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Japanese Music Icons of the Heisei Era

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Is it too soon to start talking about the Heisei era in the same nostalgic tone that we use for the Showa era? Japan's Heisei era lasted from January 8, 1989, to April 30, 2019. Those 30 years brought Japan from the bubble economy through the lost decade to the new millennium. Meanwhile, Japanese music transitioned from kayokyoku to "J-pop," Matsuda Seiko to AKB48, analog to digital.

Now that we're months into the Reiwa era, let's take the time to appreciate ten music icons of the Heisei era who set trends, shaped charts and influenced Japanese music and pop culture at large.


On September 21, 1988, a few months before the start of the Heisei era, B'z made their start with the simultaneous release of a self-titled album and the single Dakara Sono Te wo Hanashite. The legendary duo formed by Matsumoto Tak and Inaba Koshi would go on to become the face of Japanese rock music both in Japan and to the world. With Inaba's powerful, distinct vocals and Tak's guitar-god skills, the band's growly, energizing sound perfected hard rock with pop sensibilities and yielded hit after hit. According to Oricon, B'z is the best-selling Japanese artist of the Heisei era (and of all time) with over 80 million records sold. From 1990's Taiyo no Komachi Angel to their most recent Seimei/Still Alive in 2017, the band has released 49 consecutive #1 singles, among them jams like Konya Tsuki no Mieru Oka ni, ultra soul and Ichibu to Zenbu, just to name a few. B'z rocked into a new era with the release of the album New Love in the first month of Reiwa.


How representative is X Japan? The answer is already in their name. The revolutionary band started out as just X in Tokyo's underground rock scene in the 80s. In April 1989, they made their major debut with Blue Blood, which sold over 600,000 copies and brought visual kei to the mainstream. By 1991, the band, with big hair, colorful makeup and all, had made it to the most watched and coveted stage of popular music, NHK's year-end Kohaku Uta Gassen. But their phenomenal impact and musicality would transcend the Japanese music industry. Led by the internationally minded Yoshiki, the band changed names to X Japan and inspired musicians and music fans worldwide with their distinct style of hard rock, metal, ballad and symphonic rock, perhaps best encapsulated in the epic orchestral rock piece Art of Life. X Japan's story is every bit as dramatic and tumultuous as this song – disbanding in 1997, hide's passing in 1998, Toshi's years in a cult, reunion in 2007. Be it the triumphs or the tragedy, every chapter of the band's legacy is part of the legend. We are X!


While announcing the name Reiwa for Japan's new era, prime minister Abe Shinzo referenced SMAP's representative song Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana ("The One and Only Flower in the World"), which is also arguably the most representative song of the Heisei era. It's the only Heisei single to sell over three million copies. That is the legend of SMAP. More than just boy band idols, the members of SMAP touched all aspects of entertainment, paving the way for other Johnny's acts to do the same. The group's trail-blazing popularity also spread the Johnny's brand to fans outside Japan. They dominated airwaves as MCs of variety programs and heroes of hit TV dramas. Kimura Takuya, in particular, emerged as Japanese television's ratings guarantee of the nineties and oughties, and one of Asia's most famous stars. We'd probably all rather forget about the group's painfully public and awkward breakup in 2016, but either way, their legacy is secure as the one and only SMAP in the world.


There is no recent retirement in Japanese music that signaled the passing of an era as much as Amuro Namie's. The Okinawa-born diva debuted in 1992 at the age of 14 as a member of the group Super Monkey's. She soon branched out to a solo career with the platinum-selling single Taiyo no Season in 1995. Besides being one of Japan's top-selling artists with over 37 million record sales and multiple million-selling albums and singles, the enduringly popular Amuro Namie was the female style icon of the Heisei era. Her music stayed fresh through the years with an evolving blend of dance, pop, EDM and R&B, and her trend-setting style blew up pop culture. In the 90s, the "Amuraa" look of brown hair, tan skin, thin arched brows and tall boots was all the rage. Beyond fashion and style, she was an inspiring role model who lived by her own rules, triumphed through personal struggles, and took control of her career to become the Queen of Hip-Pop. Staying ahead of the game, Amuro retired on September 16, 2018, while she was still on top. Her last album Finally sold over two million records and her last concert release became the first music video product to sell over a million copies in Japan. Queen to the end!


It's not possible to talk about Japan's greatest divas without mentioning Hamasaki Ayumi, the fourth highest-selling artist of the Heisei era. Debuting in April 1998 with the single Poker Face, the then 19-year-old singer steadily built her popularity and emphatically broke out in 1999 with her first album. A Song for xx topped the Oricon chart for five weeks and sold over a million copies. Later in the year, she sold over two million copies of her second album LOVEppears, cementing her rise to the top of J-pop. In 2001, she alone made up 16% of Japan's total record sales. Supported by the marketing muscle of Avex, Hamasaki Ayumi became an entire brand in and of herself. As the Empress of J-pop, she not only drove sales and trends for over a decade, but also demonstrated the clout, confidence and ambition of a true superstar in a way few artists could match. Unafraid to walk her own path, be it personally, professionally or musically, Ayu has shown time and time again that her passion and perseverance is second to none. Though she has been battling hearing loss for many years, she continues to give her all for the stage.


