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Ayumi Hamasaki: The Queen of Japanese Pop Music

Updated on September 9, 2012
Ayumi Hamasaki
Ayumi Hamasaki

Ayumi Hamasaki is a Japanese pop singer-songwriter who is often heralded as the "Queen of (Modern) J-pop". Since her acknowledged debut in 1998, Ayu (as she is known to her fans) has left a prolific trail of smash-sales, classic songs, and fans' tears in her wake throughout her climb from a little girl in a broken home to the diva she is lauded as today.

I began listening to Ayu in March, 2003, five years after her debut, and proclaimed her my favorite artist before 2004 could arrive. It is safe to say that she has retained this position in my life since then, a fact that I am neither shy about nor ashamed of. Ayu's music has followed me through all the formidable years of my life, both happy and depressing, and to this very day I follow her career and anticipate all her new releases like always. This hub is but a mere dedication to my admiration of this amazing woman and her equally-amazing music.

Ayu modeling for a "gravure" magazine in the early 90s.
Ayu modeling for a "gravure" magazine in the early 90s.

Early Life

Ayu was born on October 2nd, 1978, in Fukuoka. Originally her parents were married, but when she was three years old her father left the family while telling Ayu that he was going on a "business trip". It's the last known time that she has ever seen him, and his abandonment would later go on to inspire the contents of some of her biggest songs.

Subsequently Ayu and her mother moved in with her maternal grandmother. Because Ayu's mother had to work multiple jobs to support the small family on her own, Ayu's grandmother was the one who essentially raised her. Ayu would later recount that her grandmother felt more like a mother figure than her real mother did. The family's financial situation was so dire that even at the age of seven Ayu realized and understood the importance of money: she suggested, as a child, taking modeling jobs at a local bank branch to help make ends meet. She would later take on other age-appropriate modeling jobs, sometimes alone, sometimes with other children, with the final goal not being potential stardom but as a means to help her family.

Upon graduating middle school (which is the end of compulsory education in Japan) Ayu moved to Tokyo and signed on with the modeling agency SOS. Through this company she appeared in many magazines with increasingly adult themes, such as provocative swimsuit poses. She also appeared in movies and even singing shows. Eventually SOS decided that Ayu was too short to be a successful model and transferred her to their sister label, Sun Music. She released one hip-hop single and album, both titled "NOTHING FROM NOTHING" in 1995. Both failed to chart on the Japanese Oricon and Ayu was subsequently dropped from her employer altogether.

She tried going to high school but found the authority too rigid. She moved in with her mother, who had just moved to Tokyo, and spent her days partying in Shibuya. One night at the "avex trax" club Velfarre she met Max Matsuura, who liked her voice but not her technique. He offered to send her to vocal training school in New York in return for signing on to then fledgling label "avex trax". At first Ayu refused before finally deciding she had "nothing better to do" with her life.

Debut Single, "poker face"

Debut With Avex

Ayu spent a year in New York, though her issues with authority prevented her from attending her vocal lessons. While there she kept a correspondence with Matsuura via post and he noted her ability for lyrical expression. Upon her return she found herself unhappy with the recording of her debut single, "poker face", and Matsuura suggested she rewrite the lyrics herself. Ayu has written all the lyrics for her original material ever since.

Satisfied with the direction of her debut, Ayu returned to recording. During the midst of it all, however, she received urgent news that her grandmother was ill in the hospital. Ayu went to visit momentarily but announced she had to go attend to her career for a day further. She later received a fax stating that her grandmother had died during the recording of her debut single. "poker face" remains one of Ayu's least performed/acknowledged single songs to this day.

Her first five singles all debuted high enough for her momentum to continue, but she wasn't considered a hit. Her debut album "A Song for XX", however, changed everything. It shot to the top of the Oricon chart at #1: even with safe compositions, typical arrangements, and less-than-stellar vocals, Ayu's honest and hard-hitting lyrics struck a chord with the Japanese public. She became someone to write home about.

First Best Album, "A BEST"

Success As a Singer

After the unexpected success of "A Song for XX", Ayu's career continued to soar. In 1999 she released the single "LOVE ~Destiny~", a joint effort with famed composer and producer TSUNKU: it quickly became her first #1 single. In July of the same year she released "Boys & Girls" which in turn became her first million selling single. One month after that, in August, she released her first multi-A-side single "A" that featured four songs and sold over 1.6 million copies. It remains her highest selling single to date.

