Beginning in the 1990s, the face of J-pop was changing - gone were the days of the "girl next door" idol who was fed an image and songs with no interest to her. Instead, Japan's jaded tastes began to demand a new breed of idol, if it wanted idols at all. Female solo artists faced the challenge of appealing to a blossoming music industry if they wanted to stick out and find lasting success. The roads paved by their Golden Era predecessors were theirs to tread and expand on. The 90s called upon female solo artists to cultivate their images, to get involved with their creativity, and to define an entire generation of music that would escape Japan and find homes in the computers and iPods of the world's populace.
These ten women answered the call in their own ways and earned their place in the history of J-pop. Some of them became legends who still enjoy great success today; many of them were called geniuses of their time; all of them found some way to contribute to the shape and color of J-pop as we know it today.
1- Ayumi Hamasaki (浜崎あゆみ)
Debut: 1995, 1998 (Officially)
There are few Cinderella stories in J-pop as grand as Queen Ayumi Hamasaki's. From a single-parent household in southern Fukuoka City, Ayumi learned from an early age what the value of a dollar was. She entered the entertainment industry with the sole goal of making money for her family while trying to find meaning with her life. What transpired was a chance meeting with super producer Max Matsuura. Within a couple years Ayumi was selling millions of copies of her handwritten albums, and within the turn of the millennium she was "Queen of J-pop". Today she is the most successful female solo artist in the history of J-pop and has built her career on being super involved with her products and image, even breaking barriers in sexuality and subject matter. Over ten years, ten albums, and 50 singles later, Ayumi Hamasaki is one of the biggest names to ever enter J-pop.
I make it no secret that Ayu is my favorite artist in the history of music. Her story, her highly personalized music, and her down-to-Earth personality all make her a likeable person. She always gives back to her fans, and she's the type of artist that you can be proud to be a fan of.
2 - Namie Amuro (安室奈美恵)
Namie Amuro was bound for stardom from an early age. As a child she entered the prestigious Okinawa Actors' School where she was placed in a budding Eurobeat girl group called "SUPER MONKEY'S". After minor success with the group it was clear that Namie had solo potential. She left "SUPER MONKEY'S" and pursued her own career with "Invincible Producer" Tetsuya Komuro. She proved to be his most successful prodigy with millions of sales in the late 90s, including the record "highest selling single by a female solo artist" for her song "CAN YOU CELEBRATE?", a record she still holds today. Namie fell out of the public's eye when she had a shotgun marriage to dancer SAM. Even after her return to the industry she faced plummeting sales and the stigma of a divorced, working single-mother. Eventually Namie took her career into her own hands and did what she really loved: RnB music, or "Hip-Pop" as she declared her own genre of music. Since her switch she's found new popularity and was once again one of the most popular solo female artists in the late 00s.
Namie's tragic story of going from pop princess to society's stigma-of-the-day (all while dealing with the gruesome murder of her mother) is one that would be great even if just stopped there. But her determination to do thing's her own way not only lead to a new rise in her career but also showed Japan that an "old" single-mother could still be a trendsetter in her own right. Aside from the great music from both parts of her prestigious career, Namie Amuro is just an all-around great woman to follow.
3 - Kumi Koda (倖田來未)
Unlike Namie Amuro before her, Kumi Koda has been breaking into RnB since her debut in 2000. By chance she came first runner-up in avex's dream 2000 audition (after originally applying to "Morning Musume") and was given the chance to become a teen RnB idol. Her first couple of albums didn't fare well, however, and she was almost dropped. Success came when her single "real Emotion" was used as the theme song for the video game "Final Fantasy X-2". Shortly afterwards, Kumi changed her image from teen idol to "ero-kakkoii", which meant significant hyper-sexualization. It was a move that worked, however, for within a couple years in 2005 she became the most successful female solo artist of the day, even beating out Ayumi Hamasaki. Considering Japan's love for "cute girls next door" over any hint of overt sexuality, Kumi proved that grown women in charge of their sexuality had a place in J-pop.
Aside from her great ballads and dance songs, Kumi's optimistic personality is a welcome addition to the J-pop industry. Never one to let anything get her down, Kumi's may have inadvertently lead a mini-sexual revolution in Japan's frigid cultural climate.
