Ultimate Guide to J-Rock

By The Japan Switch Team | December 18th, 2023 

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    An essential part of traveling is the opportunity to immerse yourself fully in this other culture that you perhaps knew nothing about before boarding your plane. Of course, when visiting Japan for the first time, an important part of this immersion involves visiting monuments, museums, and temples, trying out local delicacies, and so on. But if you want to fully experience a different culture, you’re going to want to understand the way these people view entertainment, and what makes them happy, and one of the biggest movements in Japanese entertainment is the phenomenon that is J-rock.

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    J-Rock – A Brief History

    Japanese Rock, known more conveniently as J-rock, is quite simply rock music produced by Japanese artists in Japan. The J-rock movement first began somewhere between the late 1960s and the early 1970s, and was heavily influenced by the rock’n’roll boom that was sweeping across the United States and Great Britain at the time. This explains why the very first Japanese rock groups sang almost entirely in English, often replicating the great rock giants emerging overseas.

    It was the folk-rock band Happy End (ハッピーエンド) that’s credited with first performing rock music in the Japanese language. Interestingly, this sparked quite a bit of controversy at the time, with many prominent figures in the music scene arguing that the Japanese language simply wasn’t ‘sustainable’ in rock. More than fifty years later, it turn out, they were wrong, as the J-rock scene is still flourishing.

    For that element of novelty, Happy End enjoyed some success in their homeland, despite it being short-lived (they broke up after only 3 years). Best described as avant-garde (their sound wasn’t like anything you were hearing at the time), Happy Rock is still considered one of the most influential Japanese rock bands today.

    Most Japanese rock bands that were trending during those years were influenced, of course, by acts like The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and The Beatles. So while the early years of J-rock were marked by a profound folk tendency (much like the overseas rock scene), later decades saw J-rock delve into the experimental, and become somewhat more hardcore. As the rock scene expanded, bands began experimenting with a more metal approach that spanned anything from Black Sabbath covers to Japanese metal productions.

    Arguably, the first decade or so of Japanese rock acted as pretty much a mirror of the rock scene from abroad, as was the case with many other countries that, awed by the rock’n’roll movement, imitated the US and UK.

    Of course, as abroad, the 80s and 90s saw the emergence of many edgier movements like punk rock or alternative. These movements saw the rise of numerous well-known acts, like The SS, The Star Club (ザ・スター・クラブ), The Stalin (ザ・スターリン) and The Bomb Factory (ボム・ファクトリー).

    However, during the 80s and 90s, the J-rock scene also began going its separate way, and following a more unique path, thanks to the advent of visual kei.

    J-rock band on stage live performance


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    Visual Kei

    Visual kei (ヴィジュアル系 or ビジュアル系), also referred to as v-kei (V系), is an alternative branch of the Japanese rock scene, that first emerged during the early 1980s. Influenced to a certain extent by overseas glam rock, visual kei puts serious focus on the visual aspect of the performance. Obviously, the music needs to be on point, but the visual kei scene aims to provide a more complete experience for the audience. It’s not just the sound that’s right, but also the visual aspect.

    As such, and similarly to glam, visual kei involves varying degrees of make-up, body art, flashy costumes, and elaborate hairstyling. Many v-kei acts have also adopted a more androgynous aesthetic, with the often flamboyant outfits going beyond gender stereotypes.

    While the movement first began in the early 80s, it wasn’t until the tail-end of the decade that v-kei enjoyed serious mainstream success. So it was that the movement only got its name during the early 90s. The term visual kei was an adaptation of a slogan used by one of the scene’s most prominent acts, X Japan, which went “Psychedelic Violence Crime of Visual Shock".

    X Japan (エックス・ジャパン) is a well-known J-rock act formed in the early 80s that’s still going strong today. Incorporating elements of glam, power metal, and even symphonic and progressive metal, the band is certainly one of the oldest and most versatile names in the J-rock world.

    Other notable visual kei acts include: Dead End (which sadly dissolved in 1990, despite enjoying international acclaim), Buck Tick (who celebrated their 40th anniversary in 2023), D’erlanger (who, like X Japan, have gone from power metal to punk, experimenting with multiple genres), and Color (東のX, who opted for a punk-rock-meets-glam aesthetic, and who styled themselves as “X of the East, Color of the West", highlighting their importance in Western Japan).

