Japan has one of the most unique cultures in the world, and this cultural identity is best observed through the country’s music. Traditional Japanese music has blended with foreign influences over the years to produce some incredible hit tracks that have become both hits in the country and international markets. In this article, we’ll look at 33 famous Japanese songs that you should be listening to.
1. Tegami (Haikei Jūgo no Kimi e) – Angela Aki
Tegami (Haikei Jūgo No Kimi E) roughly translates to “Letter: Greetings To A 15-Year-Old.” The song was performed by Angela Aki, and it’s essentially a letter urging a teenager to make the most of their life and appreciate the little things. While it’s addressed to a younger person, the message is something that can resonate with people of all ages, as it’s never too late to take things seriously or look at life the right way.
It’s an uplifting single that urges listeners to believe in themselves when things get tough and cautions that there’s no way to run away from the bad parts of life. Overall, it’s one of the nicest and most popular tracks in all of Japanese music.
2. Oyoge! Taiyaki-kun – Masato Shimon
Oyoge! Taiyaki-kun is a very interesting song released in 1975 by Masato Shimon. It roughly translates to “Swim! Taiyaki,” and it served as the A-side single to the track Ippon Demo Ninjin, which was sung by Japanese folk musician Kenichi Nagira. The song was supposedly a children’s track, as it was used in the Japanese children’s TV program Hirake! Ponkikki.
It became the first single to ever debut at the number-one spot on the Oricon chart and held the position for 11 consecutive weeks. It then sold over 4.5 million copies, becoming the best-selling single in Japanese history. Interestingly, despite the song’s success, the artist was only paid the equivalent of $170 at the time of its release.
3. Yuki No Hana – Mika Nakashima
Yuki No Hana is an incredibly beautiful love song focused on the winter season and all the glory of a snowy day. It served as the fifth single to come from Mika Nakashima’s 2003 album Love and generated quite a lot of buzz in Japan. The track eventually peaked at number three on the Oricon chart, but cover versions pushed it to global popularity and made it one of Japan’s most beloved love songs.
4. Say Yes – Chage and Aska
Say Yes was a very famous single released by Chage and Aska in 1991. It was used as the theme song for the Japanese TV drama 101 Kaime No Propose and is one of the most popular Japanese wedding tracks to this day. It spent 13 consecutive weeks on top of the Oricon charts and is the duo’s best-selling single. In total, it spent 39 weeks charting on the Oricon, and several cover versions—in Cantonese and English—appeared in the following years.
5. Tsunami – Southern All Stars
Tsunami was released in 2000 as the 44th single to come from the group Southern All Stars. It was the first number-one single by them since 1996 and eventually was included on their Greatest Hits album only a couple of years later. It spent two weeks on top of the Oricon chart in its first stint at number one, then regained the spot and held it for three weeks later that year. It won the Song of the Year Award at the Japan Gold Disc Awards as well.
6. Onna No Michi – Shiro Miya
Onna No Michi held the title of the best-selling single in Japanese history until it was replaced by Oyoge! Taiyaki-Kun. It was the debut single by Shiro Miya and Pinkara Trio in 1972 and quickly became a mega-hit. The song mostly focuses on a woman who devoted herself to a man but ends up being deserted by him and is crying during the track.
It still holds the record for the most time at the top of the Oricon charts, spending 16 consecutive weeks in the top spot. It also spent a total of 84 weeks on the chart and remains the second-best-selling single, and best-selling enka, in the history of the Oricon trackers.
7. Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana – SMAP
Sekai Ni Hitotsu Dake No Hana roughly translates to “The One And Only Flower In The World” and was recorded by the Japanese boy band SMAP in 2003. Its 2.5 million record sales cemented its place as the third-best-selling single in the history of the Oricon charts at the time and it was one of two singles to sell over one million copies in 2003. It ended 2003 at the top of the Japanese year-end charts and is one of the most popular karaoke songs in the country still today.
8. Dango 3 Kyodai – Kentaro Hayami, Ayumi Shigemori, Himawari Kids, And Dango Gasshōdan
Dango 3 Kyodai was released in 1999 and caused a nationwide social phenomenon in Japan. It debuted at the top of the Oricon charts with over one million first-week sales and was the song that many thought would finally surpass the record Oyoge! Taiyaki-kun had set years earlier. It only spent three weeks at the top though, eventually becoming the third-best-selling song in Japan at the time before being surpassed by Tsunami later on.
9. Kimi ga Irudakede – Kome Kome Club
Kimi Ga Irudakede roughly translates to “Just By You Being Here.” The song was released by Kome Kome Club in 1992 and debuted at the top of the Oricon chart. It held that spot for six weeks and eventually became the best-selling J-pop track of the 1990s and the sixth-best-selling single in Japan since the official Oricon chart began in 1968. It then went on to win the Grand Prix Award at the 34th Japan Record Awards for the pop and rock genres.
