Hey, music lovers.
Could you take off the headphones for a second?
Just a second.
Cool. So what were you listening to just now?
Metallica? Rage Against the Machine? Imagine Dragons? Taylor Swift?
In case you were unaware of the epicness of learning Japanese through music, take a look at that first. And it is epic.
Why Learn Japanese Through Song Lyrics?
If you find you’re not entirely into kyary pamyu pamyu’s personal asylum, then delving into the diverse world of Japanese music is going to give you greater insight into different facets of Japanese language, culture and (perhaps most fun) counterculture.
You’ll get listening and reading comprehension practice at the same time — not a bad two-for-one deal. Once you’re comfortable enough with some favorite tunes, you can practice your linguistic memory by recalling lyrics without music tot follow. You could go the traditional karaoke practice route and sing along with the music to improve your pronunciation, fluency and spoken vocabulary. You could even write down lyrics from memory or while you’re actively listening, better ingraining them in your brain! There’s tons of ways to strengthen your various Japanese skills through songs and song lyrics.
Not to mention, a lot of songs contain the same similes and metaphors, so you’ll get used to the ones that crop up a lot. This repetition is bound to an understanding of Japanese sentence structure.
So, c’mon. There’s loads of great reasons I could give you. Just admit that now it’s definitely time to try learning Japanese through lyrics.
But how to find them? You’re not satisfied with reading romaji and you don’t want to frequent the fan-girl/fan-boy haunts.
You need to think outside the box.
You need to be a net ninja.
A Foolproof Guide to Finding Japanese Song Lyrics (plus: Discovering your Genre)
1. Anime/Drama Theme Songs
This is, hands down, a literal gold mine for finding Japanese song lyrics. Not only do anime and dramas often feature whatever musician was popular at the time of their release, but they also tend to be dutifully recorded, translated and played along with the show’s ever-colorful opening sequence — all thanks to those wonderful independent translators. Thank you kind gods and goddesses! In these you’ll have the written Japanese, the pronunciation from the music and the English translation in case your Japanese-English dictionary is on the fritz. Best part: if you like what you’re hearing, you can pick up the artist’s name and find all kinds of beautiful new Japanese music to bask in!
2. YouTube Karaoke
This is an insanely entertaining way to get those Japanese lyrics down, though it does take a little bit of net-ninjaing. If you look up “Japanese songs karaoke” on YouTube, chances are good that you’re in for a pretty narrow array of songs. Beyond that, you’ll be lucky if you even find a vague reference to some Japanese person who sang it, if their name is listed at all.
What you really want to try is finding an artist you’re interested in (who’s also likely to be in karaoke booths) and switching your keyboard to hiragana. Once you’re ready to type, enter in the artist’s name, the specific song and the word カラオケ(からおけ – karaoke) after it. Voila! You’ve finally cracked the code to the secret garden of Japanese karaoke songs! The only downsides are (1) you’ll have to have a pretty solid handle of hiragana and katakana (though a lot of the song titles are in English anyway) and (2) the tinny elevator music カラオケ renditions of your favorite songs might make you cringe just a little bit…but hopefully they won’t destroy your faith in music.
3. Fan Blogs
When in doubt, look to the fans. Not just the ones who hang around conventions in Pikachu costumes but the invested, hardcore, Japanese music enthusiasts who have lovingly transcribed and translated all the lyrics to their favorite musicians’ songs. This is also a good way to start recognizing the genres that those previously unheard-of band names fall into. A great start to finding your personal favorites! Speaking of which, here’s a few of the best websites to check out:
While not really a blog, this is one of the best, most user-friendly websites to find popular j-pop/j-rock artists often featured in anime. But don’t let the name fool you. This site also boasts a number of artists unrelated to anime, with songs complete with lyrics in English, romaji and often kanji. The often “open-faced” display style (with romaji in the left column and English translation in the right) makes it a breeze to compare the Japanese sentence structure with the English. Make sure you’ve got a translation app handy!