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    90s J-Rock to Today

    Finally, while the early years of J-rock were crucial in the movement’s development, it was mostly during the 90s that prominent modern acts formed. It was also during this period that Japanese rock reached the height of its potential and became the much-celebrated movement it is today.

    Formed in 1988, J-rock duo B’z (ビーズ) started achieving serious success in the early 90s. Consisting of vocalist/lyricist Koshi Inaba, and guitarist/composer Takahiro Matsumoto, B’z is among the world’s best-selling acts, as well as the single best-selling music artist in their native Japan, having sold 86 million records (as well as more than 100 million worldwide).

    The 90s also saw the ascendence of other popular acts, such as pop-rock band Mr. Children (ミスターチルドレン), also known by the nickname "Misu-Chiru" (ミスチル). Coming in hot on the heels of B’z, Mr. Children have sold a confirmed 75 million records in their home country, and are one of the most popular acts on the music scene today.

    The 90s and early 2000s also saw the first commercial success of acts like Glay, L’Arc-en-Ciel (ラルク アン シエル, French for “the rainbow”), and Dragon Ash (ドラゴンアッシュ).

    Fuji Rock Festival - The Premier J-Rock Event

    A major event of the 90s was the first edition of the now-famous Fuji Rock Festival (フジロックフェスティバル). First held in 1997 at the base of Mount Fuji (which is how the festival got its name),, the Fuji Rock Festival is now held annually during the summer at the Naeba Ski Resort (苗場スキー場), in the Niigata Prefecture (新潟県) in Japan. Stretching across three whole days, the Fuji Rock Festival typically features more than 200 rock acts, both Japanese and international, which means it’s the single biggest outdoor music event in Japan.

    Always set over the last weekend of July, the Fuji Rock Festival typically features seven main stages, as well as a smattering of smaller stages. This is an immense offering, even by the standard of major international rock festivals like Rock Am Ring, or Download Festival. With the largest stage, the Green Stage, able to accommodate roughly 50,000 spectators, the festival typically attracts over 100,000 attendees from all over the world every year.

    Aside from featuring various big names in the rock music scene, the festival also blends in elements of folklore, with the opening night party featuring traditional Japanese dance, food, and other such.

    While the main focus of the festival is still rock music, recent editions have expanded to incorporate more pop acts, blending together elements of blues, R&B, and several other genres that mix well with rock. The latest 2023 edition of Fuji Rock Festival featured international acts like the Foo Fighters, Alanis Morisette, Lizzo, and The Strokes, as well as Japanese legends like Eikichi Yazawa, Yuki, and Hitsujibungaku.


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    Japanese rock music bass player

    Girl Metal

    Finally, another notable addition that the 2010s brought to the J-rock scene was the emergence of several all-female rock and metal acts. Referred to in Japan as the “Girl Metal Band Boom” (ガールズ・メタル・バンド・ブーム), the movement is attributed to heavy metal band Aldious (アルディアス). Formed in 2008, their debut album, Deep Exceed, topped the charts and reached a respectable 15th position on Japan’s main music chart. It was an extent of success seldom experienced by all-female music acts in Japan, and it opened the gates for several other notable bands to emerge.

    Another Girl Metal Band Boom act was the band Cyntia, formed in 2011, which was the very first all-female act to sign a deal with a major record label, Victor Entertainment, in 2013.

    A year later, in 2014, the J-rock scene was shaken by the emergence of so-called kawaii metal. Pioneered by bands like Babymetal (ベビーメタル), the genre is a blend of J-pop and hardcore metal. Literally translating as “cute metal”, the kawaii metal genre borrows from a long J-rock history, in the sense that it uses flamboyant make-up, costumes, and hairstyles, whose cute appearance contrasts greatly with the hardcore, often very aggressive instrumentals. Babymetal marked a turning point in the history of J-rock – in 2016, they were the first Japanese act to ever headline London’s famous Wembley Arena. In other words, the act gained more fame and international success than most other Japanese rock acts.

    Since Babymetal’s Gimme Chocolate went viral in 2014, other all-female metal acts from Japan, like Band-Maid (known for their submissive maid outfits that create a marked contrast with their aggressive, edgy sound) and Lovebites (winners of the 2018 prestigious Metal Hammer Golden Gods Award) have gone on to critical international acclaim.

