Perfect Sound Forever

Japanese Hits

Ayumi Hamasaki Hikaru Utada, photo from her website

by Charles Jeffrey Danoff
(February 2010)

Every year, the Record Industry of Japan hands out the Gold Disc Awards to the artists with the highest sales in the prior calendar year 1. In the past decade, only 5 acts had the chops to win the most prestigious award for "Artist of the Year." Evaluating the 2000's, there seemed to be 7 rules for those winning. To understand why, let us begin by exploring the winners year by year.

Hikaru Utada 2 won the first award in 2000, based on her 1999 studio album "First Love." Released by EMI Japan, the record sold 2 million copies its first week, and went on to become the highest selling album in Japanese musical history. While all the titles of the songs and the album itself are in English, the lyrics written by her are almost all in Japanese.

The fourth track, which shares the album name, reveals an innocent girl falling in or just losing love for the first time "You were always gone be my one... I'll remember how to love you taught me how." The video 3 shows a youthful party spirit, seen at a dance club, but she separates herself. Instead of dancing, she sits or stands alone reflecting.

The lyrics reflect her true life as a 16 year old high schooler who had only lived in Japan for two years.

Obviously, to have such success at that age, she came from a strong musical background. The nuturing side started with her blind grandmother who was a shamisen player (three-string Japanese guitar). Grandma passed the genes onto her mother who became a professional enka (Japanese '50's pop/western/rebel music) singer, who married Hikaru's father, a record producer.

The influence of her environment came from New York City where she was raised until 1998 and artists like Freddie Mercury, Yutaka Ozaki, Chick Corea, Nine Inch Nails, Jimi Hendrix, Prince, and Mozart amongst others.

2001's winner was another female singer-songwriter, Ayumi Hamasaki (Ayu to devoted fans), for her studio album Duty. Released by Avex Trax, it "debuted at the number-one position and held that position for four weeks" 4. Compared to the prior year's youthful prodigy Utada, she was ancient at twenty two years old.

The album had five singles, with "Seasons" being was the most successful, selling 552,730 copies in its first week. Breaking with the club girl persona, it is a slow, pensive song with a remorseful piano the strongest instrumental complement to her voice. The video 5 reflects her dark mood as she's dressed in funeral garb alone in a barren post-apocalyptic desert landscape.

Ayumi was already an established artist with two prior studio albums, but with Duty, she broke through to the top of her field. Like First Love, the album and song names are in English, but Ayu's lyrics are entirely Japanese.

She started her public career at seven as a model, then changed gears and released a rap album at age 17, then shifted again to be a B-Movie star, which she eventually quit. She started working at an early age to help her mother who was raising her alone.

Following her acting career, she dropped out of high school, choosing instead to invest her time in clubs, which paid off. At Velfarre a Tokyo disco owned by her eventual label Avex, she met Max Matsuura. Based on a karaoke performance, Matsuura eventually offered her a record deal, then sent her to train in New York. In 1999, she released her first album, for which she won the Gold Disc Award for "Best New Artist of the Year."

In 2002, Ayu defended her crown with a one-two punch of A Best her first compilation album and I am... her fourth studio album. Given the criteria of the award, the two pronged attack outpaced Utada's second album Distance, released in the same year.

Ayu's compilation album sold more, but I am was the more important album for her musical evolution. Revealing her maturity Hamasaki "departed from the themes of "loneliness and confusion" that had marked her previous releases and focused on more worldly themes, such as faith and peace" following the September 11 attacks 6. This is most visually revealed in the cover where goes Christian, covering herself only in ivy, with a white dove perched on her left shoulder.

Inspired by "a story told to her by a friend about a saint named Mary" 7, "M" was the most successful of the album's nine singles (one of which was Germany only) becoming a Recording Industry of Japan certified million seller.

Contrasted with "Seasons," the song has a positive melody, and the complimentary instrument is an electric guitar with a solo voicelessly screeching "f#@k yeah." The Christian overtones continue in the video 8 where she's mostly alone again, but this time with a light mood, materializing in a church from heavenly particles, clad in a white wedding gown.

Ayu was unable to do a three-peat, ceding the 2003 Artist of the Year award back to Hikaru who released her third album, the critically acclaimed Deep River. All of the four singles reached #1 on the charts. The top one, "Traveling," is an electonica club jam mostly in Japanese that starts with the question, "Whatcha doing tonight?" and then invites the listener to "go for a ride." In the video 9, the wallflower 16-year-old has evolved into a woman with a neon red wig, leading the alien dance floor on an intergalactic train past the moon to a cosmic eden.

