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Namie Amuro: The Legend of Japanese Pop Music
Namie Amuro is a Japanese singer, dancer and actress who has held multiple titles such as "Queen of J-pop" and the "Teen Idol". Hers is a unique tale that is entering its third decade with no signs of stopping. From her early days as a teen Eurobeat idol, to her rise as the dominant power in J-pop, to her fall from grace as Japan's most famous single mother, and back to the top again with a new sound and image, Namie Amuro has proven throughout her life that she is an unstoppable force.
I've always found Namie's story - from her personal life to her expansive career - inspirational. She's been through a lot more than most people will ever face, on both the good and the bad sides, and the fact she's still around today and founding new fads and trends is a testament to her unbeatable spirit. Consider this but a humble homage to one of the true legendary figures in the history of Japanese pop music.
Early Life in Okinawa
Namie was born on September 20th, 1977 in Naha, Okinawa. Her mother, Emiko Taira, was half-Italian and had three other children with Namie's father before they divorced when Namie was four years old. Raised in a single parent household, Namie valued and appreciated the hard efforts her mother put out to care for her children. Originally Namie harbored dreams of growing up to become a flight attendant, but a healthy mixture of Janet Jackson videos and a talk with the principal of the Okinawa Actors' School, Masayuki Makino, convinced her to switch over to the entertainment industry. However, Namie could not afford the tuition for the school, and, believing in her abilities, Makino granted Namie a scholarship so she could attend at the age of twelve. Namie continued to live at home with her family and made a ninety minute commute to and from school every day.
Namie continued to shine at the actors' school to the point Makino put her in a budding "idol" group with four other female students, including his own daughter. Although Emiko, Namie's mother, disapproved of the venture at such a young age, the group SUPER MONKEY'S up and relocated to Tokyo after signing a contract with record label Toshiba EMI.
SUPER MONKEY'S Days
The SUPER MONKEY'S released their first single "Koi no Cute Beat / Mister U.S.A." in February, 1992, to minimal success, barely breaking the top 30 on the Oricon charts. The group immediately experienced a shake-up when member Anna Makino left. This resulted in the group changing their name to SUPER MONKEY'S 4 and going on a year long hiatus to literally regroup. They returned in early 1993 with their second single "DANCING JUNK", which bombed at #68 on the charts. Their next single that year, "Aishite Muscat" charted similarly, and producers had to reconsider the marketing direction of the group.
Meanwhile, Namie had proven herself not only the most prominent singer and dancer of the group, but also the most recognizable face. Thus it was decided to make her the official leader of the group and rename everything to "Namie Amuro featuring the SUPER MONKEY's" relegating the other members to backup singers and dancers (a role that would diminish to just backup dancers by the end of their run). Their fourth single, "PARADISE TRAIN" even went so far to only feature Namie on the cover, although it failed to chart.
Popularity finally hit when the group began doing Japanese covers of popular Italian Eurobeat songs, starting with "TRY ME ~Watashi wo Shinjite~" in January, 1995. The single shot to the top 10 of the Oricon charts and became an instant success. One of the single's producers, avex trax mastermind Max Matsuura, suggested splitting the group up into two sections after the release of a couple more singles. This was first manifested when the group's name was changed a final time to just "Namie Amuro".
Switch to Solo Style at Avex
A new name was not the only change going on behind the scenes. After the release of their single "Stop the Music" in April, Matsuura took the four back-up dancers to his label avex trax and renamed them MAX. They released their first single in May, showcasing their own singing talents without Namie. The girls rejoined with Namie to release their last SUPER MONKEY's related single "Stop the Music" in July.
Afterwards, the split was complete. MAX went on to enjoy a very successful dance music career for the rest of the 90s (and are still together today) and Namie followed them to avex trax to embark on an official solo career. She was paired with invincible producer Tetsuya Komuro and released her first official solo single "Body Feels EXIT" on October 25th, 1995. The single, which had a hard gospel driven dance sound, peaked at #3 and sold nearly 900,000 copies. MAX accompanied Namie for TV promotions, which focused on her up and coming stardom.
