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Hikaru Utada

Before she left the music scene and decided to marry an Italian dude who looks like Harry Potter (OK, the part after “Italian dude” is just my opinion), Hikaru Utada was huge in Japan. Her parents were famous musical producers, so she grew up in the business so her artistic savvy was evident in everything she did. My wife claims Utada lacks “soul,” but I think she just has a kind of “otherness”–she is ethnically Japanese but from New York, so I assume she’s been jetting between at least 2 countries most of her life. The smooth mix of English and Japanese in her lyrics, combined with honey-coated, sometimes flutey vocals, are probably what inspired so many other Japanese artists to start trying English during the height of her popularity. Here’s to hoping she comes out of retirement someday!


Totally apropos of nothing, one half of this duo went to high school in the very same town where I first began living in Japan–they donated a lot of money to that place after making it big, and it’s pretty over-the-top for a school! I’d like to describe B’z themselves as “over the top,” but I’ll just settle for this: Guitar rifts and metal are their calling cards, and as the quasi-Rolling Stones cover shows, they aren’t at all shy about their influences. It’s that simplicity, that unabashed love for their genre, that has kept them on the scene for more than 20 years. For me B’z music lacks the revolutionary bite that defined most big US/British rock bands when I was growing up; they were perfecting the pretty-boys-with-guitars thing before we thought of it, I think. Check ’em out anyway.

The Yoshida Brothers

What happens when you take a musical instrument as old as the hills and fuse it with new and vibrant sounds from around the globe? The Yoshida Brothers of course! These virtuosoes rock the “shamisen” (a kind of old-style Japanese guitar) as if it were an extension of their arms–while not quite of Jeff Beck proportions, their talent and general bad-assery are well documented through their many diverse albums. I missed seeing them play at the Billboard in Tokyo recently, truly one of the year’s greatest regrets. But live or not, you just have to hear them for yourself.

Ken Hirai

Whenever Ken Hirai shows up on TV or at an event, the women swoon and the men complain. Hirai has THE BIG THREE qualities that all women love and all men want. He is nice to a fault, incredibly handsome and gifted with one immense talent to boot: A fabulous set o’ pipes. This guy’s soulful, effortless tenor can make you cry or make you laugh; Hirai decides how he wants you to feel and just tugs those strings at will, the bastard. Very little “studio-izing” goes on in his albums. They feel like live recordings, raw with emotion and straight from the heart. Go get an album now, people. And try not to “hate” this guy as much as I do, OK?


A Kodo concert in Okayama City (2001) was my first-ever exposure to the music of “taiko,” or Japanese drumming–sometimes I wish I’d never heard them, because nothing after that has ever compared! This is the group that became nationally famous for running a marathon the night before a concert, the group that has an entire camp devoted to training their acrobats…er, drummers. These guys and gals are simply amazing. I feel almost bad about recommending Kodo in a music-only format, because they are truly meant to be seen and heard–but if you can’t have it all, pure audio is the next best thing. Even through the speakers, you will feel something primal awaken in your soul. So don’t start listening at work, unless it’s lunchtime!

Monkey Majik

Interesting that this album is called “DNA” and that it shows different colors, because Monkey Majik is certainly a hybrid; Two Canadian brothers and an assortment of other musically inclined humans making beautiful music together. The most interesting thing is that, while both the English and the Japanese songs they sing are flawless, the Japanese in the band provide backup and write the songs! I’m embarrassed to say that I thought it was the other way around, but that makes absolutely no difference. Monkey Majik has a funky style that is simultaneously laid-back and charged with excitement, not an easy combination to pull off. They live in Tohoku, the region most severely affected by the 2011 disaster, and have often given their time and talent to helping those in need. Good guys and good music, with soulful lyrics that are often in English–what more could you ask for?

The Gospellers

It may be going to far to say that The Gospellers are Japan’s answer to Boyz II Men, but their talent is undeniable. A dyed-in-the-wool a cappella snob who actually had a group of my own once, I never thought of Japanese as a language that could really handle being harmonized–I’m glad I was wrong! These guys are the first group I know of to go up against the idea that talent is secondary to looks, the mantra of most studio-made boy bands here. If I had one criticism, it would be that, given their obvious gifts, The Gospellers aren’t really bold enough with their harmonies…maybe I’ve just heard earlier albums!


Interesting urban legend about Kemuri, whose name means “Smoke”: While on tour in America a few years back, they would begin their concerts by greeting and chatting with the audience in perfect English before starting a set. The concert manager, who was worried about maintaining their exotic image, apparently asked them to speak English in a more stilted “Japanese” way, even though they were perfectly fluent! I’m not sure that’s the kind of smoke they were looking for–I’m not even sure if it’s true! In any case, the American influence is clear in their music. To me they sound like Green Day or REM, with their jaunty English making them even less exotic. These are guys you could bring home to your slightly-older brother (me, OK?) and I’d listen for a minute before weirding out and asking you when Green Day started recording abroad or something. But they’re not a cover band. Kemuri has their own message, and you’ll be able to hear it loud and clear.

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