Top 10 J-pop Female Idols of the 70s and 80s

Updated on April 21, 2016
Minako Honda.
Minako Honda.

The 70s and 80s heralded a new, game-changing era in Japanese pop music. Starting with a girl from Yokosuka, the "idol" times gradually grew throughout he 70s and then exploded in the mid to late 80s. It subsided once again in the 90s before making a comeback in the 21st century, albeit with a different feel and parameters for starlets. But the 70s and 80s - often called The Golden Era of J-pop - was something that will never be seen again. Many women (then just young girls for the most part) relied on pure vocal and dancing talent to get ahead in the years before autotune. They set records that have since been broken and even remain today; they challenged the status quo on what made an attractive woman in Japan; they took the reigns of their own cookie-cutter origins and showed that they too could be "artists". There would be no J-pop as we know it today without the girls and women of the golden idol era.

That all said, how does one decide where to begin when attempting to listen to them? There were many, many idols in those two distinct decades. But as in anything else, there are those who rode to superstardom and are credited with the changes that occurred. This list compiles some of the biggest names while cross-checking with my own personal preferences.

1 - Akina Nakamori (中森明菜)

Akina was one of the biggest names and faces of the 80s, and one of the biggest voices: it's quite possible that she has one of the deepest voices I have ever heard. But that's not her only charm point or what made her famous: in a sea of idols who exhibited innocence and charm to win their ways into your living rooms, Akina went against all that and sang about sadness, heartbreaks, and even sexual feelings that weren't laced under pounds of fruity good-girl metaphors. She plowed through the mid-80s with unfathomable success until tragedy struck her personal life: her lover left her for another woman, and Akina's subsequent suicide attempt tarnished her image and her success was never recovered. However, her career has never ended, and she still releases new music to this day including a very interesting folk song and enka project.

Akina was the first "idol" I fell in love with, and I have her to credit for leading me to all the others I listen to and love now.

2 - Minako Honda (本田美奈子)

Nobody had stage presence or confidence like Minako did - in a sea of idols who would hop back and forth and awkwardly sway during instrumentals, Minako was the one who would waltz out and never waste a single movement...all while having the biggest, happiest smile on her face. It's impossible to watch a Minako live without being enthralled with her performances. Oh, and her music is fantastic too. Her voice packs quite a punch and she was never shy to any style. She was originally promoted as a Japanese Madonna and owned the style before starting a rock project. In the 90s she toned down her image and eventually began singing classical covers - she was originally classically trained - of famous traditional songs. Sadly, Minako passed away in 2005 from leukemia, but she performed and recorded up until she literally could not anymore.

I love Minako because she reminds me of the kind of idol I would've wanted to be during that time: fun, flirty, and totally in control. And talented. Can't forget that.

3 - Momoe Yamaguchi (山口百恵)

And here is the "girl from Yokosuka" herself, the woman often credited with starting the idol generation. Momoe dominated the 70s with her husky voice, her serious subject matter, and mature presence. She was in a league of her own, and even to this day her popularity has never waned, partly in fact due to her suddenly retiring in 1980 at the age of 21 so she could have a quiet newlywed life.

Momoe's music is the definition of timeless. Her songs are just as great today as they were in the 70s, as proven by all the countless covers that still occur amongst other modern artists. She is also one of the only idols to complete her career totally unscathed, a very rare feat in Japan.

4 - Pink Lady (ピンク・レディー)

There's no story quite like Pink Lady's: two girls, Mie and Kei, who came together with funky dance moves and silly pop songs and took the late 70s by storm. Their charm lies in their ability to command a stage together and get the audience out of their seats and singing along. Their discography contains a plethora of addictive songs. Pink Lady was so popular that they even had a TV show in the USA and released the single "Kiss In the Dark" which charted on the Billboard - a feat accomplished only once before and never since by any other Japanese act.

Akina may have been the first idol I fell in love with, but it was Pink Lady who pulled me into the idol era to begin with. They still perform today with, I think, even better vocals and on-point moves and I would LOVE to see them live, even if it's just to say "thanks!" for introducing me to one of the best eras in music ever.

5 - Shizuka Kudo (工藤静香)

Shizuka came a bit late to the idol era, but she made her impact all the same. Actually, she was part of a girl group before going solo, but it was said solo career that let her be the artist that most people know her as today. Her music began with a bit of the pop that was in at the time supplemented with rock flair. She's one of the few idols to continue a semi-successful career throughout the 90s until slowing down after her marriage to SMAP member Takuya Kimura. However, she is still active in the entertainment world as an actress and singer.

Shizuka is one of the most "consistent" idols for me. While there are many singular tracks and even albums I love from others, Shizuka is one of the ones that I think puts out great album after great album and rarely disappoints. She's also very easy to get into if you're not a Japanese speaker because she is fluent in English, with many English interviews across the internet.

6 - Miho Nakayama (中山美穂)

Here's the thing about Miho: she's talented, has nice vocals, great rhythms, and some fantastic songs, but she's just Miho. She was successful throughout the 80s and into the 90s, perhaps by a stroke of luck and ingenious marketing (she often appeared in video games, quite the feat at the time!) Miho is one of the biggest names of 80s, and yet it's kinda hard for me to pinpoint why. Still, I enjoy a lot of her music and recommend her to anyone trying out idol music.