Her second single, "Chase the Chance", was released at the end of 1995 and became both her first #1 and million-selling single. The single also helped her earn a spot on the prestigious New Year's program "Kouhaku Uta Gassen". However, time would still tell whether or not Namie was just the flavor of the moment or made of true star quality.
In 1996, before releasing her first album, Namie recorded the two #1, million-selling singles "Don't wanna cry" and "You're my sunshine". Anticipation was high for her first album, "SWEET 19 BLUES", released in July of that year. Not only did it reach #1 on the charts, but it also went on to sell over three-million copies. The title track was so popular it was re-released as a recut single. Namie's biggest critics began to concede that she may become one of the big names and faces of the 90s.
Trend Setting Superstar
Now at the peak of her first wave of success, Namie found herself as not only a musical star but also a fashion one. Her fans began emulating her style and called themselves "Amuraa". During the late 90s it became fashionable for ladies to dye their hair brown, tan their skin, wear mini-skirts, and sport high boots. Some even went so far as to plucking their eyebrows until they were as thin as Namie's.
Her first post album single was "a walk in the park", released in November, 1996. It marked a departure from the gospel dance sound of her first album and a turn to darker, more mysterious electronic music. This single also sold over a million copies.
Namie made history at the end of 1996 when she won the Japan Record Award's "Gran Prix Award" for her single "Don't wanna cry". At the time she was the youngest artist to have ever won the award (19). Such a prestigious acknowledgment led to an increased interest in other artists from Okinawa like Namie (and MAX). A new "Okinawa Boom" exploded in the late 90s with girl groups such as "SPEED" becoming superstar idols, and other artists such as Olivia Lufkin (OLIVIA) also making decent names for themselves. The Okinawa Actors' School had a record number of applicants, and students from the time period attested Namie had single-handedly changed the face of the school.
"CAN YOU CELEBRATE?"
On the heels of all this success, many critics and fans anticipated Namie's next single to hit big. And it did. Her seventh single "CAN YOU CELEBRATE?" was chosen as the theme song to the popular drama "Virgin Road" and subsequently released on February 19th, 1997. This powerful winter ballad not only struck #1 but also sold over two-million copies, becoming the highest selling single by a female solo artist in J-pop history (a record still held today). The song has since become a staple song at weddings all across Japan.
Namie released one last single, "How to Be a Girl", before releasing her sophomore album "Concentration 20" in July.. It met the success of her first album by eventually selling two-million copies and reaching #1 on the charts. The album continues to show both Namie and her producer TK's expanded vision into dark electronic music, as the album includes reggae and industrial rock elements alongside the dance beats. To promote the album Namie went on a "dome tour" of Japan's four domes. By the end of the year Namie had sold an impressive 20 million albums.
Marriage, Child, Hiatus
Between July and October of 1997, Namie only toured and did not put out any new releases. While the media made their speculations about what turn Namie's career would take next, she shocked everyone on October 22nd when she announced she was three months pregnant and marrying her child's father, the dancer SAM of TK's other dance group, "trf". She then announced that after the start of the new year she would be taking a year long hiatus to focus on her health and that of her child's.
Before the year was over, Namie released the single "Dreaming I was dreaming" and once again won the Grand Prix Award for her smash hit "CAN YOU CELEBRATE?" She appeared on Kouhaku to sing the song before officially starting her hiatus. Avex kept up with releases even during Namie's hiatus. They re-released "CAN YOU CELEBRATE" with a "wedding mix" to honor her marriage. Later on in 1998 they released her first best album "181920".
Meanwhile, Namie stayed true to her word about taking it easy on her hiatus. She commented later in an interview that she enjoyed sitting around her house, doing nothing more than laundry, and that the first months of her hiatus were like a vacation. On May 18th, 1998, she gave birth to her son Haruto. By the end of the year she commented she was anticipating her return to work, and released her tenth single "I HAVE NEVER SEEN" in December. The single marked a return to form as it hit #1 and sold over a half-million copies.
