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Popular Japanese music artists

Think about it - Sony Music Entertainment is one of the biggest record companies in the world; Yamaha is the largest manufacturer of musical instruments in the world; Japan has the sixth-largest population in the world; the music industry generates billions and billions of dollars worldwide every year. Yet how many Japanese artists have had a No. 1 hit in the US or European charts? One. Yes, one - and that was way back in 1963 (Sukiyaki by Sakamoto Kyu).

Related content: check out our many profiles of Japan's top pop artists.

So what's the problem with Japan? Several things - record companies are happy with the huge domestic sales racked up by the bands under their control (literally); the language barrier is a problem, with few Japanese feeling comfortable speaking or singing in English; and the fact that there is no market for the vast majority of Japanese pop music outside of Asia (other Asian countries have a strange admiration for all things Japanese, including the music).

There have been a few bright spots over the years but they're few and far between. Bands with musical talent, like Southern All Stars, Chage and Aska or Dreams Come True turn out records with some songs that stay with you but nothing that would break them in the US or Europe. In the, other bands, like Shonen Knife, Pizzicato Five, Cibo Matto and Buffalo Daughter have a cult following abroad but little commercial success.

The Japanese music scene 1958-1990

The pop/rock music scene has gone through a few different stages over the years. The rockabilly sounds of the late 50's became popular in the cities of Japan just after they revolutionised the US music scene. Young guys and gals flocked to see the stars of the day do their best impersonations of Elvis and Gene Vincent at the Western Festival in Tokyo in Februaury 1958.

In the 60's, it was the Beatles and the Rolling Stones who inspired the imitation of local groups. Ereki (electric) guitar music was the in sound of what became known as the Group Sounds phenomenon. The best known local bands of the decade include the Tigers and the Spiders. The Tigers were the first band to play the Budokan, then the biggest indoor arena in the country. 1965 saw the first successful tour by US surf-sound band the Ventures, who have retained their huge popularity to this day. Record industry overkill finished off the Group Sounds era and the seventies saw the arrival of New Rock and the Idols.

Chage and Aska

Pizzicato Five

Aidoru (idol) was the word used to describe cute, girl-next-door singers who were designed, controlled and marketed just like any other product. In fact, for the talent agencies, having these starlets chosen to be the face of a candy bar or instant noodles in a TV commercial was as much part of the plan as selling records. The 70's and 80's saw hundreds of these idols come and go, such as Pink Lady, Yamaguchi Momoe, Tanokin Trio and The Candies. Pink Lady had nine No.1 hits in a row between 1976 and 1978 before disappearing without trace.

The 80's saw a degree of international success for the techno-pop of YMO (Yellow Magic Orchestra). Band member Sakamoto Ryuichi went on to become the best known Japanese musician in the world but with little commercial success outside of movie soundtracks. The decade also saw the peak of so-called New Music, a fusion of folk, rock and pop typified by singer/songwriter Matsutoya Yumi, or Yuming. The top rock bands of the 80's included Southern All Stars, Kome Kome Club, Checkers and Princess Princess.

The 1990's and beyond

Although the heyday of the idols was in the 80's, the musical artists of the Johnny's Jimusho talent agency such as SMAP, V6 and Kinki Kids have ruled the airwaves for the best part of the decade. Having their own TV shows keeps them in the public eye even when they're between singles or tours. Together with artists 'created' by producer Komuro Tetsuya, they have ensured that bland pop music by youngsters who can't sing or play has been the hallmark of the genre known as J-pop. The mid-90's saw Komuro make it as an artist with the groups TM Network and globe. He then moved up a gear to exploit aspiring singers and fans alike to become one of the richest men in Japan. In his breakthrough year, 1995, Komuro's music made some 27 billion yen and the following year he had 5 of the top ten singles. His many creations include the Avex Trax label and artists trf, Amuro Namie and Kahala Tomomi.

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