When most people hear “Japanese female musician,” the image that springs to mind is an idol singer, covered in frills and girl-next-door sweetness. You’ll get no arguments from us against the theory that Japan produces more bubblegum pop princesses than anywhere else, and the county’s not likely to lose the top spot on that list anytime soon.
But not every female vocalist to achieve success in Japan did so by hitching her wagon to the idol system star. While its popularity has ebbed and flowed multiple times, the history of girls’ rock stretches back at least three decades in Japan, and today we take a look at, and a listen to, some of its stars.
Up until the 1980s, music in Japan was dominated by solo acts, primarily singers of light pop or traditional enka songs. This all changed with the start of what was termed the “Band Boom,” as rock groups such as Jun Sky Walkers and Boowy, which debuted in 1980 and ‘81, respectively, shot up the charts.
But while all members of those two groups were men, 1987 saw the first release from the all-female Princess Princess, and the girls’ rock movement was born.
The raspy voice of Hiroshima-born vocalist Kaori Okui propelled Puri Puri, as their fan called them, to a decade in the limelight, with five consecutive chart-topping albums from 1989 to 1993. Recognition didn’t come overnight, though, as the band tirelessly made roughly 100 live performances during a 16-month period early on in their career.
While Princess Princess eventually transitioned more and more into pop songs, they still occupy a special place in Japanese music history for firmly establishing the girls’ rock genre, as shown by one of their first mainstream successes, 1988’s “Go Away Boy.”
One of the earliest successors to Princess Princess was the four-member Lindberg, and while lead singer Maki Watase was the only woman in the group, she was very much the face of the band. Unlike Princess Priness, Lindberg would stick close to their rock roots for all 15 of their albums, they’re most fondly remembered for their second single, “Ima Sugu Kiss Me” (“Kiss Me Right Now”).
“Ima Sugu Kiss Me” has been such an enduring hit it was even covered by high school rocker Jurian Beat Crisis in 2010, 20 years after its initial release.
Apparently the upbeat straightforward love anthem didn’t just inspire Lindberg’s fans, but its members too, as vocalist Watase and lead guitarist Tatsuya Hirakawa wed in 2002, and unlike many celebrity couples, remain married today. A happy story for Lindberg fans, almost as happy as the group’s recent announcement that they’re ready to start making music together again after a lengthy hiatus.
While the ‘90s grunge rock movement never really completely caught on in Japan, the decade did see a move towards a harder-edge sound, and leading the charge was Nanase Aikawa. Whether channeling the emotions from her failed audition with Sony Music Entertainment at the age of 15 of the events that led her to drop out of high school, Aikawa brought a defiant angst to songs such as her 1995 debut, “Yume Miru Shojo Ja Irarenai” (“I Can’t Be a Little Girl Who’s Just Dreaming”).
With a sound so far removed from the perky female singers Japan was used to, Aikawa attracted a loyal fan base. But while her early albums were all big sellers, the common sentiment is that her music peaked around the turn of the millennium, right about the time she found love, got married, and had the first of her three children. Her voice hasn’t lost any clarity or power, as proven in albums as recent as 2013’s Konjiki, but the tone is definitely lighter and more positive, reflecting what seems to be a happier lot in life than she had when first making a name for herself.
Sheena Ringo, whose first major release came in 1998, is the daughter of a father who loves classical music and a mother who studied ballet. But while her eclectic style shows influences from a variety of sources, her formative years synch up with the height of alternative rock, and the Saitama-born, Fukuoka-raised singer/songwriter has frequently professed her respect for English band Radiohead.
▼ Sheena Ringo’s 2000 hit, “Gips”
With a raw, nasal-quality to her voice and no qualms about provocative imagery (the cover album for her 1999 single “Koko de Kisu Shite,” or “Kiss Me Here,” has the singer seated on a medical examiner’s table with stirrups in plain view), Sheena Ringo remains a wholly unique persona in Japanese rock.
These days, the pendulum of Japanese music tastes has swung back towards idol singers, such as supergroup AKB 48. That doesn’t mean girls’ rock is dead, though. Solo acts Yui and Miwa have more in common than their first-name only stage names, as they’re both hugely successful guitar-playing vocalists who wrote their own songs, some of which clearly take cues from their predecessors.
▼ Yui’s 2007 “Rolling Star”
Sometimes, the current underdog status of girls’ rock acts is actually a shortcut to overseas exposure. As their songs often don’t command the same high premiums of their idol singing counterparts, several have been licensed for use as anime themes, which are then heard by animation fans around the globe, as was the case with “Rolling Star.”
Not occupying the absolute top level of the Japanese music food chain can also make girls’ rock bands more willing to perform outside their native country, even without a large and immediate financial payoff. The four members of the band Scandal first started playing together in high school before landing a recording contract, performing songs for hit anime such as Bleach and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, and earning enough non-Japanese fans to hold concerts in the U.S. and Hong Kong.
▼ Scandal’s 2009 “Shojo S”
Given that Scandal’s only got one member over the age of 25, we can probably expect them to continue putting out new songs for at least a few more years, keeping fans happy, and at the same time, inspiring the generation of girls’ rock musicians that will come after them.