Music | 2010S: DECADE IN REVIEW

Looking back at the most influential Japanese songs of the 2010s

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

At times it seemed the 2010s were just one long wistful gaze into the past, particularly when it came to trends in music.

Streaming services allow people to dig into the back catalogs of an artist’s work in seconds, while YouTube uploads fill in any gaps. So when music icon David Bowie died in 2016, his fans’ children were able to catch up on a multidecade career in one binge-heavy weekend.

Japanese musicians weren’t immune from this nostalgic turn, drawing influence in particular from the 1980s and ’90s. Globally, Japanese pop music didn’t earn much attention from abroad. However, fans discovered and celebrated all things old and obscure about Japanese music, turning minor records from the bubble era into modern online gold.

Given how Japanese music takes time to receive widespread recognition, let’s imagine ourselves coming to the end of the 2040s. The 2010s are now just as trendy and influential to the youth of the future as the 1980s have been to us. In the Japan of 2040, what gems do you think will be unearthed and treasured once again?

Welcome to 2049

As we hit the halfway point of the 21st century, a celebration of the old and obscure has stood out as one of the most interesting developments of the 2040s. Every generation mines a yesteryear it never knew, and the kids of this decade set their sights on the final years of the Heisei Era (1989-2019).

Japan appeared to have next to no influence on the global music scene during the 2010s. Few people outside of the country were documenting the music we enjoyed back then because it appeared totally out of step with broader trends around the world. The newfound excitement surrounding it in the 2040s was partially due to the thrill of discovering the obscure, still some of us were just looking for a good beat from a time we never knew firsthand. During the 2010s, Japan was defined by kawaii culture and social media, and, after the devastation of the Great East Japan Earthquake, it was, for the most part, a fairly easygoing place to live — especially considering the upheaval taking place in the rest of the world.

The 2010s saw a similar fascination with older Japanese music. Non-Japanese music fans dug into everything from shimmering pop to experimental ambient records and Japanese takes on Hawaiian music. While it never stole the headlines, J-pop from the decade had a far deeper impact on listeners and creators. Entire sub-sections of electronic music tried to re-create the sound of Yasutaka Nakata and the groups he produced, like Perfume, and entire internet micro-genres evolved around faded samples from Japanese pop classics. The 2010s were a heyday for Japanese music from the 1980s, and the 2040s have cast a similar spotlight on the Japanese music of the 2010s.

While many songs have enjoyed renewed recognition, the tracks that follow were among the bigger nostalgia hits of the 2040s:

Izumi Makura: “balloon” (2012)

Tastemakers and the now-extinct hypebeasts that roamed the landscape of the 2010s searched endlessly for cool Japanese rap to introduce to the world. Pretty much all efforts on that front ended at Kohh, a talented but media-shy artist whose peak was guesting on a Frank Ocean song available only in magazine form. The majority of Japanese hip-hop aimed at simply imitating far superior American rappers from the South, with diminishing results.

Women, on the other hand, approached the genre from different angles in the 2010s, and made the work that still connects with today’s youth. Pop-friendly creators like Chelmico found room in the mainstream, while fiercer MCs such as Chanmina and Awich traveled in spaces long dominated by men. Then there were “whisper rappers” like Daoko, Bonjour Suzuki and Izumi Makura, whose softer delivery and focus on daily life in their lyrics offered songs as short stories capturing the ups and downs of the youth of the decade. A song like “balloon” wrestles with timeless topics like small-town ennui and depression, littered with little details that add to its depth. The track stood out then because of how it approached rap from a new angle, but it’s relatable years later because of the mood she conjures.

Mondo Grosso: “Labyrinth” (2017)

“Labyrinth” sounded out of place in the 2010s. None of the dominant strains of pop music in the decade appear over the course of its five-minute runtime. Producer Shinichi Osawa, better known by his stage name, Mondo Grosso, merged deep house rumbles with twinkling piano and string swells to create a track both cinematic and physical. Over this, actress-turned-singer Hikari Mitsushima sings about trying to savor a moment that can’t last forever, but she’ll try all the same. Coupled with a music video set in Hong Kong, which was on the cusp of pushing for its eventual independence, “Labyrinth” remains one of the country’s most breathtaking releases of the decade, and one that can still enchant new ears.

BiS: “STUPiG” (2014)

Peppy idol pop groups dominated Japanese music charts in the 2010s, with particularly cheery projects such as AKB48 and its sister groups doing very well. These upbeat behemoths loomed large enough to inspire a reactionary “alternative idol” community that, while operating on a similar business model, produced far more interesting music, ranging from the hyperactive theatrics of Dempagumi.inc to the self-aware throwbacks of Negicco and the occult-referencing Necronomidol.

