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100 All-Female Japanese Groups Playlist by Thomas Rotweiler

On My All-Female Japanese Band Playlist

by Thomas Rotweiler

When I first started investigating the world of Japanese music I was initially unaware of just how many all-female bands there are, and have been in Japan. However I soon became aware of a few and to keep a record of which ones I had discovered I created a playlst.

"women have be twice as good as men to get noticed in the music business, and the music business in Japan is very big. There is one exception, of course, and that is the world of idol music. Here all-female acts rule the roost and are immensely popular with the domestic audience"

Why Japan ?

First up I had no prior interest or connection with Japan. I live in the UK, never been to Japan, don't speak Japanese, not even a fan of Japanese anime or manga or films. I have no qualification to investigate Japanese culture or to propel me in the direction of Japanese music in particular. I suppose the main reason why I chose to look at the all-female band scene in Japan was simply that's where the greatest concentration of all-female bands seems to be at present.

But why all-female bands ?

I've been listening to music for as long as I can remember, I was born about the time rock'n'roll was born, so it's always been part of my background. My tastes grew from pop to prog, punk, jazz, folk, dancefloor, and all the outgrowths from those musics that have proliferated since the 1970s. Can't say that I've listened to everything since the 1950s, some music didn't interest me, some I rapidly got bored with, bands come and go. But looking at my collection of vinyl, cassettes and CDs about 10 years ago I couldn't help but notice that the selection was overwhelming male. There were a few female singer-songwriters but apart from a few post-punk era records nothing by all-female groups. It was also overwhelming Anglo-centric. So I determined to seek out female voices and music from beyond the UK and north america. To see what what was out there.

I was first directed towards Scandinavian music, where there are several excellent female singer-songwriters, but not so many bands. And, to be honest, the contemporary music scene in Scandinavia isn't exactly huge. So I was open to exploring further afield.

So what got you started on Japanese music?

I subscribe to a Facebook page called UniteAsia which features a lot of contemporary music from east and South-East Asia. Lots of punk, metal etc. However one day I noticed they had a track by a group called PassCode which looked interesting so I gave it a spin on YouTube and was amazed at what I heard. (It's a mash-up of metal, dancefloor, 8-bit and anything else they care to chuck into the mix.) Not something I knew existed - but then I hadn't been listening much to contemporary UK / north american music for about 15 years so I was out-of-touch. I found a few more tracks by them and realised that PassCode is the name of the vocal group and they have a group of male musicians who play as their backing band. Beyond PassCode YouTube suggested BabyMetal. Again something I'd not seen before - an idol group playing with a metal band, with BIG production values. Initially I was excited by them but soon tired of the set-up. Finally I found Band-Maid, a genuine all-female rock band. And I was hooked.

OK. So you found one all-female band. What impelled you to keep looking for more ?

Band-Maid struck me as a good rock band, technically competent, interesting song-writers and not completely stuck in a particular musical genre. So I reckoned there may be more. And, of course, YouTube was on hand to suggest some other bands, which I duly checked out. And here I made a pleasant discovery - Japanese all-female bands play just about every muscial genre you can think of, and a few more besides. Not only that but they've been playing in bands since the 1960s. There's a lot of musical history you can discover once you start digging. Now as my muscial tastes have quite a wide range, it means that Japanese music scene had a lot to offer once you start looking.

Apart from YouTube recommendations what other ways did you use to discover bands ?

Inevitably the word Google has to be used here. Simply typing Japanese all-female bands into Google will give you plenty of useful articles to read and if you use Chrome it'll try to translate any in Japanese for you. (NB - machine translation of Japanese into English is sketchy at best. The Japanese language doesn't translate easily into European languages. But Google will give you some idea of what's being said.) There's a long list that's being kept reasonably up-to date that you can access compiled by someone called Sandiron. However you need to use that with caution as there's bands there which aren't all-female, so tread carefully if that's what you're looking for. Again YouTube has several playlists that you can find as well. Wikipedia will suggest some more. And every time you find a new band check out promising leads in the YouTube suggestions.

What about other Japanese music ? Is it all female dominated ?

