Ayumi Hamasaki is a Japanese singer-songwriter and former actress. Also known as Ayu to her fans, Hamasaki has been dubbed "the Empress of J-pop" due to her popularity and widespread influence in Japan. Born and raised in Fukuoka, Hamasaki moved to Tokyo at the age of fourteen to pursue a career in entertainment. In 1998, Hamasaki, under the tutelage of Avex CEO Max Matsuura, released a string of modestly-performing singles that concluded with her 1999 debut album A Song for XX. The album debuted atop the Oricon charts (Japan's primary music charts, similar to the Billboard charts) and held that position for five weeks in a row, establishing Hamasaki's popularity in Japan.
Since her 1998 debut with the single "Poker Face," she has sold around 50 million records, with the releases of her nine full-length studio albums, one mini-album, four compilation albums, forty-four singles, and numerous non-studio albums. With the release of her thirty-ninth single, "Startin'/Born to Be...," in 2006, Hamasaki became Japan's female solo artist with the most number-one singles. In addition, the release of Hamasaki's 2007 single, "glitter/fated" made Hamasaki the second female artist after Akina Nakamori to have a number-one single every year for nine consecutive years. She is also the first Japanese artist to have her first original eight studio albums top the Oricon charts, as well as the Japanese female artist with the most number-one singles, most Top 10 singles, highest singles sales, and most million-seller singles (this record for most million-seller singles is shared with band Pink Lady and fellow J-pop singers Namie Amuro and Utada Hikaru).
Childhood and early endeavors
Hamasaki was born in Fukuoka Prefecture and raised by her mother and grandmother, as her father had left the family when she was three and never came into contact with her since.
The 1995 promotional video Swimsuit Special, produced by Hamasaki's talent agency "SOS".Hamasaki began her modeling career at the age of seven, modeling locally to earn money for the family. At the age of fourteen, she moved from Fukuoka to Tokyo to take various modeling as well as acting jobs. Although she did not find much success with her endeavors (being deemed by her talent agency as too short to be a model), it was on the set of one of her b-movies, Twins Teacher, that she met her then-boyfriend, Tomoya Nagase. Hamasaki was eventually dropped by her talent agency, and left her high school by the tenth grade. A high school dropout with no job, she spent much of her time shopping at Shibuya boutiques and dancing at Velfarre, an Avex-owned disco club.
1994–1995: First steps in the music industry
Hamasaki's first professional musical endeavors were in the rap scene. On December 1, 1995, her first album, Nothing from Nothing, featuring Dohzi-T and DJ Bass, was released under the Nippon Columbia label. When the album failed to chart on the Oricon, Hamasaki's label dropped her.
It was at Velfarre where Hamasaki was introduced to her future producer, Max Matsuura, through a mutual friend. Matsuura offered Hamasaki a recording deal immediately after hearing her sing, but Hamasaki was suspicious of Matsuura and turned the offer down. Matsuura, however, persisted until the following year, when Hamasaki agreed and began taking vocal training.
Finding the instructors too rigid and the classes too dull, Hamasaki skipped most of her classes. When she confessed to Matsuura, he sent her to New York for training. While there, Hamasaki corresponded with Matsuura who, impressed with her writing, suggested she try writing her own lyrics.
1998–1999: Rising popularity
In April 1998, Hamasaki's debut single under Avex, "poker face," was released, peaking at number twenty on the Oricon. Likewise, her second single, "You," performed no better, also peaking at number twenty. It was not until Hamasaki's third single, "Trust," which peaked at number nine, was Hamasaki able to enter one of the top ten spots on the Oricon weekly chart. Hamasaki's two subsequent singles also peaked in the Top Ten of the Oricon charts; "Depend on You," Hamasaki's fifth single was used as the main theme of video game Thousand Arms. Hamasaki's debut album, A Song for XX, which was released on January 1, 1999, held the top position on the Oricon for five weeks.
Hamasaki earned her first number-one single with the release of her seventh single, "Love ~Destiny~," a song produced by Tsunku. With the release of her ninth single, "Boys & Girls," Hamasaki began to release her singles on 12 cm rather than 8 cm discs, following the trend of the music industry at that time. As the 12 cm discs were able to hold more data than the 8 cm discs, Hamasaki began releasing more remixes on her singles.
On November 10, 1999, Hamasaki simultaneously released her second studio album, Loveppears, and her eleventh single, "appears." Following the release of Loveppears, two singles from the album were released, "Kanariya," released in December, and "Fly High," released in February 2000.
