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The Basics of J-Rock (Japanese Rock Music)

Updated on December 16, 2012
Japanese Rock Concert - X Japan (group) playing in Hong Kong in 2009.
Japanese Rock Concert - X Japan (group) playing in Hong Kong in 2009. | Source

On The Search For New Music?

Japanese rock music, or J-Rock for short, is a rich area of music that is often overlooked by most Americans - in fact, most world music is. The most common complaint about foreign music is about the lack of understanding foreign words. Whether or not that is true for you, through this you may come to understand the basics of J-Rock and hear some samples that may change your mind.

As to what qualifies me to speak on this subject? As a historian I have done a bit of work in music history, specifically the history of rock music. Furthermore, from a young age I started listening to music from around the world - but enjoyed Japanese music the most, and began to study Japanese soon after.

What is Rock Music?

Asking the question "In general, what is rock music?" will help explain what J-Rock is and how it came to be. In the American 50's, American Rock and Roll came about from Rhythm and Blues and Country music. Soon enough, hybrids came out as people changed tastes and playing styles. Blues Rock, Country Rock, Jazz Rock, Glam Rock, Punk Rock, Heavy Metal Rock, and more. This was an organic process of people finding what they like to play and listen to.

So: "What IS rock music?"

Usually rock music has an electric guitar, bass guitar, and drums. More specifically it also follows a 4/4 time signature and a verse chorus form. More detail can be put into what rock music is about as defining what it is about lyrically, but that is a topic for another day. To find out what made J-Rock what it is today, we must look at a brief history.

60's J-Rock - American Influences

The History of J-Rock

Time for the boring history lecture. Or not - as this is one of the more exciting fields of history. In the 60's, Japanese Rock bands loved the same music Americans loved - The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, etc - and began to imitate them. The same musics that were popular in America became "Group Sounds" in Japan. A sample of said Group Sounds is on the right, one of the most popular groups at the time "The Funnies" later known as "The Tigers", with "My Mary". As you can hear, it is quite similar to what you could hear in The Beatles.

However, just like we moved on from the 60's rock music, so too did Japan move on from Group Sounds. In the 70's electronics started making their way into music leading to electronic music which merged into some rock songs for electro-rock. Other kinds of rock that came about in this time were psychedelic rock, pop rock, and more.

By the 90's rock was booming. More bands than can be mentioned were started and ended, but many of them put out some great music that influenced a lot of people. However, this is where the history stops and the exploration of J-Rock begins. There will be examples of the many types of J-Rock from the 90's to today, along with a little about similar artists and styles. Sit back, relax, and listen!

Malice Mizer and Visual Kei

J-Rock - The 90's

In the 80's an interesting style came about: Visual kei (ヴィジュアル系). This means something like visual system or style and is easily seen in such bands as X Japan, Malice Mizer, The Gazette, and other similar artists. It is hard to describe visual kei as the definition is argued about most of the time. Most people say it is a fashion with its own style of flamboyant clothing, make-up, elaborate hair styles, and sometimes androgynous aesthetics that goes along with certain types of rock such as glam rock, punk rock, and heavy metal. The video attached is Malice Mizer's "Dance of Death" and has images of the band which illustrate the visual kei style.

Asian Kung-Fu Generation: Haruka Kanata

J-Rock and Anime

From the late 90's J-Rock has been spread in many forms. One of these is anime or Japanese animation. Many anime, especially more action animated anime have J-Rock intro songs that help set the tone for the anime and possibly lend to the story a bit. Sometimes songs will be made specifically for an anime, or just be used because it fits well and will pump up the audience. Anime such as FLCL, Naruto, Bleach, Soul Eater, and Blue Exorsist (Ao no Exorsist) to name a few tend to mainly stick with J-Rock, where others can switch in and out of multiple genres depending on where they want the feeling of the season to go. To the left is Asian Kung-Fu Generation with Haruka Kanata which was played in the Naruto Series.

ONE OK ROCK - Re:make

Japanese Rock Bands: Boy Bands

There have been, are, and will be many boy bands in Japan. Currently one of the most popular is ONE OK ROCK. In 2005 this band started with 5 high school students, but after a bit of problems with one guitarist they went down to the 4 they have today. ONE OK ROCK's music has been used as the opening in anime, a movie short, and lately for a live action movie adaption to the famous series Rurouini Kenshin.

For more boy bands look at: UVERworld, Buck-Tick, L'Arc~en~Ciel, the GazettE

SCANDAL - Shoujo S

Japanese Rock Bands: Girl Bands

For Japanese rock, girl groups have not been common at all. There are a few good ones that have been playing recently but the trend has been more that girl groups go into the pop industry. SCANDAL is one of these more popular female rock groups. Starting in high school they played in live street performances and soon began to get offers to play in clubs. Soon after that they signed with an independent label and took off fast. Though being popular in independent areas they spread in major popularity when they were used as intros for some major anime series.

Another popular Japanese girl rock group is Tommy Heavenly6. This is an interesting artist to look at, because she is also Tommy February6, who is more of an 80s synthpop inspired singer where Heavenly is an altrock singer. Needless to say she does a lot and would be interesting to look into if you are looking for genre crossovers.

Anime Intro by Tommy Heavenly6 - Paper Moon

Stereopony - Hitohira No Hanabira

Finding J-Rock

Since there is such a rich culture producing so much content, it becomes hard to know where to start while looking for Japanese music in general, much less specific artists, what is popular, etc. You could try YouTube, Wikipedia, or a mix of them both - but you would be wasting a lot of time and energy.

JpopAsia, even though it sounds like it would only be pop, actually is an amazing resource for finding and listening to Japanese, Chinese, and Korean music. This website shows both trending music as well as the top chart information for the country so you can see what is popular at the time. On top of showing top chart information it indexes the information for you so you can easily browse artists that you like and look at their discographies, see similar artists, or even browse by the "feelings" songs give people such as "exciting", "rocking", and "joyful".

RADWIMPS - シュプレヒコール

Genre Crossovers and the Exploration of Music

Lets face it, when making a song you wouldn't really say "I want to make a rock song... what does that mean? Oh, that means I can't have ___ in it, so lets cut that..." It's a more natural process where people add or take away whatever they want - meaning "rock" is often popular rock, alternative rock, folk rock, or any other kind of rock just because of how it is created.

Its important to explore a genre fully before solidifying your conclusions. You might have heard something you did not like, but it could have just been a song that crossed genres into something you don't enjoy, or you only prefer a specific genre pairing - there are so many options that I would recommend, as self enrichment, that you explore as much as you can even if you start off felling you might not like something. You might find you were wrong, and have a whole new world of listening ahead of you!

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