If you’re into indie, folk and experimental music, this calm, pensive site created by a high school Creative Writing teacher catalogs a number of Japanese song lyrics, poems and manga. All of it’s translated into English with the original kanji displayed. It’s especially great if you’re practicing your kanji, but you might want to keep your translation app ready to go.
This one highlights more of the popular mainstream artists you’re likely to see on the Top 100 of Japan type of lists. Although all (or most) of the lyrics are written in romaji, it’s a great way to learn some new vocabulary or to keep noticing recurring words among songs.
This is a very comprehensive site, with lyrics mostly in the pop and rock category. What’s really interesting about this blog is that the lyrics are categorized both by artist and by anime, so if you’re looking for who did the opening theme for “デュラララ！！” (“でゅららら ！！”- “Durarara!!”), look no further! Also, very helpful for those looking to study kanji, the lyrics are shown in English, romaji and kanji! This blogger’s got this Japanese music thing down pat.
These are some of the more user-friendly sites which have a considerable amount of study material, but there are many more to be found (or started!).
4. Japanese Song Lyrics Sites (in 日本語/にほんご – Japanese!)
I’m sure you’ve got your go-to lyrics sites that you frequent whenever you hear a great song with unclear lyrics, however, they might not be the best source when you’re trying to find your lyrics in Japanese. So how do you find decent, mostly accurate Japanese lyrics? I’ll answer my question with another question, if I may: where do Japanese people find them? Why, Japanese lyrics sites of course! Ready to put your Japanese reading skills to the test? Here are a couple of popular sites:
This site has every search option known to man! We’ve got artist name, song name, search by phrase, search by category (sports, movies, anime, TV shows), popularity ranking, everything. Good place to start: click on the orange 歌詞検索 (かし けんさく – lyrics search) button, and click the pink characters that say 本日の注目歌詞ランキング (ほんじつの ちゅうもく かし らんきんぐ – today’s popular lyrics ranking). What you’ll find is a virtual smorgasbord of Japanese song lyrics with the most hits of that day. Dig in!
This site is arguable the best. If utamap doesn’t have it, Uta-Net does. Expect to find the more alternative bands’ lyrics here, including a ranking search by genre and even by karaoke ranking! So if you want to see what people are belting out in the karaoke booths right about now, this is the place to find out!
5. FluentU Music Videos
FluentU has a broad range of contemporary videos—like music videos, dramas, TV shows, and TV commercials:
On FluentU, you’ll find a growing selection of Japanese music videos subtitled in kanji, furigana and English. You can stop the video at any time by rolling over it with your mouse. This will immediately display the translation for the Japanese words that you’re seeing and hearing, along with useful example sentences.
All definitions have multiple examples, and they’re written for Japanese learners like you. Tap to add words you’d like to review to a vocab list.
The coolest part? FluentU’s learn mode takes music videos and turns them into Japanese learning lessons. Your questions will come from music videos themselves, and they’ll be personalized based on your history on FluentU. There’s no better way to learn than through real-world context.
You can always swipe left or right to see even more examples.
The FluentU App is now available for iPhone, and it’s also available as a website that you can use with your computer or tablet. If you’re an Android user, fear not, for our Android app is in the works!
6. Be Wary of Major Pitfalls
We know that none of us is perfect. Occasionally you’re going to come across some lyrics that aren’t exactly right. If you can’t find a Japanese word in the dictionary, chances are it hasn’t been transcribed properly. That, or the conjugated verb form is difficult to find. Armed with a good Japanese translator app, the song in question all queued up, the websites above and a discerning mind, the inaccurate lyrics will actually prove to be a great learning opportunity!
