7 Famous Japanese Singers Who Can Teach You Authentic Japanese
So, what are Japanese natives listening to these days?
The Japanese music industry is vast and incredibly varied.
From bubblegum pop to rock, rap and the avant-garde, there is a sound to suit any taste.
The most popular songs tend to be simple, catchy and easy to digest, making them fabulous tools for learning phrases, vocab and grammar.
But given that the industry is so vast, it might seem too daunting to begin finding the kinds of singers that perform music you enjoy.
Here’s an introduction to some of the most famous singers in Japan at the moment to get you started. I have picked out one linguistic point of interest from one hit from each artist, but every song offers numerous language lessons.
If you want to continue learning this way, my strategy is to simply look up lyrics and English translations on Google, and read along while I listen to the words. I highlight any new words or kanji, or a familiar grammar form to consolidate, and by singing along to the song, those new lessons become natural in no time. Here’s a complete guide to learning Japanese with song lyrics, and another guide related to the shadowing technique which can be used quite nicely with music.
7 Famous Japanese Singers
1. Yuki Kashiwagi (of AKB48)
You can’t talk about the Japanese pop industry without including the social phenomenon that is AKB48.
As of August 2014, AKB48’s original 48 members have grown to over 140, aged between mid-teens and early-twenties. The concept has expanded to the development of several sister groups around Japan, China and Indonesia.
Yuki Kashiwagi joined AKB48 IN 2006 and is now a member for Team B, and also sub-group French Kiss. This year she placed second in the AKB48 general popularity elections, and was selected to feature on several single released for 2015.
One such single was “僕4たちは戦わない” (ぼくたちは たたかわない – We Will Not Fight), a kickass pop anthem that could pump you up for literally anything. The catchy tune gets into your head and sticks right in there, making it perfect for learning new words and phrases.
Every learner is different, but when I learned Japanese in high school we were taught everything polite/neutral form for years before we learned casual/plain/dictionary form. Many students found the new conjugation completely baffling, and it didn’t begin to feel natural to me until I started listening to J-pop.
If you are having similar struggles, even just the title of this song could be a big help for remembering the conjugation for plain-negative form:
2. LADYBEARD (of LADYBABY)
One of my favorite phenomena from contemporary Japanese music is kawaiicore.
I have yet to meet a person (pop fan, metal fan, classical music fan) who doesn’t find this genre surprising, fascinating and delightful. It is exactly what the name suggests: a splice of J-pop and metal. And it works.
Kawaiicore is a brand new genre, and one of its founding talents is Australian pro-wrestler-turned-pop-idol, LADYBEARD and his band LADYBABY.
Check out their debut single “Nippon Manju,” if you haven’t already. I dare you to only watch it once.
The language in this song is fabulous for learners, as it is basically just a list of Japanese cultural items. With the catchiest chorus ever written. Here are a few words I picked out, but watch it through (the video has subtitles in English and Japanese for your convenience) and see what else you can find!
可愛い物 (かわいいもの) — Cute things
先輩 (せんぱい) — Senior
本物 (ほんもの) — Elder
地下からてっぺんまで (ちかから てっぺんまで) — From bottom to top
おみやげ — Souvenirs
最高だ (さいこうだ) — Awesome
Then there is LADYBEARD’s chorus, where he just screams katakana words in that wonderful LADYBEARD way:
アニメ (あにめ) — Anime
ヌードル (ぬーどる) — Noodle
アイドル (あいどる) — Idol
アイコン (あいこん) — Icon
ビーフバーガー (びーふ ばーがー) — Beef burger
チョコレート (ちょこれーと) — Chocolate
3. Ringo Sheena
Because we cannot discuss Japanese music without including something experimental, allow me to introduce self-described “Shinjuku-style writer-performer” (新宿系自作自演屋 – しんじゅくけい じさく じえんや) Ringo Sheena.
Known for her eccentricity as well as her remarkable musicianship, she performs solo and with her band Tokyo Jihen. Her songs span countless genres and style influences, from the classical to the strange; incorporating standard rock instruments with uncommon and classical ones such as the melodica and shamisen, she has released just about everything, from covers of Janis Ian to 1950s and 1960s Japanese and American rock & roll, to make a sound that is decidedly contemporary.
Advanced students of Japanese will find her lyrics fascinating for their complex and often archaic language. Officially released printed lyrics often feature kanji that have expired from everyday use.
The juicy tune “長く短い祭”—“ながくみじかいまつり“ or “Long and Short Festival”—was released this summer to accompany Coca Cola commercials in Japan, and I can see why: the tune is damn catchy! Rather than making you want a Coke, this catchiness can help you learn new vocabulary and grammar forms and even allow them to make sense in your head—and stay there.