None proved more important than BiS, an outfit that deliberately pushed the idea of idol pop to its outer fringes. “STUPiG” shocked back then and continues to do so now. It’s hard to imagine any J-pop track — let alone one actually charting in the Top 10 upon its release — being built around gabber stomps and shrieked vocals. “STUPiG” is claustrophobic and chaotic, but still carries an earworm of a hook that reveals some warmth underneath. It would be a total outlier anywhere and anytime, but that’s all part of the charm, showing just how daring J-pop could get if you ventured to the edges.

Foodman: “Ez Minzoku” (2016)

Few corners of Japanese music continue to delight like the nation’s experimental communities, and time has been especially kind to that type of output from the 2010s. A lot of the most celebrated oddities offered a high-definition reflection of life saturated by pop culture and social media, thanks to madcap sample collages by DJWWW, woopheadclrms and the dozens of hard-to-locate (and, today, highly valued) releases put out by the Wasabi Tapes label. Others offered colorful mutations, from the Technicolor sugar rush of Toiret Status to the more intimate denpa songs of emamouse. However, no album melts brains better than “Ez Minzoku.” That was the breakout release from the period’s hardest-to-pin-down savant, Foodman, who is now ranked up there with Keiji Haino and Phew. He took seemingly disparate sounds and divined off-kilter beats from handfuls of guitar, synthesizers, screaming voices and whatever else was on hand.

Soutaiseiriron: “Miss Parallel World” (2010)

No band in Japan proved more influential over the 2010s than Soutaiseiriron. Breaking big in the late 2000s, the group deserves credit for being way ahead of the decade’s nostalgia turn, building its songs around Showa Era-indebted guitar melodies that would soon be picked up by copycats (Passepied), loopy alt-rockers (Frederic) and viral surprises (Gesu no Kiwame Otome.). Just as big an imprint was made by lead vocalist Etsuko Yakushimaru’s sing-speak delivery and diction-focused lyrics. Trying to find too much meaning in her words proved futile — she was playing around with puns and turns of phrases, placing all the emphasis on how everything sounded rather than what they meant. Rock bands to whisper rappers followed this formula, and all roads lead back to Soutaiseiriron when trying to dig through it all.

Mariya Takeuchi: “Plastic Love” (1984/2018)

Try this with your music nerd friends next time you hang out — ask them when Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plastic Love” originally came out, and I bet most of them will say “sometime in the 2010s.” You’ll blow their minds when you reveal that it first came out in 1984. However, this bit of melancholic disco-pop sounds every bit as fitting for the 2010s as the 1980s, if not even more so. It’s the definitive song of that period’s “city pop revival,” a time when Western kids stockpiled older Japanese sounds like it was bottled water ahead of a typhoon while trendy Western and Korean acts borrowed from the funk-indebted sound well into the 2020s.

Yet “Plastic Love” was also a song made “internet famous” by a YouTube algorithm, with the added twist of a nearly eight-minute-long version that went viral being a mutation of the original five-minute cut. It’s the emotional core of “Plastic Love” that really endears, though. Takeuchi never experienced the spoils of the bubble era in person while they were happening, and this was her imagining what life in the bubble could be like in all its highs and lows — which is how countless listeners all over the world approached the song in the 2010s and the decades after it became a global pop standard.

group_inou: “Therapy” (2010)

Ask your grandparents what a “genre” was, kids, and be amazed to learn that there was a time when people were happy to fence off musical ideas from one another. The duo group_inou would fit in really well in the free-for-all world of 2049, but it emerged in the first part of the 2010s, when mixing rap, spoken word, dance-pop and comedy bits into one tune was still a pretty alien concept. Said tune also featuring passages about dolphin therapy only made it stranger.

Save for internet-centric artists such as tofubeats and Mikeneko Homeless running parallel to grou_inou, the ramshackle approach to sound the pair perfected on “Therapy” wouldn’t become clear in Japanese music until later on in the 2010s, when younger acts such as Haru Nemuri, Mom and (especially) Wednesday Campanella channeled the free-flowing spirit of the pair in their music.

Dean Fujioka: “History Maker” (2016)

Anime and video games have also been swept up in the current boon in retromania, although unlike the majority of Japanese songs from that period the releases getting love in the 2040s were quite big globally in the 2010s. The soundtracks to these creations have also become sought after. Dozens of boutique reissue labels have sprung up in the past five years to bring special editions of hard-to-find game music to fans, helping to elevate the jaunty tunes found in “Persona 5” and the melancholy backdrops of “Nier: Automata” to the same status as Studio Ghibli soundtracks.