4 - Hikaru Utada (宇多田ヒカル)
The daughter of record producer Teruzane Utada and superstar enka singer Keiko Fujii, Hikaru Utada grew up in a musical household. She began songwriting as a child and recorded her first English album, with the support of her parents, at age 13 under the pseudonym "Cubic U". While not successful, it prompted record label Toshiba EMI to sign her up as a Japanese language artist (Hikaru herself is fluently bilingual.) Her first album "First Love" sold over 7 million copies and remains the best selling J-pop album in history. Hikaru is often credited for mainstreaming a Western RnB sound in J-pop. In 2005 she attempted to crossover into the American music industry with the release of her second all-English album "Exodus", but it failed to garner much interest. Today she is currently on "creative hiatus" for the next "2-5 years".
One cannot deny the influence someone as successful as Hikaru has had on J-pop. Between her unique vocals, her commitment to songwriting and producing, and fearless attitude towards "being herself" the world over, Hikaru Utada is somebody who will never be forgotten thanks to records she's broken alone.
5 - Ringo Shiina (椎名林檎)
If there's anyone often credited with the title "genius" in the recent history of J-pop, it's Ringo Shiina (real name Yumiko Sheena). Not one to be held down by cultural expectation or to even listen to her own record label, Ringo established herself early on in her career in the late 90s as one of J-rock's (a subgenre of J-pop) leading ladies. Her unique nasally voice, precocious lyrics, and mastery of composition and arrangement set her apart from the other cookie-cutter female solo artists of her time, and by her peak she was considered third in popularity only after Ayumi Hamasaki and Hikaru Utada.
While I've always respected Ringo Shiina as a masterful musician, it's taken me many years to actually start warming up to her actual music due to her uneasy rock style and vocals. But one thing that will always amaze me is the structure and perfect symmetry of her third album "Kalk Samen Kuri no Hana". Not only is the album exactly 44:44 long, but each track corresponds to its opposite on the other side of the album. (See its Generasia page for a full explanation.) Really, to call Ringo a "genius" is a bit of an understatement.
6 - BoA (보아)
BoA began her career in her native South Korea after accompanying her brother to an audition with SM Entertainment. She was trained in, amongst other things, Japanese and English. Shortly after debuting in South Korea she debuted in Japan and became the first Korean artist to sell over a million copies of an album in Japan. Because of her great success, other South Korean artists such as Lee Jung Hyun and Tohoshinki were more readily accepted later on. Since her initial success in Japan, BoA has also attempted a career in the West. Her debut English album "BoA" fared better than Hikaru Utada's "Exodus" but she still finds most of her success in Asia.
BoA was one of my first forays into J-pop and, likewise, K-pop. While many seem to have forgotten her today, one can't ignore her charms and contributions to internationalization in J-pop.
7 - Mika Nakashima (中島美嘉)
Mika Nakashima accidentally stumbled into the entertainment industry when she entered a random audition and won a role in a drama and the chance to record its theme song. Her debut "Stars" sold half a million copies, and her debut album "TRUE" hit number 1 and sold over a million copies. Mika found her niche in incorporating jazz and gospel into her music, two subgenres not often tried and tested before in mainstream J-pop. Mika's popularity continued even with these trends, and soon Japanese people throughout the country were enjoying a new wave of jazz and gospel in their households more popularized today with big help from Mika Nakashima.
Mika is another artist that took me a long time to appreciate, and although she's not my favorite artist to listen to, her humanitarian efforts in America are deeply appreciated. I also admire her shirking of Japanese stigma, such as foregoing high-school and having multiple tattoos. She's also one of the few artists these days to go from singing and also enjoying a small acting career - her most popular role was as Nana Oozaki in the movie version of the super-hit "NANA" manga.
8 - Nanase Aikawa (相川七瀬)
Sometime during the mid 90s a rock producer discovered a delinquent girl who was trying to find her way through singing competitions. The girl was Nanase Aikawa, a biker-tough lady with a lot of attitude and no apologies for who she was. Her rockin' debut album "RED' sold over two million copies, and alongside her sophomore album "ParaDOX" was voted as albums of the year in consecutive years at the Japan Gold Disc Awards. Her "bad girl" image tamed as she grew older and married and had children, but her mischievousness and love for rock music has never waned even as her popularity has faded. In 2010 she was voted one of the top celebrity women that Japanese queer women wanted to sleep with - in response Nanase recorded a whole album dedicated to her female fans and their love for each other, including a video depicting her in a same-sex romance. Not only did Nanase pave the way for other rockin' women (Ringo Shiina probably wouldn't have had as much reception if it weren't for Nanase's precedence) but she's also one of the first and few to positively depict LGBT women in her media.
