In three short years, Ayumi Hamasaki became the top-selling recording artist in Japan. She first hit the top of the Japanese charts in 1998 with her single "Poker Face"; by 2003 she was the most powerful figure in the Japanese recording industry, idolized by millions of fans, and signed to numerous endorsement deals for products ranging from cosmetics to electronics. Only 18 at the time of her first hit single, Hamasaki has nevertheless earned a reputation for being an extremely savvy businesswoman, personally shaping every aspect of her career, right down to choosing the wardrobe for her album covers.
Ayumi Hamasaki, known as Ayu to her fans, was born in Fukuoka on the Japanese island of Kyushu. Her father left the family while she was still very young, leaving Hamasaki to be raised by her mother and her grandmother. She has had no contact with him since then, and told Lisa Takeuchi Cullen in Time International, "I don't even know if he's dead or alive … I barely remember him." When she was seven she began a modeling career, partly to help support the family.
She moved to Tokyo at the age of 14, where she continued to work as a model and also began an acting career, landing roles on television and in low-profile films. After a time, however, both careers floundered, and she was dropped by her talent agency. She also had a difficult time in school, and finally dropped out of the tenth grade.
Out of school and out of work, Hamasaki danced away her nights at a popular nightclub in Roppongi called Velfarre. The club was owned by Avex, the company that would become her record label. Through a friend, Hamasaki, then 17, met one of the label's producers. The three of them went out to a karaoke club, where the producer, Masato ("Max") Matsuura, heard her sing. He offered her a recording deal on the spot.
Hamasaki was at first cool to the older man's offer, suspecting him of ulterior motives, but he persisted over the course of the following year, and at last Hamasaki gave in to his request that she begin singing lessons. She liked them no better than high school, however, and stopped going. Matsuura, who continued to believe in his protégé, suggested she go to New York for more advanced training. She agreed, and lived in a midtown hotel for several months while she took voice lessons.
In contrast to her previous studies, Hamasaki found her training in New York—and the city itself—a refreshing change from the rigid Japanese society she was used to. Meanwhile, Matuura, impressed by the writing skill he saw in Hamasaki's letters home, suggested that she try writing lyrics. Hamasaki found this to be her ideal form of expression and in 1998 released her first singles, beginning with "Poker Face."
Her first two singles, both released in 1998, landed at number 20 on the Japanese charts. Her next four singles hit the top ten. Finally, in April of 1999, Hamasaki scored her first number one hit single, "Love Destiny." From then on her singles routinely charted in the top three. That same year Hamasaki released her first album, A Song for XX, for which she wrote all the lyrics; it stayed atop the Japanese charts for five straight weeks.
By most accounts Hamasaki has achieved her extraordinary position by maintaining tight control over every aspect of her image and career—even choosing her makeup for photo shoots and selecting the fonts used on her marketing materials. Her business savvy has led to her nearly ubiquitous presence on Japanese billboards, in the news, and as an endorser of products that range from electronics to snack foods. Hamasaki also has an unusual degree of control over her creative efforts. For instance, even though singing in English could help her reach audiences outside of Japan, she refuses to do so, saying that she expresses herself best in her native language.
Hamasaki keeps herself in the public eye by producing a new single on the average of every two months. Each one features the star in an eye-catching look—made up, for instance, to look European or African. Hamasaki's many faces have even sparked a side industry in fashion, with fans eagerly purchasing elements of her styles, including sunglasses, jeans, and accessories. The star is pragmatic about her status as Japan's most successful recording artist. "It is necessary that I am viewed as a product," she told Takeuchi Cullen for Time International. "I am a product."
In 2002 Hamasaki released IAm … , the first album for which she composed music. Hamasaki billed herself as "Crea," using her dog's name as a nom de plume. The album, like her previous records, was extremely successful, selling two million copies in Japan in the first two weeks of its release.
By the end of 2002 she had outsold every other recording artist in Japan for the second year in a row. Her influence, however, extended beyond the recording industry: In 2003 Mizuho, the world's largest bank, asked her to help raise its depressed stock price by purchasing shares. Hamasaki was already a proven powerhouse on the Japanese financial scene at the time of the bank's request—she generated almost half the sales for her record company, Avex, the largest record company in Japan.
For the Record . . .
Born Ayumi Hamasaki in 1980, in Fukuoka, Japan.
Began modeling and acting career at the age of seven; moved to Tokyo to further her career, 1994; landed recording deal with Avex, 1997; released first single, "Poker Face," 1998; first number-one hit single, "Love Destiny," 1999; first album, A Song for XX, 1999; released Love Appears, 1999; released Duty, 2000; released A Best, 2001; released IAm … , 2002; released Memorial Address, 2003.
Awards: World Music Award, Best Japanese Pop/Rock Artist, 2003.
Addresses: Record company— Avex Group, 3-1-30 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo 107-8577 Japan. Website— Ayumi Hamasaki Official Website: http://www.avexnet.or.jp/ayu.
Hamasaki has said that Madonna is the pop star she most admires, because she became a star entirely on her own terms. Contrary to some press reports, however, Hamasaki denies that she wants to perform with Madonna, preferring to have her image of the star unimpeded by a meeting with the actual person. Hamasaki is equally reluctant to specify her plans for the future. She told Takeuchi Cullen, "I don't have dreams. How can I say it? I myself am a dream. I don't set goals. I do what I love to do at the moment. It's about knowing that if I die tomorrow, I lived the way I wanted to."
"Poker Face," Avex, 1998.
"Depend on You," Avex, 1998.
"For My Dear …," Avex, 1998.
"Trust," Avex, 1998.
"You," Avex, 1998.
"A," Avex, 1999.
"Appears," Avex, 1999.
"Boys & Girls," Avex, 1999.
"Love Destiny," Avex, 1999.
"To Be," Avex, 1999.
"Whatever," Avex, 1999.
"Audience," Avex, 2000.
"Far Away," Avex, 2000.
"Fly High," Avex, 2000.
"Kanariya," Avex, 2000.
"M," Avex, 2000.
"Seasons," Avex, 2000.
"Surreal," Avex, 2000.
"Vogue," Avex, 2000.
A Song for XX, Avex, 1999.
Ayu-mi-x (remix album) Avex, 1999.
Love Appears, Avex, 1999.
Ayu-mi-x II Version JPN, Avex, 2000.
Ayu-mi-x II Version US+EU, Avex, 2000.
Ayu-mi-x II Version Non-Stop Mega Mix, Avex, 2000.
Ayu-mi-x II Version Acoustic Orchestra, Avex, 2000.
Duty, Avex, 2000.
Super Eurobeat presents Ayu-ro mix (remix album), Avex, 2000.
Evolution, Avex, 2001.
A Best, Avex, 2001.
Dearest, Avex, 2001.
Never Ever, Avex, 2001.
Endless Sorrow, Avex, 2001.
Unite!, Avex, 2001.
Daybreak, Avex, 2002.
Free & Easy, Avex, 2002.
H, Avex, 2002.
Voyage, Avex, 2002.
I Am …, Avex, 2002.
Rainbow, Avex, 2002.
&, Avex, 2003.
Forgiveness, Avex, 2003.
A Ballad, Avex, 2003.
Memorial Address, Avex, 2003.
South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), March 13, 2002, p. 1.
Time International, March 25, 2002, p. 48.
Times (London, England), March 18, 2003, p. 18.
Ayumi Hamasaki Official Website, http://www.avexnet.or.jp/ayu (September 23, 2003).
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