Majors and Minors: Taiko to Radwimps with Naoki

This is Naoki Okada, a first-year from Tokyo, Japan. He is planning to major in computer science, and he plays the piano and flute. His favorite food is asam laksa — Malaysian noodles that his friend’s father cooked when he visited Malaysia this past summer. Naoki shared his insight into contemporary music in Japan.

Haruka (H): What has your experience with pop music in Japan been like? What genre, and which artist, do you think is most popular right now?

Naoki (N): Pop music focuses on romance in Japan. There are many idol groups, and they’ve been around for a while — some are from our parents’ generation too. For instance, Onyanko Club and Morning Musume can be considered forerunners of AKB48 and other large idol groups. These groups are a huge part of Japanese music.

Johnny’s, one of the best known labels in Japan, coaches and backs groups like Arashi and SMAP. Other popular groups are Exile, Broke, Sekai no Owari and Kobukuro. Rock is popular as well. One group, Radwimps, played the theme song for the movie “Kimi no Nawa” (2016). The only soloist that’s made it big who comes to mind is Nishino Kana.

H: What’s traditional Japanese music like?

N: Koto is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of traditional music. It’s an instrument that I imagine people back in the day sitting on the floor with and strumming away at. The taiko [a type of drum] is unique in that it isn’t an accompaniment or a part of a bigger orchestra like it might be in other cultures, but creates music on its own. This past Saturday at Matsuri, the Tufts Japanese Culture Club’s annual festival, we hosted a performance by Gendo Taiko from Brown University, a student performance group that consists solely of taiko performers.

H: Is there a tune that everyone knows in Japan?

N: One song that’s Japanese but also has become known here in the U.S. too somewhat is “Ue o Muite Arukō” (1961), also known as “Sukiyaki.” Everyone in Japan can probably sing along to “Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana” (2002) by SMAP too. As for the more recent music, most youth know Arashi and AKB48 songs like “Koi Suru Fortune Cookie” (2014).

H: How, if in any way, do you find Japanese music different from other music you’ve encountered?

N: Generally, modern pop songs are more calm and there’s an absence of an underlying bass that you see in reggaeton, for instance. The ones that do have some sort of a beat have ones that are generated forcefully, almost, using the Taiko and such. Western pop music fills in the market for upbeat music, so I think ratio-wise Japanese music tends to have slower songs than American and Western music do. I think that Asian music in general sounds different from American or Western music. It’s often softer and more nuanced. The groupthink mindset, stereotypical to Japanese people, can also be seen in pop music artists’ groups too, more often than in other musical cultures.