Music by VICE

The Guide to Getting Into City Pop, Tokyo’s Lush 80s Nightlife Soundtrack

Once derided as MOR muzak for yuppies, the glitzy genre that drew on funk, soul, disco, and lounge has become beloved by collectors and experimenters. Here's where to start.

by Rob Arcand, and Sam Goldner; illustrated by Xavier Lalanne-Tauzia
25 January 2019, 1:51am

Pop music has a tendency to trickle back down to the underground in one way or another. From Styx to Steely Dan to our never-ending iterations of Toto’s 1982 hit “Africa,” there have been countless times where artists considered uncool by a generation have gone through renewed cycles of influence and inspiration, sparking new modes of nostalgia for young listeners who weren’t actually there the first time around. Yet few styles are as strange or as storied as the 21st-century rebirth of Japanese city pop. A strain of lite, easy-listening J-pop that drew on a variety of American and Asian influences including funk, soul, disco, lounge, and even yacht rock, city pop defined the Japanese mainstream from the late 70s to the mid-80s, even if at the time it was largely considered to be MOR muzak for yuppies.

“Many Japanese people who grew up with this kind of music considered city pop as cheesy, mainstream, disposable music, going so far as calling it ‘shitty pop,’” says Light in The Attic’s Yosuke Kitazawa, who has spearheaded the label’s reissues of Haruomi Hosono as well as curating their ongoing Japan Archival Series.

Yet beneath its plastic sheen lies a deeply sincere approach to production and songwriting that has captivated listeners around the world. While the term “city pop” itself is highly malleable (with fans often debating over which releases should even be considered as part of the genre), what defines the music is ultimately more of a feeling than it is a rigid framework. Music journalist Yutaka Kimura described it simply as “urban pop music for those with urban lifestyles,” making city pop one of those things that you just know when you hear it.

As with so many other groundbreaking forms of music to emerge over the last several decades, the story of city pop can be partly traced back to the work of Haruomi Hosono. Before he had formed Yellow Magic Orchestra, Hosono’s band Happy End brought American and Japanese music closer together than ever before when they released their self-titled 1970 folk-rock debut, sung entirely in Japanese (breaking with the popular Japanese rock convention of singing in English).

“Artists like Happy End and Hachimitsu Pie, whose members had grown up during those post-war occupied years and had been exposed to American pop culture, played music that had roots in American music, but was uniquely Japanese,” says Kitazawa. “They were very conscious about singing in Japanese, with lyrics often about living in the city and nostalgia towards a bygone era.”

These releases helped forge a new Japanese identity in modern pop music, painting vivid, folksy pictures of life in Tokyo, and essentially creating the foundation for what would soon become city pop.

In the late-70s, after several decades spent recovering from the devastation of World War II, Japan was entering the peak of their post-war economic miracle. Technological innovations in automated vehicle manufacturing and wildly popular consumer electronics like the Sony Walkman were establishing Japan as an economic powerhouse, and with their global influence at an all-time high, it was time for the people of Tokyo to celebrate.

While beforehand, rockabilly and British Invasion-influenced genres like Group Sounds had dominated Japanese popular music, contemporary American styles such as new wave, jazz fusion, and AOR began to seep into the sounds of J-pop.

“People were euphoric and eager to celebrate through 80s-style excess,” says Eli Cohen of Alliance Upholstery and Cultures of Soul, who recently helped compile Tokyo Nights—a reissue of some of the most compelling female voices of the city pop movement. “The public spent lavishly on imported wine and liquor, luxury clothing, art, and international travel. Japanese nightlife, from flashy restaurants and hostess bars to glitzy bars and discotheques, was second to none. Japan needed a soundtrack for this new lifestyle, and city pop was born.”

Many of city pop’s most popular figures were accomplished composers and producers in their own right, with artists like Tatsuro Yamashita and Toshiki Kadomatsu incorporating complex arrangements and songwriting techniques into their hits, utilizing jazzy major 7th and diminished chords that they’d gleaned from American soft-rock outfits like Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers. The booming economy also made it easier for them to get label funding, affording them access to the all the latest recording technology and helping to give city pop its mainstream, futuristic sheen.

