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What is J-MUSIC?

J-Music (stylized as “J-MUSIC” by the J-MUSIC Ensemble) is a shortened combination of the two words “Japanese” and “music”--similarly, J-Pop, J-Rock, and all similar words with a “J” in front of them all refer to identifiably Japanese music.


The term J-Pop  was first coined by Japanese radio station “J-WAVE”--initially to define as a way to distinguish Japanese popular music from foreign pop music. While other forms of Japanese music were popular and widely identifiable in the 1920s and 1930s, such as enka, ryukoka, and kayokyaku music, the increasing popularity of Western pop musicians such as Elvis Presley and The Beatles quickly started to change the landscape of Japanese pop music. Younger people of the following generations of post-WWII surviving families became enamored with this new style of music. Japanese singer and actor Kyu Sakamoto made history in June 1963 when he became the first Asian singer to have a number one hit song on the US Billboard Hot 100--“Sukiyaki”, which was sung entirely in Japanese. This opened the doors in many ways for Western ears to see what the Japanese aesthetic was about.






The term J-Rock arose the same time J-Pop was coined, but the difference between J-Pop  and J-Rock is that the music that influenced J-Rock--rock music--was largely underground for some time before reaching popularity with later generations of Japanese people. The band most associated with the popularization and emerging acceptance of rock in Japan was a band called Happy End--formed in 1969, and the first band to be seen singing rock music in Japanese. Later bands began emerging out of this window, including Isao Tomita and Eikichi Yazawa, and the fusion with different types of art music at the time gave way to more eclectic styles of Japanese rock music. One of the things that emerged out of the increased eclectic fusion was a movement in Japanese music called visual kei--a term that refers to a movement represented by male bands who wore makeup, extravagant hair styles, and, often times, androgynous costumes. The influences to this movement were mainly punk rock, glam rock, and heavy metal, but various types of rock and sub-genres of rock are identified within this movement. The bands most notably credited with the pioneering of the movement were X Japan, Buck-Tick, and Color, among others. Other bands since then have adopted visual kei as their style, including Dir En Grey, An Café, and The Gazette. The visual kei movement soon became an influence on the generation of musicians and audiences during and after the start of the movement, and brought a new light to identifiably Japanese expressionism.


As time progressed, so did Japan’s cultural identity. By the 1980s-90s, Japan had already established itself as a force of technological innovation and artistic eccentricity, both of which were represented in all types of J-Music. It was also around this time that audiences outside of Japan--notably American audiences--started to be exposed to these newer forms of Japanese music in a variety of different mediums.


While video games were generally seen as a novelty in the 1980s, there were many people who saw the potential in video games as a medium for artistic expression. By the time of the Sega Mega Drive and the later Sega Genesis, Japanese video games had already been able to create simultaneous instrument sounds at great quality for the time, made possible by the groundbreaking advancements in the included FM Synthesizers. This allowed for complex sounds that had never been heard in video games, such as techno beats, pop-sounding songs, and sometimes--in the case of Nobuo Uematsu’s scores for the Final Fantasy series for Nintendo--full orchestrations of heavily dynamic music. This swept away Western audiences, and most of them were unaware that the music was Japanese; despite this fact, many electric and acoustic musicians alike were deeply inspired by this new music, and a new wave of music--“chiptune” music--was born out of this, embraced by video game fans and non-gamers alike as the sound of a new era.


Other forms of Japanese pop culture not only became synonymous with the music that represented them, but also served as vehicles for these new types of music. Anime--Japanese animation, often confused with cartoons--for example, soon began using different types of J-Music as their openings and endings for every episode. One composer notable for making innovative strides in bringing jazz sounds to new contexts is Yoko Kanno, responsible for the Cowboy Bebop (1998) soundtrack. Kanno has long been at the forefront of anime composing, and, like other contemporaries such as Yuki Kajiura, have inspired millions of fans and musicians worldwide with their scores. Today, there are over 10,000 festivals and conventions held internationally that are dedicated to celebrating anime and other forms of Japanese culture and art, including its music, where people can come and share their love for the culture that showed them new levels of worldview and expression by means of cyclical influence.


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