Tragedy at Home
After seeing what her new contemporaries, such as Hikaru Utada and Ayumi Hamasaki, were up to in the industry, Namie decided to go to a slightly more RnB sound. She returned to a fusion of gospel with her next single "RESPECT the POWER OF LOVE", released on March 17th, 1999. However, whether by horrible coincidence or not, on the same day as the single's release Namie's mother, Emiko Taira, was killed by her brother-in-law. Reports indicated that Emiko and her second husband were out when confronted by Kenji Taira in his car. He ran over the couple and then proceeded to get out and mangle them with an axe before going off to kill himself via ingesting insecticides. Emiko's husband managed to survive but sadly, she died from her injuries. Upon hearing the news Namie cancelled all her promotions and flew to Okinawa to identify her mother's body and to be with her family. Since this horrible incident Namie has always had an unofficial disdain for the single "RESPECT the POWER OF LOVE", rarely performing it. Likewise, the single broke her string of #1 releases, barely coming in at the #2 spot.
Many rumors ran rampant through the tabloids about Emiko's death, which was at the time a huge national story. Some tabloids claimed there was a connection with money laundering, loans, and even the Japanese mafia. Harsher tabloids declared it was over Namie's fortune, which Emiko refused to share with the extended family. But most settled on a common story, that Kenji went on his rampage after receiving "bad relationship advice" from Emiko and her husband.
Namie was understandably too distraught to return straight to work. She went on another small hiatus to grieve; meanwhile, she considered retiring, as she was depressed and wondered if her fame had something to do with her mother's death. However, her fans responded with an outpouring of kind and encouraging words. Namie promised to return eventually.
Beginning of a Makeover
Namie's first single after the death of her mother was "toi et moi", the theme song to "Pokémon the Movie 2000". This song was a stark contrast to all her previous releases as it was almost purely RnB "Urban", the direction Namie wanted to now go with her career. However, she felt this song was not ready when it was released, and thus it was never included on any sort of album. The song managed to crack the top three.
In September she returned with the single "SOMETHING 'BOUT THE KISS", a Western influenced song written and produced by Dallas Austin. (It marked the first time Namie worked with somebody besides TK, although a TK song appeared as the B-side.) The single was warmly received with a comfortable #3 position, and Namie and her management felt more secure with her new style direction.
Later on the first day of the 21st cnetury, she released a new single called "LOVE 2000" which called for world peace in the new millennium. The song was a call back to her old style with TK; however, later that January she released her third album "GENIUS 2000" which was a joint effort with both TK and Dallas Austin. The album reclaimed the #1 position and sold over 800,000 copies. That same month she separated from husband SAM and filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences with him and his family.
Breaking the Rules
In early 2000 TK was approached by then Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi to compose a song embracing "peace and harmony" for the 26th G8 summit to be held in Okinawa that year. He later approached Namie Amuro, probably due to her origins from Okinawa, to sing the song TK wrote. What resulted was the hit "NEVER END", which TK and Namie were then invited to perform at the summit. The single itself, released in July, went to #2 and sold over a half-million copies.
Namie released two more singles ("PLEASE SMILE AGAIN" and "think of me / no more tears") before her fourth album, "break the rules", dropped in December of that year. Few songs were written by TK, and instead the album had a heavier RnB feel. However, it became her worst selling album yet and broke her #1 album streak by barely hitting #2.
Afterwards, Namie broke all ties with TK and officially went the RnB route. Her first order of business after the separation was to put out the single "Say the word", which she wrote the lyrics to herself. Following it came the ballad single "I WILL", her lowest charting single yet at #7. During this same time she took place in the "Song Nation" project with the song "Lovin' it" in collaboration with rapper VERBAL. Proceeds from the single went to a September 11th charity.
Namie officially ended this era of her career with her second single's collection, "LOVE ENHANCED Singles Collection". It was more of a self-cover album, however, as it mostly contained new arrangements and vocals of her most recent singles. It only reached #3 on the charts. Namie needed a complete overhaul of her musical image.