While a lot of songs are going to be great sources of new vocab, there are quite a few Japanese bands who tend to favor nonsense. They may just use sounds that are fun to sing and that go with the beat, but these aren’t going to come in too handy when asking for directions on the streets of Yokohama. A few examples include certain songs by the likes of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, Polysics and Maximum the Hormone. While all belong to very different genres, the majority of the lyrics of these songs consist of made-up words. That said, they’re a BLAST to listen to or sing to!
The Alluring Romaji
While it’s so deliciously easy to rely on the romaji on a lot of these lyrics sites, for the sake of your well-rounded Japanese study it’s highly recommended that you try to delve into the original kanji when reading lyrics. You’ll get a better idea of how to read those frequently used words! When searching for lyrics in kanji, you’ll want to try the Japanese lyrics sites listed above.
Discovering your Genre: Learn with What You Like!
Think of this less of a comprehensive list and more of a “taster” of each genre. Also, as a disclaimer, the artists listed may fall into more than one category. Artists were also chosen based on the availability of the lyrics on the site above. However, use this opportunity to expand your Japanese musical repertoire! Have fun!
きゃりーぱみゅぱみゅ (Kyary pamyu pamyu): the queen of bizarre music videos, and where most westerners get the idea that Japan is insane, she churns out incredibly catchy, mostly-nonsensical bubble-gum smash hits which seem to please everyone. She’s out there, but seems to know what her audience wants!
ユイ (ゆい – Yui): think of Yui as the Avril Lavigne that never sold out. Her pop/rock sound and her ballads are tied together with her very likable voice.
赤西仁 (あかにし じん – Jin Akanishi): here’s a very pretty member of the boy band KAT-TUN gone solo. He’s got a pop/R&B sound that seems to be popular for the moment.
I might get shot by punk diehards for this, but I chose based on the availability of the Japanese lyrics. A lot of great underground punk bands are, by nature, harder to track down.
ザ・ブルーハーツ (ざ・ぶるーはーつ – The Blue Hearts): you may have seen these guys on another one of our posts, but they’re an extremely popular punk-ish band, famous for the song “リンダ リンダ” (りんだ りんだ – Linda Linda). You can find their lyrics easily on rankings lists.
ザ・スターリン (ざ・すたーりん – The Stalin): these guys are pretty hardcore, lots of punk grit in there to keep you occupied and they have lyrics available on Uta-Net.
ザ・スタークラブ (ざ・すたーくらぶ – The Star Club): this band is a very well-known punk rock group from the late 70’s-80’s. Fun, dirty and a whole lotta punk.
少年ナイフ (しょうねん ないふ – Shonen Knife): often referred to as Japan’s female answer to the Ramones, these girls from Osaka are a super-fun pop punk, alternative band that you might find you’ve already fallen in love with.
A note on the “jazz:” as a lot of jazz doesn’t have a lot of vocals in it, these were chosen for their jazz-ish qualities.
ピチカート・ファイヴ (ぴちかーと・ふぁいゔ – Pizzicato Five): quite popular in the 90’s, if you want to groove out, these guys have got your fix.
東京事変 (とうきょう じへん – Tokyo Incidents): the immensely talented Sheena Ringo’s voice is just so cool. Complex musical composition, jazzy drumming and a touch of indie makes them a joy to listen to.
ヌジャベス (ぬじゃべす – Nujabes): what the late, great Nujabes (or Seba Jun) produced were more R&B beats, but fit the jazzy bill just fine for our purposes. The sound is pensive, chill and ridiculously beautiful, and you might notice that MINMI who’ll be mentioned below is doing the vocals for this one!
サカナクション (さかなくしょん – Sakanaction): a five-piece indie/alt-rock/electronic mishmash of interesting sounds.
ザ・ピロウズ (ざ・ぴろうず – The Pillows): nostalgic, pleasant and wonderful, The Pillows have your perfect grooves for relaxation time.
アジアン カンフー ジェネレーション (あじあん かんふー じぇねれーしょん – Asian Kung-Fu Generation): now, these guys are a lot of fun. Smooth and hard vocals, pleasing composition. At times they can even seem Weezer-ish. Lyrics are great!
