boy Meets Girl” became smash hits, and served as entry points to dance music for regular Japanese listeners.

“I think it was the beginning of the J-pop renaissance,” Takahashi said. “He is one of the artists who brought electronic music sound to the traditional pop scene. We should also give props to his music label Avex, too.

“But you have to really understand that, unlike the music scene in the U.S., it really lacked the authenticity of underground music, such as the 808/909 (drum machine) bass sounds did not really have the low-end sounds. It was redesigned for Japanese audiences who were not familiar with raving culture. It didn’t really work for people who wanted the true experience.” Komuro himself eyed a wider audience, too.

“The simplest way of expressing what I had in mind with TRF is ‘karaoke and dance,'” Komuro told Billboard Magazine in 1995. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if the two biggest forms of entertainment for kids could be mixed?'”

This vision would be applied to everything that came during the “Komuro boom” years of the mid-1990s, and explains how he became J-pop’s defining producer.

His ability to translate underground sensibilities into a mainstream package helped make Amuro the nation’s first pop queen, while boosting performers such as Hitomi and Kahara to the top of the Oricon charts. Pretty much everybody wanted Komuro’s golden touch — Yoshiki from X Japan, Seiko Matsuda, even the Backstreet Boys (seriously, the mushed-pea ballad “Missing You” on certain editions of 1997’s “Backstreet’s Back”).

Tetsuya Komuro (left) and pop star Namie Amuro hold a news conference in Beijing in November 1997 before a concert in the city.
Tetsuya Komuro (left) and pop star Namie Amuro hold a news conference in Beijing in November 1997 before a concert in the city. | AP

Comedian Masatoshi Hamada has indulged in various tongue-in-cheek music efforts with the likes of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yasutaka Nakata. But his work with Komuro on “H Jungle With T” comes off as earnest — almost embarrassingly so. Then again, maybe Hamada thought all it would take to become a star was Komuro’s magic.

Nobody came out better from this than Komuro himself, as he transformed the nation’s music industry and enjoyed the rewards.

“Komuro took Japanese music to a higher level, and so now the focus is finally on the producers,” Aki Morishita, former vice president and general manager of EMI Music Japan and Virgin Music Japan, told Billboard in 1997.

It was a good time for those behind the sound boards, but Komuro benefited the most. Save for Amuro, none of his projects got as big as Globe, the electro-pop trio he appeared in alongside future wife Keiko Yamada and MTV VJ-turned-rapper Marc Panther.

Komuro commanded attention and could even become the face of projects. When the folks promoting “Speed 2: Cruise Control” wanted to push the film in Japan, they got Komuro to remix the theme as well as star in a video showing him walking through a desert surrounded by helicopters and explosions (despite the movie being set on a ship at sea).

The downside to this intense attention, though, became clear when the Komuro boom went bust, as all pop trends eventually do. As Japanese artists unassociated with the producer climbed to the top of the charts at the start of the 21st century, media coverage eventually began to focus on his failed marriages and, in 2008, his arrest for fraud.

Tetsuya Komuro performs during a concert in Tokyo on Aug. 8, 2016.
Tetsuya Komuro performs during a concert in Tokyo on Aug. 8, 2016. | KYODO

His music is enjoying plenty of re-appreciation with the ’90s turning trendy once again and a generation raised on his pop hits coming of age (it probably reached a peak when Da Pump’s “U.S.A.,” with its Eurobeat lunacy, became 2018’s biggest hit). Even then, his last big moment came via a scandal that prompted his retirement from the entertainment industry.

However, no producer in the Heisei Era came close to reaching Komuro’s height, both in terms of output and visibility.

More important to his legacy, though, is that Komuro transformed J-pop permanently. He was the hit-maker during the industry’s richest days and crafted the soundtrack for a whole generation and helped introduce the country to some of its biggest stars.

And he showed that the sonic vocabulary of Japanese pop could draw from all kinds of places. People try to pin down what J-pop sounds like, but the truth is it can’t be tied to a single style. Komuro is the one who made this a reality.


Did you know …

  • At the peak of his career, Komuro used four penthouse suites as a home and recording studio in Tokyo, according to Billboard Magazine.
  • Komuro, in conjunction with the label Avex, owned a nightclub in Roppongi called Velfarre. Opened in 1994, the spot hosted a wide range of dance events, with a wink-wink-nudge-nudge emphasis on spotlighting Avex artists. It also played a massive role in the late ’90s para para dancing boom. It closed on New Year’s Day in 2007.
  • J-pop in the ’90s had global ambitions, and Komuro became the embodiment of this dream — and its shortcomings. The producer had wanted to start a Europe-based group as far back as 1988, but only got around to it in 1994 with the Eurogroove project, a kind of TRF for the international market.
  • Among the weirder collaborations Komuro took part in was his partnership with Rupert Murdoch for a company called TK News, which intended to promote Komuro’s music in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China.
  • Speaking of which, Komuro and his family of artists held large concerts in Taiwan and Hong Kong, although the latter was reportedly a failure. Despite all these attempts, Komuro never really made significant inroads anywhere outside of his home country.