Utada Hikaru hit the music scene like a force of nature with her first album First Love in 1999. The diva's phenomenal debut record, which sold over 7.6 million copies, remains well ahead of the pack as Japan's best-selling album of all time. From her thunderbolt beginning at the precocious age of 15, the singer-songwriter has maintained her status as one of the most popular and internationally recognized names in Japanese music. All of her studio albums have gone at least platinum, and she has over ten releases that are certified million sellers. That first album will always be the most magical, but Utada has given us so many more quality albums and memorable hits, from Prisoner of Love and Flavor of Life to every Kingdom Hearts collaboration. Last year was Utada's 20th anniversary, and she harked back to her start with Hatsukoi, a mature album that marks her growth as an artist, and our growth with her.


In January of this year, Arashi announced that they would halt group activities indefinitely after 2020. The group may have kindly given two-year notice for their carefully worded hiatus to ease the pain, but the shock waves sent through the Japanese music world were immediate. Formed by Ohno Satoshi, Sakurai Sho, Aiba Masaki, Ninomiya Kazunari and Matsumoto Jun, Arashi debuted in 1999 with typical Johnny's fanfare. The group really hit their stride after MatsuJun starred in the TV drama Hana Yori Dango in 2005. From there on, their popularity steadily grew across demographics towards their current "national group" status. Arashi is regularly Japan's top-selling artist of the year (and YesAsia's as well!). The members not only headline dome tours but also films, primetime TV dramas, variety shows and even news programs. Despite declining physical sales being the industry trend, Arashi is the only Japanese artist to have five million-selling albums over the past decade, the most recent being the 5x20 All the Best!! 1999–2019 compilation released in June. 2020 is too soon.


Enka largely belongs to the Showa era, but the genre's dramatic and sentimental traditional ballads found a more modern representative in the 2000s in Hikawa Kiyoshi. Debuting at the turn of the millennium with the single Hakone Hachiri no Hanjiro, the Prince of Enka, only in his twenties at the time, refreshed the oldies genre with a young face and fabulously cheesy fun. A Kohaku mainstay since his debut, Hikawa not only appealed to older generations; he also succeeded in bringing enka back into the pop culture conversation. In 2005, his single Hatsukoi Ressha hit #1 on the Oricon chart, a rare achievement in enka that he has since repeated twice more. Recently in 2017, he even performed a Dragon Ball Super theme song!


AKB48 was founded by producer Akimoto Yasushi in 2005. Besides adopting the idol formula of schoolgirl uniforms, subgroups and rotating membership already popularized by Hello! Project and Akimoto's previous brainchild Onyanko Club, AKB48 pushed the concept of "idols you can meet." Split into multiple teams, the group held theater shows daily in their namesake Tokyo neighborhood of Akihabara. Through shows, handshake events and elections, AKB48 built a notoriously enthusiastic fanbase that went mainstream in a big way. Since 2009's River, the super girl group has released 42 consecutive Oricon #1 singles to date, 37 of which are million sellers, making them the record holder for highest single sales. AKB48 is also the second highest-selling artist of the Heisei era with sales of over 60 million records. The impact of AKB48 goes far beyond just one group dominating sales; the AKB48 brand redefined the entertainment industry with wall-to-wall presence. AKB48 spawned other large sister groups based in different regions of Japan that also command considerable sales, and the 48 umbrella even expanded overseas to other parts of Asia. The AKB48 system has quite literally created over a thousand idols who fill theaters, concerts, commercials and TV programs. In 2011, Akimoto launched a rival group, Nogizaka46, specifically to challenge his own signature group's reign – that's when you know you've reached peak ridiculous success.


Heisei covers the decades that brought Japan and the world into the modern era of technology – internet, smartphones, 3D, VR and all that cyber jazz. No singer embodies that seismic shift as succinctly as Hatsune Miku. Introduced by Crypton Future Media in 2007, Hatsune Miku is a Vocaloid, a vocal synthesizer application that allows users to input music for the virtual turquoise-haired teenage idol to sing. Vocaloid turned into a phenomenon in Japan, providing a creative springboard and synthesized singing vocals for many songwriters, in particular creators on Niconico. Hatsune Miku became the cutesy face and voice of that mushrooming online music community, supplying vocals to thousands and thousands of songs. She also became a famous pop culture figure in her own right. She played music fests and concerts to adoring fans in holographic form, and even has an Oricon #1 album. Naturally, she has also inspired a treasure trove of merchandise and collaborations. Many other Vocaloid idol personas have been created since, but Hatsune Miku will always be the OG.

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Published September 9, 2019

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