LOL - sadly no. Whilst there are hundreds of women playing in the contemporary music scene in Japan, they still constitute a minority. There's a lot of women in mixed gender bands, but the bulk of the bands that play at the big music festivals in Japan are all male. The music industry is male-dominated as is the music press. It is a truism but women have be twice as good as men to get noticed in the music business, and the music business in Japan is very big. There is one exception, of course, and that is the world of idol music. Here all-female acts rule the roost and are immensely popular with the domestic audience. Female solo singers are also very popular, but generally these acts don't play their own instruments. For the record, although they don't feature in my playlist, several of my favourite Japanese bands are mixed gender.

Why does Japan produce so many female musicians ? Or should one ask do so many other countries produce so few ?

If one is asking about contemporary Japan, then I suspect there are a few factors that have contributed to this. Firstly schools in Japan encourage after-school activities, and these tend to be sport and music. Sport isn't something many Japanese women excel at (apart from distance running, football and specialist events) so many choose to learn to play instruments. High schools often have wind orchestras, classical orchestras and rooms where students can gather to learn pop /rock / jazz instruments. A lot depends on the availability of teachers willing to teach, but there's plenty of musicians in Japan.

Although one should be wary of cultural stereotyping, many Japanese students do study hard, and musical students practice as much as they can and the level of teaching is high. This applies to jazz and classical music as well as more pop / rock oriented music. Second up I'd say, reading from musicians interviews, that exposure to the music ones parents listen(ed) to has been a factor - perhaps it accounts for the liking of what most western audiences consider old fashioned, past-it music. The Beatles for example, are held in high esteem in Japan, perhaps more so than anywhere else in the world ? So unlike in western cultures where the youth tends to avoid the music their parents like, in Japan this doesn't appear to happen so much. Again Japanese parents tend (if they can afford such things and they live in suitable accommodation) to indulge their children's interests from an early age. Child wants to play guitar, then they are bought a guitar and lessons to learn. If the desire wanes, that's not a problem, so only those children with a real passion for learning music at an early age stick with it. I don't see much evidence of parents pushing their children into things, rather they are supportive. (But that may just be my reading of the situation.)

Yes that's all very well but doesn't that also apply to boys ?

Indeed it does, which is why so many men are in bands. The point is that it also applies to girls.

OK that's fine for school days and maybe college / university, but why do so many manage to keep their bands going and breakthrough into the mainstream ?

One reason may be that there are regional and national competitions for new bands so that there is an encouragement to keep going if you do well. This can also bring you to the attention of record labels, producers, talent agencies etc, who are always on the lookout for new people to sign. There is also a thriving live music scene (or was before COVID-19) in Japan. Tokyo alone has something like 800 - 1000 live music venues, other places have their own music scenes. So if you generate enough of a following there's always places to play. And places to play are also places to sell merchandise, CDs etc, which help with the costs of running a band. (NB - a great many bands are part-time, they have a day job or two which brings enough money to live on. They may make nice videos on YouTube, have a website etc but often they're not making enough money from the band to make a living from it.) As for the mainstream, that's partly a question of luck - having good connections with the business, finding a producer willing to spend time refining the sound, getting a record label interested enough to give you a contract, and just being in the right place at the right time to be popular with your music. All that will help but there's no substitute for hard-graft, learning songs, writing songs, and practice practice practice. And having other people in the band you can really get along with helps to.

Your playlist has 100 items. Are they all current bands ?

No. Bands come and go, like bands in every other country. Line-ups change, some just disappear. Even in the past couple of years that I've been compiling the list years there's some bands I really liked that have disbanded or gone on indefinite leave. I also keep bands in the playlist who I really like that I feel should be there for historic reasons, but equally bands get dropped if there's a new band whose music I like that I feel could do with the exposure. I try to choose my favourite track by each band. Sometimes that's easy - they did one video. Others Like Band-Maid, Scandal, Lovebites and the like it's difficult to chose a particular one so I add the latest track unless the existing one is better. I expect there's bands who I used to have in the playlist that have produced more recent tracks that are worthy of inclusion but until I find them they'll have to be among the excluded.

What criteria do you use then for inclusion / exclusion.?