2000–2002: Commercial peak
From April to June 2000, Hamasaki released the singles "Vogue," "Far Away," and "Seasons," sometimes dubbed the "three-in-one single" or "the trilogy" due to the singles' similarity in their covers and music videos. On September 27, Hamasaki simultaneously released her seventeenth single, "Surreal," and her third full-length studio album, Duty. Not only did Duty top the charts like its predecessors A Song for XX and Loveppears, it went on to sell almost 3 million copies, making it her best-selling original studio album to date.
In December 2000, the single "M" was released and became Hamasaki's fourth million-selling single, selling over 1.3 million copies. "M" marked the beginning of Hamasaki's increased creative control over her music, as she started to compose some of her songs under the pseudonym "CREA", the name of one of her dogs. The following year, shortly after the release of Hamasaki's single "Never Ever," Avex forced Hamasaki to release her first compilation album, A Best, on March 28, putting the album in direct competition with "rival" singer Utada Hikaru's sophomore studio album, Distance. The "competition" between the two singers (which both Hamasaki and Utada claimed was merely a creation of their record companies and the media) was supposedly the reason for the success of the albums, with A Best and Distance becoming the two best-selling albums of the year.
In December, following a string of singles including "Endless Sorrow," "Unite!," and "Dearest," Avex released the single "a song is born," a collaboration between Hamasaki and fellow Avex singer KEIKO for Avex's non-profit Song+Nation project, which raised money for the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks. On January 1, 2002, her fourth album, I am..., was released, and like its predecessors Loveppears and Duty, it became an RIAJ-certified million-seller, selling over two million copies.
I am... was a retreat from the themes of "loneliness and confusion" which had characterized some of Hamasaki's earlier songs. Following the September 11 attacks, Hamasaki, affected by the events, revised her vision of I am..., focusing on issues such as faith and world peace in her lyrics. "A song is born," in particular, was directly influenced by the events. As Hamasaki explained, "In the beginning, I was searching for myself in my music. My music was for me. I didn't have the mental room to be conscious of the listener; I wrote to save myself." Hamasaki also revised the album cover, dropping the planned cover and opting instead to be portrayed as a "peace muse," explaining,
“I had a completely different idea for the cover at first. We'd already reserved the space, decided the hair and makeup and everything. But after the incident, as is typical of me, I suddenly changed my mind. I knew it wasn't the time for gaudiness, for elaborate sets and costumes. It sounds odd coming from me, but I realize what I say and how I look has a great impact. ”
Hamasaki played the lead role as well as wrote and performed the theme song, her 2002 hit single "Voyage."Hamasaki's succeeding studio album, Rainbow (2002), was her first album to incorporate English lyrics. Two of Hamasaki's songs released prior to Rainbow, "Love ~since 1999~" and "Audience" incorporated English lyrics. However, the lyrics of "Love ~since 1999~" were not written by Hamasaki, and the only English that "Audience" comprises is the sporadic use of "Yes"; therefore, these songs are usually not counted among Hamasaki's songs which incorporate English. Although she did not compose to the extent that she did on I am..., Hamasaki was still heavily involved in the production of the album. Rock music pervaded some of the tracks; however, Hamasaki also experimented with new techniques, utilizing choirs in the harmonies of two songs, “Voyage” and “Close to You.” The album yielded three singles, “Free & Easy,” “Voyage,” and “H,” the last of which became the best-selling single of the year. Finally, Avex launched a promotional campaign for Rainbow in which those who bought the album online could access a password-protected website that featured a part of the instrumental version of the title track "Rainbow," which did not appear on the album. (However, "Rainbow" later appeared on Hamasaki's ballad compilation/remix album A Ballads, which was released in March 2003.)
2003–2006: Decline in sales
In April, Hamasaki, under the moniker "Ayu," released her first European single, "Connected," a trance song composed by DJ Ferry Corsten that had previously appeared on Hamasaki's album I am.... The single was released in Germany under the Drizzly label and in Belgium under the label Lightning Records; in both countries "Connected" was released on 12" vinyl EPs. Succeeding "Connected," Hamasaki continued to release singles (all of which were remixes of previously-released songs) in Germany under Drizzly until 2005.
Hamasaki's first mini-album, Memorial Address, was released in December of 2003 and yielded three singles, “&,” “forgiveness,” and “No way to say.” The album became Hamasaki's first to be released in an optional CD+DVD format in addition to the regular CD-only format, a decision which came about as a result of Hamasaki's wish to “relay the atmosphere” of her A Museum concert held earlier that year. Memorial Address, like its predecessors, reached the top spot on the Oricon chart and became an RIAJ-certified million-seller.