ギターウルフ (ぎたー うるふ – Guitar Wolf): loud, distorted, shout-y goodness. They’ll have you shouting along — and they’re still active!
セックスマシンガンズ (せっくす ましんがんず – Sex Machineguns): good-ol’-fashioned moshing music. The vocals have got a hair metal feel at times, and the drum changes can’t be beat.
マキシマム ザ ホルモン (まきしまむ ざ ほるもん – Maximum the Hormone): what’s there to say about ホルモン? This kickass group with a female drummer can span pop/metal/alternative/rock/rap-metal in a single song. Overwhelming and high-energy, they’ll get you riled up, no question.
Tip: The entire first minute and a half of the linked song is a parody—at 1:44 you’ll find out what ホルモン really thinks of such music!
ゆらゆら帝国 (ゆらゆらていこく – Yura Yura Teikoku): quirky, punchy, psychedelic-like rock. The guy has no eyebrows and a cool, relaxed sort of voice.
ポリシックス (ぽりしっくす – Polysics): know that song Rock Lobster by the B52s? Add synth/pop/rock insanity to that and you have the colossal energy and hyperactivity of Polysics. And they’re oh so weird.
ラッドウィンプス (らっど うぃんぷす – Radwimps): narrowly missed being called pop despite their massive following of teenaged girls, these fellows have catchy tunes, surprisingly deep and plentiful lyrics and a little bit of an indie feel to them. Dare yourself to try and sing おしゃかしゃま (oshakashama) in Japanese. So FAST.
7. Reggae (-ish)
ミンミ (みんみ – Minmi): described by Wikipedia as “a Japanese hip-hop, soca and reggae musician” she’s got a kind of upbeat, dance-able rhythm in some songs, and an awesome hip-hop rap vibe going on in others. She also collaborated with Nujabes in the song above!
リョー・ザ・スカイウォーカー (りょー・ざ・すかいうぉーかー – Ryo the Skywalker): a big reggae name in Osaka, from Osaka. He’s got a decidedly raspy, gravelly voice and a fun-loving feel.
パパ・ビー (ぱぱ・びー – Papa B): feel-good jams from the 90’s, throw on Papa B on a sunny afternoon.
トクマル シューゴ (とくまる しゅーご – Shugo Tokumaru): a thoughtful artist who falls more into indie folk, with a dreamy, playful, music box-like quality to his music. Try to guess how many instruments he plays!
水森かおり (みずもり かおり – Kaori Mizumori): a famous Enka performer with a lovely, classic voice. Her songs have a nostalgic, “old Japan” feel.
五木ひろし (いつき ひろし – Hiroshi Itsuki): when you mention Enka, it’s hard to find someone in Japan who won’t chime in with this famous singer’s name. Incredibly prolific and wildly popular, his pleasant, velvety voice will catch your fancy.
カプセル (かぷせる – Capsule): in a word? A blast. Her whimsical voice and the the synth pop/electronica will leave you feeling dance-y.
パフューム (ぱふゅーむ – Perfume): this electro/pop girl trio feels like being trapped inside a laser show. In a good way.
エイティーキッズ (えいてぃー きっず – 80Kids): unfortunately no (or sparse) lyrics, but will bring to mind Daft Punk in a truly, truly great way. Inclusion was necessary.
ジブラ (じぶら – ZEEBRA): raspy-cool sound with a whole lot of Japanese lyrics to explore.
ライムスター (らいむすたー – Rhymester): good stuff from a 90’s group of MCs, with full sentences for studying cool words like 美学 (びがく – aesthetics).
リップスライム (りっぷ すらいむ – Rip Slyme): well-known and perfect for those who like themselves a little Jurassic 5. Or Beastie Boys.
Now put those headphones back on and run amok!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Japanese with real-world videos.