Divorce and "SUITE CHIC"
In July, 2002, Namie was officially divorced from SAM; however, SAM managed to maintain sole parental rights of their son, Haruto. Rumored arguments in court were that SAM had a stabler work schedule and was therefore a more suitable parent for a growing four-year-old (in Japan, joint custody is usually rare, and it's even rarer for the father to be the one to get full custody.)
Meanwhile, Namie kept busy behind the scenes. While looking for new people to work with on her solo career, she also banded together a group of hip-hip singers and producers, including VERBAL, AI, ZEEBRA, and DABO. They formed a side project called "SUITE CHIC", which focused on pure hip-hop with Namie on the main vocals.
But before SUITE CHIC hit the stage, Namie released an autumn single in September called "Wishing On the Same Star", written by Western producer Diane Warren and a cover of the 1991 Keedy song by the same name. Although the song was used as a movie theme, it only charted at #2.
SUITE CHIC debuted with the single "Good Life / Just Say So" in December. It charted at a disappointing #35. Their second single "Uh Uh,,,,,, feat. AI / Baby Be Mine" charted higher at #22 but still didn't meet expectations. In late February, 2003 they dropped their first and only album, "When Pop Hits the Fan", which charted at a surprising #4. One month later Namie released the solo single "shine more" that was more pop than RnB. Fans expected this clear divide between her poppier solo career and her hip-hop side projects, but by July she was about to shock everyone once again.
Namie Gets "STYLE"
In July, 2003, Namie released her 23rd single, "Put 'Em Up", a decidedly hip-hop influenced song. The entire song already had a history: originally slated to be released in 2000 as a duet with TLC's Chili, Namie put the song off because she felt it was too edgy for her image at the time. The song then popped up on the earliest released tracklists for "LOVE ENHANCED" but was removed before release. Namie's hesitation revolved around the original lyrical content, so she asked industry friend MICHICO to work with her. Like with AI and VERBAL, this started a long-lasting work relationship. The single, however, ended up becoming her (still) lowest selling single with a peak position of #7 and only 40,000 copies sold.
Undeterred, Namie returned in October with the double A-side single "SO CRAZY / Come". The first song was another urban song produced by Western producers, and the second was an ambient electronic song featured as an ending theme to the hit anime show "Inuyasha". However, the single charted lower than "Put 'Em Up" but managed to sell marginally better.
In December Namie released her first studio album in over three years, "STYLE". Although it included the singles "Wishing On The Same Star" and "shine more", the album had a heavy urban feel and included collaborations with rappers ZEEBRA and VERBAL.It managed to crack the top 5 and sold a surprising 200,000 copies. To support the album Namie went on tour throughout Japan and then expanded internationally into Taiwan and South Korea. During this time Namie released her next single, "ALARM". It didn't even manage to crack the top 10.
After returning from her tour, Namie released the summer ballad "ALL FOR YOU", a throwback to her old ballad styles. But the urban pop returned with the fall single "GIRL TALK / the SPEED STAR". Amazingly, it managed to reach #1 on the daily charts and #2 for the weeklies. Japan was starting to embrace Namie's new image.
Namie was invited to attend Kouhaku for the ninth year in a row, but for the first time she declined, citing she didn't want to force herself on Japan anymore. Other rumors cited Namie's various tattoos (one as a memorial to her mother and another dedicated to her son) as a source of contention, since Kouhaku requires their acts to cover their tattoos as per Japanese taboos.
Queen of Hip-Pop Tour Digest
The Arrival of "Hip-Pop"
Namie's first release of 2005 was the reggaeton single "WANT ME, WANT ME", a song with risque lyrics and a sitar sample. The song was already slated for her next album to be released that summer, but Namie really liked it and decided to release it as a single in advance. The song was a hit and reached #2 on the charts, selling over 100,000 copies. Following the success of this single Namie attended the MTV Video Music Awards in Thailand and won an award for "Most Impressive Performing Asian Artist".
