The 15 best Japan songs

Japan 1981 (

Japan 1981


In 1984 I turned 18 years old. An important milestone. Around that time I was completely into Japan, the band that had recently dissolved itself following a 10 year period of great music. 1984 would also see the release of David Sylvian’s beautiful solo album Brilliant Trees and Mick Karn’s introduction of his Dalis Car project.

At the bottom of this article the top 15 is available as a Spotify play list.


In 1974 brothers David Alan Batt (vocals, guitar) and Stephen Ian Batt (drums) and their friend Andonis Michaelides (bass, vocals) formed the group Japan. In June 1974 the band made their live debut at Andonis’ brother’s wedding party. A year later the band welcomed Richard Barbieri (keyboards) and Rob Dean (gitaar) into their fold and the first real line-up was a fact. Following a few personal name changes (David Alan Batt became David Sylvian, Stephen Ian Batt became Steve Jansen and Andonis Michaelides became Mick Karn) Japan released their debut album Adolescent Sex in early 1978, an album the band members themselves would rather forget. That same year the debut was followed by Obscure Alternatives, which gently pointed towards things to come.

Japan and Giorgio Moroder (

Japan and Giorgio Moroder

Meeting Giorgio Moroder in 1979 ultimately resulted in the single Life In Tokyo and the definitive change of course for Japan. Out with the glam influences, enter electronics, melancholy and experiment. The first result of Japan mark 2 was Quiet Life, released at the tail end of 1979, in 1980 followed by Gentlemen Take Polaroids, which signaled the end of Rob Dean’s tenure with the band. In 1981 the album Tin Drum was released, which was universally hailed as the band’s masterpiece.

After elaborate touring, Japan had run its course. Artistic difference of opinion was cited as the main reason, but there was more to it than that. David Sylvian and Mick Karn in particular had a troubled relationship, which extended into their private lives. Whatever the case, 1982 marked the end for Japan. Their farewell was sealed in 1983 with the release of the superb live album (which was not a live album at all, apart from the drums) Oil On Canvas.

Japan was a highly influential band, one of the main trendsetters of early 1980s new wave and a huge source of inspiration for the new romantics movement. The five musicians who had to learn their instruments from scratch (with the exception of Rob Dean), had grown into repected composers, acclaimed musicians and innovators.


As a tribute to the band Japan, which I saw for the first time on Dutch television program Toppop on January 25, 1979, playbacking Adolescent Sex, and some time later rediscovered as a totally different entity, I hereby give you my 15 favorite Japan songs. Why 15? Why at all? Well, why not. Isn’t it all subjective? Of course it is! Let’s just celebrate the genius of Japan.


Japan - Adolescent Sex (

Adolescent Sex


As stated before, this was my introduction to Japan. On January 25, 1979, I saw the band in the Dutch Toppop studio, playbacking this song. Make-up, long hair, androgyny. What was not to love?

The single contained a re-recorded version of the debut album title song.


Japan - Obscure Alternatives (

Obscure Alternatives


Stemming from the album with the same name, the album the band considered to be their rightful debut. This song was and still is a favorite. Singer Sylvian is completely unrecognizable, he even screams. But, this song possesses a truly delightful swing!


Japan - The Tenant (

The Tenant


Japan introducing the future? A beautiful atmospheric song, that genuinely moves. Guitar eruptions, saxophone accompanied by a mantra-like musical theme. Did composer Sylvian try to condense the Bowie album Low into one song?


Japan - Quiet Life (

Quiet Life


The collaboration with Giorgio Moroder can be heard in the arpeggio synths in the title song to the third Japan album. A true prototype for the synthpop and new romantics that were to follow.


Japan - Despair (



Minimalism, a drum machine, beautiful minor mood, which found its way in much of the music of the era. Japan sounded nothing like the glamrock/funk band of yore.


Japan - All Tomorrows Parties (

All Tomorrows Parties


Or, how a band can own a cover in its entirety. A bold choice, given the classic status of The Velvet Underground & Nico’s original version. In fact, the original almost pales to the Japan version. An impressive feat!


Japan - Gentlemen Take Polaroids - Single (

Gentlemen Take Polaroids


The first result of the band’s record company transfer from Hansa to Virgin. The single preceded the release of the Gentlemen Take Polaroids album. A fine introduction to a beautiful album (their best?).


Japan - Swing - Video (



Even though the band cites self doubt around this period, on Swing the band sounds far from insecure. The rhythm sections is astounding. The (electronic) horns provide true, well, ‘swing’.


Japan - Burning Bridges (

Burning Bridges


To me, Japan has seldomly sounded more Bowie as on this song, conveying the same strength and feel as the impressive Warszawa off Bowie’s Low album.


Japan - Nightporter (



The ultimate swoon song for the alternative flappers of that era. The Erik Satie pastiche works like a charm.


Japan - The Art Of Parties (

The Art Of Parties


Preceding the release of the Tin Drum album, Japan released the 12-inch The Art Of Parties / Life Without Buildings: one of the best 12-inches of all time. The ultimate proof that Japan could be a swinging funk band as well. It’s nearly impossible to sit still to this percussive, horn-filled splendor.


Japan - The Art Of Parties - Single backside cover (

Life Without Buildings


Also see the entry above. The B-side of the The Art Of Parties 12-inch, is Life Without Buildings, a percussive delight. Drummer Jansen plays electronics drums, triggering actual notes, providing the rhythm with its own melody. Unique, innovative and original.


Japan - Sons Of Pioneers (

Sons Of Pioneers


This songs stems from Tin Drum, a great album , with one downside: the sound is way too cold. With the exception of this song. Inspired by Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure?


Japan - Visions Of China (

Visions Of China


The Jansen/Karn rhythm section playing at top level. This song has that danceable swing as well. Completely unique, something like this has never been done since. World class.

Because the live version has a warmer sound, I prefer the Oil On Canvas version.


Japan - Canton (



Equally unique as Visions Of China, but more of a Chinese mantra. The melody is positively addictive. The mix of Chinese (folk)themes with Western (pop)music sounds completely organic.

Because the live version has a warmer sound, I prefer the Oil On Canvas version.


Rain Tree Crow

In 1989 Japan reconvened for a new album. At Sylvian’s request the name Rain Tree Crow was used, instead of Japan. The recordings resulted in the 1991 release of the album Rain Tree Crow. It would be the last time that all Japan members would work together on a project.

In closing

What’s your take on Japan? Do you miss any songs, and if so, which ones? Let me know!

This story contains an accompanying video. Click on the following link to see it: Video: The 15 best Japan songs. The A Pop Life playlist on Spotify has been updated as well.

Play list

More Japan articles?


    • Colin in Canada on 03/15/2024 at 6:44 PM
    • Reply

    I think “In Vogue” deserves a mention. There’s just something about how the band members just click together on this one. It’s alchemy at work. The whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.

    1. I hear that a lot. I will re-listen to the song. Especially on social media that song gets quite a few mentions!

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