The end of 1999 saw the release of her sophomore album, "LOVEppears". It too enjoyed massive success and solidified Ayu's status as a big player in modern J-pop. Ayu rang in the new millennium with two re-cut singles, "kanariya" and "Fly high". Shortly after she began a new era of her music, and went from introspective dance-pop to dark and heavy pop-rock with the single trilogy "vogue/Far away/SEASONS". The latter song became an instant hit and is still considered one of Ayu's most classic songs.

In early autumn of 2000 Ayu released "Duty" to outstanding success. To date it has sold three-million copies and remains her highest selling album. Its re-cut singles "SURREAL" and "AUDIENCE" are still concert staples.

Ayu posing in the June, 2002 issue of "CD HITS" Magazine.
Ayu posing in the June, 2002 issue of "CD HITS" Magazine.


Ayu's momentum was sure to not falter after her last huge success. Yet once again she took everything in a new direction by insisting on doing her own composition. "M" was released under the pen name "CREA" to huge acclaim that winter. A couple months later saw the release of "evolution", one of Ayu's biggest hits.

However, this was around the time that Ayu began questioning the direction of her career, especially when her record company told that she would be releasing her first best album, and it would be released on the same day as her rival Hikaru Utada's album, "Distance". Ayu protested by re-recording multiple tracks and appearing on all promotional materials (including the cover) with a tear on her face. To help promote the album she appeared on over 40 magazine covers at one time. The rivalry became so intense that the media began saying that Ayu and Hikaru Utada hated each other, which both denied. The week of release "Distance" came on top, but the second week "A BEST" took the top spot. Both albums sold about five million copies.

Throughout 2001 Ayu continued to release her self-composed singles, culminating in the classic "Dearest" in September. Around this time she began to prepare for her fourth album, "I am..." but the September 11th attack in the USA inspired her to take a different approach with the album's imagery (from excess to minimalism with peace). This album was also very successful. Ayu began a long-term, high-profile relationship with TOKIO front man Tomoya Nagase some time during 2001.

The following summer in 2002 she released her second multi-A-side single "H" - it would be her last single to sell over a million copies. The subsequent album "RAINBOW" featured a bonus instrumental for fans to write their own lyrics to. These lyrics were turned into a song by the same name to be released on Ayu's second best album entitled "A BALLADS" in early 2003.

Ayu posing in the March, 2007 issue of "Cawaii" magazine.
Ayu posing in the March, 2007 issue of "Cawaii" magazine.

Decline at Home, Rise Abroad

While still considered at the top of her game, Ayu's overall sales began to go down in 2003. Her third multi-A-side single, "&", topped the charts but "only" sold 600,000 copies. A month later she released her 30th single "forgiveness" and conducted a tour in honor of the event.

Ayu closed 2003 with a bang - she released her first mini-album "Memorial address" to high acclaim and sales with over a million copies (it remains the highest-selling mini-album by a female artist to this day). The mini-album contained a total of eight tracks of varying genres, including heavier rock music which was the first time Ayu took such a plunge after dabbling in rock elements in the past.

Things officially began to change in Ayu's career during 2004. She continued the rock style in the summer single "INSPIRE" which included a rockish B-side (:"GAME"). The video for the title track was also shot in Los Angeles and began a pattern of destination videos in Ayu's career.

Ayu later mentioned that her previous albums had been rushed by the label, and thus she wished to take her time on 2004's album. What resulted was "MY STORY", a long pop-rock album in which Ayu laid down all her feelings with candor. It would be her last album to sell over a million copies.

2005 cemented once and for all Ayu's status as a J-pop diva. Out of her four singles released that year, "fairyland" had a music video shot in Hawaii that became one of the most expensive of all time, "HEAVEN" was featured in a big-budget movie, and "Bold & Delicious/Pride" featured Ayu taking on a Westernized gospel sound. For that year's album, "(miss)understood", she traveled to New York to shoot pictures and worked with European composer Geo of "Sweetbox".

The following spring she released "Startin'/Born to Be..." which broke the record for most #1 singles by a female artist in Japan. For the summer single "BLUE BIRD" Ayu shot the promotional materials in Guam, continuing the globalization of her image.