The visual artists who supplied much of the album artwork for this period were equally intrigued by the seductive allure of capitalism: Eizin Suzuki, whose iconic illustrations of seaside bliss appear on a number of Tatsuro Yamashita’s album covers, made his name designing advertising campaigns for leading Japanese companies, including Nikon, Suntory, Nissan, and Nippon Oil (his piercing use of greens and blues were so ubiquitous that they even inspired the graphic design for Sonic the Hedgehog’s Green Hill Zone). Meanwhile, illustrators like Hiroshi Nagai forged their style by mixing imagery from American advertisements and pop art with a surrealism informed by René Magritte and Salvador Dali, helping to create the dreamy sense of billboard bliss that’s been so crucial to city pop’s lasting appeal.

Although Japan’s era of economic prosperity would come to an end with the stock market crash of the early ‘90s (taking the unbridled optimism of city pop with it), the genre’s story was far from over. In the early ‘10s, city pop began to hold a certain fascination for underground laptop artists in Western countries.

“There is something intriguing and alluring to something that feels familiar, but at the same time foreign,” says John Zobele, who heads up the vaporwave label Business Casual. “When I first discovered city pop, It was like going back in time, turning on a TV and seeing old commercials from another world, selling the same brands and consumer products but in a different way than I remember.”

Sample-heavy Internet genres like vaporwave and future funk soon rose to prominence, offering a hyper-commercialized take on 80s pop as fantastical and escapist as they were critical of the empty promises of capitalism. For these online communities, old city pop records would serve as a massive visual and sonic touchstone.

Today, fans are still constantly uploading new city pop discoveries to YouTube, adding more details to the scene’s shimmering, pastel-colored picture with each video. A genre that once originated as a Japanese interpretation of American music is now being reflected back by the West, where the counterculture continues to illuminate its themes of excess and paradise. If you can read Japanese, Yutaka Kimura has even published a paperback guide to the 500 most essential city pop releases, should you want to go CD hunting through the streets of Tokyo. The abundance of Japan’s economic boom may have fallen by the wayside, but the music from that time period still captures an intoxicating, enduring sense of optimism that the future is going to be bright. Describing the experience he feels when listening to the music of Toshiki Kadomatsu, Cohen says, “[It sounds] like the feeling you get when leaving the train at Shibuya station around midnight. The city, and the night, are yours.”

So You Want to Get Into: Summery AOR City Pop?

In its earliest incarnations, city pop would heavily lean on the sounds of California bands such as Buffalo Springfield and Little Feat, whose summery folk-rock paved the way for the hugely influential Japanese band Happy End. One of the first rock groups to combine American sounds with lyrics in their native language, Happy End remains a touchstone in how city pop musicians would reinterpret American music to discover their own national identity.

Popular American music and the allure of the West Coast would remain a powerful influence on Hosono’s sound as both a producer and musician, though much of his solo output was too experimental to fit into the radio-ready packaging of most city pop (not that it kept him from writing and producing songs for numerous teen idols of the era). Many of city pop’s biggest acts would also seek to channel the sounds of California into their jazzy, soft-rock radio songs, adorning their albums with imagery of vintage cars cruising along the coastline against impossibly blue skies. Tatsuro Yamashita, possibly the most popular and iconic star of the genre, even made his debut with an album consisting entirely of Beach Boys covers, and brought his Brian Wilson-styled doo-wop harmonies to sunny, soul-infused anthems like “Morning Glory” and “Magic Ways.”

While much of this strain of city pop has the same kind of easy-listening yacht rock cadence as Michael McDonald or Hall & Oates (look no further than Narumin & Etsu’s resplendent smooth-jazz reverie “Summer Touches You”), plenty of artists weren’t afraid to push the limits of the genre. Just listen to the playfully exotic electro-lounge of Pacific, a collaboration between Hosono, Yamashita, and former Happy End member Shigeru Suzuki that sounds like if Van Dyke Parks was given free reigns to score the hotel lobby music for a psychedelic resort.

