Techno-kayō (transliterally techno-sounding song or techno song) began as a denomination of city pop. Named not because of techno – that is, the dance music genre founded in 1980s Detroit – but because of its synthesiser-driven, technological contemporaneity, techno-kayō has since become one of Japan’s most influential genres, fronted by some of the country’s most celebrated artists.
As city pop invited Japanese musicians to adapt their sound to pop styles from across the globe, techno-kayō was inspired by early European and North American synthpop. One group pioneered its sound, almost totally. Yellow Magic Orchestra, the trio of Haruomi Hosono, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi, was at the heart of everything techno-kayō.
Yellow Magic Orchestra: “Firecracker” (1978)
YMO foremostly admired the resourceful modernity of German innovators Kraftwerk and their so-called “technopop”. Early YMO records innovated a new style of synthpop distinctive for its intense synthesisers and synth drums, but also its experimentation and political themes. In its body of pacey, futuristic pop, YMO’s material engaged in cultural commentary through parodied exoticism and clever subversions of Western perceptions of the “orient”.
YMO was a cultural phenomenon, both within and outside of Japan. No previous Japanese musical act had ever made so definite a cultural imprint on such a global scale – and few since have experienced such stratospheric popularity.
Techno-kayō was YMO’s most obvious and immediate domestic musical legacy. Throughout the genre’s early period, many of its most significant works (particularly by the likes of Miharu Koshi, Mari Iijima and Mioko Yamaguchi) either featured the arrangements and production of Sakamoto, Hosono or Takahashi or stylistically followed directly in their wake.
Mioko Yamaguchi: “Yume Hiko” (1980)
Techno-kayō also, however, vastly outgrew the embryonic, rather skeletal electronic music initially pitched by YMO. Though it was, put simply, merely a time-specific style of Japanese synthpop, techno-kayō became an outlet for more experimental pop music.
Prominent synthesisers and use of pre-programmed drum-beats gave the genre a frantic pace that crossed paths significantly with the new wave, while others worked within the style to funnel classical crossover and progressive electronica through a lens of mainstream accessibility.
But techno-kayō had other legacies too, notably as a model for the modern Japanese pop industry. Throughout the 1980s, techno-kayō became increasingly affiliated with the birth of idol culture. Along with latter-period city pop, the commercialisation of the process of choosing artists, writing their music and marketing them to the masses helped to manufacture the focus-grouped images and predetermined personalities of idol pop.
Tamao Koike: “Automme dans un miroir” (1983)
Techno-kayō wasn’t just limited to the 1970s and ‘80s, either. The technopop revival of the early 2000s, directed by Yasutaka Nakata but including artists like Hikaru Utada and TENTENKO, showed the genre’s lasting influence on the sounds and aesthetics of contemporary pop.
The legacy of techno-kayō therefore manages to bridge not only mainstream and experimental pop music in Japan, but pop and dance music across the globe.
Author: Ed Cunningham