So you’re studying Japanese, but you don’t really know how to get into Japanese music. There is no doubt that songs are a great way to spice up your Japanese studies, but knowing where to start with Japanese music can be a bit of a minefield. Or perhaps you often go to karaoke, but never know what songs to pick that everyone is sure to know? Well look no further – here is a list of 15 Japanese songs to get you started!
The songs on this list have been chosen because they are popular songs which also have relatively clear lyrics for Japanese study. I’ve tried to include a mix of older and newer songs on the list, but it has been incredibly difficult to pick just 15. There really is a wealth of great songs from Japan (although it can be hard to see past the idol music sometimes!), so hopefully this list will be a helpful starting point into discovering all sorts of Japanese music.
上を向いて歩こう by 坂本九 // Ue wo Muite Arukou by Kyu Sakamoto
This is the oldest song on the list but a definite classic. Known as “Sukiyaki” in English (I’m not sure why this is because it has no connection to the lyrics!), this is one of the best selling singles of all time. It is also one of the few foreign language songs to reach the top of the US Billboard Top 100 chart. The upbeat track belies the sadness of the lyrics, which tell the story of a man who looks up and whistles to stop tears from falling. The lyrics are simple and repetitive, which makes it a great choice to study with!
2. 世界に一つだけの花 by SMAP // Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana by SMAP
The recently disbanded boy band SMAP were very much a national institution, having a career spanning almost three decades that expanded into acting and one of the most popular variety shows of all time, SMAPxSMAP. Their biggest song (The One and Only Flower in the World) was released in 2003 and was an instant hit, selling over a million copies. The song’s simple lyrics and pacing make it a karaoke favourite even today.
3.手紙〜拝啓十五の君へ by アンジェラ・アキ // Tegami ~ Haikei juugo no kimi e by Angela Aki
This single by singer-songwriter Angela Aki was released in 2008. Originally featured in a NHK documentary, it became popular again after the March 11 tsunami disaster and is still heard at graduation time today. I think it perfectly encapsulates what a lot of us would write a letter to our 15 year old selves It’s a song with a great message and certainly one to listen to when you’re feeling a bit down.
By the way, 拝啓 (はいけい/ haikei) is how you traditionally start off a letter in Japanese.
4. First Love by 宇多田ヒカル // Utada Hikaru – First Love
Utada Hikaru is one is Japan’s most famous contemporary artists – it was tricky to pick a song from her many albums. First Love was Utada’s third single, taken from the album of the same name which went on to over seven million copies in Japan. That’s not bad considering she was just 16 years old at the time! This ballad has a mix of Japanese and English, but the Japanese is pretty simple.
5. PONPONPON by きゃりーぱみゅぱみゅ // PONPONPON by Kyary Pamyu Pamyu
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is the stage name of Kiriko Takemura. Takemura started as a blogger and model before entering the music industry and her 2011 single PONPONPON was the first of her singles to become a viral hit. The catchy beat is the invention of famed producer Yasutaka Nakata, who is also the creative force behind pop trio Perfume. The song and music video are the epitome of cute – together with the simple lyrics makes this a very easy song to get stuck in your head (you have been warned!).
6. ありがとう by いきものがかり // Arigatou by Ikimonogakari
Ikimonogakari are a pop rock band that have been around since 1999, although they are currently on hiatus. The band’s name refers to the group of children assigned the task of looking after plants and animals in Japanese primary schools. Arigatou is a song they released in 2010 and is about treasuring a loved one. The lyrics are very sweet, and the tempo of the song makes it a good choice for singing at karaoke!
7. ORION by 中島美嘉 // Orion by Mika Nakashima
Mika Nakashima is a singer and actress from Kagoshima prefecture who debuted in 2001. As an actress, she is probably most famous for her role in the live action adaptation of the shojo manga Nana. Her single Orion was released in 2008 and is one of her many popular singles. In this song, Mika sings wistfully about a past love – the lyrics here are slow and not too difficult which makes it a nice song for Japanese learners.
