In the realm of music history, there exist bands that transcend the boundaries of genre and time. One such band is Japan, an enigmatic and pioneering group that formed in 1974 but emerged later in the 1970s and left an indelible mark on the world of art rock. Japan’s music was a fusion of various influences, including glam rock, new wave, and electronic soundscapes, creating a unique sonic landscape that continues to captivate audiences decades after their disbandment. I was introduced to the music of Japan following their split. By this time, their lead singer had gone solo and was bewitching me with an even more laid back style while working in tandem with the likes of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Robert Fripp.

However, it was less the solo and more the group dynamic that captured the imaginations of my friends and me. Japan was different from the mainstream. They were brave enough to stand apart and thus become essential to many young people.

This article is about a band that deserves to be as important now as they were forty years ago and I will choose one track from each album to hopefully reveal why their importance is justified.

The Birth of Japan

Japan was formed in 1974 in Catford, London, by a group of school friends who shared a passion for music. The band initially comprised David Sylvian (vocals), Mick Karn (bass guitar), Steve Jansen (drums), Richard Barbieri (keyboards), and Rob Dean (guitar). The name “Japan” was chosen not for its geographical significance but rather for its enigmatic and exotic connotations, setting the tone for their future musical explorations.

Early Days and Glam Rock

Japan’s early years saw them immersed in the glam rock scene, heavily influenced by artists like David Bowie, Roxy Music, and T. Rex. Their debut album, “Adolescent Sex” (1978), showcased their glam-inspired sound, characterised by androgynous fashion and Sylvian’s distinctive vocals. While the album received mixed reviews and achieved limited commercial success, it marked the beginning of Japan’s evolution as a band.

Adolescent Sex

  1. Transmission
  2. Unconventional
  3. Wish You Were Black
  4. Performance
  5. Lovers on Main Street
  6. Don’t Rain on My Parade
  7. Suburban Love
  8. Adolescent Sex
  9. Communist China
  10. Television

Adolescent Sex is my least favourite of Japan’s albums, but it also contains one of my most played of their tracks.


The song is characterised by its energetic and provocative style, typical of the glam rock era. Lyrically, it explores themes related to fame, media, and the allure of television as a powerful cultural force. Applying the sociological imagination, the line ‘fucking television’ is a powerful phrase in a world dominated by artificiality and a lack of substance spewed from the corner of the room. While not as well-known as some of Japan’s later works, “Television” is representative of the band’s early sound and their flirtation with glam rock influences during their formative years.

Transition to New Wave

Japan’s transformation truly began with their follow-up album, “Obscure Alternatives” (1978), where they started to incorporate elements of new wave and punk into their music. Songs like “Sometimes I Feel So Low” and “Deviation” hinted at a shift towards a more electronic and experimental sound. However, it was their third album, “Quiet Life” (1979), that marked a significant turning point in their career. The title track, “Quiet Life,” remains one of their most iconic songs and epitomises their shift towards a more refined and sophisticated sound.

Obscure Alternatives:

  1. Automatic Gun
  2. Rhodesia
  3. Love Is Infectious
  4. Sometimes I Feel So Low
  5. Obscure Alternatives
  6. Deviation
  7. Suburban Berlin
  8. The Tenant

My chosen track choice from Obscure Alternatives is another of my most played of their songs.

Suburban Berlin

The song combines elements of new wave and punk rock with a sense of melancholy and introspection. Lyrically, “Suburban Berlin” appears to depict a sense of longing and alienation, with references to suburban life and urban isolation. It very much epitomises the urban greyness that billions across the planet have to endure, especially during the totalitarian smothering of the masses during the Cold War.

Quiet Life:

  1. Quiet Life
  2. Fall in Love With Me
  3. Despair
  4. In Vogue
  5. Halloween
  6. All Tomorrow’s Parties
  7. Alien
  8. The Other Side of Life

When we evaluate Quiet Life, it becomes a huge struggle to choose the favourite track. This is a masterclass of an album with multiple great songs. From the opening eponymous ‘Quiet Life’ to the last track ‘The Other Side of Life’ it is a thing of awe. In between is the cover of The Velvet Undergrounds’ ‘All Tomorrow’s parties’ and the marvellous ‘Fall in Love With Me’. However, it is ‘The Other Side of Life’ that is the true sensation on this album. Anyone who appreciates music cannot fail to be enchanted. As one reviewer stated, ‘the most wonderful thing about this song is that it doesn’t want to end’. Absolutely!

The Artistic Peak

Quiet Life changed everything for Japan and their last two albums together furrowed new ground. From Gentlemen Take Polaroids and Tin Drum we have another litany of greats.

Japan’s artistic zenith came with their next two albums, “Gentlemen Take Polaroids” (1980) and “Tin Drum” (1981). These albums marked a departure from their earlier rock-oriented sound and embraced a more avant-garde and atmospheric style. “Gentlemen Take Polaroids” was characterised by intricate arrangements, lush synthesizers, and Sylvian’s increasingly introspective lyrics. Tracks like “Swing” and “Nightporter” showcased the band’s maturity and willingness to explore new sonic territories.

“Tin Drum,” their final studio album before disbanding, solidified their status as pioneers of art rock. The album featured the hit single “Ghosts,” which remains one of their most recognisable songs. With its distinctive oriental influences and Sylvian’s evocative lyrics, “Ghosts” encapsulated the essence of Japan’s sonic evolution.

Gentlemen Take Polaroids:

  1. Gentlemen Take Polaroids
  2. Swing
  3. Burning Bridges
  4. My New Career
  5. Methods of Dance
  6. Ain’t that Peculiar
  7. Nightporter
  8. Taking Islands in Africa

This is made relatively straightforward in that this album contains the 12″ single that I played more than ever. Wait until evening, turn the lights down, lay back and immerse yourself in the bliss that is….


Tin Drum:

  1. The Art of Parties
  2. Talking Drum
  3. Ghosts
  4. Canton
  5. Still Life in Mobile Homes
  6. Visions of China
  7. Sons of Pioneers
  8. Cantonese Boy

Perhaps the obvious choice from Japan’s last studio album is ‘Ghosts’. An absolutely sublime song that should be eternally treasured. However, I have gone for the last track, ‘Cantonese Boy’. A totally uplifting song that tells a clear story and showcases Japan’s distinctive blend of electronic and world music influences, featuring exotic percussion and David Sylvian’s evocative vocals. Lyrically, “Cantonese Boy” explores themes of cultural and emotional displacement, with a sense of yearning for a distant and exotic world. Just like may of us right now in a world that is increasingly dour and controlled.

Legacy and Influence

Japan disbanded in late 1982 or early 1983, leaving behind a brief but remarkable discography. While they may not have achieved mainstream success during their active years, their influence on subsequent generations of musicians is undeniable. Their innovative fusion of art rock, new wave, and electronic music served as a precursor to the synth-pop and new wave movements of the 1980s.

David Sylvian, in particular, continued to explore experimental and ambient music in his solo career, further cementing his status as an artistic visionary. Mick Karn and Steve Jansen also pursued successful solo careers and collaborated with various artists across different genres.

Check out this wonderful band and also catch up with David Sylvian’s solo work. You will not be disappointed.

Here is a starter:

Jason Cridland

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