J-Pop: It’s Not About the Music

by Claire Dranginis

Japan has the second largest music market in the world behind the United States, and 75% of the music consumed in Japan is made by Japanese artists[1].  Much of this music is J-pop.  The term J-pop was coined in the early 1990s and it now refers to most popular Japanese music, from rock acts like L’arc-en-ciel to R&B and pop acts like Namie Amuro and Perfume.  With this huge variety of groups in the second biggest music market in the world, how can I say that J-pop is not about the music?  Of course it’s about the music in many cases, but there are other factors that play a larger role in popularizing certain songs or groups.  These factors include a song’s tie-in to a popular drama, anime, or video game, and the appeal of the group members themselves, either for the cuteness, sexiness, or both.  I would argue that it is these other factors that are the reason for J-pop’s place as a part of Japan’s Gross National Cool.

A unique characteristic of J-pop is “cutesy” music.  This music could be said to be approximately a mixture of “bubblegum” pop and children’s popular music.  Japanese “cutesy” artists are always female and they often fuse sexuality and child-likeness together in a subtle manner.  They often wear child-like clothing and feign facial expressions of surprise, happiness, sadness, or anger in a child-like way[3].  A good example of this style of music is the group Morning Musume, seen below.

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The sexier side of cutesy music can be seen in AKB48.  This pop group is made up of 48 young women, and so holds the Guinness World Record for being the “Pop group with the greatest number of members.”  The group originated as a theater group in Akihabara, the electronics district and otaku haven in Tokyo.  At first glance they seem to be just a cute girl group, but the video below will change your mind.

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However, the objectification of J-pop artists is not limited to the female.  One of the most popular boy bands in Japan is SMAP, which stands for Sports Music Assemble People.  The group debuted in the early 1990s and they remain popular today.  This popularity is despite the fact that the majority of the members cannot hold a tune, as can be heard in the video below.  Their popularity therefore hinges on something besides music ability.  An important factor  is the group’s appearance in many different types of media.  In the mid-90s members appeared on ten regularly scheduled music and variety shows.  Today the group has its own weekly comedy and variety program called SMAPxSMAP in which the five members have cooking contests, perform comedy skits, and sing their latest songs.  Individual members also appear in many commercials and television dramas.  This omnipresence creates a perceived intimacy with the group’s fans.  The group’s good looks are certainly also a factor.  The members are often portrayed androgynously, and their costumes in concert often cross gender boundaries.  Along with this feminized masculinity, the members are also portrayed as emotionally sensitive and caring.  They are often shown cooking and taking care of children, and members of the band also take part in “crying contests” in which they compete to see who can make himself cry the fastest.

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Many J-pop songs become popular, both within and without Japan, because they are tied into other popular media.  About 80% of the top-selling 20 singles in Japan from 2000 to 2004 were songs tied into other media [3].  These tie-ins can be to commercials or to television dramas.  Television drama theme songs are especially important for J-pop’s popularity throughout the rest of Asia.  For example, in the early 2000s in Singapore soundtracks to Japanese dramas and collections of theme songs of Japanese dramas topped the music charts.  Singaporean J-pop fans would listen to older Japanese pop songs because the Japanese dramas broadcast on Singapore television were made several years ago [4].

Outside of Asia, the most well-known J-pop artists are those whose songs have been used in video games and anime.  For example, singer Utada Hikaru’s song “Simple and Clean” was used as the theme song in both the Japanese and American versions of the popular video game Kingdom Hearts.  One J-pop artist has even become its own anime of a sort.  The Cartoon Network show Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi was created by an American fan of the J-pop band Puffy.  The show ran from 2004-2006 and the band has since released a show tie-in album and several of its previous albums in the United States.

Certainly, the music has something to do with J-pop’s popularity, but the factors discussed above are what make J-pop a part of the Japanese cultural phenomenon.  Because of the language barrier of Japanese pop music, other attractive aspects are necessary to make J-pop desirable to a non-Japanese audience.  These aspects are tied into other Gross National Cool cultural commodities, such as video games, anime, drama, and the idea of cuteness.

Discussion Questions:

1.  Is cuteness really a distinctly Japanese music phenomenon?  What do you think makes it popular outside of Japan?

2.  Do you think that J-pop can survive on its musical merits alone?

Related Links





1.  Asai, Sumiko.  “Factors Affecting Hits in Japanese Popular Music.” Journal of Media Economics 21 (2008).  http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ufh&AN=34478224&site=ehost-live

2.  Darling-Wolf, Fabienne.  “SMAP, Sex, and Masculinity: Constructing the Perfect Female Fantasy in Japanese Popular Music.” Popular Music and Society 27, no. 3 (2004). http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=hlh&AN=14353063&site=ehost-live

3.  Mattar, Yasser.  “Miso Soup for the Ears: Contemporary Japanese Popular Music and its Relation to the Genres Familiar to the Anglophone Audience.” Popular Music 31, no. 1 (2008). http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=hlh&AN=28552268&site=ehost-live

4.  Ng, Benjamin Wai-ming.  “Japanese Popular Music in Singapore and the Hybridization of Asian Music.” Asian Music 34, no. 1 (2002).  http://www.jstor.org/stable/834419


  1. dbreilly says:

    I have to agree with you here – a large factor of J-Pop doesn’t actually seem to be the music (though, obviously, that’s important as well). For example, a number of J-Pop songs have become popular through originally being the opening or ending theme song for an anime. In fact, most if not all anime often give the first chance to a fan of a certain band or singer to hear their newest work.
    I also don’t believe that J-Pop has a lot of strength based on music alone; while people may enjoy it, its glamorization and interconnectedness with various other media make it much more accessible to people, or at least increase the chances of someone coming in contact with it.

  2. Very interesting and well thought out post Claire. I especially liked your youtube videos. The “crying contests” definitely demonstrated that J-Pop is not just about the music as you claim. Still the way your article is laid out makes it seem that you don’t see J-Pop as playing a large role in GNC rather that it is simply part of other cultural mediums that have become popular. Is J-Pop really more performance art with music? As someone who is not familiar with J-Pop at all I would like a little more background information about its popularity within Japan. Judging just from the videos it seems like J-Pop would be marketed to the 10-15 age boys and girl demographic. Also the songs all seemed rather up-beat? Does J-Pop usually express specific themes within the lyrics and if so are they some way unique to Japan? Looking forward to learning more in class.