In 2004 Ayu climbed her way back to the award, riding her second compilation album A Ballads and the all time best selling mini album by a Japanese female Memorial Address. While A Ballads does have a provocative cover 10 of two Ayu's laying in bed together seemingly close to a kiss, "Memorial Address" outsold it for the year. So it seemed that with more control, she chose to lead her fans into a scary place.

The top single "Ourselves" 11 is a fast-paced somber tune whose lyrics reflect the instrumental mood,

"Then I realise my tears are flowing, that must have hurt much more than I thought. ... The autumn sky is sad, the winter sea is cold, time passed as I am falling more into a trance."

The disturbing video 12 starts with her saying goodbye to a white woman as she gets into a car. Suddenly, the car locks and is transported to an insane asylum room where other white people wearing Mike Myers (from Halloween) face masks trying to break into her car using sledgehammers and saws. There are other scenes where she's dressed like the the antagonist from The Cell 13 dancing alone, and white doctors jeering at a chained up Ayu tearing up pictures of her and at one point, the men put on lipstick to kiss and tongue more pictures of her.

In the sixth year of the millenium, the other gender finally won the award, but it took a group of males to knock off the single ladies. The group was Orange Range, born in Okinawa, Japan's southern most island. While technically part of Japan, its culture is different from the Honshu mainland, heavily influenced by the Ryuku peoples who ruled before Japan took over. Her people's musical creations are also inspired by the American military presence.

They were started as a cover band by "childhood friends Kitao "Kat-chan" Kazuhito and Hiroyama Naoto." They had six members (three vocalists) when the started playing small venues, and when they released their debut album 1st Contact, they graduated to creating their own songs. Singles from it were used in the world wide popular Japanese anime Naruto, as well as the American film The Fantastic Four.

The album that won them the Gold Disc was MusiQ, which featured four chart topping singles. "Hana" (flower) was the biggest, reaching at the top and staying on the charts for 50 weeks. It is a melancholy tune with a string orchestra complementing the soft strokes of the band. The lyrics 14 explore love won and lost through flower imagery "What you left to me was the gift and the reality of 'the present' that's why I'm trying my hardest to become a flower." Along the way, they ponder the eternal question "Why am I here?" and close with hints of a reconciliation.

The boys could only take the stage for one year; however, as another young female singer-songwriter won the Best Artist Disc in 2006 - Koda Kumi, the stage name for the Kyoto born Kumiko Koda.

Like Hikaru, she came from a strong musical background as a granddaughter of a Shakuhachi (Japanese flute) master, daugther of a Koto (13 stringed Japanese instrument played sitting down) teacher and the sister of Mison, a famous solo artist. She sings almost exclusively in Japanese, and while her albums have English names, she does have a few songs with Japanese titles.

Image-wise, she's a Japanese Jessica Simpson, starting as the conservative, quiet girl then blooming as a socially-accepted sex queen, who started the famous ero-kakkoii (erotic cool) style. Musically she is "mainly Japanese Urban and R&B" 15 but has dabbled in other genres. She not only has gone against the grain of traditional Japanese feminine images of sexuality, she is also not afraid of other countries, working with Korean artists.

Surprisingly she won the gold disc, despite never having a chart topping single. Taking Ayumi's 2004 strategy, she released a new album Secret as well as a compilation Best ~First Things" featuring four new tracks. "Best" was her first album to make it to number one.

The second single from Secret was "Hot Stuff." It is a provocative Japanesey ("it's getting hot in here," cribbed from the Nelly hit), peaking with the boy/girl lyrical exchange, "Boy you know I got what you need. Tonight's gonna be so fine." "Girl you know I got what you want. All night we can be so fine."

The video 16 starts with Koda beating the crap out a series of boys in a dimly lit fight club, and the lyrical exchange is complemented by her gently pulling the band of a boy's boxers, before backing off and the boys doing some sort of long distance self-satisfaction maneuver that is embarrassing to watch.

Kumi snowballed her success into the next year, releasing 12 singles in a row, then compiling them into her second compilation Best ~Second Session. The first one "You" finally got her a #1 single. Also in 2006, she released her fifth studio album Black Cherry. These forces combined won her a second consecutive Gold Disc for Artist of the Year.

The top single from the new album was "Yume no Uta" (Dream Song), released as a two-part single with "Futari de..." (Us Two) which was not on the album. Together, they made it to #1.

"Dream song," the ballad which closes the album, has her showing off her pipes in symphonic melody that would make Christina Aguilera (one of her inspirations) proud. The video reveals a softer, more chaste side of Koda with the raciest moment being a shared forehead touch with her male love.

The last two titles of the decade were taken by EXILE 17, then a 7 member (now 14) band of boys (similar to, but far more heterosexual than a boy band) which aims to integrate dance and vocal performances.