In August of 2004, a feud between Max Matsuura and Avex's then-chairman Tom Yoda, regarding Avex's business practices, created division that caused Matsuura and Ryuhei Chiba (president of talent-agency subsidiary Axev) to temporarily resign. However, when Hamasaki along with other Avex performers, including Koda Kumi and Exile, expressed their support for Matsuura, saying that they would follow Matsuura, fears arose that Avex would lose its top performers, fears that led to the sixteen-percent decline in Avex's stock prices by the end of August 2. Avex then immediately held a meeting with Matsuura and Chiba, and by August 3, Avex released a statement saying that Matsuura and Chiba had decided to withdraw their resignations. On the same day, Avex disclosed that Yoda had stepped down from his position as CEO.
The predominately rock My Story (2004), Hamasaki's sixth studio album, was, according to Hamasaki, the first album that she felt “thoroughly satisfied with.” The album was primarily about the artist's emotions and “reminiscing on her debut up to the present,” although according to her, the album had no set concept; rather, she “put together songs she enjoyed.” Rather than trying to write “something good” or “something moving” or even “something that would give people hope,” Hamasaki simply “wrote honestly.” The album topped the weekly Oricon charts and became an RIAJ-certified million-seller. The three singles My Story spawned, “Moments,” “Inspire,” and “Carols” each topped the weekly Oricon charts as well. From January to April of the following year, Hamasaki held the nation-wide Ayumi Hamasaki Arena Tour 2005 ~MY STORY~, her first tour based on an album.
The promotional video for "Bold & Delicious/Pride," which was filmed in New York City(miss)understood (2006), Hamasaki's seventh studio album, presented the singer taking new directions with her music. Wanting to sing "a song like Sweetbox's," Hamasaki obtained the permission of Sweetbox composer GEO to use demo songs which GEO had intended to use in Sweetbox's then-upcoming album. Hamasaki set to work rearranging the songs to fit her personal vision, drawing inspiration from such motley sources as a pipe organ and even the musical The Phantom of the Opera; additionally, Hamasaki rewrote the majority of the lyrics. Whereas My Story had been dominated by rock songs, (miss)understood yielded a spectrum of musical styles that encompassed pop, R&B, and rock. "Bold & Delicious," the last single from the album, was a funk-infused dance track that utilized a gospel chorus; the preceding single, "Heaven" was an "ethereal piano" ballad; and "Criminal" was a "dark rock song." (miss)understood also set various records for Hamasaki: "Bold & Delicious" became Hamasaki's twenty-fifth number-one single, thus tying her with Seiko Matsuda for the record of most number-one singles by a solo female artist; (miss)understood's first-day sales of 650,000 placed the album not only on the top position of the Oricon but also the United World Chart, a first for Hamasaki. However, (miss)understood became Hamasaki's first studio album that sold under a million copies. Following the release of (miss)understood, Hamasaki embarked on the Ayumi Hamasaki Arena Tour 2006 —(miss)understood— in March, which spanned three months with its thirty concerts, the first in Saitama on March 11, 2006 and its last at Yoyogi on June 11, 2006.
"Secrets" was, appropriately, the theme of Hamasaki's eighth studio album, Secret (2006). In addition to secrets, the album also explored the topic of strong female figures and "painted pictures of love." The title track, "Secret," the song "until that Day," and the ballad "Jewel" all depicted the artist's struggles, while "Beautiful Fighters" along with "1 LOVE" were "cheer songs for girls." The two singles from the album, "Startin'" and "Blue Bird" both continued Hamasaki's streak of number-one singles; "Startin'" became Hamasaki's twenty-sixth number-one in total, setting a new record for most number-one singles held by a solo female artist. The album, as well, reached the number-one spot on the Oricon weekly charts, making Hamasaki the only artist to have her first eight studio albums top the Oricon weekly charts. Hamasaki's sales, however, continued to flag: Secret became Hamasaki's first original studio album to fail to become an RIAJ-certified million-seller.
2007–present: Market penetration beyond Japan
On February 28, 2007, Hamasaki released A Best 2, a pair of compilation albums containing songs from I am... to (Miss)understood. The two versions, White and Black, debuted at the first and second positions on the Oricon weekly charts, making Hamasaki the first female artist in thirty-six years to hold the top two positions on any Oricon album chart. At the end of 2007, the pair became Japan's fifth and seventh best-selling albums of the year respectively.
