The Music of Japan

Nov 24, 2021

We’ve spent some time over the last couple of months really exploring some of this planet’s incredible music. We started out looking at the music of Brazil and Cuba, then Argentina and Chile. We’ve spent some time in Trinidad and Tobago, flown through Mexico and Spain! Most recently, we’ve explored the music of Africa, starting with West Africa, then South Africa, Morocco, and finally East Africa last week. This week we’re going to continue moving eastward, and explore the music of Japan!

As small a landmass as it is, Japan is actually the second-largest music market in the world! What’s more, the island nation is the single largest market for physical music in the world, with more than $2.7 billion spent on CDs a year. With so much love for music, it’s not hard to imagine the depth of the Japanese music scene. From traditional forms of music, like min’yō, and wadaiko, to modern genres, like J-pop, Japanese reggae, and jazz, Japan is a musical hotbed! Let’s sample just some of these incredible musical styles!

Traditional Japanese Music


Japanese folk music, or min’yō, can be grouped in a plethora of ways, but it’s easiest to think about as having five main categories:

  • Work songs
  • Lullabies
  • Religious songs
  • Songs for gatherings, such as weddings, funerals, or festivals
  • Children’s songs

In min’yō, the singer is often accompanied by a three-stringed lute called a shamisen, taiko drums, and a bamboo flute known as a shakuhachi. Other popular instruments include a transverse flute called a shinobue, a bell called a kane, tsuzumi drums, and a 13-stringed zither called the koto.

Many min’yō are connected to a certain type of work or specific trade, and were often sung and performed between work, or even to help during certain jobs. Other forms of min’yō are simply for entertainment, for dancing, or as a part of religious ceremonies.

While this form of music is a general “catch-all” for most Japanese folk music, it is distinct depending on the area of Japan it comes from.


Wadaiko, a particular type of Japanese taiko drum, comes in a variety of sizes and is used in many musical genres. However, it has become especially popular recently as the central instrument of percussion ensembles, called kumi-daiko, that specialize in a variety of folk- and festival-music of the past.

The origins of this drum, and this musical style, are uncertain but can be traced back to at least the 7th century. At this time, these drums were used mainly during battle to intimidate the enemy as well as communicate commands. From there, the drums were used in the religious music of both Buddhism and Shintō.

Modern Japanese Music

J-Pop & J-Rock

J-pop and J-rock, as you’ve probably guessed, are Japan’s own brands of pop and rock music. The roots of these genres are deep, but only sprouted to popularity in Japan in the 1990s, and each grew out of more traditional Japanese music, but with a lot of influence from the world-famous pop and rock artists of the 1960s. Influences like The Beatles and The Beach Boys led to Japanese rock bands like Happy End fusing rock with Japanese music in the early 1970s.

The terms “J-pop” and “J-rock” were made popular by Japanese media in an effort to distinguish Japanese music from foreign music, and have grown to refer to most Japanese popular music today. Overall, these styles have been immensely influential in the region, with neighboring nations borrowing the name to help them form their own musical identities (for example, Korea’s K-pop).

Japanese Reggae

It may have been in 1975 when The Pioneers became the first reggae band to tour in Japan, but it wasn’t until 1979 when Bob Marley visited on holiday that reggae truly took off in Japan. As the story goes, Marley wanted to go to a concert by the Flower Travelin Band, and while looking for information, he met famed Japanese percussionist “Pecker,” who told him the group had already broken up.

This seemingly insignificant meeting led to the two musicians becoming close friends, and ultimately to Pecker suggesting they collaborate. That suggestion led to the albums Pecker Power and Instant Rasta being recorded in Jamaica in 1980. The albums featured Japanese artists Minako Yoshida, Ryuuichi Sakamoto, Naoya Matsuoka, Shigeharu Mukai, and Akira Sakata, as well as Jamaican artists Augustus Pablo, Sly & Robbie, The Wailers, Rico Rodriguez, Carlton Barrett and Marcia Griffiths. These incredible albums influenced not just Japanese artists, but Jamaican artists as well, and helped spread reggae to Japan. Today, the genre is still popular and collaborations between artists from both nations continue.

Japanese Jazz

Japanese jazz refers to, as you might expect, jazz music by Japanese musicians, or jazz that is connected to Japan or Japanese culture in some way. What you might not expect, however, is that Japan has, according to many estimates, the largest population of jazz fans in the world.

Unfortunately, in the past Japanese jazz was frequently criticized as somewhat derivative by both American and Japanese commentators. And while the criticism was harsh, it did lead to artists adding more of a “national flare” to theory work by the late 1960s. One shining example of this is when Toshiko Akiyoshi drew on Japanese culture in compositions for the big band she led with her husband and collaborator Lew Tabackin. On Kogun (1974) for example, they used some traditional instruments, like the tsuzumi. Later, on Long Yellow Road (1975), they featured an adaptation of a melody from the Japanese tradition of court music.

Are you looking for a way to begin your own musical journey? Has your child shown an interest in learning to play an instrument or to sing? The Music Studio has programs for all ages – from children to seniors – all skill levels -from beginner to experienced – and a huge variety of instruments. Check out all our programs and sign up today!