Hamasaki Ayumi

(Fukuoka Prefecture, 1978- )

Hamasaki Ayumi

If you're in Japan, you've seen that face. The huge vacant eyes and 'lemur caught in the headlights', 'am I real or just a robot' expression that for some strange reason makes certain young people want to buy a Tsu-ka mobile phone. And then there's the voice, a kind of husky Minnie Mouse effect. But, the critics will have you know, this is a J-Popster with a difference. This girl writes her own song lyrics and in them she is not afraid to speak her mind. She is also a fashion leader who commands the unquestioning respect of schoolgirls across the country. And her massive sales have helped the Avex record label become one of the biggest in Japan.

Hamasaki grew up in Fukuoka in southern Japan listening to her older brother's rock music collection (Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple) but, like Utada Hikaru, later drifted towards the soul music of Babyface and En Vogue. She spent time in New York getting vocal lessons and perhaps this time spent abroad accounts for her self-confidence and independent spirit. She returned to Japan to make her debut in 1998. Within a couple of years she had released more than a dozen singles and a clutch of albums.

Getting to the top of the J-pop world is one thing. Staying there is another. Ayu has had her share of bad press, a lot of it to do with her "diva" image and her being something of a control freak. Given how the music business in Japan is built on record labels pulling all the strings and singers and bands being money-making puppets, perhaps it's understandable. She took another hit after having a go at a front-row fan at one of her gigs who insisted on sitting through the set. It turned out the fan was disabled, and the wide shows and Net rumor mills fed off the story.

Ayupan But Ayu couldn't be kept down for long. Her relationship with Nagase Tomoya of the Johnny's band Tokio kept her in the spotlight, with reporters speculating on when the pair would get hitched, even up to the time that they split in 2007. And there have been a lot more TV and radio appearances in an all-out "image-up" assault. She even designed a cartoon character in her own image. "Ayupan" quickly became popular among the high school girl set.

Hamasaki strives to always be honest in her lyrics, writing from experience and letting the bad times come through with the good (she lists Nicholas Cage and his dark cult classic Leaving Las Vegas as favorites). Her career was threatened when a long-running problem with her hearing turned out to be more serious than she thought. She finally revealed to fans in early 2008 that she had no hearing in her left ear but that she would carry on performing regardless.

The sales juggernaut continued at a steady pace and in October 2010, her 50th single became her 25th consecutive No.1 on the Oricon chart, breaking the 22-year-old record set in 1988 by Matsuda Seiko. Reports at the time (including this one from Japan Zone) gave her total singles sales as 21.38 million, and including albums the total was a massive 49.19 million.