The latest artist to be inducted into Hollywood's Rockwalk could be one you've never heard of. On November 19th, Japanese duo B'z will become the first Japanese rock group to be featured on the Rockwalk, having been recommended for the spot by none other than Steve Vai. They've released 15 albums, 43 singles, and sold over 75.8 million units in their 19-year career, becoming one of Japan's most popular and successful acts in the process. Given all that, why do so few people in the West know who they are?
In the past, a combination of factors (including language barriers and relative inaccessibility) kept Japanese rock from Western audiences, but that seems to be changing. Thanks to the Internet and the growing worldwide interest in Japanese pop culture, more and more Japanese artists are developing fanbases and even performing outside their native country. While learning the ins and outs of Japanese rock (or JROCK, as it's called by fans) can be intimidating (New language! Crazy outfits! Occasional androgyny!), it's a richly rewarding exercise in musical discovery. Check out the "cheat sheet" below to learn about some of Japan's most famous rock stars and impress your fellow music geek friends. Ganbatte kudasai! Arigato gozaimasu!
X Japan, "Dahlia" (sample). X Japan wasn't the first Japanese rock band, but it's arguably one of the most legendary. Beginning as a punk/metal band, the group later expanded their scope to encompass everything from symphonic ballads to industrial-tinged alternative rock. The group reunited to great fanfare after 10 years, and their new single, "I.V.," plays over the end credits to the film Saw IV.
hide, "Pink Spider" (sample). After starting his career as guitarist for the above-mentioned X Japan, Hideto Matsumoto (better known by his stage name hide) embarked on a wildly successful solo career. Known among fans for his onstage antics, atypical fashion sense, and bright pink hair, hide experimented with a wide range of styles and had bands on both sides of the Pacific. (He had hoped to break into the American market with an English-language project, Zilch, whose members included Paul Raven, Dave Kushner, and Joey Castillo.) Sadly, his career ended with his death in 1998; the posthumously-released song "Pink Spider" has since become his signature.
Gackt, "White Eyes" (sample). The singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and actor Gackt began his career as the lead singer of Malice Mizer and has since gone on to become one of Japan's most famous entertainers. Often compared to David Bowie by fans for both his voice and his ever-changing appearance, he embraces everything from hard rock to piano instrumentals on his sprawling albums.
L'Arc en Ciel, "Dive to Blue" (sample). L'Arc en Ciel were one of the first Japanese bands to gain popularity in America, with several of their albums being released in the United States. Their appearance at the OTAKON convention in Baltimore in 2004 drew approximately 12,000 fans to the 1st Mariner Arena.
Thee Michelle Gun Elephant, "Baby Stardust" (sample). Japan's punk scene is known by fans the world over, and it's easy to see why. Groups like TMGE are known for their swaggering attitudes both on stage and off, as well as an old-school sound that's the direct result of Western influences like the Ramones. The end result is raucous, catchy, loud, fast and fun -- in short, everything punk should be.
Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, "5 Days of Tequila" (sample). Quick -- what ska band played the Glastonbury festival in 2005? If you guessed TSPO, you'd be right. So, just how good are they? Not only does the 10-piece group have a dedicated European following, but they can also count Skatalites and Dennis Bovell among their friends and admirers.