Elsewhere, Eiichi Ohtaki (another former member of Happy End) consistently reshaped his sound throughout his musical career, evolving from his folky proto-city pop beginnings (heard best on “Yubikiri”) to tackling a freewheeling, oddball concoction of old-fashioned sounds on Niagara Moon to culminating his sound with the beachy, Phil Spector-worshipping classic A Long Vacation.

“These songs reflected the Japanese public’s feeling of jubilation and ascendance into the global leisure class,” Cohen says of city pop’s infatuation with endless summers and poolside extravagance. But what truly sets so much music from this era apart is its lush detail, and the complex, melodic excitement with which these artists rendered their visions of a paradise waiting just around the bend.

Playlist: Happy End - “Kaze Wo Atsumete” / Taeko Ohnuki - “都会” / Tatsuro Yamashita - “Music Book” / Shigeru Suzuki - “Coral Reef” / Kiyotaka Sugiyama & Omega Tribe - “Dear Breeze” / Eiichi Ohtaki - “カナリア諸島にて” / Narumin & Etsu - “Summer Touches You” / Seaside Lovers - “Evening Shadows”

So You Want to Get Into: Urban Nightlife City Pop?

As some of the citizens of Japan enjoyed their newfound affluence, their social attitudes started to evolve as well. Women started gaining to access to higher education and entering the workforce in record numbers, and with more expendable income they were finally able to enjoy everything that life in the city had to offer.

“Women embraced the same excesses as their male counterparts, enjoying cosmopolitan indulgences like fashion, fine dining, travel, and nightlife,” says Cohen. “While institutional expectations still pressured young women to marry early and start a family, it was not frowned upon to have a little fun before then.”

This cultural shift made its way into the music as well, where female singers covered emotional territory largely uncharted in Japanese pop music. “Themes of passive, innocent love, [which were] pervasive in older music, were replaced by women voicing their own desires and feelings,” Cohen says. “Singers like Hitohmi Tohyama and Junko Ohashi sang about the inner workings of their bedrooms as they addressed risque and sometimes taboo subjects like one-night stands and the pursuit of men. While most Japanese love songs hesitate to express emotions directly, this allusion to physical relationships encouraged women to take an active role in their own sexuality.”

Pop music of the era came to quickly reflect this new wave of nightlife happening in Japan, with disco-ready releases like Toshiki Kadomatsu’s flashy, urban-skyline-adorned 1984 album After 5 Clash epitomizing city pop’s late-night optimism and metropolitan wonder. Fantastically slapped basslines from the likes of Koki Ito and Yasuo Tomikura fueled the era; you can hear the former’s distinctive funk riffs all over high-powered Tatsuro Yamashita cuts like “Merry-Go-Round” and “Silent Screamer,” while the latter’s liquid-smooth sound forms the bedrock of tracks like Makoto Matsushita’s “First Light” and Kikuchi Momoko’s “Adventure.”

Jazz fusion even made its way into the city pop sound through popular instrumental recordings from artists like T-Square and Casiopea, whose high-octane jams would end up leaving a lasting impression on the video game world (both bands would figure as major influences for Persona soundtrack composer Shoji Meguro, and T-Square guitarist Masahiro Andoh even went on to compose the theme music for Gran Turismo). City pop was a bona fide melting pot of the various styles of music gaining popularity in America between the 70s and 80s, all tied together by the common theme of the joys, pitfalls, and possibilities of experiencing nightlife in one of the world’s most rapidly advancing cities for the first time.