Originally known as the J Soul Brothers, they were started and are led by Hiro 18, the pony tailed, stylish CEO of LDH (Love, Dream, Happiness), a Tokyo talent agency. Hiro, along with Matsu, USA, Makidai, and Atsushi are the performers. The singing is done by Atsushi 19, who started piano at age 4 and started focusing on his lyrics in high school, and Takahiro 20, who won the EXILE Vocal Battle Audition 2006 to join the group.

In 2008, they took the crown from Koda, with the coveted award going to them on the strength of two new album releases - EXILE LOVE and EXILE EVOLUTION. None of their singles placed in The Best 10 Singles at that year's Gold Disc awards, but "Lovers Again" off LOVE did make it into the top 5 Mastertones, or cell phone ringtones 21. It is a sad song. While the tune is catchy, I think the video 22 showcases the two other big reasons why EXILE are popular other than their music - they are cute boys, who dress well and can dance. The video for "Lovers Again" is set in a depressing Russian winter. The people they show outside are cold, bundled up in gigantic jackets, headed out and about. The band, meanwhile, is inside in a nice room with a big fire burning. Atsushi and Takahiro sing, as the others hang out, looking tough. All are handsome and dressed immaculately. At one dramatic point in the song, the five silent boys get up and do a dance routine around the two who are singing.

While they did release three singles in 2009, they kept their crown based on a bold three new compilation albums. To be fair, the compilation albums did contain some new music, and EVOLUTION was one of the highest selling CD's of 2008, but was not counted for the 2009 Gold Disc Award because it was released in December of 2007.

Again, the boys won a Gold Disc for mobile singles 23, with The Birthday ~ Ti Amo. The Italian title is only the beginning of the track's multiculturality. Obviously, the song is Japanese, but it starts with what sounds like Latin American guitar chords, then to confuse us even more, the video 25 is set in China, regaling us with a tale of two attached, but cheating lovers- "And I knew it right from the start that I wasn't supposed to love you" 25. The song title comes from a pause in the singing in the video, as the two lovers lay together in bed chatting. The lady asks the gentlemen how to say "aishiteru" (I love you) in different languages, and her favorite is "Ti amo."

Glossing over the winners, the rules of winning a 00's Gold Disc Award become clear:

  1. Release a Compilation Album the Same Year as a New Album - Ayu and Koda won twice with this strategy. Exile did it slightly differently, releasing three compilation albums the same year.
  2. Write Your Own Songs - Hikaru, Ayu and Orange Range wrote most of their own material, and Koda wrote some later on.
  3. Be Physically Gorgeous - Everyone, save Orange Range, is included here.
  4. Momentum is Important - three different acts won back-to-back titles. When the fans get a fix for something, they often need to satisfy it for at least two years.
  5. Don't be Isolationist - All the artists had some links to other countries and cultures- despite Japan's long history of only focusing inward, fans clearly like artists who at least dabble abroad.
  6. If you are a girl, stay away from your friends, and if you're a boy, you better be social.
  7. Do Not Have Japanese Names for Your Album Titles
It is also important to tie-in your music with commercials, video games, movies and other media, but since that is entirely the label's responsibility, I left it off the list. Everything in the 7 rules is partially, if not completely the responsibility of the artist themselves (thought that's why you have managers too).

It would take a smarter writer than I to deduce what these results say about the Japanese people and their music. Overall though, there does seem to an honest appreciation for artists who hone their craft (perhaps aside from EXILE). All of these top sellers have shallow elements to their persona, but most of them also craft their own songs, and want control over their creations. As an American writer reflecting on best selling music in my own country over the past decade, I am more than a little envious.


  1. The Gold Disc Awards Year by Year Results and Explanation of the Process
  2. Year 2000 Gold Disc Award Results
  3. First Love Video
  4. Wikipedia: Duty the Album
  5. Seasons Video
  6. Wikipedia: Ayumi Hamasaki
  7. Wikipedia: “M” the Song
  8. M the Song Video
  9. Travling the Song Video
  10. Wikipedia: A Ballads, the album cover art
  11. Memorial Address, the album lyrics reference card (Translated into English) PDF
  12. “Ourselves” the Song Video
  13. Vincent Den'ofrio's charater
  14. Hana, the video with English lyrics
  15. Wikipedia: Koda Kumi
  16. Hot Stuff, the video
  17. EXILE Official Website
  18. Hiro’s Profile
  19. Atsushi’s Profile
  20. Takahiro’s Profile
  21. 2008 Gold Disc Awards Results
  22. Lovers Again video
  23. 2009 Gold Disc Awards Results
  24. "Ti Amo," the video, Chapter One and Chapter Two
  25. "Ti Amo," Chapter One song lyrics

Charles Jeffrey Danoff wrote this piece from the 5th floor of a lovely school in Anqing, China where he teaches over 400 students the mysteries of the English language. His homepage is

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