Well every act of inclusion is also an act of exclusion, it all comes down to what I like at the moment. There's certain genres I really like, such as indie, alt-rock, post-punk, punk, electronica, that I'll gravitate towards. I'm not a big fan of ultra kawaii music. Before I got into Japanese music I never listened to heavy metal, but there are some very good all-female metal bands out there that I find very listenable. I won't include badly recorded fancams, music I find badly sung or played. Not a fan of noise for the sake of noise either. Because of quality issues I normally use the official Music Video for songs, but have been known to use a live performance if it's very well-recorded and performed. Using official MV also means that there's less chance of the video being pulled from YouTube. (I only use YouTube videos.) Again I try not to use videos that are blocked in certain countries but it can happen. I'm rather strict on the all-female criterion. Bands that rely on regular male support drummers etc won't get included. I don't have a problem with bands doing that, but including them makes a mess of the whole list. I also exclude bands who change line-ups and replace female members with male members. Again I have no problem with bands doing that but keeping them on the list would cause confusion. Removing them also allows other bands to be included. Guest performers are OK, and the occasional emergency replacement drummer or whatever. A small amount of slack is given.

As you're not Japanese how do you cope with titles / band names in Japanese ? Have made any obvious errors in your selections ?

I don't have a master list of songs in the list any more. I did try and keep one but as I kept changing which tracks were on there I gave up. So I don't have to write anything down. Even if the band name and song title are only in Japanese I can always cut and paste into Google translate - although I don't refer to bands by their translated English names. But it can lead to mistakes. I was checking the list only a short while ago and discovered I had two tracks by the same band - Potali, the band name was in Japanese so I missed it. Luckily I was looking for something to delete so I could add a new band so that worked out fine. I did misgender a male drummer in a band - and added one of their songs. The mistake was realised within a couple of days. Good band too : hitsujibungaku.

100 bands seems a purely arbitrary number. Why 100 ?

Yes it is arbitrary. Originally it was like 20, then 50 , then 75 and finally I made it to 100. So why stop at 100 ? Mainly to keep the list fresh, so people can come back after a year and find a lot of new content. It forces me to make choices, rather than just adding bands to the bottom of the list. Also any more than 100 and people would feel overwhelmed by the number of tracks. 100 also helps me remember what is on the list, and who should be added.

How is the list arranged ?

I haven't made any attempt at grading the bands or tracks. So the placement on the list is more or less accidental. Some of the best tracks are near the middle of the list or near the end. Generally newly added tracks are placed at the top of the list (although Band-Maid are usually at number 1.) As newer tracks are added so the tracks slowly slip down the list. To make way for new tracks I check to see if there's already a track by them, if so it's removed. Otherwise I have to find something to remove. There's no strict criterion for removal - but tracks I don't recall would be prime candidates.

Making a list on YouTube is all very well but do you actually buy any of the music you list ?

Yes I buy some of the music I add to the list. I may only get a single CD by the band, or I may get everything if I particularly like them. That said a lot of bands have packed up, their CDs are out-of-print, and second-hand can be horribly expensive - if you can find a source. Other bands never issued a CD or they only made it available at live venues or specific record stores. If possible I buy first from UK publishers - a few have Japanese acts. But generally I get CDs from CDJapan or the bandcamp if the band is on there. It's an expensive hobby, and with COVID-19 it's become more so as airmail and small packages got stopped from being sent overseas from Japan and you have to DHL. Not a cheap option. So buying is on hold at present.

Do you have any favourite bands ? Ones you can recommend to other people ?

I have a few favourites, such as Band-Maid, the peggies, akai ko-en, Scandal, Lovebites, Mutant Monster, Fate Gear. But I'm hesitant to recommend any to people. Everyone has their own likes and dislikes, their preferences. The best thing is to dip into the playlist and see if anything appeals to you. As I've said there's quite a range of music on offer although some of the more recent additions have been mainly newish 3/4 piece rock / indie / punk bands. The older bands tend to be nearer the middle of the list. And the good thing is that as it's on YouTube it won't cost anything to check a few bands out.

Any last words ?

Well I'd like to thank you for asking such interesting questions. I hope the answers are OK. Generally don't be afraid to listen to contemporary Japanese music. Although a lot of bands sing mainly in Japanese the music is still accessible. Don't pay any attention to cultural stereotypes, and pre-conceived ideas you have about what the music is likely to sound like. Don't pre-judge a band by how it looks. Japanese bands can be quite theatrical in their stage get-ups. It doesn't make any difference to the music. And finally ENJOY :)

Tommy's Top 100 Japanese all-female band tracks:

Here's a taste to get you going...