The Timelessness of Japanese Pop

In the waning weeks of 2020, a Japanese pop tune from 1979 shot to No. 1 on Spotify’s viral charts. Titled ‘Mayonaka no Door/Stay With Me’ and performed by a then-19-year-old Miki Matsubara, the song is as breezy as a convertible ride at twilight, with Matsubara’s wistful vocals floating over a funky bassline, jaunty horns, and twinkling production touches. 

Switching between Japanese and English, she pleads for a lover-turned-cold to stay in the relationship, haunted by the memory of him from the night before. The song first appeared in anime and Japanese culture TikToks last October, but the official peak of ‘Mayonaka no Door/Stay With Me’ on the app came six weeks later, in early December. 

TikTok creators of Japanese descent, filmed themselves playing it for their mothers, who’d light up upon recognizing the hit from their youth. It is almost too cute to bear. The moms close their eyes in bliss, singing and dancing like they’re at karaoke.

Image Courtesy: YouTube

The viral success of ‘Mayonaka no Door/Stay With Me’ has brought yet another surge of international interest to ‘city pop’, a loosely defined Japanese genre with R&B and jazz influences, dating to the late 1970s and 1980s. At the time, Japan was the world’s second-largest economy, threatening to overtake the West with its corporate dominance and cutting-edge machines.

‘City pop’ emerged as the soundtrack to this cosmopolitan lifestyle. The music is often exuberant and glitzy, drawing inspiration from American styles like funk, yacht rock, boogie and lounge music. Emulating the easy vibes of California, the music’s sense of escapism is often embodied by the sun-soaked cover art of Hiroshi Nagai, one of city pop’s iconic designers: Sparkling blue water, slick cars, and pastel buildings evoke fantasies of a weekend vacation at sea. 

Image Courtesy: Reddit

But the splendour and ease embodied by ‘city pop’ soon fell out of fashion: in the 1990s, Japan’s economic bubble burst, plunging the country into its ‘lost decade.’ Recent man-on-the-street interviews reveal that the term ‘city pop’ doesn’t even register with ordinary Japanese citizens, even if they recognize artists popularly associated with the genre.

But in the past few years, what we know as ‘city pop’ has been undergoing a revival in the West. A January 2020 segment of the Japanese variety show ‘Nippon! Shisatsudan’ investigated the trend of foreign tourists scouring for ‘city pop’ records in the Shibuya district of Tokyo.

Essentially, ‘city pop’ is Western music that’s been adapted by the Japanese, now coming back to us as a retrospective source of fascination. The head of the internet music label Business Casual once said that listening to ‘city pop’ was like “seeing old commercials from another world, selling the same brands and consumer products but in a different way than I remember.” 

Image Courtesy: World of Music

The upswing of ‘city pop’ likely originates with the Japanese themselves: a few decades ago, domestic crate diggers started critically re-evaluating vintage Japanese music or wamono. According to DJ Chintam, the co-author of the massively popular ‘Wamono A To Z’ records guide, and co-curator of last year’s Japanese jazz funk and rare groove comp—the concept of wamono didn’t exist before the mid-’90s: “Playing Japanese music in DJ sets was almost taboo,” he once said.

But the UK rare groove scene, which sent evangelists hunting after obscure funk, soul and disco, prompted him to start scouring for domestic records at the turn of the century; around 2008, he started noticing some interest among collectors overseas. Now these deep cuts are regularly sampled by house and disco DJs: “For those outside of Japan, wamono is a rare groove,” Chintam said.

Image Courtesy: The Japan Times

Still, your average Western music enthusiast probably didn’t know about ‘city pop’ until a few years ago. Japanese music isn’t particularly accessible overseas: The country has been exceptionally slow to embrace streaming, prioritizing the consumption of CDs, and its expansion into foreign music markets has also been sluggish. 

One recent breakthrough was the compilation ‘Pacific Breeze: Japanese City Pop, AOR & Boogie’ 1976–1986, released in 2019 by the reissue label Light in the Attic as part of their Japan archival series. The project, which now has a sequel, took four years to bring to fruition. “A lot of the Japanese labels didn’t understand why an indie label from America would want to license this stuff, so it took a lot of convincing,” says Yosuke Kitazawa, one of Pacific Breeze’s three curators. “We didn’t even know that the titles were popular on YouTube—they were curated from records that we all owned.”

Poke around YouTube for long enough, and you might suspect that its algorithm is biased toward vintage Japanese music, whose hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of YouTube views feel disproportionate to their native fame. 

-Britney Jones