Music, like most aspects of modern life, hasn’t felt normal in 2020. When the COVID-19 pandemic started causing concern in Japan at the end of February, artists began adjusting to a new reality.
My most vivid concert memory of this year was going to Tokyo Dome on Feb. 25 to watch J-pop trio Perfume — hand sanitizer was in surplus in the concourse, and the video boards inside the stadium displayed guides on how to wash your hands.
This also happened to be my last memory of live music in 2020. The next day, major concerts and events began canceling after a request from the central government. Not long after, smaller live houses and clubs across the country closed their doors. Performances went online, with once-digital-adverse companies dumping live footage on YouTube. Pikotaro promoted good hygiene, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe somehow found himself enveloped in a scandal thanks to a Gen Hoshino meme. Totally par for the course.
Amid these strange times, Japanese music continues to change. Last year teased a sea change in J-pop, and so far 2020 has delivered, revealing artists crafting songs ideal for TikTok, and embracing the downer mood apt for this point in the 21st century. There’s just as much change happening away from the spotlight, with Japanese rappers figuring out how to shine and indie creators warping pop into new shapes.
A lot has already happened six months into the year, and to help you catch up, here are the Japanese songs of 2020 that best reflect what’s going on.
Shuta Sueyoshi — “Hack”
Japanese musicians and labels long resisted sharing their songs online because they feared losing a grip on their output. Surrendering your work to fans is how a No. 1 gets made in 2020, though, and TikTok has become the lab from which eventual hits emerge. That’s old news in most of the world, but it’s just starting to become a reality in Japan. Part of the beauty of this approach is seeing what the masses anoint as meme-worthy, oftentimes to the surprise of A&R teams. AAA member Shuta Sueyoshi buried the plinky-plonks pushing “Hack” forward near the end of his January 2019 album “Wonder Hack,” but Japanese TikTokers found the track this spring and transformed it into a hit, thanks in part to a hook offering space for bedroom-born choreography and details that regulars of the platform love (the little mouth pop at the very end). “Hack” offers a blueprint on how a TikTok-ready song should sound — and how letting the masses take control can be a boon.
Shin Sakiura feat. Kan Sano — “Honto Wa”
This one is less about the specific sound of the song and more about the two artists involved. Shin Sakiura and Kan Sano have become small-font staples in J-pop this year, having written and produced songs for up-and-coming artists such as Sirup, Iri and Rude-a among many more. “Honto Wa” offers a simplified version of what they both do best, which is create a funky-enough melody leading to an earworm of a chorus. Consider this a model for how a lot of J-pop will sound in the next few years.
4s4ki feat. Rinahamu — “Nexus”
“Nexus’” provides a gut-punch right away, courtesy of the opening line: “You wanna see your friends / I wanna see my friends.” It’s an inadvertently devastating lyric during a global pandemic that has left many people in isolation. Beyond that quarantine-era dagger, the highlight of 4s4ki’s (pronounced Asaki) album “Your Dreamland” connects multiple musical trends from the past decade into one potent force. She draws from hip-hop and J-pop in equal measures, swaggering while delivering the kind of earnest lyrics Ayumi Hamasaki could be proud of. The music, meanwhile, finds producer Kotonohouse condensing a decade of the kind of maximalist Japanese electronic music found on SoundCloud and netlabels into one track balancing heaviness with a sense of melancholy. Even idol pop gets a shoutout with the presence of Rinahamu. “Nexus” turns disparate corners of 2010s Japanese music into one focused blast forward.
Valknee, Haruko Tajima, Namichie, Asoboism, Marukido and Akkogorilla — “Zoom”
It has been a big year for Japanese rap, though just what that means changes drastically depending on where you look. Internationally, Teriyaki Boyz 2006 song “Tokyo Drift (Fast & Furious)” (yes, from the worst installment of the “Fast & Furious” film franchise) became an internet challenge. At home, though, a new generation of MCs has been rising up to put its stamp on the domestic scene — from Awich to Tohji to Chelmico. The best example of where the genre is going, however, comes from this COVID-19-inspired posse cut that finds six of the best women in Japanese rap coming together on a song inspired by the online meeting platform made ubiquitous by work-at-home requests. It’s fierce, confident and varied, with every artist showcasing their own flair in a few bars. There’s no formula to follow, and thank goodness for that.
Yoasobi — “Racing into the Night”
The breakout song of Japan in 2020 neatly illustrates two trends. The first is the pronounced place online music communities have found in J-pop. Yoasobi is a duo consisting of Ayase, a Vocaloid producer, and Lilas Ikuta, who spent time in YouTube groups covering popular songs. That’s the same general composition of similarly popular projects such as Yorushika and Zutto Mayonaka de Ii Noni (better known as Zutomayo). Yoasobi also underlines the listener’s interest in musical authenticity — the group’s members write the music themselves rather than create by committee, and their installment of The First Take (a YouTube series further underlining major changes in the country) helped turn this song into a hit that topped the charts and made for a conversation topic on morning television.
It’s also a downer of a song. “Racing Into the Night” (“Yoru ni Kakeru”) is based on a short story posted online culminating in — spoiler alert — a couple throwing themselves off the top of an apartment building. J-pop has taken a heavy turn lately, from the downcast pop of reigning top female artist Aimyon, to recent releases from Zutomayo, to extreme examples like Shinsei Kamattechan’s “Ruru’s Suicide Show on a Livestream.” Yoasobi have taken it further than anyone this year, showing that a song inspired by the generally humdrum feeling of life in Japan (or really anywhere) in the 21st century can excel just as much as fake happiness. Don’t think of it as maudlin J-pop — think of it as “realitywave.”