8. リンダリンダ by ザ・ブルーハーツ // Linda Linda by The Blue Hearts
The Blue Hearts were a punk rock band popular in the 80s and 90s. Linda Linda is one of their most popular singles and remains a karaoke favourite. Originally released in 1987 the song was a key part of the film Linda Linda Linda (2005), where 4 high school girls form a band which cover several songs by The Blue Hearts.
9. 恋に落ちたら by Crystal Kay // Koi ni Ochitara by Crystal Kay
Crystal Kay is a singer hailing from Yokohama, who released her debut single at just 13 years of age. Koi ni Ochitara was her seventeenth single released in 2005 and was the theme song for a drama of the same name. This pop ballad is probably the least well known on the list, but it has simple but sweet lyrics perfect for karaoke!
10. 涙そうそう by 夏川りみ // Nada Sou Sou by Rimi Natsukawa
is an Okinawan phrase which means “large tears are falling” (in standard Japanese this would be 涙がポロポロこぼれ落ちる) and tells the story of someone looking through a photo album of someone who has died. The original song was performed by Ryoko Moriyama, but it is Rimi Natsukawa’s version released in 2001 that steadily became a hit song. It was so popular that broadcaster TBS made two dramas and a film between 2005 and 2006. The song is sad but beautiful and certainly a Japanese song worth knowing about.
11. KARATE by BABYMETAL
Babymetal have a unique blend of metal and idol style music (now known as “kawaii metal”) which has won the band fans from all over the world. Babymetal formed in 2010 and consists of three members: Suzuka, Moa and Yui. The group’s 2016 song Karate is from their second album Metal Resistance and is all about never giving up in difficult times. A lot of the main phrases are repeated and overall the lyrics are not too tricky, which would make it a crowd pleaser at karaoke for sure!
12. Monster by 嵐// Monster by Arashi
I don’t think it is possible to escape Arashi – the boyband has been dominating the charts for years now and each member is involved in TV hosting and drama acting. Released in 2010, Monster was the theme song for the drama adaptation of the manga Kaibutsu-kun which starred member Satoshi Ohno. The lyrics are straightforward- if you are in the mood for a Halloween pop song then this is for you.
13. Best Friend by Kiroro
Kiroro are a duo who released their first single in 1998. Both members Chiharu and Ayano are from Okinawa, but the name of the band was actually inspired by words in the Ainu language after a school trip to Hokkaido. The song Best Friend was released in 2001, and was the theme song for a drama called Churasan. It is a popular song to sing at graduations, as the song relate to appreciating close friends.
14. キセキ by Greeeen // Kiseki by Greeeen
Greeen (the 4 e’s represent the four members of the group) are a pop-rock band originating from Fukushima prefecture. Kiseki was released in 2008 as the theme song for the baseball drama Rookies, and quickly became a bestseller. The title kiseki has the dual meaning of 奇跡 (meaning “miracle”) and 軌跡 (meaning “path, track”), which is why it is written in katakana rather than kanji! The lyrics aren’t too difficult and emphasise how important it is to treasure each moment and to keep moving forward.
15. 恋するフォーチュンクッキー by AKB48 // Koi Suru Fortune Cookie by AKB48
[Note: there are options to have Japanese or English subtitles on the video!]
AKB48 are a massive girl group with several best-selling songs to their name. Named after the area where the group are based (Akihabara), the idol group is split into teams that hold performances there every day. Released in 2013, the message of Koi Suru Fortune Cookie is to try positive about the future, because you never know what will happen tomorrow. I am not the biggest AKB48 fan but you cannot deny that this song is incredibly catchy, upbeat and has a fun dance to learn too!
It’s always good to have a well known song in your arsenal when going to karaoke and hopefully this post has given you a few ideas (it was certainly fun writing this post). If in doubt, you can’t really go wrong with good old Disney songs in Japanese!
What is your favourite Japanese song? Let me know in the comments!