Nanase was one of the first artists I got into when I discovered J-pop and I've never looked back. Her awesome attitude towards her career is one of her most endearing qualities - alongside her great music, too, of course.
9 - Maaya Sakamoto (坂本真綾)
Anyone checking out J-pop around the turn of the millennium was bound to come across famous seiyuu (trans. voice actress) Maaya Sakamoto. Although an anime voice actress first and foremost, Maaya also was a semi-successful singer (mostly doing anime songs) throughout the late 90s and early 00s, in conjunction with famed composer Yoko Kanno. For the longest time she was one of the best known and successful voice-acting artists until the likes of Nana Mizuki in the late 00s. Together they burst through the J-pop wall and began breaking records. Shortly after Nana Mizuki attained the first #1 album by a voice actor, Maaya attained her first #1 as well. Although Nana Mizuki was the one to set the record, she couldn't have done it without Maaya's contribution to the exposure of voice actors as serious musical artists.
Like many others from my time, Maaya was one of the very first artists I knew in conjunction with J-pop. Her many songs are highly nostalgic and her pure voice is just as enjoyable today as it was then. Whether working with Yoko Kanno or not, Maaya Sakamoto is one the true greats even if she often falls under people's radars.
10 - Chihiro Onitsuka (鬼束ちひろ)
With all the women on this list who have faced adversity and "never gave up", perhaps none are as inspirational as Chihiro Onitsuka. Although not much is known about her past, Chihiro has never made any qualms about her depression and other illnesses that are often scorned upon in Japanese society. She has taken her afflictions, however, and turned them into beautiful music, full of mournful compositions and heavy lyrics. Her debut album "Insomnia" sold over a million copies in 2001 and remains her most critically acclaimed work to this day. Chihiro has survived many breaks in her mental health as well as a highly publicized assault from her boyfriend in 2010.
There are few singers in the world who move me as much as Chihiro Onitsuka does. Her songs "Gekkou" and "infection" remain some of the most emotionally intense songs I've ever heard.
anonymous on September 09, 2019:
My favorite two on the list are Namie and Ayumi. Then, Shina Ringo. I am surprised Mai Kuraki and hitome are not on the list because I like them a lot and they had a lot of number 1 albums.
anonymous on May 16, 2019:
After listening to a lot of music from a number of these singers, I have to say that Namie's voice has really won me over because I have listened to her the most along with Akina. Like Akina, she has protean transformations from dreamy rhythmic and Latinesque R and B, to rocking addictive dance tunes like Please Smile Again, to hard driven and softer grooving hip hop, to heartfelt ballads with dynamic range in tone and emotion, fluid rap fills, all while dancing with a beautiful singing ring and resonance in voice. One of my favorite voices ever along with Akina. I still love Shiina's voice and Kana's voice. I'm a fan of all these 4. Also from this period, I really like Yui's voice. .
Anonymous on May 11, 2019:
Thank you so much for this article. It helped me find two singers who I really enjoy listening to.First, Ringo Sheena who is one of the most impressive singers, song writers and composers I have heard in modern music especially in her rock songs, though I like her jazz songs a lot too. It's the best rock I have heard since the 60s. Blown away by her catchy, edgy originality and complexity and the songs are fabulous to listen to. Second, Namie Amuro who combines a marvelous voice with snazzy dance moves and a versatility to sing both ballads and dance songs really well. I prefer her ballads and earlier dance songs the most. .
Anonymous on September 08, 2017:
There's also Masami Okui, Angela Aki, Atsuko Maeda, Yui Yoshioka, Tomiko Van, and Alan Dawa Dolma.
MJS on November 29, 2015:
Where is Miho Komatsu???
Tony on May 04, 2015:
Where is Izumi Sakai!? Thought she would be on the list!
hildred (author) from Oregon, USA on July 06, 2012:
See Part 3 for MISIA.
sop on July 06, 2012:
this list is missing the great MISIA
hildred (author) from Oregon, USA on May 19, 2012:
Thank you. I definitely recommend checking them out further if you are interested. I agree that music is wonderful regardless of language - it just so happens my favorite songs tend to be sung in Japanese.
dmop from Cambridge City, IN on May 19, 2012:
Don't know who any of these artists are, but I feel like I do after reading your awesome article about them and their careers. I find that music is just wonderful when presented in the right way regardless of the language of the lyrics. Voted up and interesting.