Japanese Music Acts To Listen To In 2021 | CoolJapan
It feels like 2021 has just begun, but here we are, already at its final quarter. Have you been listening to more music than usual over the past year? If so, you are probably not alone. Global recorded music revenue grew 7.4% in 2020, a large part of it attributable to streaming subscriptions. This is hardly surprising, given that music has long been known for its power to heal and connect people. And well, the year hasn’t exactly been easy. As some of us sought comfort in familiar tunes that bring back happy memories, others found joy in discovering new musical styles.

Ready for more music to add to your playlist? Scroll on for a selection of artists making waves in the Japanese music industry this year.


Dubbed by some as Japan’s Maroon 5, Nulbarich is a band with an interesting format. Other than JQ, the lead vocalist and overall producer of the band, no other band members are permanent. It may be easy to mistake Nulbarich as a solo project, but they perform as a band, with five to eight members each time. There are numerous explanations for why the other members remain faceless, one of which is so that the best combination can be formed to suit the concept, performance etc. each time. The same ambivalence is reflected in their band name, which comes from “null but rich”, in that one can be fulfilled despite having nothing, and it’s not just the tangible things that matter.

In just two years after their major debut in 2016, the band played to a sold-out crowd at Nippon Budokan, one of the most prestigious concert venues in Japan. This April, Nulbarich released their first album in more than two years, NEW GRAVITY. Produced in the middle of the pandemic, this album consists mostly of songs that one “feels good listening to out of their living room”. Give some tracks a listen, and you may find yourself bobbing along before you even realise.

Ryokuoushoku Shakai

A mixed-gender four-piece band from the Aichi Prefecture in Japan, Ryokuoushoku Shakai is made up of three friends from the same high school (Nagaya, Kobayashi, peppe) and Kobayashi’s childhood friend, Anami. Affectionately referred to as “Ryokushaka'' by their fans, their music is characterised by vocalist Nagaya’s clear yet strong vocals, combined with a fresh and catchy sound. At an average age of about 25 years old, the band members are relatively young, but their music has received praise from industry insiders for the amount of potential they show through the variety of their music. Providing the theme songs to several anime series over the past year (My Hero Academia, Yashahime: Princess Half-Demon) has led more people to discover Ryokushaka, and it looks like their popularity will only grow from here. The band is holding a Zepp tour from November onwards, playing alongside a different act at each of the five venues.

Fun fact: keyboardist peppe has a known interest in World Heritage sites, as the topic is something that connects people from around the world, just like music. She has even gone as far as to get herself certified by taking the Level 1 test (second-highest level after Meister Level) organised by the World Heritage Academy in Japan!


THE FIRST TAKE is a channel on YouTube that invites Japanese musicians to perform. With just a microphone in a white studio, the musicians are allowed only one take to show everyone what they’ve got. No fancy visuals nor effects, only high-quality music in its purest form. Since the channel’s first video in November 2019, they have garnered a following of more than five million subscribers across the world. Fans of Japanese music can’t wait to find out who gets featured next, and features on the channel have thrown spotlights on previously released songs, such as DISH//’s “neko”. The song was released in 2017 but grew so popular in 2020 after its release on THE FIRST TAKE that a drama series was created based on the song lyrics.

Yuuri is another artist who gained tremendous attention after his appearance on THE FIRST TAKE. Granted, his music career only began in 2019 when he started uploading videos of his singing onto social media channels. “Kakurenbo”, the first original song he posted, was used in so many TikTok and social media videos that people coined it the “Kakurenbo Phenomenon”. With that, Yuuri started building a following, but it was his two appearances on THE FIRST TAKE that made him a household name. “Dry Flower”, the answer song to “Kakurenbo”, became a viral hit that has been streamed more than three billion times since its release in October last year. “Kakurenbo” and “Dry Flower” provide the male and female perspectives of a couple who did not reach their happily ever after together; listen to both for a taste of the melancholy that comes as a relationship reaches its end.


yama is an artist shrouded in mystery. No face, no actual name, no place of birth, gender… the rationale for not putting the information out in the open is that they don’t want themselves nor the listeners to be distracted by “unnecessary” information and would rather the attention be on their music instead.

Like Yuuri, yama was discovered through the Internet. They started by uploading cover songs, and the first original song “Haru wo tsugeru” uploaded last year struck a chord in so many younger listeners, that its popularity spread like fire. While yama was happy that more people were listening to their music, they were also insecure about whether they deserved the attention and if their music was really touching lives. In a rare in-person interview earlier this year, we see how this megahit is one that is representative of the current era, in that the song was completed completely online; the producer and yama have never met in person at all and do not know anything more about each other than what’s available on the internet. yama’s first album "the meaning of life" was released on 1 September and is available on most major streaming platforms.

Naniwa Danshi

If you’re interested in J-pop for the idol scene, take a look at Naniwa Danshi from Johnny & Associates. The group was formed in 2018 by seven members from the Kansai region, with a group name reflective of their birthplaces, in that “naniwa” is the former name of the region that is Osaka today, and “danshi” meaning boys.

Before you get deceived by the glittery costumes and polished performances, this group has yet to make any CD releases and is actually only about to make their major debut later this year. Even when they were still under “Johnny’s Jr.”, the arm of the agency that manages pre-debut talents, they were already fronting commercials, going on nation-wide arena tours, and even starring in a drama series as a group together last year (Men’s Kou from TV Tokyo). Fans love Naniwa Danshi for how they seem to be the epitome of a Japanese idol group — sparkly performances, relatable personalities, with distinctly different member characteristics. Their major debut single, Ubu LOVE, is scheduled for release on 12 November 2021.

(Cover photo from: Burst via pexels)