Stream Loads of “City Pop,” the Electronic-Disco-Funk Music That Provided the Soundtrack for Japan During the Roaring 1980s

News about Japan today tends to focus on the coun­try’s long eco­nom­ic stag­na­tion and pop­u­la­tion decline, but in the 1980s it looked like the world’s next super­pow­er. Har­vard social sci­en­tist Ezra Vogel had just pub­lished the best­selling warn­ing Japan as Num­ber One. Post­war recon­struc­tion had turned into rapid growth, then into a kind of finan­cial gigan­tism. Inter­na­tion­al con­sumers drove Japan­ese cars and filled their homes with Japan­ese elec­tron­ics. Japan­ese con­glom­er­ates went on a world­wide spend­ing binge, snap­ping up oth­er coun­tries’ real estate, their man­u­fac­tur­ers, and even their movie stu­dios. Cam­era-wield­ing Japan­ese tourists replaced the “ugly Amer­i­can” as the boor­ish wealthy tourist of stereo­type.

What went on back in Tokyo as the rest of the devel­oped world looked on in amaze­ment (and a kind of hor­ror)? Out­side of Japan’s infa­mous­ly rig­or­ous work cul­ture — itself part of the rea­son for all the growth — its boom and con­se­quent­ly enor­mous asset bub­ble gave rise to new lifestyles and cul­tures, and the sound­track of the par­ty was “city pop.” Mix­ing Eng­lish lyrics in with Japan­ese, draw­ing influ­ences from West­ern dis­co, funk, and R&B, and using the lat­est son­ic tech­nolo­gies mas­tered nowhere more than in Japan itself, this new, slick­ly pro­duced sub­genre offered a cos­mopoli­tanism, accord­ing to Mori-ra at Elec­tron­ic Beats, that “appealed to those who ben­e­fit­ed from the so-called post-war ‘eco­nom­ic mir­a­cle.’ ” While out­side Japan “city pop might be viewed as gen­er­al 1980s Japan­ese music, now that Japan­ese music has become trendy, city pop has begun to be uncov­ered and even reis­sued.”

What’s more, city pop has become a sub­cul­ture again in our inter­net era, and a glob­al one at that. Its cur­rent enthu­si­asts, many of them not Japan­ese or in any case born too late to ben­e­fit from the boom, cre­ate and share their own city pop mix­es, care­ful­ly curat­ing the tracks (some­times even sup­ply­ing visu­als gath­ered from sources like the Japan­ese ani­ma­tion of the era, often with a Blade Run­ner aes­thet­ic) to per­fect­ly evoke the high life in 1980s Tokyo as they imag­ine it. (Friends who actu­al­ly lived in Japan then describe it as an envi­ron­ment of unal­loyed new-mon­ey obnox­ious­ness, but city pop, like all pop, sells fan­ta­sy, not real­i­ty.) You get a taste of that high life by sam­pling the many city pop mix­es freely avail­able on the inter­net. At the top of this post you’ll find the one post­ed to Youtube by a user called Van Paugam, whose chan­nel also fea­tures a 24-hour city pop radio stream (com­plete with night­time Tokyo dri­ving footage).

Below that, we have a 45-minute “Mix­tape from Japan” whose cre­ator goes by Star­funkel. It fea­tures not just city pop tracks but, for tran­si­tion­al mate­r­i­al, vin­tage record­ings and movie clips to do with the Land of the Ris­ing Sun. (Keep your ears open for the voice of Bill Mur­ray.) Then, the vinyl-only mix by I’m­manuel in Ams­ter­dam sim­ply titled “音楽 Ongaku #1” — Japan­ese for “music” — places city pop in a con­text with oth­er Japan­ese grooves of the era. You’ll find much more curat­ed city pop on Sound­cloud, from the ever-grow­ing “High School Mel­low” series to Brazil­ian funk musi­cian Ed Mot­ta’s 70s-ori­ent­ed mix to Mori-Ra’s own max­i­mal­ly mel­low “Japan­ese Breeze” col­lec­tion. Get too deep, though, and you’ll end up like me, mak­ing trips to Japan to go city pop-shop­ping and even (slow­ly) read­ing Japan­ese books on the sub­ject. The bub­ble may have long since burst, but the beat goes on.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Japan­ese Priest Tries to Revive Bud­dhism by Bring­ing Tech­no Music into the Tem­ple: Attend a Psy­che­del­ic 23-Minute Ser­vice

Blade Run­ner Spoofed in Three Japan­ese Com­mer­cials (and Gen­er­al­ly Loved in Japan)

A Wealth of Free Doc­u­men­taries on All Things Japan­ese: From Ben­to Box­es to Tea Gar­dens, Ramen & Bul­let Trains

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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