In July Namie released her sixth studio album, "Queen of Hip-Pop". "Hip-Pop" was used to describe Namie's unique style of fusing hip-hop sensibilities and dance pop roots together. As promotion Namie teamed up with MGM Studios and used the Pink Panther as the mascot for the album, accompanied by a female pink panther styled after herself. The album and official new style was a hit in Japan and earned a #2 on the charts with nearly a half-million copies sold. To add on to the good news, that same month Namie was re-granted full custody of her son Haruto.
Namie went on tour to support the album and returned in November with the single "White Light / Violet Sauce". "White Light" was a Christmas ballad and "Violet Sauce" was a song written especially for the Japanese release of the Hollywood movie "Sin City" - director Robert Rodriguez appears at the end of the song in a speaking role. The single wasn't as successful as her most recent endeavors and only reached #7, although it had a relatively long and steady chart life.
Namie started 2006 off with the single "CAN'T SLEEP, CAN'T EAT, I'M SICK/Ningyo" (Trans: Mermaid). The B-side was a cover featuring traditional elements, a first for Namie's career. This single fared much better than its predecessor and charted at #2, although in the long run it sold the same amount of copies at 80,000. It would be Namie's only release for the year, but she continued to tour around Japan.
Resurgence in Popularity
2007 opened with the mid-tempo ballad single "Baby Don't Cry". Its B-side, "Nobody", was a song originally intended to show up on the "White Light" single, as it has the same composition as that song. The single was an instant hit and broke into the top 3. With this chart placement Namie had achieved a top 10 single for every year for the past consecutive 13 years, breaking the record for female solo artists originally held by both Kyoko Koizumi and Shizuka Kudo. The single also heralded Namie as a contender for digital sales, as it went on to sell over a million legal downloads.
The single was quickly followed with "FUNKY TOWN", which also charted in the top 3 and sold over 50,000 copies. These singles all culminated in the summer album "PLAY" which depicted Namie in sexy cop and flight attendant uniforms. The promo track "Hide & Seek" was a popular download track and helped the album skyrocket to #1 on the charts, the first time Namie had a #1 album since 2000s "GENIUS 2000". The album was so popular it stayed at #1 for over two weeks, a feat rarely achieved in modern J-pop. Namie then spent the rest of the year promoting her album with a 65 date concert tour around Japan. Around the same time she entered a contract to become the Japanese spokesperson for Vidal Sassoon, a decision made because of Namie's trademarked long hair.
Rumors abounded that Namie would release a single in correlation to her first VS commercial. Eventually the highly anticipated triple A-side single, "60s 70s 80s", was announced for release in March, 2008. The three songs each reflected a decade in Western music history and contained samples from famous songs: "NEW LOOK" sampled "Baby Love, and "ROCK STEADY" and "WHAT A FEELING" sampled their corresponding songs of the same name. The singles also came with matching videos, sponsored by VS, that reflected the time periods they invoked. The single was a massive hit and achieved #1 and nearly 300,000 copies sold. It was Namie's first #1 single since "I HAVE NEVER SEEN" nine years before.
Namie won multiple "best (female) video" awards for her 2007 video "Hide & Seek", and was invited to collaborate with J-Urban innovator DOUBLE on the song "BLACK DIAMOND". The song was certified double platinum on the download charts. For the first time Namie accepted an appearance on her label's yearly "a-nation" summer concert tour - since the honorable final act always went to label mate Ayumi Hamasaki, Namie asked to perform first. Usually the first performers were lesser known acts to let fans trickle in late if they wanted, but most venues reported incredible early-entry rates as fans came to see Namie perform.
