City Pop: 80s Japanese Music with a “Big City Feel”

  • 3 min read

City Pop: 80s Japanese Music with a “Big City Feel”

City pop is a genre of 70s and 80s Japanese pop music that has seen a huge revival in the West in recent years. While there is no strict definition of “city pop”, the term is generally used to describe Japanese pop music from the late 70s and 80s that was influenced by American music styles such as disco, soft rock, and funk. This was a time of great economic prosperity in Japan and artists were eager to create music with a “big city feel” to reflect the fun, exciting lives of the newly affluent younger generation.

City pop is noted for its use of complex songwriting and production techniques. It is closely linked to the tech boom in Japan as musicians embraced new, Japanese-manufactured music production technologies such as Casio and Yamaha synthesizers and Roland drum machines. Songwriters such as Tatsuro Yamashita (otherwise known as the “King of City Pop”) are known for using large, lavish arrangements in their productions, aided in part by readily available label funding thanks to the booming economy. Many city pop songs became hits from their use in TV commercials. Yamashita’s 1983 track, “Christmas Eve”, appeared in a commercial for Japan Rail’s “Xmas Express” and became the best-selling single of the 1980s in Japan.

City Pop: 80s Japanese Music with a “Big City Feel”


By the end of the 1980s, city pop had lost its mainstream appeal and, in part due to its commercial leanings, younger generations in Japan came to view the genre as dated and cheesy. However, a number of forces, such as YouTube algorithmic recommendations and the worldwide resurgence of vinyl record sales, led to a second spike in popularity as younger Western audiences discovered city pop in the 2010s. Many record labels have begun reissuing hit city pop records from the 80s and the genre has been sampled by current artists such as The Weeknd and Tyler the Creator.

One of the most explosive demonstrations of this revival takes the form of Mariya Takeuchi’s 1984 disco track “Plastic Love”. This song wasn’t a huge success when it was originally released but it saw a huge comeback when a music fan uploaded it to YouTube in 2017. The song gained over 63 million views, leading to multiple cover versions and a 2021 reissue of the song as a 12” single along with reissues of Takeuchi’s other albums. It is a testament to the power of the internet that the 2021 reissue of “Plastic Love” peaked at number 1 on the Oricon singles chart in Japan while the original 1986 release reached only 86th place. 

Many people credit “Plastic Love” as their gateway into city pop. However, more recently, in 2020, Miki Matsubara’s 1979 track “Mayonaka no door (Stay With Me)” found its way to the number 1 spot on Spotify’s viral chart, introducing yet another generation of listeners to the genre. The resurgence of “Mayokana no door” was fuelled by a TikTok trend where users of Japanese descent filmed their parents’ reactions when they heard this hit from their youth.

Who knows what other city pop gems are out there waiting to be rediscovered?


About the author: 

Diarmuid O'Connor

Diarmuid O'Connor

Diarmuid is a writer and musician from Ireland, based in Tokyo. When not working on music in studios around the city, Diarmuid can be found in the bouldering gym, at the cinema, or enjoying a cold one in the local izakaya.

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