Playlist: Toshiki Kadomatsu - “If You…” / Casiopea - “Midnight Rendezvous” / Makoto Matsushita - “First Light” / Tatsuro Yamashita - “Merry-Go-Round” / Masayoshi Takanaka - “Sexy Dance” /Junko Ohashi - “Telephone Number” / Kikuchi Momoko - “Adventure” / Haruko Kuwana - “蒼い風”

So You Want to Get Into: Techno-Pop City Pop

Before there was ever anything called “city pop,” Yellow Magic Orchestra used the term “techno-pop” to describe their own style of synth-heavy, grove-oriented dance music. Where earlier projects from the trio’s members like Happy End used colloquial Japanese lyrics in an effort to reclaim the rock tradition as more than mere American import, Yellow Magic Orchestra drove out any last traces of Western sincerity, poking fun at stereotypes, all while charting an alternate vision for Japanese cultural identity through technology in the process. Songs like Solid State Survivor’s “Technopolis” would appear in television commercials for new consumer devices like the compact audio cassette, and the band’s use of the latest synths and drum machines from Japanese companies like Roland and Yamaha would establish both the band and the nation as forces to be reckoned with in the new global economy.

While the term “techno-pop” eventually gave way to the more expansive “city pop” (which is incidentally also a reference to the Happy End compilation album City, as well as their final 1973 concert “City: Last Time Around”), the widespread use of new studio technology would remain a defining feature of city pop in the years to follow. With a new consumer class hungry for CDs, cassettes, and video tapes to play on new devices like the Sony Walkman and Betamax VCR, record labels increasingly had the budget for more and more extravagant studio recordings, routinely flying in international musicians and hiring full symphony orchestras. As Cohen notes, city pop artists like Tatsuro Yamashita and Toshiki Kadomatsu were “equally recognized for their production of other artists,” making prevalent use of tools like Yamaha DX-7, Roland Juno-60, and ARP Quadra, as well as the LinnDrum rhythm machine in their work.

Beneath the commercial sheen of Tatsuro Yamashita and Toshiki Kadomatsu was always a careful attention to the affordances of new studio technology, and for artists like Kiyotaka Sugiyama, Casiopea, and Wink, new synth hardware became a defining features of their music. Another Summer, Sugiyama’s fourth studio album with his band Omega Tribe, finds the songwriter working synths like the Moog Polymoog and Yamaha DX-7 into his setup, while pop hits like Wink’s “Sabishii Nettaigyo” create blissful synth-pop to rival anything to come from Eurhythmics. At the same time, albums like Casiopea’s Make Up City and Mint Jams reveal that all this new technology never operated in isolation, with the band combining virtuosic synth chops within their broader jazz fusion palette. More of an influence than distinct subgenre of the style, techno-pop laid the foundation for many of city pop’s electronic undertones in ways that can still be felt in some of the biggest J-pop hits today.

Playlist: Casiopea - “Eyes of Mind” / Wink - “Sabishii Nettaigyo” / Kiyotaka Sugiyama - “Umikaze Tsushin” / Mariya Takeuchi - “Oh No, Oh Yes!” / Toshiki Kadomatsu - “I Can’t Stop The Night” / RA MU - “Rainy Day Lady” / Katsumi Horii Project - “Hot Is Cool” / Hiroshi Satoh - “Say Goodbye”

So You Want to Get Into: Current-Day City Pop

In June 2018, K-pop superstar Yubin was publicly accused of plagiarism. In the buildup to her debut single as a solo artist, the former Wonder Girls group member unveiled a 15-second teaser clip with audio from the track’s B-side “City Love.” Fans online were quick to compare Yubin’s single to another song by city pop star Mariya Takeuchi, with both the title and melody eerily similar to Takeuchi’s 1984 song “Plastic Love.” While Yubin’s label ultimately postponed the track’s release (which still hasn’t arrived over 6 months later), the dispute offers a glimpse of just how much inspiration some of today’s biggest K-pop and J-pop stars are taking from city pop; the track’s A-side “Lady” later received its own video, complete with a glitzy driving scene, a subway dance sequence, and a color palette taken from some of city pop’s most memorable releases.