10. LOVE LOVE LOVE – Dreams Come True
LOVE LOVE LOVE was recorded by Dreams Come True for their eighth studio album Love Unlimited ♾️. Released as the lead single for the album in 1995, this Baroque-pop track was the theme song for the TBS drama series Aishiteru To Itte Kure. It became one of their best-selling singles and eventually the 10th-best-selling single in the history of the Oricon charts in Japan.
One of the most interesting things about the track is the uilleann pipes and harpsichord that are featured in the intro of the song, with some critics calling the sound reminiscent of The Beatles.
11. Tomorrow Never Knows – Mr. Children
Tomorrow Never Knows was the sixth single released by Mr. Children and came out in 1994, earning the artist their second number-one single on the Oricon chart. It quickly became the eighth-best-selling single in the chart’s history and was the theme song for the Japanese drama Wakamono No Subete.
It won several awards, the most prestigious of which had to be either the Grand Prix Single at the 9th Annual Japan Gold Disc Awards or the Best Theme Song Award at the 3rd Annual Television Drama Academy Awards.
12. Kuroneko no Tango – Osamu Minagawa
Kuroneko No Tango was recorded first in Italy and was sung by four-year-old Vincenza Pastorelli. A Japanese company asked a school choir to record the song as well in 1969, producing the Japanese version of the track. It’s one known by all Japanese schoolchildren and was a number-one hit on the Oricon chart, making the then-six-year-old Osamu Minagawa the youngest artist to have a million-selling record.
13. Koi no Kisetsu – Pinky & Killers
Koi No Kisetsu roughly translates to “The Season Of Love,” and it was the debut single by the Japanese band Pinky & Killers. Released in 1968, a musical film was eventually produced that was based on the song. It won the band the New Artist Award at the 10th Japan Record Awards in 1968 and they performed it on Japan’s New Year’s Eve Special.
Modern audiences outside of Japan probably heard it in the 2009 anime film Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance. The original release of the track spent 17 weeks on top of the Oricon chart and ranks at number 18 on the chart’s all-time lists.
14. Futatsu no Kuchibiru – Exile
Futatsu No Kuchibiru is a touching love story that came with one of the most fun and action-packed music videos of all time. It’s a pop song, but it comes in on the quieter side of the spectrum, blending lower vocals and piano music into a soft and flawless single. You essentially can’t make a Japanese love track playlist without including this one today, which is no surprise, as it remains one of the best-selling singles across multiple formats in Japanese history.
15. Aishiteru – Ken Hirai
Ken Hirai released Aishiteru as the 33 single of his career from his album Japanese Singer in 2010. It was one of the most popular tracks of the entire year in Japan, debuting and peaking at number 10 on the Oricon Daily Singles Chart. It then found even more popularity after being selected as the theme song for the film Ghost: In Your Arms Again, the Japanese remake of the American film Ghost.
16. Winding Road – Ayaka And Kobukuro
Winding Road was a major hit song and an interesting one at that, as it was the first time Ayaka and the duo Kobukuro teamed up on a track. Both are major players in Japanese music over the last couple of decades, so a collaboration was a welcome sight. Western audiences probably heard the song in ads promoting the Nissan Cube vehicle in 2007, and those ads boosted its popularity to help it peak at number two on the Oricon charts.
17. Kiss in the Dark – Pink Lady
Kiss In The Dark wasn’t just a hit in Japan, it caught fire internationally. Released in 1979, it debuted during a TV special. Interestingly, it became the first single by Pink Lady to not make it into the top 10 of the Oricon chart, peaking at number 19. But it found success in the US, rising to number 37 on the Hot 100, and it made the group the first to have a hit sung in English for American audiences.
18. Homura – LiSA
LiSA is a name any anime lover will know if they take the time to find out who sings many of the genre’s theme songs. She’s been the featured artist for several globally popular anime like Sword Art Online and Demon Slayer. Homura in particular was featured in the film Demon Slayer: Kimetsu No Yaiba – The Movie: Mugen Train. It won the grand prize of the Japan Record Awards in 2020 and made her the first act in history to have an album and single debut at the number-one spot in Japan.
19. Towa ni Tomo ni – Kobukuro
Towa Ni Tomo Ni is another one of the best love songs in Japanese history. It’s a quiet and thoughtful piano ballad and features one of the best vocal performances on this entire list. The singer mainly focuses on the person they are in love with, wishing they could win them over and begin a happy life together. The future looks pretty bright in this one, and it’s a popular track to express your feelings to someone.
20. Please Stay With Me – Yui
Please Stay With Me was released in 2010 on Yui’s album Holidays In The Sun. It’s one of the most emotional tracks on the list and is a beautiful acoustic tune that is sure to pull on your heartstrings. Piano, electric guitar, and a string section drive the song, complimenting the singer’s melancholy voice throughout the single.
21. Plastic Love – Mariya Takeuchi
Plastic Love is a song that dives into the ideas surrounding materialism and how it isn’t particularly a positive thing. But it does help sometimes, especially when going through a heartbreaking situation. The woman in the track goes shopping to cure her sadness after a bad breakup, finding that at least the clothes won’t break her heart. It was an iconic song in 1985 and it found new life in 2017 when a video was uploaded to YouTube that remixed the track into several different genres.
