We’ve spent a good amount of time in the comfort of the past 2 decades of music. Sure, we’ve dabbled in the old skool, but never for long. That all changes this week. Today’s show will highlight music from the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s; I’ve spent some time and effort listening through hours and hours of sometimes ridiculous, sometimes awesome music from the periods (so you don’t have to!), and will share the most interesting finds with you.

I think it’s easy to listen to music as it exists today without thinking about where it came from. It is, however, important to understand what was going on in the world at any given time if we are going to understand why the music is the way it is; also, understanding any music within its context can make it more enjoyable! So allow me to get madd academic on you while I offer you:

A Short History of Popular Music in Japan

During the Tokugawa period, Japan was closed off to all foreign influence and left to simmer in its own cultural stew. In 1853, US Commodore Matthew Perry appeared in Tokyo Bay with two steam frigates and two sloops-of-war- that is, hella boats and guns – and insisted on presenting to a high official on shore. This forceful opening of the long forbidden harbor opened Japan up to foreign trade, after which feudal clans introduced military marching bands and European military education . The Meiji government, established in 1968, marks for many the beginning of modern Japan and sees the beginning of popular music as we know it in Japan.

At first, popular music was as simple as military songs celebrating the wars with China and Russia. Opera was popularized in the Asakusa district of Tokyo until the 1923 earthquake displaced the performance company. Up until the 30s, the term ‘Jazz’ consisted of a variety of foreign music including tango, rumba, foxtrot, and tin pan alley jazz and in 1929, the song “Tokyo March” became a popular jazz selection. Throughout the 30s French films popularized the chanson style of music up until the tango boom took off in 1937. This promoted the spread of western music throughout Japan. At this point, the war in China begins affecting music in that only patriotic songs are allowed and love songs are banned. As the war continued into the 40s, tango and other “degenerate music” were forbidden by the government until 1945. The immediate post-war and occupation by American forces saw Japanese popular music begin to synthesize the styles brought by American servicemen including songs using the shamisen to “grind out boogie woogie” (54) and the popularity of jazz grew until, by 1953, it was the most popular music in Japan (Hosokawa, Matsumura, and Shiba 1991, 13).

Anthropologist Ian Condry suggests that with the rapid economic development of the 60s, the middle-class lifestyle spread to more segments of the population and the beginning of a global youth culture expressed through music and closely tied with urbanization and the rise of consumer culture. Visiting international bands (e.g. The Beatles) inspired young Japanese kids to start their own similar bands, affectionately called GS or group sounds, which Condry goes on to note that there is no equivalent category of group sounds in the United States or United Kingdom and as such one wonders how Western it is.

The subsequent folk (fuōku) boom, is another example of a popular American form being mimicked in Japan before a local form is produced; after the proliferation of bands that covered American folk music, a genre of Japanese protest songs emerged and these emphasized the singer songwriter expressing self-written lyrics. All the while, a generation gap is opening, and the development of enka as a national form captivates older audiences, while “new music” in the 70s and Idol music in the 80s develops a fan base that skews younger.


A Guide to Popular Music in Japan, edited by Hosokawa, Shuhei, Hiroshi Matsumura, and Shun’Ichi Shiba


Hip Hop Japan by Ian Condry (specifically pages 55-59)


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