The talented Japanese pop singer-songwriters and performers featured on this page—Yui, Miwa, Tsuji Shion, Rika Shinohara, Aya Kamiki, Nana Kitade and Cocco—craft guitar-based songs ranging from gentle acoustic ballads to upbeat mid-tempo numbers to full-out rock songs. I hope you enjoy this selection of their music.
Of all Japanese music artists, YUI is my favourite. I haven’t introduced her in this blog before because her record company (Sony) had a habit of deleting any video of her posted on the web. The good news is that she now has a Vevo channel, so it is easier to introduce her songs. The bad news is that she has recently announced that, after releasing five albums between 2005 and 2010, she is taking an indefinite hiatus from music (She is back now, with her new band Flower Flower). She talks about her career, her love of music and her desire for a break in this interview: MESSAGE from YUI.
While growing up, she was very introverted and started writing poetry (which she then started setting to music), to express her feelings. She soon devoted herself to music, dropping out of high school to join a music cram school and later started performing outside a railway station in her hometown of Fukuoka. The reason, I mention her early life is that it comes through in her heartfelt and often personal lyrics and in her intense performances that evoke a strong sense of sincerity.
Tokyo (short version) – From her first album (From Me to You)
This song is about her the start of professional career, moving from her hometown to Tokyo.
Here is the English translation of the first part of the lyrics (from kiwi-musume.com: now offline):
The day has come when I will leave the room I’m so used to living in
My new journey is still disorienting me
On the bus to the station
I emailed my friend
On the platform in the morning, I tried calling too
But it felt like something had changed
I’ve brought one old guitar with me
I’ve left all my photos behind
Letting something go and then gaining something new
Does the same cycle repeat itself?
When I pretend to be strong, it always leads to dreams
When I let myself be cowardly, they stop
Rolling Star (Short Version), a rock song from her second album Can’t Buy My Love
Coming full-circle with a 2012 reinterpretation of her first hit song—Feel My Soul.
Although YUI sings almost entirely in Japanese, she has a strong fan base around the world, with a lot of people uploading covers of her songs (you can find many of them listed on the YUI_lover fan site).
She has more recently returned to music recording and performing with her new band Flower Flower. Their sound is a lot more ‘indie’. It is interesting to see her development as a songwriter.
YUI-Lover Fan Site and Forum: www.yui-lover.com
YUI Official YouTube Channel: www.youtube.com/user/YUIVEVO
YUI Official Website (Japanese): www.yui-net.com/
miwa is a young singer-songwriter with three albums under her belt: Guitarissamo (2011), Guitarium (2012) and Delight (2013). Her songs, especially when it comes to her singles, tend to have a bright and optimistic feel Her albums also feature soft ballads and rock numbers. Her most popular single so far has been Don’t Cry Anymore:
Here she is performing Faith live:
miwa Official Website in Japanese): www.miwa-web.com
Tsuji Shion (辻詩音)
Tsuji Shion is another young singer-songwriter who plays acoustic guitar. Like Miwa, her singles tend to have a cheerful feel. She hasn’t been very active recently, however, with her only album to date being released in 2010. She is best know for the song Sky Chord which was used as one of the ending themes in the Bleach Anime.
Tsuji Shion Official Site (in Japanese): http://tsujishion.net/
I don’t know much about this singer song-writer (and her English website hasn’t bee updated for years), but she specializes in beautiful acoustic ballads and covers of English songs in a similar vein.
Song of My Days
Official Website (Japanese & English): www.rika-web.com
The next group of artists can play guitar and tend to compose using that instrument, but generally leave the guitar part in their studio recordings and concert performances to others.
Aya Kamiki (上木彩矢)
Aya, known for her powerful vocals, is a rocker who has released six albums since making her debut in 2006. Her sound ranges from a straight-forward and retro Seventies-sounding rock style to some of the electro-dance-rock hybrids on her most recent album.
Sunday Morning, a more laid back sound.
The Light, from her most recent album, with a more electronic-influenced arrangement. I’m not sure if this is the direction she is moving in as the album is released by AVEX, a label known more for it’s dance-oriented artists and a label which she has since left.
Nana Kitade (北出菜奈)
It is interesting to see Nana here on 2005 playing the Full Metal Alchemist Theme Kesenai Tsumi 消せない罪. This is at the beginning of her career when she was being presented as a teen rocker (her first album 18: Eighteen, released the same year, refers to her age at the time). Shortly after this performance, while still performing rock songs, she started focusing more on her style and became a figurehead and style icon of the Gothic Lolita sub-culture. She has released three solo albums, has fronted the band Loveless (2009-2012) and is now the vocalist for new band The Teenage Kissers.
Hold Heart—Also from the 18: Eighteen album. The arrangement reminds me of Roxanne by the Police.
Her last album, Bondage, featured a range of different styles, rock, anime ballads like Marie Antoinette, punk numbers (Punk & Babys) and experimental songs. Here is, Lamia, one of the tracks off that album:
The 18: Eighteen album is one of the records that first got me interested in Japanese pop. I had assumed J-pop was all about sparkly boy bands and girl groups until I was introduced to rock (Nana Kitade), indie pop (Kojima Mayumi), and alternative rock (The Tokyo Incidents) albums. I can’t find any good up-to-date sites for Nana. Please leave a comment and let me know if you can find a good link to add.
Cocco started her career earlier than the other artists on this page, releasing her first album in 1997. Her style blends folk and rock with some influences from the folk music of her native Okinawa. She is known for her intense performance style.
The Hill of Dugongs (「ジュゴンの見える丘」). This is an environmental ballad inspired by the appearance of rare dugongs in Ohura Bay, Okinawa. The music starts at around 5:50.
This next song combines rock with an Okinawa-influenced vocal style.
One worrying trend I see is that most of the artists on this page have been relatively inactive during the past couple of years, YUI is on hiatus, a couple of others have left their record labels and a couple have seen pretty terrifying drops in album sales. Perhaps the K-Pop craze of the last couple of years is making it very challenging to carve out a career as a guitar-based J-rock performer.
Who have I left out? Is there anyone you would like to add to this list? Please leave a comment below.
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4 thoughts on “J-Pop Girls and Guitars: Female Singer-Songwriters”
I seriously love love LOVE J pop and a lot of asian related songs of modern day. I especially love their videos! Its so different from the crap we get here in the U.S. Its a million times better and fun!!
I mostly agree–I dislike how the mainstream scene in the US seems to be dominated by a very repetitive dance-pop-rap sound with a lot of emphasis on raunchiness.
There are still a lot of good performers and songwriters; it is just not very easy to find them and they do seem to be struggling to reach a wide audience. For female singer-songwriters (who, like the ones featured on this page, play the guitar), there’s Anna Nalick, A Fine Frenzy, Ani DeFranco, Colbie Caillat, KT Turnstall, Jewel and Aimee Mann as well as a lot of others
Thanks for this list! I already knew Yui, so I started by listening to Miwa and so far I’m liking her a lot. Looking forward to the rest :)
ps: Kana Hanazawa is pretty great too.