Miho has since retired from music in 2000, and now lives with her husband in Paris, France.

7 - Kyoko Koizumi (小泉今日子)

Although quite famous, Kyoko managed to totally fly beneath my radar until I finally forced myself to listen to her a few months ago. I'm so glad I did! She's a fantastic singer and has a fun personality that comes through most of her more fanciful songs - and is quite capable of being equally serious in her moodier songs. Her music notably grew from being idol pop to a more mature pop sound through the 90s, even working with the likes of famed composer Yoko Kanno.

Today Kyoko may be more famous as an actress than as a former idol. She has won numerous awards for her acting career and is now a high demand actress, so although she doesn't really release music anymore, she's still always in the public's eye through her numerous movies and dramas.

8 - Seiko Matsuda (松田聖子)

It is literally impossible (yes, literally) to make a list like this and NOT mention Queen Seiko. Some may think I'm absurd to not have her in my top three, let alone all the way down at #8, but hey, she's here! Seiko Matsuda is the People's Idol, The Queen, any other nickname that you can think of that implies she is universally #1. She was the main rival of Akina back in the 80s, sporting the traditional "girl next door" image that Japan knew and loved - and Seiko was their poster child. She's probably the one idol on this list who has never wavered in her career and still enjoys moderate success as a singer today. Oh, and like Momoe, she has never had a major scandal to tarnish her image.

I like Seiko, but I can't say that I LOVE her. She's mostly on this list out of massive respect for the impact she's had on J-pop, as many popular artists of today cite her as an inspiration. I don't have anything stylistically against her, but as you can probably tell from the rest of this list I'm more into the deeper voices and subject matter than Seiko usually offers.

9 - WINK

WINK's image is not easy to forget: two girls singing hard-hitting pop songs against stoic backdrops and barely moving more than their mouths to sing. Their seriousness on stage is practically what makes WINK, well, WINK, and most would not have it any other way. They had two major hits in the late 80s before pittering out in the 90s before eventually disbanding. While many people today may not automatically think of them when they think "idols", their songs are still played heavily on radio and in grocery stores across Japan (I can attest to this.) Their major hit single, "Samishii Nettaigyo" is still covered all the time as well, and is a classic Japanese pop tune.

WINK probably would not make most people's lists, but they do mine. I love their emotionless image that blends into their dark dance songs. And I'm very biased because, to me, "Samishii Nettaigyo" is the song I think of when I think of 80's pop music.

10 - Yumi Matsutoya (松任谷由実)

Finally, to round out this list, is a woman who has seen success over four decades in Japan. Yumi Matsutoya, formerly Yumi Arai before her marriage in 1976, is one of the biggest names of all time in Japanese pop, rock, and folk music. She's the second highest selling female singer in Japanese history, and still releases consistently with her latest albums also hitting the top of the charts. Unlike most idol singers, Yumi has a very unique, nasally voice that is instantly recognizable.At one point in the 80s and early 90s she had seventeen consecutive number one -albums-. I don't think that record's ever going to be broken.

I respect the heck out of Yuming (her nickname), although I do not listen to a lot of her music. She is amazing, though, and practically has an album for every year of anyone's life. It's hard to imagine a world in which Yumi will not have anymore music coming out, but I totally believe she will be releasing until the day she literally can't anymore.

There's a Part 2!

As of March, 2012, there is a Part 2 to this list! See #s 11-20 here!

Who is your favorite on this list?

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Questions & Answers


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      • profile image

        Danny 4 months ago

        Yumi Matsutoya is NOT an idol..

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        lmao 7 months ago

        no レベッカ :( im sad

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        Alexis 10 months ago

        i need HELEN SASANO u.u

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        mimi 12 months ago

        yukiko okada is missing :(

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        Iyan 3 years ago

        HAHA, it is so funny. The (or should I say his ?) momanone of Akina is so good and funny. And the voice! I would say 90% similar.Normally I don't like momanone of Akina because some of them are overdone. But this guy the imitation, with a tag od exxageration, is so at the right key. Bravo!

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        Jayce 3 years ago

        A really good answer, full of railtnaoity!

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        Nekromantis 5 years ago

        It's a good list but missing many of my favourites such as Onyanko Club (and unit solos), Kikuchi Momoko, Yui Asaka... I've never been that much into Akina Nakamori and wouldn't put her even in my top 20 list but I guess I'm just more into the whole cutesy thing of "girl next door" kawai idols and all that schizophrenic innocence vs. sexuality tension they often express.

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        bode1967 5 years ago

        A great list, for sure. In your Top 10 i can find two of my Top 5 artists; Akina Nakamori and WINK. You wrote that WINK "probably would not make most people's lists", but, like yours, they do mine. Ai ga Tomaranai ~Turn It Into Love~ is just and amazing song, even if it's a Kylie's cover. The result is a mix of 80's dance pop with sad and touching vocals from two beautiful expressionless girls. Thanks for all the great hubs!

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        mouseychuu 6 years ago from Raleigh, NC

        All fab ladies, of course. RIP Minako ;A;

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        Haru 6 years ago

        Flawless hub.