Four days after her first "a-nation" appearance, Namie released her third best album, "BEST FICTION", which chronicled most of her A-sides since "LOVE ENHANCED". It contained the new hit songs "Do Me More" and "Sexy Girl". "BEST FICTION" blasted up the charts to stay in the top 10 (achieving #1 for two weeks) for five weeks and charted for a total of 83 weeks to sell two-million copies, becoming the second best selling album of the year. The album won her the coveted "Album of the Year" at the "Record Taisho Awards". Ten years after Namie held original J-pop dominance in the 90s, she was at it again and back at a second peak - on her own terms.
Comparing Past and Present
Alongside her famous Vidal Sassoon tie-ups, Namie then signed on to become the new spokesperson for Coca-Cola's "Coke Zero". Her first single of 2009, "WILD / Dr.', was used to advertise both Coke Zero and Vidal Sassoon. The single easily reached #1. Releases were quiet for the rest of 2009 until VS began showing commercial clips with songs called "COPY THAT" and "MY LOVE". Rumors circulated that these would be on a new single, but Namie pleasantly surprised everyone by announcing a new album. The album, "PAST < FUTURE", was released in December, and depicted an image of Namie ripping her own "BEST FICTION" promo pictures in symbolism of her once again erasing her past to continue on into the future. The album sold over 500,000 copies and became Namie's best selling studio album since "GENIUS 2000" ten years before. Her next step was to go on a nine month long tour in support of the album.
That next May Namie won "Best Asian Performer" at the World Music Awards. She was the first Japanese woman and the second overall Japanese act to win the award. That July she released the single "Break it / Get Myself Back", which reached #3 on the charts. Namie was quiet for the rest of 2010 outside of touring. She came back in 2011 with the announcement of a new collaboration best album "Checkmate!" to be released in late March. However, the March 11th Great Tohoku Earthquake postponed the release until late April. Regardless, the album sold nearly 500,000 copies and remained at #1 two weeks in a row. The album featured Namie's collaborations both on and off her own discography, including four new songs featuring the likes of Anna Tsuchiya, AI, AFTER SCHOOL, Tomohisa Yamashita, and Kaname Kawabate.
20th Anniversary and Beyond
Beginning in April of that year it was announced Namie would sing the new theme song for the hit anime show "One Piece". The song, "Fight Together", was later compiled in July on a single with the songs "NAKED" and "Tempest". The single reached #2 and sold over 100,000 copies.
At the end of the year Namie released the single "Sit! Stay! Wait! Down! / Love Story". Besides those two songs, the single also included the two B-sides "Higher" and "arigatou". The latter song was a gift to fans after the trials Japan faced in 2011. Original tracklists showed a music video planned for the first track, but was later removed until only "Love Story" had a music video. The single reached a respectable #3 and sold over 150,000 copies. Talk was heavy about a possible album, but Namie went ahead with her 37th single, "Go Round / YEAH-OH" in March, 2012.
Finally, it was announced Namie's new studio album would be released in late June in honor of her 20th anniversary in the industry. The album, titled "Uncontrolled", featured cover art taken during the 2012 annular eclipse. The album contained the A-sides of all her singles since "Break it" almost two years before. Only four new songs were included, including "ONLY YOU" and "In The Spotlight (TOKYO)" which were recorded entirely in English. Likewise, the songs "Go Round" and "YEAH-OH" were re-recorded in English as special album versions. The album will be released June 27th, 2012.
Namie's current plans include a 20th Anniversary live on September 16th in Okinawa, as well as a "Five Dome Tour" starting in November. It will be Namie's first time touring the five domes of Japan since the 90s.
Major Awards and Records
All refer to in Japan / Oricon only unless otherwise stated.
- Only female artist to have a million-selling record in their teens, 20s, and 30s.
- Record holder for best selling female solo single, "CAN YOU CELEBRATE?".
- Has had all her singles chart somewhere in the top 10 for the past 18 years.
- World Music Award winner for "Best Asian Artist".
- 12th Best Selling Artist in Japanese History (4th for Female Solo Artists)
- Winner of two Japan Gold Record Awards (for "Don't wanna cry" and "CAN YOU CELEBRATE?")
All images in this hub are copyright avex trax/their respective photographers. They are used here for promotional purposes only.