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    What You Need to Know About J-Rock

    Now that we have a brief understanding of J-rock’s history, it’s time to delve into some of the most pressing questions that visitors to Japan have about the country’s rock scene. Whether you’re planning a trip to Tokyo in the near future, or you’re simply intrigued by a friend’s obsession with J-rock, read on.

    What are the key elements of J-rock today?

    As we saw above, while Japanese rock began with a fairly simple folk dedication, it has since muted and transformed to span several genres and aesthetics. With that said, it’s normal to wonder which acts fall under the J-rock banner today, and which would be better described as something else.

    While the ever-growing number of Japanese rock acts is too great to list here, there are a few key elements of the J-rock genre to help you define a band.

    • Simplicity – while the foreign language might be throwing international listeners a little, many Japanese rock songs actually feature surprisingly simple lyrics. That’s because many modern J-rock acts actually took their cue from a subgenre of J-pop, called Kayōkyoku (歌謡曲). These light pop tunes often relied on common, universal themes like heartbreak, love, joy, sadness, etc., and featured simple lyrics. That’s because the key point of the songs wasn’t so much lyrical complexity as it was to transmit a certain energy.
    • Strong visuals – while the visual kei elements have themselves branched into several subgenres and movements, one aspect of J-rock that has stood the test of time is the strong focus on visuals and aesthetics. Typically, a J-rock band will feature complex hairstyles, elaborate outfits, and excessive make-up. In part a tribute to the visual kei legends of previous decades, this intense focus on aesthetic is also used to convey a certain sentiment, and underline the emotional weight of the songs.
    • Guitar/Keyboard Focus – while Japanese rock was heavily influenced in its early years by its Western counterpart, as the genre broadened, it also developed a more unique sound. For instance, J-rock classics will be far more focused on electric keyboard and guitar, often featuring solos and more complex compositions for these instruments than their Western counterparts would.

    We’ll look at some popular J-rock modern acts in just a minute, but first, let’s answer a pressing question about the rock scene.


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    J-rock concert empty stage with red lights

    Do you need to know Japanese?

    One extremely common misconception about Japanese rock is, somewhat understandably, that one needs to speak and understand Japanese fairly well to enjoy it. Yet, as anyone who’s ever fallen in love with a foreign band knows, you don’t always need to understand what’s being said to enjoy the music.

    In the case of J-rock, speaking Japanese, while a nice addition, is by no means necessary for properly enjoying the songs. And that’s because, as we just saw, J-rock lyrics aren’t that focused on complexity. It’s not so much about delivering a strong, complex story, as it is about relaying an emotional message. And in order to get that, you just need to be open to the overall sound of the song, rather than pay attention to individual words.

    Another huge element of the J-rock scene, as we saw, is the visual aspect. Most modern-day J-rock acts use outlandish make-up and outfits to better tell their story, and deliver a message. Because of that, one doesn’t need to speak Japanese to enjoy the music and the visuals.











    Where to start with J-Rock

    Finally, now that we’ve covered both the genre’s history, as well as gained a better understanding of the overarching message of J-rock, it’s time we got practical. If you are someone looking to explore the fascinating world of Japanese rock, where exactly should you start? What are some of the do’s and don’ts of this new musical journey?

    The short answer is, there are none! Where you start in exploring Japanese rock depends entirely on your personal music taste, so what’s super exciting for some might really put others off.

    One good thing to remember, as you explore the numerous subgenres of J-rock is that it’s an insanely versatile scene. That means that even if you dislike a certain sound – for instance, maybe you find Babymetal too aggressive – that shouldn’t put you off J-rock entirely. It simply means you’ve stumbled across a particular genre that’s not for you.

    That being said, here are some great bands to get you started in your exploration of Japanese rock:

    1. Supercar

    Although they were only active for 10 years and disbanded in 2005, Supercar (スーパーカー) remains one of the most well-loved names in the J-rock world today. Supercar started as a popular indie band, which saw some considerable success in Japan, and later abroad. However, what distinguishes them from several others is that, in their later years, the group began experimenting with electronic sounds. Their latter albums like Highvision and Answer have a definite Radiohead vibe that blends traditional rock sounds with more upbeat electronic music, creating a unique, and deeply versatile sound.

