My academic background is in Japanese language and culture. I’m a big fan of J-pop music and culture.
The Golden Era of J-Pop
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 the ‘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 still 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 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.
J-pop Female Idols of the ‘70s and ‘80s
- Akina Nakamori (中森明菜)
- Minako Honda (本田美奈子)
- Momoe Yamaguchi (山口百恵)
- Pink Lady (ピンク・レディー)
- Shizuka Kudo (工藤静香)
- Miho Nakayama (中山美穂)
- Kyoko Koizumi (小泉今日子)
- Seiko Matsuda (松田聖子)
- Yumi Matsutoya (松任谷由実)
1. Akina Nakamori (中森明菜)
- Born: July 13, 1965
- From: Ota City, Tokyo, Japan
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 the only charming thing about her, 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 never ended.
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)
- Born: July 31, 1967
- From: Itabashi City, Tokyo, Japan
Nobody had stage presence or confidence like Minako. 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 Minako live without being enthralled by 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 of famous traditional songs (she was originally classically trained). Sadly, Minako passed away in 2005 from leukemia, but she performed and recorded up until she literally could not anymore.
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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)
- Born: January 17, 1959 (age 61 years)
- From: Ebisu, Tokyo, Japan
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 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)
- Born: N/A (Pop duo)
- From: Aoi Ward, Shizuoka, Japan
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 sing along.
Their discography contains a plethora of addictive songs. Pink Lady was so popular that they even had a TV show in the U.S.A. and released the single “Kiss in the Dark,” which charted on 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. 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)
- Born: April 14, 1970
- From: Hamura, Tokyo, Japan
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 her 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 a rock flair.
She's one of the few idols who continued to have 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. While there are many singular tracks and even albums I love from others, Shizuka 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. She has many English interviews available online.
6. Miho Nakayama (中山美穂)
- Born: March 1, 1970
- From: Koganei, Tokyo, Japan
Miho is talented, has nice vocals, great rhythms, and some fantastic songs. 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 the ‘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 retired from music in 2000, and now lives with her husband in Paris, France.
7. Kyoko Koizumi (小泉今日子)
- Born: February 4, 1966
- From: Atsugi, Kanagawa, Japan
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 on most of her more fanciful songs. That said, she is also quite capable of being serious in her moodier songs. Over the years, her music grew from being idol pop to a more mature pop sound, 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 her skills are always in high demand. Although she doesn't really release music anymore, she's always in the public's eye, starring in numerous movies and dramas.
8. Seiko Matsuda (松田聖子)
- Born: March 10, 1962
- From: Kurume, Fukuoka, Japan
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 into deeper subject matter than Seiko usually offers.
- Born: N/A (Pop duo)
- From: Tokyo, Japan (1988)
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 covered all the time. It 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 ‘80s pop music.
10. Yumi Matsutoya (松任谷由実)
- Born: January 19, 1954
- From: Hachioji, Tokyo, Japan
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 truly amazing. She’s released a staggering number of albums. It's hard to imagine a world in which Yumi will not have any more music coming out, but I totally believe she will be releasing music until the day she literally can't anymore.
Sushin on May 31, 2020:
I lived in Japan late 70’s and Pink Lady was HUGE. I remember they were everywhere.
As for Matsuda Seiko, she is the ‘eternal idol’ and I never understood why she was so popular. Like you, she wasn’t my cup of tea, and I love, love, loved Nakamori Akina. But yes, Matsuda Seiko is probably someone everyone in Japan knows.
I would say though that she has had some scandals. Most notably, she has been married 3 times, which in itself is kind of a scandal in Japan. Also that whole love triangle bit with Akina was a huge scandal back in the day. Not sure how true it was.
SpicySauce on April 08, 2020:
"Oh, and like Momoe, she has never had a major scandal to tarnish her image"
Omoshiroi~ Seiko Matsuda didn't has a
major scandal after what she had done to Akina? Are you sure??
And, yeah, you also forgot our cutie princess Yukko (Yukiko Okada). I am Akina fan, but if you left Yukiko behind, that's a mistake.
GOOGLE on December 11, 2019:
I don't know who are those girl, but I'm sure that they are talented. They also look so pretty :O
Anonymous on September 14, 2019:
I just discovered Minako Honda. What an amazing voice and passionate and charrismatic performer! I think she is the most underrated singer I have ever heard. Four octaves for Amazing Grace, great opera, gospel, ballad and rock singer. I still love Akina's voice but Minako is a new favorite. If you can find it I highly recommend her Dispa concert album from 1987. It is an amazing live performance and she sounds even better live.
SeekingGreatSound on May 11, 2019:
I also heard Pink Lady first and then Mamoe Yamaguchi, both of whom helped pique my interest in Japanese singers because I was captivated by their singing and performances. They led me to find Akina Nakamori who along with Shina Ringo and Kana Nishino are my favorites followed closely by Namie Amuro and also Ayumi Ishida who has a hauntingly beautiful shiny ring to her voice that echoes down the long tunnels of time. I also like Yui and Nana Mizuki but haven't listened to them as much yet. I will say that Shina Ringo took a few listens to "get" but once I really felt what she was going for synthesizing virtuoso Japanese singers from the 70s and 80s with punk, jazz, rock and a personal confessional style combined with a primal whine, and scream, I loved her voice. As for Akina, it is her marvelous vibratto and emotional resonance and dance moves and protean transformations from saucy rock to melancholy ballads full of emotional resonance, liberation and assimilation of a myriad of different styles that captivate me and remind me a lot of Shina Ringo though a bit more controlled. Kana hits me with a child like genuineness and sincerity and such a pure ring and resonance sonically and emotionally in the upper register. And Namie has an "instant radio" voice with a touch of honey that flows as smoothly and naturally as her dance moves in a lovely mid-range tone with a versatile delivery from heartfelt ballads to quick staccato rhythms.In some ways, I am just as impressed with Namie as my very favorites because she does sing the kind of songs that are the style I usually like.
Danny on December 08, 2017:
Yumi Matsutoya is NOT an idol..
lmao on September 25, 2017:
no レベッカ :( im sad
Alexis on June 05, 2017:
i need HELEN SASANO u.u
mimi on April 19, 2017:
yukiko okada is missing :(
Iyan on January 13, 2015:
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!
Jayce on January 11, 2015:
A really good answer, full of railtnaoity!
Nekromantis on April 02, 2013:
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.
bode1967 on July 04, 2012:
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!
mouseychuu from Raleigh, NC on February 08, 2012:
All fab ladies, of course. RIP Minako ;A;
Haru on December 30, 2011: