I was pleased to hear a feature on Japanese ukulele player and singer Tsuji Ayano on PRI’s The World. I’ve been listening to her music since around March 2000, when I ran into one of her early full-length albums at a “New Release” listening station in HMV Shibuya. (A Japanese site has some sound clips).

That album was a refreshing change from standard-issue Japanese pop fare, mostly because the production aesthetic was so austere.

Most Japanese musicians are barely distinguishable under the weight of their usually far more famous producers. In contast, Ayano’s work has an infections, unpretentious style, slightly boyish lyrics, and is relatively free of the standard issue self-conscious cuteness endemic among Japanese female vocalists. She has a kind of singer-songwriter style that, while certainly Japanese, would not be shocking on a playlist of contemporary American folk music.

When I first heard her music, I was hooked. Ever since then, I tend to seek out her newer albums whenever I travel to Japan, and I buy them before I even have a chance to listen to them.

The funny thing is that I started listening before most of my Japanese friends had ever heard of her. A year or so after I started listening to her music a friend in Japan told me she had a bit of an ear worm from a song of Ayano’s that had apparently been featured on a TV commercial or movie or something, but apparently the marketing department of her record label took a relatively soft approach to promoting her work.

I wonder if the little mention on The World will build some awareness of her work in the U.S.

I’m not a big fan of Japanese pop music, but Ayano’s work has made me hopeful to find more quality music from Japan.