Thought I might take a little time to introduce some evergreen songs from Japan. This is not a comprehensive list of the best classic songs but rather just some personal faves from yesteryear. Many of these timeless songs have transcended my childhood and continue to stick freshly in my mind, despite being more than a decade old.
Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence by Sakamoto Ryuichi (1983)
Much of my love for Japanese music stemmed from my parents and elder sister’s collections of records and cassette tapes. One unforgettable tune was the classic Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence by Sakamoto Ryuichi. While the song was released years before my own birth, the tune stayed in our stereos for more than a decade and continues on my playlist to this day. The world famous Sakamoto Ryuichi is famous for his emotional piano compositions. He also happened to invent the electropop genre.
Linda Linda Linda by The Blue Hearts (1987)
In the 80s and early 90s, The Blue Hearts were the living embodiment of punk. Their most famous song, Linda Linda Linda continues to live on in Japanese pop culture to this day. It literally oozes punk.
Matsuri by Kitaro (1990)
The famous New Age composer Kitaro was another artist that I grew familiar with through my parents. He blends Asian folk music seamlessly with electronic synchronizations to create truly unique masterpieces. The most memorable song (for me) being Matsuri (Festival) from his 1990 album Kojiki. He would later find mainstream success in Singapore when he released the album titled “Heaven and Earth” in 1993.
Manatsu no Kajitsu by Southern All Stars (1990)
The first Southern All Stars song I would hear, would be in the form of a cover of their 1990 hit single, Manatsu no Kajitsu. The song was translated into Chinese by Jacky Cheung as “Loving You More Each Day”. The Chinese cover swept through Singapore like a storm and lifted up his otherwise failing career. Today, the Jacky Cheung album which featured the song still remains as the most sold album in Hong Kong’s music history. This song will eventually introduce me to Southern All Stars and the music genius that is Kuwata Keisuke.
Say Yes by Chage and Aska (1991)
The final artists on this list who which I was introduced to by my sister are the duo of Chage and Aska, one of Japan’s top artists. Their most popular single, Say Yes remains the 6th best selling single of all time having sold more than 2.8 million copies.
While the band has since been suspended, both artists are still active individually. Asuka Ryo (Aska) holds the more successful solo career though. After releasing his own million selling singles he converted to songwriting, composing for other legends like Tokunaga Hideaki and even the late Teresa Tang.
Ai Wa Katsu by Kan (1991)
The popularity of Japanese culture surged in Singapore during the early 90s. Many Japanese shows were brought into the country and shown on local television. Most of these shows were easily appreciated music shows such as the Kouhaku Uta Gassen and Music Station.
MTV Asia played Japanese songs after peak hours. One of the songs that frequented the screen was Kan’s Ai Wa Katsu. The arrival of Korean pop culture soon displaced all of Singapore’s love for Japan but Ai Wa Katsu still stuck in my head in the years to come.
Shima Uta by The Boom (1993)
The Boom is a Japanese rock band masterminded by singer-songwriter Miyazawa Kazufumi. His sound is a unique blend of rock and folk music from around the world, his most famous song being Shima Uta. It’s a classical tune inspired from the folk sounds of Okinanawa.
The song saw widespread success, selling more than 1.5 million copies worldwide. Shima Uta even spawned covers in Argentina, Italy and the United States.
Nichiyoubi Yori no Shisha by The High-Lows (1995)
The second incarnation of The Blue Hearts, The High-Lows, was formed in 1995 by The Blue Hearts’ lead vocalist Komoto Hiroto and guitarist Mashima Masatoshi. The band featured a milder but otherwise similar punk sound to their previous group..
I was first exposed to The High-Lows during my grade school days when Nichiyoubi Yori no Shisha was featured on a Honda advertisement that played on the television daily. It started as a little boy on a bicycle and later cut to a slow motion video of a motorcycle rally. The catchy chorus of Nichiyoubi Yori no Shisha cheered the rider on before ending with the tagline “The Power of Dreams”. It was an inspirational and memorable message.
It’s Gonna Rain! by Bonnie Pink (1997)
For years, cartoon animations from Japan had been shown locally in Singapore. Back then though, we only received really old cartoons from decades before like Doraemon and Hakushon Daimao. Most often, these were dubbed into English, Chinese or Malay.
Cable television was finally introduced to Singapore in 1995 but it was only in 1997 with the launch of the new AXN television network did we have any access to recent animations. For an elementary student like myself then, this meant that we had all the more cartoons to devour. The one that kept me interested for the longest time though was Rurouni Kenshin, better known overseas as Samurai X. Each day I would return home in the afternoon each day to follow the adventures of Himura Kenshin.
The show had no shortage of catchy theme songs. Judy and Mary’s Sobakasu would become one of the most well known anime songs to date. It held the #1 spot on the Oricon charts for more than 5 months, selling well over a million copies. The song that I was most fond of though was Bonnie Pink’s ending theme, It’s Gonna Rain! It’s a unique song of dual nature, a melancholic yet hopeful sound. Unfortunately, overshadowed by Sobakasu, Bonnie Pink never found much mainstream success.
First Love by Utada Hikaru (1999)
Japanese pop saw new life in the late 90s with the introduction of groups like Smap, Speed and the Morning Musume. And while people started going crazy over the likes of Hamasaki Ayumi, the endless supply of lackluster pop caused my interest in Japanese music to waver. For the next couple of years, I would indulge fully in Western Rock and R&B music.
In 1999, I would find salvation in a rising Japanese American artist, Utada Hikaru. Unlike all the other artists of this age, Utada had no intention of becoming an idol. Instead she focused on becoming a successful singer, songwriter and composer. In a time where an abundance of pop plagued the industry, Utada’s music blended R&B and experimental sounds into her original compositions.
The song that would forever immortalize Utada Hikaru was the titular single of the album First Love, an emotional ballad like no other. First Love would become (and still is) the best bestselling album in Japanese history, selling more than 10 million copies worldwide.