Her eighth album "Secret" was originally intended to be a mini-album, but a surge of creativity produced more songs and lengthened the project to a full-length album. Although Secret proved to be Ayu's lowest sales yet, the album did amazingly well throughout the whole of Asia, selling over a total of two-million copies. Ayu decided to officially take her career "to Asia" and conducted her first "world tour" in 2007 with stops in China and Taiwan. Her reception in Asia was so heart-warming that she decided to shoot the promotional materials for her next single, "glitter/fated" in Hong Kong. The videos made up a short movie that starred popular Hong Kong actor Shang Yue.She also released her third best album "A BEST 2" and announced her split from boyfriend Tomoya Nagase during this time.

Critics of Ayu's career point to the next album, "GUILTY", as the the true game-changer in her career. Not only did it barely sell a half-million copies, but it also came in as #2 on the Oricon charts. Instead of sulking, however, Ayu and her crew released the album worldwide and focused on Ayu becoming a global artist, her career having outgrown just Japan which was now becoming more ambivalent towards her.

In early 2008 Ayu revealed that she an inoperable condition which had left her completely deaf in her left ear. The problem had manifested during her large Dome Tour back in 2000, but Ayu insisted that her career would go on as before.

Ayu promoting the mini-album "FIVE".
Ayu promoting the mini-album "FIVE".

Tenth Anniversary and Tragedy At Home

To mark her 10th anniversary with avex trax, Ayu released a re-cut single from "GUILTY" called "Mirrorcle World" accompanied with a video shot in Paris. The celebrations continued with a second Asia Tour and the release of "A COMPLETE ~ALL SINGLES BEST~" which included all of her A-side singles.

In 2009 Ayu returned to Los Angeles to shoot video material for her new album "NEXT LEVEL". One of the singles, "Rule / Sparkle", was featured in the Hollywood movie "Dragon Ball Evolution". Ayu forewent another Asia Tour, however, and kept 2009's tour solely in Japan.

It seemed that Ayu was not going to travel abroad for music again until she suddenly went to London to record materials for "Rock'n'Roll Circus", her 11th album. By this time she had also released a total of 47 singles and fans were anxious for 50th single celebrations to rival the 30th's. Ayu answered by announcing a new trilogy project: the singles "MOON / blossom" and "crossroad" were both released just before her fourth multi-A-side single and 50th overall "L". The latter two singles featured compositions by famous composer and producer Tetsuya Komuro. He appeared in full-force on the subsequent album "Love songs" by the end of the year. The album featured videos and photos shot in California and co-starred Ayu's soon-to-be husband as of New Year's, Manuel Schwarz.

Ayu's career was quiet for the first quarter of 2011 as she prepared for her tour in support of "Love songs". However, on March 11th, her entire world changed when the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami struck Japan. Ayu spent the first few hours afterwards Tweeting to survivors, giving advice and support. Put off by the extravagance of the planned tour, Ayu scrapped the "Love songs" tour a month before debut and instead had a "low key" tour in support of survivor and clean-up awareness in Japan. In August she released her second mini-album, "FIVE", with the theme of hope. It was her first release to include other artists credited in the titles of her songs.

Suddenly at the end of 2011 she announced yet another new album, later to be called "Party Queen", to be released in the beginning of 2012. A majority of the album was recorded and shot in London with the help of composer Timothy Wellard, who had collaborated on a track on "FIVE". During this time she also announced her divorce from Manuel after one year, citing distance and a desire to not leave Japan after the disaster. The new album in turn reflected a very depressed era of Ayu's life drowned in partying and frivolity. Surprisingly, "Party Queen" failed to reach #1 on the charts for the first time since 2008's "GUILTY".


Ayu bounced back in the summer of 2012 with a new best album entitled "A SUMMER BEST" featuring the new track "You & Me". It was released in August, but like "Party Queen" also failed to reach #1 on the charts.

Currently Ayu is continuing her touring promotions for "Party Queen" and "A SUMMER BEST".

Major Awards and Records

All refer to in Japan / Oricon only unless otherwise stated.

  • Best selling Japanese female solo artist of all time.
  • Third best selling Japanese artist ever.
  • First artist in history to achieve a #1 album for 13 consecutive years.
  • Record holder for most consecutive #1 singles - currently at 25.
  • First artist ever to have a #1 single AND a #1 album every year for 11 years.
  • Record for most #1 singles (38) and Top 10 singles (48).
  • Highest DVD sales of any female solo artist.
  • Only artist to receive the Japan Grand Prix Award for four straight years (before bowing out of future nominations).

All images in this hub are copyright avex trax/their respective photographers. They are used here for promotional purposes only.


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