    2. X Japan

    We mentioned X Japan before as one of the most influential names of the original J-rock scene. Originally going by X, this Chiba-based rock ouftit saw several line-up changes down its 40+ years career, as well as numerous changes in sound, combining elements of glam, power, speed metal, as well as electronic music (though in a different way than Supercar). In 2017, Loudwire named X Japan the Best Metal Band from Japan, and they continue to delight audiences both young and old to this very day.

    So for beginners, X Japan is a wonderful exploration of the history of J-rock, as their work really allows you to track the band’s development as the J-rock scene also developed and grew.


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    J-rock live performance view of crowd with hands raised

    3. The GazettE

    Originally formed in 2002, the GazettE ガゼット) is a great example of a visual kei band. They have an extremely striking aesthetic that’s powerfully androgynous and combines elements of a punk, goth, and black minimalist look to create a very unique style. In music, as in their outfits, the GazettE like to take chances, and over their 20+ year career, they have explored numerous genres like nu metal, industrial, punk, hard rock and metal core.

    One of the most compelling aspects about the band is that they like to keep their fans getting, ranging from deeply emotional hits like Cassis to upbeat, high-energy tunes like Hyena.

    4. DYGL

    Formed in 2013, four-piece act DYGL makes for an excellent introduction to J-rock for international listeners who are put off by the language barrier. Ever since their debut EP, the band never once sought to minimize their British influences (so the whole EP featured English lyrics, rather than Japanese ones). Unhappy with the Japanese music scene, DYGL took off to record future albums in New York, and London, and to collaborate with international acts like The Strokes, citing improved creative freedom as their reason for leaving Japan.

    Nevertheless, ten years later, the band is still going strong and creates a fascinating meeting place between classic J-rock and more Western-style sounds.

    5. Mono

    Mono is one of the most famous post-rock bands in the entire world. It also offers an interesting introduction to Japanese music without the supposed language barrier, since post-rock is solely instrumental. So you don’t need to worry about not “getting” the lyrics.

    Mono stands out through their long, complex instrumental arrangements that can often get quite gloomy. Rather than abide by one singular path, Mono compositions take their cue from great operas, as they begin slow and quiet, but build up to a wonderful, heart-touching crescendo. Mono makes for great background listening while working, or driving, so do give them a try if you wanna try something new, but are pressed for time.

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    6. Boris

    Formed in 1992 in Toyko, Boris (ボリス) is another one of those bands where you don’t quite know what to expect. And the reason we’re including so many of those in our guide is that, while more “out there”, they also have a higher likelihood of producing something you’ll like.

    Boris’ songs range from exceedingly slow doom metal pieces to over-the-top epics, psychedelic numbers, and even some pop, so you never quite know what you’ll get.

    7. Spangle call Lilli line

    And now for something completely different, Spangle call Lilli line (スパングル・コール・リリ・ライン should be your go-to J-rock band if you’re into soft, moody instrumentals and gentle female vocals. While Spangle call Lilli line follows a more traditional J-rock arrangement, the 3-piece band also plays around with electronic elements, as well as throwing in the occasional piano and violin.

    All in all, they make for great, easy listening, and serve as a fun introduction to J-rock without the more aggressive metal edge.

    7. Spangle call Lilli line

    And now for something completely different, Spangle call Lilli line (スパングル・コール・リリ・ライン should be your go-to J-rock band if you’re into soft, moody instrumentals and gentle female vocals. While Spangle call Lilli line follows a more traditional J-rock arrangement, the 3-piece band also plays around with electronic elements, as well as throwing in the occasional piano and violin.

    All in all, they make for great, easy listening, and serve as a fun introduction to J-rock without the more aggressive metal edge.


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    Japanese rock musician playing guitar

    J-Rock: What are you listening to?

    Whether you’re drawn to a solely instrumental J-rock delivery, like Mono, or aggressive metalcore, like Babymetal, it’s high time you gave J-rock a chance! Because of the wide range of different subgenres, you’re practically guaranteed to find something you like here. And remember, don’t get discouraged by the language – music is  (and has always been) about the emotion first!

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