The breakout popularity in recent years of a genre of retro J-pop collectively called “city pop” isn’t showing signs of settling down in 2022 and continues to expand its reach.
Numerous features on the reimported phenomenon continue to be released on radio, TV and online, and books on the subject are being published back-to-back in Japan. Reissues of both vinyl records and CDs are also flourishing.
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Explaining the genesis of this movement is a topic for another article, but one thing that can be said for certain is that Internet culture played a major role. Originally, the genre started being rediscovered online in the context of underground club music, such as vaporwave and future funk. From there, music illegally uploaded on YouTube became popular all over the world, which then started being featured on social media such as TikTok, leading to the major trend now called Japanese city pop.
Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plastic Love” and Miki Matsubara’s “Mayonaka no Door – Stay With Me” are two representative tracks that have become resurgent hits from this movement. Other city pop songs of yesteryear are following suit, enjoying a surge in popularity both domestically and abroad through their use in TikTok reels, such as Taeko Onuki’s “4:00 AM,” Kingo Hamada’s “Machi no dolphin,” and Anri’s “Remember Summer Days.” Another number that’s making a big splash this year is Yasuha’s “Fly-Day Chinatown,” which you can listen to here.
“Fly-Day Chinatown” is Yasuha’s debut single from 1981. The mononymous singer-songwriter is known for her performance on the piano and powerful singing reminiscent of another famous Japanese singer-songwriter, Junko Yagami. Her debut album, TRANSIT, released the same year, is strongly influenced by Billy Joel and other artists of the time, along with U.S. West Coast rock. Though the now 61-year-old artist should have been regarded as a gifted songwriter, she’s better known in her home country as a television personality and unfortunately has been undervalued as a musician over the years. So it’s fair to say that she’s finally getting the recognition she deserves through the power of social media. The cleverly catchy lyrics by Toyohisa Araki and the funk-tinged, solid arrangements by Akira Inoue sound fresh even today, and above all, Yasuha’s vocals expressing the breezy melodies stand out.
While dance videos using “Fly-Day Chinatown” in the vein of other city pop numbers are popular on TikTok, another unprecedented phenomenon unique to the song is that it attracted attention for the vocal’s resemblance to the voice of Killua, a character in the anime HUNTER x HUNTER, and a version with the pitch lowered to bring it even closer to the character’s voice has been shared online. Other future funk creators such as EVADE FROM Uchuu and Aests, and the popular South Korean DJ/music producer Night Tempo have also shared unofficial remixes, contributing to the overall hype over the track.
These developments have led to the official lyric video for “Fly-Day Chinatown” being shared by the label (Universal Music Japan) on YouTube. The video is a simple one featuring a retro anime-style illustration of a young woman with translations of the lyrics in multiple languages, and the fact that it doesn’t use photos or videos of Yasuha herself or the original jacket artwork makes it feel more current. Even the fans have picked up on this, with one user commenting on the video: “the label has a good grasp of the (song’s) demand.” The lyric video has been viewed more than 835,000 times exactly two month after being released May 25, which is quite a feat. The track was simultaneously released on streaming platforms and streams have exceeded 500,000 plays on Spotify. While the label is reacting to the unexpected buzz, having follow-up measures in place for such developments is highly significant.
It’s also nice to see Yasuha’s back catalog becoming more accessible after four of her albums were digitally released June 29. CDs of the albums are being reissued as well, meaning the label is also catering to the generation that prefers to own physical copies of music. UMJ is also reissuing a 7-inch single of “Fly-Day Chinatown” and a vinyl version of TRANSIT, showing that the label has definitely seized on the trend.
Furthermore, the label’s “CITY POP Selections” is a reissue series directly reflecting the ongoing city pop movement. In addition to Junko Ohashi’s MAGICAL (1984) — the price of the original vinyl for this album is skyrocketing — and Kingo Hamada’s Heart Cocktail (1985), a selection catered to both city pop beginners and enthusiasts is being released. The series includes various classic albums by Tatsuhiko Yamamoto and Hi-Fi Set, as well as fan favorites by Yoko Nishigohri (MY NAME IS YOKO, 1980) and Furuido (SIDE BY SIDE, 1978).
This reissue project will continue through the end of the year with 100 titles to be released. The second set of albums scheduled for August 31 will feature a wide range of artists including Meiko Nakahara, Sentimental City Romance, Ritsuko Kazami and Tokyo Q Channel. Nakahara’s famous album FRIDAY MAGIC (1982) will also be reissued as a vinyl edition. The song “FANTASY” from this set is also gaining traction outside of Japan especially on social media, so the album is a timely choice in that sense.
These recent trends alone are enough to indicate that the excitement surrounding city pop isn’t about to stop anytime soon. Veteran fans may feel that riding the wave of social media fads will drag the genre into the frenzy of consumer-driven culture, but it’s best not to interpret the movement in a negative way and see it as more of an opportunity for the legacy to be reevaluated by a whole new generation of fans. It’s also important to reissue the works with care, as in the case with “Fly-Day Chinatown,” so that the artists get proper recognition. The fact that a genre of vintage J-pop is being heard all over the world today is a wondrous, amazing development, and hopefully more people get a chance to experience it in real time.
–This article by Hitoshi Kurimoto first appeared on Billboard Japan.