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Japanese City Pop Is Nostalgia Fuel for Our Time

Three decades later, a once-forgotten genre is now the coolest thing on YouTube

Like seemingly everyone else on the internet, I stumbled across Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plastic Love” while roaming the hinterlands of YouTube.

There’s no reason why millions of people would all rediscover a glossy Japanese pop song from 1984 while wandering through the algorithmic offerings of a video streaming site, three decades later. Yet today, “Plastic Love” has well over 50 million views on the platform, mostly thanks to a staggering surge in popularity over the last few years.

It’s a sparkling tune with an endlessly danceable beat and the instrumental trappings of vibe-y 1980s yacht rock: a brassy horn section, some swooping strings, a tasteful guitar solo and chunky doses of funk bass. Soaring over the mix is Takeuchi’s voice, recalling the heartbreak that led her to dance her nights away in fits of artificial intimacy with strangers. “Plastic Love” may have been one of Takeuchi’s lowest-performing singles in Japan, but it’s been reborn as a viral hit that somehow triggers a deep nostalgia for a time and place that Americans hardly knew, let alone lived through.

This is the rabbit hole of Japanese city pop, a genre of music that’s hard to define, with a newfound popularity that inexplicably swelled in the 2010s.

The vast majority of records from pioneering city pop artists like Takeuchi, Tatsuro Yamashita, Akira Terao and countless others aren’t even available in the U.S. Still, a new generation of fans trudges on, navigating copyright strikes on YouTube and SoundCloud and diving into online record stores to feed the urge for wistful, evocative pop.

The comments left by fans, on “Plastic Love” and other classic city pop tunes, often illustrate ephemeral feelings and fantastic scenes straight out of daydreams: “Reminds me of a fake memory when my Japanese girlfriend left me at the karaoke bar the night I was going to propose [to] her. She took off in the rain with a Japanese biker in red leather,” writes one man, “John Piment.” “This is literally the first time I’ve heard this song and yet it fills me with nostalgia, this feeling is so surreal,” another commenter adds.

City pop’s rise coincided with the peak of Japan’s postwar technological and economic boom, which by the 1980s was flying high on a bubble. It was a technicolor age of new goods and growth, powered by both elite wealth and strong spending from the middle class. It’s the era when Tokyo evolved into a paragon of neon modernity and urban efficiency, inspiring films like Blade Runner in the West.

Japanese tastes transformed, embracing the more-is-more, Western capitalist energy in all corners of its pop culture. You can hear the groovy, finessed sound of American bands like Steely Dan, Hall & Oates and Toto in a lot of city pop, which also mingles with disco, funk, fusion jazz and electronica. It’s worth noting that this wasn’t a particularly hip style of music, in the judgment of choosy listeners. “Many Japanese people who grew up with this kind of music considered city pop as cheesy, mainstream, disposable music, going so far as calling it ‘shitty pop,’” Yosuke Kitazawa, head of Japanese music label Light in the Attic, told Vice.

But it still won fans as a vibrant reimagining of American-style 1980s excess, refracted through the Japanese habit of importing an idea and then perfecting it (see: cars, whiskey, the Sony Walkman). Meticulous production quality is a common trait of this kind of music. You can hear the detail in songs like Yamashita’s “Ride on Time,” a complex arrangement that gleams with a polished edge and an earworm hook.

In one sense, a blooming obsession with Japanese city pop is the natural next step for a cohort of millennial and Gen-Z kids who have matured in an age packed to the gills with reboots from the 1980s and early 1990s, whether it’s Ghostbusters or “Africa” or party-funk music in the vein of Bruno Mars. This can be explained away as just another cyclical phenomenon in pop culture (sometimes dubbed the “30-year cycle,” though there’s a ton of exceptions). But that doesn’t explain how or why English-speakers would bond to a genre of music that almost always features Japanese lyrics. These lyrics are critical to defining the ideology of city pop, given that the songs’ themes speak to the very real Japanese experience of seeing rural life transform into urbanity, and savoring the optimism of that newness.

Meanwhile, the late 2010s is more a late-capitalist hellscape than a period of material and monetary joy — both in America and Japan. Maybe, then, it’s that tension that makes me and other new fans of the genre see catharsis inside all that glossy, singalong pop.

We know what came after the Japanese economic bubble burst: billions and billions in wealth lost in the chaotic crash of stocks and markets, thanks to massively overheated inflation and consequent investment panic. City pop became a pretty grotesque reminder of what Japan lost, and it faded in the same way that America’s love of hair metal and bubblegum synth-pop faded when faced with the grimy realism of grunge. Japan still hasn’t recovered from the crash, nor has America from the 2008 recession. Young people in both worlds feel overworked and underpaid, with heaps of trepidation about what good the future could possibly hold. Pop-culture YouTuber Michael Saba sums it up in poetic fashion: “There is the sense that the possibilities of the future have been shattered, and stolen from us,” he says in his analysis of city pop. “Now, one of the only refuges for human creativity is a vision of the past that might only exist in our collective imaginations. The future appears on indefinite hold.”

I think this nihilism is how city pop is tied to the trendy genres of vaporwave and future-funk, two modern musical cousins that create meaning and nostalgia out of ironic, almost meme-like remixing (including of city pop songs). There’s way more joy in the source material, though, as well as a real purity in listening to Japanese singing, which I can’t understand. That barrier allows you to refocus on just the emotional quality of melodies, which just feel different from a lot of American 1980s pop. “It’s a simultaneous feeling of an optimistic rhythm and a really melancholy melody. And that’s what creates that feeling of J-pop, and it’s very deep… the music and the melody is about struggle but also optimism,” as Patrick Bartley, frontman of the J-Music Ensemble, says in a video breakdown.

The acknowledgment of the “struggle” is the key to why newer audiences get so much depth out of music they literally can’t understand. Turns out, melancholy pop bliss with a wistful bent is relatable no matter how odd or random it feels at first. It makes you feel homesick for something warm but undefinable. It’s the joy of listening to music filtered to sound like it’s echoing through an empty mall — or the joy of literally walking through an empty mall. “Just that feeling of ‘I’m hurt but I’m still gonna have fun’ is very fitting for many of us. It’s just magical. We live in an age where we desperately need something to believe,” one fan concludes on the “Plastic Love” video.

So while modern city pop lives on thanks to artists like Sakanaction, King Gnu and Mondo Grosso, a lot of fans seem fixated on the past. There’s real irony in the fact that we’re all now consuming vintage city pop for free, courtesy of bootleg uploaders. If you squint, it almost looks like a symbolic rejection of the culture of capitalist excess that consumed both Japan and the U.S. in the 1980s. Nowadays, there are no more concerts, no merch and no advertising for us to absorb — only the shared experience of discovering nearly 40-year-old songs and realizing they still speak to us, 6,000 miles away.