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Top 10 Female J-Pop Artists of the '90s and '00s

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My academic background is in Japanese language and culture. I’m a big fan of J-pop music and culture.

Who are the J-pop artists that defined a generation?

Who are the J-pop artists that defined a generation?

Japanese Female Singers of the 1990s and 2000s

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 10 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, and 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.

The Top 10 Japanese Female Singers and Pop Stars From the '90s and '00s

  1. Ayumi Hamasaki (浜崎あゆみ)
  2. Namie Amuro (安室奈美恵)
  3. Kumi Koda (倖田來未)
  4. Hikaru Utada (宇多田ヒカル)
  5. Ringo Shiina (椎名林檎)
  6. BoA (보아)
  7. Mika Nakashima (中島美嘉)
  8. Nanase Aikawa (相川七瀬)
  9. Maaya Sakamoto (坂本真綾)
  10. Chihiro Onitsuka (鬼束ちひろ)

1. Ayumi Hamasaki (浜崎あゆみ)

  • Birthdate: October 2, 1978
  • Birthplace: Fukuoka, Japan
  • Debut: 1995

There are few Cinderella stories in J-pop as grand as Queen Ayumi Hamasaki's. From a single-parent household in southern Fukuoka City, Hamasaki 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, Hamasaki was selling millions of copies of her handwritten albums. Within the turn of the millennium, she was the "Queen of J-pop." Today she is the most successful female solo artist in the history of J-pop. She has built her career on being super involved with her products and image, even breaking barriers in sexuality and subject matter. Over 20 years, 17 albums, and 50 singles later, 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 likable 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)

  • Birthdate: September 20, 1977
  • Birthplace: Naha, Okinawa, Japan
  • Debut: 1992

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 as she had millions of sales in the late 1990s. Her 1997 single "Can You Celebrate?" still holds the record for the highest-selling single for a solo female artist in Japan. Amuro fell out of the public's eye in 1997 when she had a shotgun marriage to dancer Masaharu "Sam" Maruyama. They would eventually divorce in 2002. Even after her return to the industry, she faced plummeting sales as she carried the stigma of a working single-mother.

Eventually, Amuro took her career into her own hands and did what she really loved: R&B music, or "Hip-Pop" as she declared it. She revitalized her career and was once again one of the most popular solo female artists in the late 2000s.

Amuro'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 things her way did more than just start a new rise in her career. She 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, Amuro is just an all-around great woman to follow. The "Queen of Japanese Pop" would retire from the industry in 2018.

3. Koda Kumi (倖田來未)

  • Birthdate: November 13, 1982
  • Birthplace: Kyoto, Japan
  • Debut: 2000

Kumiko Kōda, known professionally as Koda Kumi, has been performing in R&B since her debut in 2000. She was a runner-up in Avex's Dream Audition in 2000 (after originally applying to Morning Musume). She was able to sign with Avex's sub-label Rhythm Zone. 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; by 2005, she became the most successful female solo artist of the day, even beating out Ayumi Hamasaki. Considering Japan's love for the "cute girl 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 may have inadvertently led a mini-sexual revolution in Japan's frigid cultural climate.

4. Hikaru Utada (宇多田ヒカル)

  • Birthdate: January 19, 1983
  • Birthplace: New York City, U.S
  • Debut: 1996

As 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 the album was not successful, it prompted record label Toshiba EMI to sign her up as a Japanese language artist. While Utada was born and raised in the United States, she is fluently bilingual.

Her first album, "First Love," sold over 7 million copies in 1999. It still holds the record for the highest-selling album in Japan. Utada is often credited for introducing the Western R&B sound to J-pop. In 2005, she attempted to crossover into the American music industry with the release of her second English album "Exodus." Unfortunately, it failed to garner much interest.

The influence Utada has had on J-pop is undeniable. Between her unique vocals, her commitment to songwriting and producing, and fearless attitude towards being herself, Utada is somebody who will never be forgotten thanks to the records she's broken.