The lyrics in this song are complicated, and full of vocabulary that I did not recognize right away. Here are a few (of the many) interesting words we can pull out of this tune:
まじ — Seriously (in this song they attach it to plain-form verbs to stress the action and make it sound more sincere)
名言 (めいげん) — Wit
そっけない — Unfriendly
みんなめいめい — Everybody respectively
獰猛な (どうもうな) — Ferocious
蘇る (よみがえる) — Reviving
逃す (のがす) — To set free/let go
～盛り (～ざかり) — Full bloom (in the song they say “女盛り, おんなざかり,” to mean “woman in full bloom,” as in “woman at her best”)
このままじゃ行き場がない (このままじゃ いきばがない) — We can’t go on like this
4 & 5. Crystal Kay and Namie Amuro
Crystal Kay debuted in 1999 and is considered a pioneer for the success of interracial artists in Japan. Raised in Japan to an African-American father and Korean mother, Crystal Kay is known for her hip hop and R&B-flavored style of pop.
Namie Amuro, the “Queen of J-pop,” has had a career spanning over twenty years. She has overcome a lasting stigma about working single mothers in Japan to become the twelfth-highest selling artist in Japan (according to Music Station).
These two pioneering divas collaborated this summer on the inspiring anthem “Revolution.” The slow pace of the lyrics in this song makes it perfect for beginners just starting to use music for listening comprehension or pronunciation practice.
It took me a long time after I began studying Japanese to learn how to include more than one verb in a sentence. Becoming a fan of J-pop helped me to loosen up a little bit with my language, and taught me to adapt it to suit what I want to say.
In casual Japanese, the phrase って seems to perform almost any purpose. It can replace と言ってる or そうです, and in this verse below Crystal Kay uses it to connect plain-form verbs within sentences.
(いつだって こわすのは りすきーで
きょうも じぶんと たたかって
でも そのぶん いきてるって かんじ)
Destruction is always risky
Today too, I battle myself
As doing that makes me feel alive
6. Toshinobu Kubota
Toshinobu Kubota is a singer, songwriter, musician, producer and radio personality. He is one of Japan’s highest-selling artists, and has produced over 30 Top 40 hits over the course of his career. His style has spanned many genres from R&B to jazz, reggae, psychedelic and pop. He was a pioneer in developing Japanese hip hop and Japanese soul, sounds which have influenced many artists since.
Grooving along to Kubota’s signature hit “恋の雨” (こいのあめ or, “Love Rain”), I noticed a great little grammar lesson right at the start.
Go ahead and watch the music video here, and see if you can pick up on this one.
In Japanese, to invite a person to go somewhere or do something, you use negative form while intoning a question. It is like saying in English, “Won’t you come with me?”
Kubota begs at the beginning of the song, “ふたりを 昨日へ 帰さない” (ふたりを きのうへ かえさない, “let’s go back to yesterday”). It would be easy to misunderstand this line as “we won’t go back to yesterday” if we didn’t understand this particular grammar form.
7. Jun Matsumoto (of Arashi)
Jun Matsumoto is arguably one of the most famous men in Japan, an idol, actor and sex symbol. He designed the moving stage, a clear platform that allows the band much closer contact with their fans at concerts by sailing over their screaming heads towards the far stands.
Arashi debuted in 1999, but it was Matsumoto’s portrayal of Tsukasa Domyouji in the 2005 smash-hit drama series “Hana Yori Dango” that put Arashi on the J-pop map. Now they sell out stadium tours in seconds flat, often touring more than once a year.
Arashi has dabbled in metal, their songs always feature a rap and the sound in 2014 album “The Digitalian” had some clear influences from electronica. But what they do best—and most consistently—is pure pop. Their lyrics center around themes of love, romance and also encouragement to their fans to be confident and to live with courage and authenticity, like they do in their 2009 hit single “Everything.”
You can watch the music video for “Everything” here! You’ll probably notice some cool grammar right away.
In Japanese, in order to describe doing something (I like to do something, I can’t do this etc.), you can turn a verb into a noun by conjugating it into plain form and adding こと or の. In “Everything,” we hear the following lyric:
戻ることのできない旅の途中で (もどることのできない たびの とちゅうで – In the midst of a journey there is no return)
You could simply say “戻れない” (もどれない – can’t return), but for more advanced students wanting to vary their lexicon, こと is a really useful grammatical tool and 戻ることのできない adds a level of stress and poetry to the lyric.
It can be challenging to use pop music as a learning tool—the ultra-casual style of language is often not taught in the classroom, and sometimes the lyrics are emphasized in strange ways to allow for the melody. But passive listening is helpful on its own for making a language sound more familiar.
As you can see, by learning the lyrics to songs you like, you can build up your vocabulary in record time!
Now go out there and keep listening!