22. Gimme Chocolate!! – BABYMETAL
BABYMETAL probably appeared on many people’s radar after the great Rob Zombie was found defending them from close-minded metalheads on Twitter. A dominant group in the kawaii metal genre, they have released plenty of successful singles, but few were able to approach the song Gimme Chocolate!!!
The track focuses on a girl who struggles to balance her love of sweets with her fear of weight gain, but it eventually decides to focus on happiness rather than conform to societal standards. And frankly, that message is pretty metal all by itself.
23. Sukiyaki – Kyu Sakamoto
Sukiyaki is an old classic of Japanese music. It was originally released in 1961 and was first titled Ue O Muite Arukou. It was one of the few songs on the list to break into the charts in other countries as well, even finding a place on the US Billboard Hot 100 in 1963.
It tells the story of a man who looks to the sky as he walks to keep his tears from falling out of his eyes, inspired by Kyu Sakamoto’s time walking home from an Anpo protest in 1960. But it remained universal enough to be ascribed to any sort of heartbreak. Sadly, the English version of the track is nothing like the Japanese version, a cost that came from its global popularity.
24. Yasashiku Naritai – Kazuyoshi Saito
Yasashiku Naritai was written as the theme song for the Japanese TV drama Kaseifu No Mita but ended up being incredibly popular as a single. Copyright laws make it difficult to come by online, though that didn’t stop it from selling over 2.5 million copies. It’s a love story about finding love in a world that seems to be against true love and learning to be kind to others.
25. LIFE – Kimaguren
LIFE is a track that blends Japanese and English lyrics on top of a super fun reggae-style rhythm. Kimaguren scored one of 2008’s top songs in Japan with this one, earning over 3.5 million sales in the country. It’s an acoustic mix of guitars that give it a vibe that makes you want to run to the beach, and it was used in an ad for Smart Sports in 2009 that helped buoy the track’s popularity.
26. Aidoru – YOASOBI
Aidoru translates to “Idol” and the song was released in 2023 on YOASOBI’s third EP The Book 3. It was the opening theme of the anime series Oshi No Ko and focuses on the two-faced nature of the Japanese idol industry. Online, it earned over 100 million views in its first month and topped both the Oricon and Japanese Hot 100 charts, spending 21 weeks on top of the latter.
27. First Love – Hikaru Utada
First Love was the title track of Hikaru Utada’s debut album in 1999. It caught on around the world thanks to the lyrics being sung in both Japanese and English. This was the result of her being fluent in both languages and having been born in New York City. The song became a hit in both the US and Japan, helping push the album to become one of Japan’s best-selling albums in history with over 11 million worldwide sales.
28. Koko Ni Iru Yo – SoulJa Feat. Aoyama Thelma
Koko Ni Iru Yo is a counterpart to Aoyama Thelma’s song I’m By Your Side. It was released in 2007 by SoulJa, and the two tracks are so intricately connected that both are generally discussed in the same breath in Japan. This song—on its own—spent five weeks in the top 10 of the Oricon charts in 2007 and its B-side single was used as the final theme of the TV program Japan Countdown.
29. Michi – Exile
Michi is a super interesting track on this list by Exile. It was limited in 2007 to 100,000 physical copies, meaning that most listeners had to download it online. This worked out, as it became one of the most popular ringtones of all time in Japan, selling over one million ringtone downloads on top of 250,000 digital song sales. The limited CD also features instrumental and piano versions of the track, making it something of a collector’s edition disc for fans of the group.
30. Lemon – Kenshi Yonezu
Lemon was released in 2018 and served as the theme song for the TV series Unnatural. Since then, it has sold over three million digital copies in Japan and has become one of the best-known tracks in the country’s recent history. After the music video was uploaded to YouTube, it gained over 800 million views, making it the most-viewed Japanese music video in history.
31. Jupiter – Ayaka Hirahara
Jupiter was released on Ayaka Hirahara’s 2004 album ODYSSEY and is one of the most emotional tracks on our list. It was an instant hit and sold well over one million copies, landing it on the Oricon charts where it peaked at number two. In 2004, it was the third-best-selling pop song of the year in Japan and stayed on the charts for three years.
32. tofu so good – xiangyu
The track tofu so good is one of the most catchy songs on this list, and that’s saying quite a lot when it’s getting compared to J-pop singles that have sold millions. It’s a crashing wave of synths, bongos, and “woo-ing” vocals callouts that is just a dang good time.
33. Kare Wa – bed
Kare Wa is probably the best alternative rock song to come out of Japan in the last couple of decades. Unapologetic lyrics and relentless instrumentals make for it to be one of the best singles of 2022. And it’s a sign of things to come, as it serves as the lead teaser single for the bed’s debut album. In an age of unoriginal alternative music, this is certainly one that will catch your attention and one that you should be listening to.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
quality content for the Music Grotto website. Dakotah is passionate about music in a wide variety of genres, from hip-hop to country and lo-fi to metal, and he enjoys creating music pieces for Music Grotto.