5. Ringo Sheena (椎名林檎)

  • Birthdate: November 25, 1978
  • Birthplace: Urawa-ku, Saitama, Japan
  • Debut: 1998

If there's anyone often credited with the title of genius in the recent history of J-pop, it's Ringo Sheena (real name Yumiko Shiina). Sheena has never been one to be held down by cultural expectations; she has even been known to disregard her own record label. She established herself early on in her career in the late 1990s as one of J-rock's (a subgenre of J-pop) leading ladies. Her nasally voice, precocious lyrics, and mastery of composition and arrangement set her apart from the other cookie-cutter female solo artists of her time. At her peak, she was considered to be third in popularity only after Ayumi Hamasaki and Hikaru Utada.

Sheena would put her solo career on hold in 2003 as she formed the band Tokyo Jihen. Her solo career would resume in 2006. Sheena has also written music for other groups, such as Puffy AmiYumi.

While I've always respected Sheena as a masterful musician, it's taken me many years to actually start warming up to her 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.) Calling Sheena a genius is a bit of an understatement.

6. BoA (보아)

  • Birthdate: November 5, 1986
  • Birthplace: Guri, Gyeonggi Province, South Korea
  • Debut: 2000

BoA (real name Kwon Bo-ah) began her career in her native South Korea after accompanying her brother to an audition with SM Entertainment. She was trained in Japanese and English, amongst other things. Shortly after debuting in South Korea, she would make her debut in Japan with her album "Listen to My Heart." BoA 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 to build 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 as well as K-pop. While she is not in the spotlight these days, you can't ignore her contributions to the internationalization of J-pop.

7. Mika Nakashima (中島美嘉)

  • Birthdate: February 19, 1983
  • Birthplace: Hioki, Kagoshima, Japan
  • Debut: 2001

Mika Nakashima accidentally stumbled into the entertainment industry when she entered a random audition. She won a role in a drama and the chance to record its theme song. Her debut single, "Stars," sold half a million copies. Her debut album, "True," hit number one on the charts and sold over a million copies.

Nakashima found her niche in incorporating jazz and gospel into her music. These are two subgenres that are not often seen in mainstream J-pop. Nakashima's popularity would steadily rise, and soon Japanese people throughout the country were enjoying a new wave of jazz and gospel in their households.

Nakashima is another artist that took me a long time to appreciate. 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 stigmas, such as foregoing high school and having multiple tattoos. She's also one of the few artists these days to enjoy a small acting career. Her most popular role was as Nana Oozaki in the film adaptation of the Nana manga.

8. Nanase Aikawa (相川七瀬)

  • Birthdate: February 16, 1975
  • Birthplace: Osaka, Japan
  • Debut: 1995

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 tough lady with a lot of attitude and no apologies for who she was. Aikawa received back-to-back Album of the Year awards at the Japan Gold Disc Awards with her debut album "Red" and her sophomore album "Paradox." Her debut release saw over one million in sales. Her "bad girl" image tamed as she grew older, got 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, Aikawa recorded a whole album dedicated to her female fans and their love for each other. The album included a video depicting her in a same-sex romance. Not only did Aikawa pave the way for other rockin' women like Ringo Sheena, but she is also one of the first and few to have positive depictions of LGBT women in her media.

Aikawa 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.

9. Maaya Sakamoto (坂本真綾)

  • Birthdate: March 31, 1980
  • Birthplace: Itabashi, Tokyo, Japan
  • Debut: 1995

Anyone checking out J-pop around the turn of the millennium was bound to come across famous seiyuu (voice actress) Maaya Sakamoto. Although she is an anime voice actress first and foremost, Sakamoto was also a semi-successful singer (mostly doing anime songs) throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, 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 cam along in the late 2000s. Together they burst through the J-pop wall and began breaking records. Shortly after Mizuki attained the first #1 album by a voice actor, Sakamoto attained her first #1 as well. Although Mizuki was the first to set the record, she couldn't have done it without Sakamoto's contributions to the exposure of voice actors as serious musical artists.

Like many others from my time, Sakamoto 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 she is working with Kanno or not, Sakamoto is one of the true greats, even if she often falls under people's radars.

10. Chihiro Onitsuka (鬼束ちひろ)

  • Birthdate: October 30, 1980
  • Birthplace: Nango, Miyazaki, Japan
  • Debut: 2000

While all the women on this list who have faced adversity, perhaps none are as inspirational as Chihiro Onitsuka. Although not much is known about her past, Onitsuka 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 it remains her most critically acclaimed work to this day. Onitsuka 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 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.