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Japanese Environmental Music from the 80s

Japanese environmental music, also known as Kankyo Ongaku, was originally created to enhance shopping experiences, architecture, and environments.

︎ Floppy Club curated playlist 

The music from the 1980s was heavily influenced by hyper-capitalism and many Japanese new-age artists had close collaborations and sponsorships with large corporations. Their music would feature on commercials for a wide range of different products, everything from cosmetics to Seiko watches and even Sanyo air conditioners. The music was created to blend seamlessly into rooms and corporate spaces, with a minimalist and gentle sound that would enhance the environment without overwhelming it. The style was inspired by Dadaism, the Fluxus movement and the work of Erik Satie, primarily his furniture music arrangements, which were specifically written to work as background music. Environmental music was designed to be both unobtrusive and interesting, with plenty of space and silence, making it suitable for both background listening and serious listening.

An artist like Brian Eno has undoubtedly also influenced Japanese environmental music. Especially an album such as Music for Airports. 
Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports

Brian Eno on the experience that inspired ‘Ambient music’

Environmental music was also often referred to as BGM (background music) and this term is still used today by many video game companies such as Nintendo to describe the music that is designed to accompany the gameplay.

The influence of environmental music on electronic music as a whole is undeniable, a good example of this is Electronica. Despite being a broad term covering many sub-genres of electronic music, it is often used to describe tracks with the same calming and ethereal quality as environmental music.

Hiroshi Yoshimura's AIR

Yellow Magic Orchestra’s 1981 album ‘BGM’

Instruments & Music Theory

The instrumentation of the music was often electronic keyboards, FM synthesizers, marimbas, pianos and some more traditional Japanese instruments. The Fairlight CMI synthesizer and digital workstation was also highly popular in this genre.

Fairlight CMI
The Computer Music Instrument (CMI) from 1979, was one of the first digital synthesizers. It also included a sampler that could record and play back sounds. The synthesizer was very expensive, retailing at a price of 25.000 USD, almost 100.000 USD today. It was used by well-established artists such as Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush and Frankie goes to Hollywood.

Peter Vogel demonstrates the Fairlight CMI 30A
Ryuichi Sakamoto on the Fairlight CMI
Herbie Hancock jamming on his Fairlight CMI

Big Rako Bowls
A large Japanese singing bowl. Rako bowls can be played by striking or rimming the bowls with a mallet. They are often used in meditation and healing rituals.

Crystal Chakra Meditation with Antique Tibetan Singing Bowls
Where Did “Tibetan” Singing Bowls Really Come From?

A koto is a long Japanese zither. A board with thirteen silk strings and a 190 cm long body made of paulownia wood.

A Zither instrument is in many ways similar to a guitar, just without the neck. It is also thinner and has more strings. This instrument is derived from the larger Chinese Zheng instrument.

A performance by professional Japanese Koto Player Fuyuki Enokido: "Sakura, Sakura"

The koto is played kneeling or sitting, in concert the instrument is usually placed on a stand, with the performer seated in a chair in front of it.The koto is played by plucking the strings with the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand; these are fitted with ivory plectrums by the name tsume. The left hand can be used to bend the strings to the left of the bridges, creating different pitches and sounds while playing. The strings are held by movable bridges that are used to change the tuning of the instrument. Various pentatonic tunings are used, depending on the type of music being played.


From Space to Environment, Fluxus to Furniture Music: The Women of Kankyō Ongaku (Part II) – The Brooklyn Rail (Starnes, Sadie. 2021)
Discover the Ambient Music of Hiroshi Yoshimura, the Pioneering Japanese Composer | Open Culture (Jones, Josh. 2020)
Another Green World: Inside the resurgence of Japanese ambient music (Gordon, Lewis. 2018)

Fairlight CMI for sale / Vintage synthesizers / 1980s
Koto | musical instrument | Britannica (Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. Accessed 27 January 2023)


If you are interested in learning more about this kind of music you could start listening to

Satoshi Ashikawa, Hiroshi Yoshimura and Fumio Miyashita.