The final months of the Heisei Era (1989-2019) made it feel like Japanese music would be all about looking back this year. Television programs, magazines and websites gave considerable time and space to celebrating the songs and artists of the past three decades. It has felt like we’ve been enwrapped in a melancholic haze since 2018 thanks to the retirement of Namie Amuro and the disbandment of SMAP two years prior, but it was taken to a whole new level in the weeks leading up to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga’s announcement of the coming era’s name.
Yet, as the first year of the Reiwa Era comes to a close, that thick fog of nostalgia has mostly given way to reveal the path forward. The past 12 months established who would be the stars of the 2020s, what they would sound like and why they were connecting with listeners, in particular younger ones who will only know the Heisei Era as a blip in their lives. With 2019 ending, Japanese pop finds itself out of step with the rest of the global music industry — which isn’t new — but for the first time in years, that might be a good development.
First, the country had to shake off the previous era. Besides the retromania for all things J-pop from mainstream media, contemporary artists leaped on board as well. Everyone from visual-kei bands to hip-hop acts and teenage pop urchins reflected on this particular stretch of Japan’s history. When “Reiwa” became the official name of the new era, artists shifted from nostalgia to novelty. J-pop class clowns Golden Bomber rushed out a song that quickly went viral, with rappers and divisive YouTubers following in its wake.
Among all that musical reflecting and pop detritus, however, a sign of what to come later in 2019 emerged in February. That’s when singer-songwriter Aimyon released “Momentary Sixth Sense,” her second full-length album and best evidence yet to back up the argument that she’s become the country’s biggest female pop star.
She’s been gaining attention for the past few years, thanks to songs — written entirely by her — exploring her place in the modern world, unafraid to touch on sex or feelings of hopeleness. Consider it a market correction from the previous woman reigning over J-pop, Kana Nishino, who wrote twee love songs that could feel like exercises in commercial research. This year saw Aimyon put out catchy songs offering a less rosy view, including one in which she described an empty bank notebook as being the same color as a seagull. She drew from her own experience, and found no shortage of listeners relating.
Aimyon also represented changes in how people were listening to music. You can walk into Tower Records and find “Momentary Sixth Sense” on CD, but Aimyon’s career has been propelled forward by YouTube and subscription services such as Spotify and Apple Music. In these digital spaces, she has truly shone and established herself as one of the first superstars to emerge from places the J-pop industry previously feared. In 2019, she was joined by rock bands such as King Gnu and Official Hige Dandism.
The latter lays claim to 2019’s biggest hit with the May release of “Pretender,” a swooping creation that didn’t offer anything new sonically to J-pop, but does flip the usual romantic tropes around a bit by centering on how doomed a relationship is bound to be, while finding moments to appreciate its fleeting nature. It’s the most viewed Japanese music video released in 2019 on YouTube, and has been No. 1 on most streaming service rankings for the past six months. At time of writing, Official Hige Dandism accounts for five of the top 10 tracks on Spotify and Apple Music in Japan.
All of these acts still court traditional channels, but their results show that the best path to success in J-pop today is to make sure your music is out there in as many places as possible, because who knows where your next fan will hear it.
But don’t get too excited yet, tech evangelists. This was also the year J-pop at large figured out how to adjust to the internet, and that meant many faces from the old guard of the industry were suddenly crowding digital corners that had been doing a decent job celebrating new life in recent years. Every week in 2019, it seemed like an arena-ready name was making its catalog available for streaming — most recently, L’Arc-en-Ciel — much to the delight of fans, but at the expense of pushing fresh faces forward. Spotify started to look a lot more like “Music Station,” not the other way around.
Then you had Johnny & Associates Inc., still at the top of the old-school J-pop business model. The talent agency, known for not letting online retailers share album art out of fear of losing an element of control, has recently started connecting to the web by launching YouTube channels. That went into overdrive in 2019, especially following the death of company founder Johnny Kitagawa in July. Arashi, the biggest group currently in its stable, uploaded all of its singles to streaming services, launched a YouTube channel and worked with Netflix on a documentary. Twenty years after announcing it wanted to make a storm internationally as part of its debut press conference on a boat, the five-piece debuted the world-eyeing “Turning Up” on YouTube, boasting that “this tornado from the East’s gonna hit your town,” despite plans to go on a break next year.
The internet seemed far less exciting for Japanese music in 2019 than anyone expected, unless you enjoyed seeing the usual J-pop power players perform old tricks in new places. Another set of popular artists in the country, however, offered up an alternative built on one of the most utopian music communities found in Japan this century.
No artist is bigger in Japan today than Kenshi Yonezu, and nobody is as omnipresent. His solo tracks have been hits on YouTube and through more traditional mediums, whether they be string-assisted rock numbers or electric-effect-submerged ballads about the sea. According to Billboard magazine, his 2018 song “Lemon” was also the biggest single of 2019. He has written massive pop hits for actor-turned-performer Masaki Suda and he penned “Paprika,” the inescapable children’s song that he also covered to much fanfare.
However, Yonezu started making music using Vocaloid, the singing-synthesizer program best known for being represented by Hatsune Miku. Under the name Hachi, he created rollicking tracks out of digi-singing, complete with videos he made himself, that could then be shared on streaming site Niconico. Forget the Western media gawking at holographic pop stars — the Vocaloid community offered something approaching a legitimate alternative to the J-pop mainstream, with artists from all backgrounds crafting their own music and visuals for one another. All they needed was a piece of software.
Like all great online ideas that go sour, Vocaloid’s results never quite matched its potential. Yonezu himself even made a somewhat pessimistic song and video a few years back comparing Niconico to a desert. Yet, this year, a generation of artists raised on Vocaloid and its ethos of creativity climbed into the J-pop mainstream. Besides Yonezu, projects such as Yorushika and Zutto Mayonaka de Iinoni (better known as Zutomayo) released celebrated albums built around intricate songs and eye-catching videos that often doubled as lore for stories the artists were also creating through their music. Singer-songwriter Mafumafu got his start covering Vocaloid songs, but now creates charming pop. Nikkei Trendy magazine pegs Mafumafu as the artist to watch in 2020, with a gig at Tokyo Dome in the spring, sure to sell out.
All of the above artists write and create the bulk of their own music, with many of them — including Yonezu — coming up with the album art as well. They are all part of the J-pop machinery to some degree, but they’ve found a way to keep the artist-focused spirit of the Vocaloid community in their commercial-minded projects. Music writer Azusa Ogiwara wrote on the Real Sound site how groups such as Yorushika and Zutomayo have won fans thanks to precise playing, clever lyrics and a heightened sense of drama lurking in their songs. That’s also true of Yonezu, Aimyon, Official Hige Dandism and other acts that defined the year.
Most importantly, the glory is all their own. This approach to songwriting isn’t the norm globally, where teams of creators craft pop for artists from North America to South Korea. That approach has led to plenty of great music — though Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” the United States’ defining 2019 hit, hints that people might want more individualistic work — but it has also resulted in a lot of similar sounding work, too. The artists rising up in 2019 found an alternative, putting their worldview and skills to the forefront. When news shows and commentators reflect on the Reiwa Era somewhere down the line, they’ll likely look at these past 12 months with particular awe.