Yubin and Wonder Girls aside, the last few years have seen a city pop resurgence unprecedented in the genre’s history. Pop and rock groups like Awesome City Club, Sugar’s Campaign, and Yoshida Yohei Group have each cited city pop as a key inspiration. Japanese funk bands Suchmos, Lucky Tapes, and Special Favorite Music have crafted retro-leaning dance tracks as indebted to America’s disco innovators as they are to the interpretations of Tatsuro Yamashita, Masayoshi Takanaka, and countless other city pop predecessors. Even a character on the popular Japanese reality show Terrace House has a city pop band.

While the style itself has become merely one of a variety of influences for artists raised in today’s information overload, the term “city pop” has made something of a comeback in Japanese lexicon as well. Writing in the Japan Times, skeptic Ryotaro Aoki notes that the term, which largely fell out of style in the 90s, has now become a kind of catch-all for everything retro and funk-inspired about today’s Japanese-language pop music. What once meant music by and for young Japanese urbanites has for Aoki become “more of a simplified indie buzzword used to induce feelings of sophistication, fashionableness and nostalgia." Still, it’s hard to deny that acts like Awesome City Club, City Your City, and Yogee New Waves are clearly taking influence from city pop, even if the connection has more to do with band names and visual aesthetics than any easy-to-pinpoint sonic reference.

Some of this overlap may have to do with the increasing prominence of classic city pop records on YouTube. “Plastic Love,” the Mariya Takeuchi song once plagiarized by Yubin, was likely recognized by fans due to its near-inescapable presence on the platform, where the video earned over 22 million views before being pulled from the site late last year. Thanks to its pleasant mood and eerily frequent placement in YouTube’s recommendation sidebar, the once largely forgotten mid-album track has fascinated listeners around the world, championed by everyone from the Black Madonna to Gorillaz in the last few years.

But the genre’s popularity on YouTube isn’t limited to “Plastic Love,” with other classics like Tatsuro Yamashita’s For You and Toshiki Kadomatsu’s After 5 Clash amassing view counts into the hundred-thousands on the platform. Mixes, live streams, and playlists have emerged at every corner of YouTube, SoundCloud, and Spotify, suggesting that there’s something about city pop that makes it a natural fit for today’s modes of networked listening. The genre has long been of interest to vaporwave and future funk musicians, who were quick to adapt its plastic, feel-good qualities into bleary-eyed pastiche, and other styles of Japanese ambient music have found similar success thanks to YouTube’s recommendation sidebar.

As Yosuke Kitazawa put it in an interview, “SoundCloud mixes and YouTube algorithms have helped for sure, but they wouldn’t be up there to be discovered in the first place if it weren’t for the generation of obsessive record diggers and DJs (both in Japan and from overseas) and Japanophiles who helped rediscover these sounds during the golden age of record digging in the ‘90s.”

From heady online forums to legitimate success on the Japanese pop charts, city pop’s influence stretches far and wide across the contemporary musical landscape. What started as an attempt to chart a new direction for Japanese rock inspired by Western folk music has since returned to the West as a fascinating form of postmodern cultural identity, blurring Japanese and American cultures beyond distinction in the process. “It’s a testament to how music has the power to cross international borders, even if the reasons for city pop’s allure might not be so easy to explain,” says Kitazawa. Though untangling the mystery and appeal of city pop can seem like a neverending rabbit hole, there’s nothing hard to understand about the music itself, which is about as accessible, joyous, and captivating as any mainstream Western pop music—it just took a couple decades for it to finally click.

Playlist: Mariya Takeuchi - “Plastic Love” / Skylar Spence - “Skylar Spence” / Yubin - "숙녀 (淑女)" / Awesome City Club - “アウトサイダ” / Suchmos - “Stay Tune” / Lucky Tapes - “レイディ・ブルース” / Special Favorite Music - “Royal Memories” / t e l e p a t h テレパシー能力者 - “ずっと一緒にいたいよ”

This article originally appeared on Noisey US.