Same goes for anime from the 2010s, moving from a niche obsession to something worthy of praise and study nearly 30 years later. The 2017 series “Yuri!!! On Ice” enjoys critical praise now, thanks to one of the better stories to emerge from the world of Japanese animation during this period and for being an early example of Japanese media highlighting same-sex love in a nonstereotypical way. Naturally, Dean Fujioka’s blustering theme has also reached new fans, and not just because of how it makes them think of said figure skating drama. It gets extra legs by merging the on-trend 2010 sound of EDM with orchestra flair, but reminds how interconnected so much Japanese media of the time really was.

Famm’in: “circle” (2016)

The beauty of looking back is being able to properly celebrate truly original ideas that were ignored in their time. Calling the 2016 project Famm’in a supergroup would be giving it too much credit. It consisted of a J-pop act that spent the decade trying to cash in on the sizzle around K-pop (Faky), a duo that experienced some viral fame thanks to a song celebrating how much its members love money (Femm) and a mid-tier singer-songwriter (Yup’in).

Somehow, the limited-run project resulted in “circle,” a song dwelling on the circular nature of existence, set against elements of traditional Japanese court music and then-modern percussion. It had no chance when it was released, but 30 years later its originality can be appreciated properly.

mus.hiba: “Slow Snow” (2014)

Plenty of game-changing technology ended up being a dud during the tech-rush of the 2010s. Smart glasses serve mostly as a prop in movies to show how misguided people were at the time, while SoftBank used all those abandoned WeWork offices to stash whatever remaining Pepper robots they could salvage. Add virtual singers to that list.

While Hatsune Miku and friends teased a better world via Vocaloid software — and featured on some legit decade-appropriate jams — the technology mutated in the 2020s into a way for people to cash in on dead celebrities and for virtual pop stars such as Kizuna AI to act just like their flesh-and-blood predecessors. Many, then, chose to imagine the world that could have been.

Tokyo electronic artist mus.hiba’s “Slow Snow” uses the digi voice of the character Yufu Sekka as another layer in a sonic fever dream, not worried too much about turning a computer program into a person but rather seeing what is possible artistically with this new instrument. Plenty of fantastic self-made producers did similar things, and even if that dream turned to novelty, their music can still cut through.

HNC: “I Dream I Dead” (2010)

“Spookiness” in 2010s Japanese culture was closely linked to the country’s “kawaii” reputation, best represented by spectacles such as “Shibuya Halloween” (at least until it was banned in 2024 after the great October blaze that took down the Don Quixote Megaplex). Digging beneath the colorful exterior, though, revealed plenty of dread. Indie acts such as Jesse Ruins, Sapphire Slows and Hotel Mexico (at one point all together) offered glimpses of ecstasy shrouded in shadows, while Japanese dubstep pioneer Goth-Trad’s defining work drew from the eerie realities of life in Japan after the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami, and Osaka’s Eadonmm tapped into the same unsettling mood for his debut, “Aqonis.” Even a major J-pop act like AKB48 found time to get kind of heavy in 2012’s “Uza.”

“I Dream I Dead” unsettles more than any of them, though. It comes from an artist who could easily have helped define the softer image to come. HNC used to go by Hazel Nuts Chocolate and made cuddly playroom pop celebrating topics like ice cream and cats. She turned her focus to the timeless worry of death and the unease surrounding it, crafting one of the creepiest musical backdrops out of bell chimes and stuttering drum notes. “I Dream I Dead” reminds us that people in Japan weren’t all filled with fluffy thoughts, and adds some nice counterbalance to the image the country at that time is remembered for.

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu: “PonPonPon” (2011)

No artist defined the image of Japan to the world in the 2010s like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.

If you flip on a film from the period mentioning Japan, odds are pretty good you’ll hear one of her songs in the background when the director is trying to convey the idea of the country to listeners. Her tracks popped up in video game livestreams and memes in equal measure, while her mishmash fashion sense set the pace for how people imagined kids in Harajuku dressed on the daily. Japan at this time was seen as a Technicolor wonderland with a slightly weird edge, and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu put that image forward, no more clearly than in her breakout debut single, “PonPonPon.”

There was more to the track’s playroom pop — a kawaii-gone-sinister clip that many came to love after it went viral at the start of the decade. It emerged months after 2011’s Great East Japan Earthquake, a national trauma that defined the decade. People wanted escape, and “PonPonPon” offered exactly that with a relentless bounce and lyrics that celebrated people being themselves. As important, its hyper-colorful idea still dominates the Japanese aesthetic today.

The music came courtesy of producer Yasutaka Nakata, whose bass-centric electro-pop was already seeping into the then-burgeoning world of electronic dance music, but here he found a new sonic palette to play around with. Countless artists all over the world tried to imitate it, but none have had the lasting impact of this slice of pure pop perfection.

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