Looking for new music? Start with these stellar female acts from Japan, challenging norms and blowing our minds every time.

As a music industry, Japan has never left us wanting for variety. From classic bubble-gum pop to the more niche, electronic expanses of subgenres like vocaloid and hyper-pop, to the nostalgia of city-pop, Japan’s music landscape is wide, and undergoing a renaissance of its own. During 2019-2020, the internet saw an influx of Japanese acts making their music available on streaming platforms, giving space to rising stars and newcomers to evolve and find their own niche, and making veritable celebrities out of others.

While women have always been claiming space in music, recent years have seen an emergence of artists who have presented an alternative to sanitized versions of the usual pop in their gritty, angry, and zany takes on issues.

If you’re looking for somewhere to start, check out the following Japanese women in music who have created waves with their work.

Chai

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Looking for a fun, nuanced, and educated lesson in self-love? You only need the Japanese punk-rock outfit Chai. In their goal of making the Japanese concept of ‘kawaii’ more inclusive — where all women, and not just ones with skinny legs, tiny waists, and small faces are considered ‘cute’ — Chai have created a healthy, safe space in their music, where women can be themselves and transform their complexes into cuteness.

As they write love letters to gyozas and muse about being different from the societal standards, Chai have made us realize that creating your own definition of beauty is as simple as being yourself.

Haru Nemuri

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Anger becomes a creative outlet through the musical powerhouse that is Haru Nemuri — who was everywhere this year thanks to her virtual performance at SXSW — famous for the spoken-poetry style of enunciation on her songs. Often in prairie dresses and pigtails, Nemuri cuts a deceptively unassuming figure.

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When she opens her mouth to sing about the seemingly eternal sadness of a youth that seems doomed for oblivion, that’s when reality shatters. With a thoroughly home-made sound, rich instrumentalism, and deep lyricism, Nemuri is one rock star that’s taken us all by surprise, and will hopefully continue to do so in the coming years.

Ado

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If  ‘pandemic’ and ‘burnout’ where the words of 2020, Ado’s ‘Usseewa’ was the sound of the year. Seriously, the song was everywhere in Japan, with its pop-culture explosion creating polarized opinions among generations. It worried parents everywhere, but youngsters felt a sad, angry resonance in the repeated shouts of ‘Usseewa’, which in official translations came to ‘Shut the fuck up.’

Ado did, however, touch a nerve — in some ways, ‘Usseewa’ can be considered a prelude to global conversations about the repercussions of overwork on our mental and physical health. The song describes the crushing and soulless monotony of corporate culture — where we’re all reduced to pawns — contrasting it neatly with the anger our helplessness inspires inside. Ado quite literally said what was on our minds during all those Zoom calls, and we can’t wait for more.

Chelmico

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Since their debut in 2015, this powerhouse duo comprised by Mamiko Suzuki and Rachel Watashiga has been reinventing the resurgence of hip-hop in Japan, one eclectic take at a time. Chelmico’s charm lies in how well they blend fantasy with reality. Their lyricism is deeply rooted in mundane topics like having a good day at the beach or not having enough money. Elevating the matter to a higher level is their fantastic sonic experimentation, which blends their base rap with funk, jazz, and often dreamy pop.

Not considering themselves ‘idols’, they’ve emerged as outliers in the Japanese music industry, but it’s only a matter of time before their music takes one under its fold and wraps one up in a warm cocoon.

ATARASHI GAKKO!

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If you’ve engaged with Asian music on any form in recent years, chances are you’ve heard of this four-piece act who became a part of 88rising earlier this year. The magnetic charm of this quartet has layers to it — first, you’ll be enticed by the far-out visuals and performance, resembling something straight out of a manga (at the risk of generalizing). That’s actually Kumitaisou — a dance form merging acrobatics, teamwork and balance — which features heavily in their work.

Dive deeper, and ATARASHI GAKKO! soon emerge as representatives of the playful youth and ambition that we shed traces of in the journey to adulthood. From the restless need to create a niche of your own to the fear of facing a dull tomorrow, there is nothing about youth that ATARASHI GAKKO! don’t get, which is perhaps what makes them so endearing.

Interested in more? Check out our list of five women in K-pop who refused to play by the rules.

You can read more about this topic over at the Asia Pop Observer.