Home Music Music Features

Japanese Icons – The King and Queen of City Pop

City pop escapes strict definition but if one thing is for sure, there’s no stronger power couple in city pop than husband and wife Tatsuro Yamashita and Mariya Takeuchi

In collaboration with Monsutā, Japanese Icons is a new series that showcases the finest offerings from the land of the rising sun. Winning the coveted title of Japan’s Best International Lager in 2022, and recently launching a range of alcoholic lemon, mango and pineapple chūhai’s, Monsutā, along with its iconic Sumo, is a brand that symbolises and celebrates the best of Japan. Join us on this journey as we present the Japanese counterparts who share the Monsutā legacy. 

Picture this –  you’re driving through Shibuya on a balmy Friday night in July, and the top is down on your brand-new 1985 Toyota Celica. Your soundtrack for the night? Nothing but Japanese city pop. Emerging in Japan in the 70s and reaching the peak of its popularity in the late 80s, city pop escapes strict definition but if one thing is for sure, there’s no stronger power couple in city pop than husband and wife Tatsuro Yamashita and Mariya Takeuchi. 

Described by Rolling Stone’s Jon Blistein in 2019 as “less a strict genre term than a broad vibe classification,” city pop is nowadays considered by some in Japan to be a cheesy relic of the past, but there’s no denying its hook-laden, optimistic charm. Japan has a knack for taking something good and making it great and its city pop’s Western jazz, pop, disco, funk and R&B influences that saw it come into popularity during Japan’s tech boom and economic bubble. Thanks to YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, the genre has seen a huge resurgence in popularity in recent years with Mariya Takeuchi’s 1985 single “Plastic Love” being the entry point for many newcomers to the genre. 

Growing up when American culture was still permeating much of post-war Japan, it’s no wonder that Yamashita’s American influences would go on to help define city pop’s basic ingredients. After departing his band Sugar Babe (named after a track by The Youngbloods), he signed with American label RCA, releasing his first three albums to relatively limited success. Fearing his third album might be his last, “Bomber”, the B-Side to album single “Let’s Dance Baby” took off in the Osaka disco scene. Capitalising on this success, he followed up with “Moonglow” in 1979 and “Ride on Time” in 1980, around the time that he began a relationship with his label mate and future wife, Mariya Takeuchi. Now largely free of label budgetary constraints, he was able to go all out on 1982’s “For You” which is largely considered one of his best releases and one of the most representative albums in city pop canon. 

By this time, Mariya Takeuchi had been at the top of the Japanese music industry for a number of years. Winning numerous awards with a string of hits in 1979 and 1980, by 1981 she had released five albums featuring a number of Japanese and international collaborators including her future husband. After the success of her 1981 album “Portrait” she announced her plans to take a break from recording and performing and married Yamashita six months later. During her hiatus, Takeuchi continued writing songs for what would become her 1984 comeback album “Variety”. The album, produced by Yamashita, topped the Japanese Oricon Albums Chart, and featured one of the biggest sleeper hits in history, “Plastic Love”.


Upon its release as a single in 1985, the track only reached number 86 on the Oricon Charts, a relative flop compared with her previous chart-topping singles. But, when YouTube user Plastic Lover uploaded an eight-minute remix to YouTube in 2017, the track grew to become arguably the best-known example of city pop with the remix receiving over 50 million views between 2017 and 2021. The popularity of the track led to an explosion of city pop’s popularity internationally, helped to promote newer genres like vaporwave and future funk, and led to a surge of international city pop reissues and compilations. 

Now, the couple both still remain active with Yamashita regularly touring domestically in Japan and Takeuchi starting a new project with fellow pop singer Anri in 2021. The influence of both artists and their contemporaries can be seen in modern Japanese bands artists like Paellas and Pearl Center as well as future funk producers such as Night Tempo. With countless playlists on popular streaming platforms, city pop is the perfect soundtrack to a night at home paired perfectly with a cold drink. Bringing you giant-sized taste and larger-than-life stories, Monsutā will be back with another Japanese Icon in a couple of weeks. Until then, crack open a can of one Japanese icon while listening to two more, the king and queen of city pop – Tatsuro Yamashita and Mariya Takeuchi. 

Monsutā products are available at BWS, Dan Murphy’s and Jimmy Brings.

Get unlimited access to the coverage that shapes our culture.
to Rolling Stone magazine
to Rolling Stone magazine