The Sound Of The Japanese Underground

A primer on the country's thrilling left-of-centre creativity...

It is often said that you can find the world’s best French patisserie or Neopolitan pizza in Tokyo. The concept of ‘kaizen’, of continual improvement in the pursuit of perfection, offers an explanation as to why Japan has held onto its crown as the most Michelin-starred city in the world for 13 years for its range of French, Italian, Chinese and Thai restaurants.

The same dedication to craftsmanship can be seen in the country’s musical output. Beyond J-pop, the uniquely Japanese, saccharine genre that dominates airwaves and most Japan-related Spotify playlists compiled here, the country’s underground scene thrives on a similar philosophy, co-opting influences from around the world, and running them through a singular Japanese filter.

From blending baile-funk and dancehall rhythms with traditional Japanese folk music, to paying homage to UKG or French Touch, Japan’s new generation of underground artists are setting a template for a new transglobal approach.

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Japan is a country of extremes, where hyper-modernism coexists alongside traditionalism. From its retro-futurist cityscapes to the rise of reissues, the old-meets-new phenomenon is pervasive within Japanese culture.

Following in the wake of City Pop – Japan’s answer to synth pop and disco – is Noah, the vaporwave producer that’s reviving the same feelings of escapism and nostalgia through her spectral, synth-laden sound.

Originating from the snow and ice of Hokkaido, Noah’s ‘Thirty’ LP released last year on flau conjures the natural beauty of her homeland alongside the glimmering faded neon metropolis of Tokyo, where she lived for three years while writing the album.

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Having previously released on Japan’s Maltine Records and his own NC4K (No Collar 4 Kicks) label, Kyoto-based producer Stones Taro has been putting out a string of solid EPs on UK imprint Scuffed Recordings since 2017.

Paying homage to the UK’s dance music heritage, his last EP, aptly titled ‘Digital Vintage’, is his strongest work yet: three tracks of slick retro-rave rollers that weave together garage, breaks, acid and rave.

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The term genre-bending is often misused when describing music, but if anyone has a legitimate claim to it, it’s WaqWaq Kingdom.

The clue is in the band members’ musical histories: Kiki Hitomi was a member of dub outfit King Midas Sound, while Shigeru Ishihara is best known for playing frenzied gabber beats on Game Boys as DJ Scotch Egg.

Together, as WaqWaq Kingdom, they weave trademark Scotch Egg chiptune and soaring Hitomi vocals with Japanese traditional music, Shinto bells, African polyrhythms, dancehall, dub and baile funk, creating a patchwork quilt of transglobal sounds that on paper shouldn’t work, but somehow seamlessly fall together.

‘Essaka Hoisa’, their sophomore LP was released earlier this year on Phantom Limb.

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Kyoto-based math rock trio Kūkangendai create uniquely compelling music using machine-code guitar hooks and intelligent robotic rhythms.

Releasing on Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley’s label Ideologic Organ, the avant-garde trio’s 2019 LP ‘Palm’ is a masterclass in terse and hypnotic mechanical precision.

In the studio they make music through a process of editing, replicating and deliberate error. Live, they take their playful rhythms and distort them to their logical deconstructive conclusion, going back and forth between playing songs simultaneously in parallel.

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Albino Sound is the solo project of Osaka-based producer Hirotaka Umetani. Alongside the likes of Tokyo’s Mars89, Umetani is part of the cohort of multi-instrumentalist artists creating experimental, left of centre soundscapes.

His latest EP, 'Black Lagoon' was released last month on Pedro Vian’s Modern Obscure Music label.

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KISEKI is a ‘human error dance music duo’ formed by Taigen Kawabe, best known as the frontman for London based acid noise-rock four-piece Bo Ningen, and experimental producer 食品まつり (Shokuhinmatsuri) a.k.a foodman.

Earlier this year, musical polymath Taigen released his debut solo EP ‘Ill’ as Ill Japonia. A departure from the guitar-led Bo Ningen wall of sound, Ill Japonia is Taigen’s J-rap alter-ego with all the same dizzying sonic qualities.

‘Journey Express’, the debut from KISEKI released earlier this month sees Taigen use autotune to great effect, as he sings and raps over a trap and footwork inspired beat, conjured up by the inventive wizard that is Nagoya’s foodman.

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Spearheading new sounds from Fukuoka are the Gilles Peterson supported duo Ohnesty.

The project unites two influential talents from Fukuoka’s burgeoning underground scene: BRISA, the adventurous and eclectic DJ/producer, whose acid-house inspired jazz has been co-signed by the likes of Danny Krivit and Joe Claussel, and shigge, founder of the Yesterday Once More label.

Ohnesty’s new EP, ‘Movin’ On’ is out today on Highball Records and sees the duo move between house, French touch, yacht rock, acid jazz and more.

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Movin’ On EP by Ohnesty is out now on Highball Records – // Subscribe to Highball’s NIPPON REPEAT Spotify playlist here.

Words: Kitty Lester

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