In support of A Best 2 and Secret, Hamasaki held the four-month-long Tour of Secret from March to the end of June. It was her first international tour, and aside from Japan, she performed in Taipei, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. Her foreign fanbase highly anticipated the concerts, and tickets for the Taipei and Hong Kong performances sold out in less than three hours.
Unlike its predecessors, the writing of Hamasaki's ninth studio album, Guilty (January 2008), was not an emotional experience for her, nor did it have a set theme. However, she said later that the album's tracks appeared to tell a story. Most of the songs were dark; the album had a notable rock tinge. It contained some upbeat dance tracks and ballads, though the latter also had rock overtones.Guilty peaked at the number-two position on the weekly Oricon charts, making it Hamasaki's first studio album not to reach the top. However, Hamasaki's first digital-only single, "Together When...", and the singles "Glitter / Fated" and "Talkin' 2 Myself", reached the top of their respective charts. A short film, Distance Love, was used as the music video for "Glitter" and "Fated". The film, shot in Hong Kong, co-starred Hong Kong actor Shawn Yue as Hamasaki's romantic interest. Guilty was later released as a digital album in twenty-six countries outside Japan, nineteen of them Western nations. That, along with Hamasaki's decision to employ western DJs such as Armand van Helden for her 2008 remix albums Ayu-mi-x 6: Gold and Ayu-mi-x 6: Silver, has been interpreted as her first step into the global market.
In April 2008, to commemorate her tenth anniversary in Avex, Hamasaki released the single "Mirrorcle World"; it topped the Oricon, making Hamasaki the only female solo artist to have a number-one single every year for ten consecutive years. Hamasaki also held her second tour of Asia, Asia Tour 2008: 10th Anniversary, to celebrate her tenth anniversary. From April until June, she toured Japan, holding seventeen concerts. Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Shanghai were again the foreign stops after the domestic performances. On September 10, 2008, Hamasaki released A Complete: All Singles, a compilation album that includes the A-sides of all her singles along with previously unreleased footage from her A-nation concerts.
Her tenth studio album, Next Level, was released on March 25, 2009 in several formats: CD, CD+DVD, 2CD+DVD and a two-gigabyte USB flash drive. The flash drive edition is expected to be priced at ¥6800 (approximately USD$75). The first single, "Days/Green" (December 2008), became another number-one single for Hamasaki. The second single, "Rule/Sparkle", was released on February 25, 2009; "Rule" was used as the international theme song for the film Dragonball Evolution.On August 12, 2009, Hamasaki released her forty-sixth single, "Sunrise/Sunset (Love Is All)". "Sunrise (Love Is All)", one of the A-sides, was used as the opening theme song for the Japanese television drama Dandy Daddy?.
Her 47th single 'YOU were.../BALLAD' was released December 29th 2009. The single includes a B-side called 'Red Line ~for TA~'.
Hamasaki's eleventh studio album Rock 'n' Roll Circus was released on April 14, 2010. The album topped the charts, making Hamasaki the first female solo artist in twenty years to have ten number-one original studio albums.Hamasaki also began expanding her online presence, setting up accounts on MySpace, Ustream, and Twitter.
In July, entertainment company Livespire announced that Hamasaki's 2009 Next Level tour would be shown in 3-D at Toho cinemas nationwide beginning on August 28.
On July 14, Hamasaki released her forty-eighth single, "Moon/Blossom". The single was released as the first of a three-part project to celebrate her fiftieth single. The two other singles in the project (her forty-ninth and fiftieth singles respectively), "Crossroad" and "L", were released within a week of each other, "Crossroad" on September 22 and "L" on September 29. "Crossroad" was composed by Tetsuya Komuro and its coupling was her cover version of Komuro's band TM Network's 1988 song "Seven Days War", which was her first cover of a male song.
These three singles in the three-part project reached number one weekly in its runs, which was her twenty-third, twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth consecutive number one singles respectively, setting a new record for the most consecutive number one singles by any female artist (solo or group) as well as any solo artist (male or female), breaking a record back over twenty years ago, also by Seiko Matsuda, who made a streak of 24 consecutive number-one singles between 1980 and 1988. The singles were also her thirty-fifth, thirty-sixth and thirty-seventh number one singles overall, respectively.
On December 22, Hamasaki released her 12th original studio album and a collaboration single. Her album, "Love Songs" includes singles MOON/blossom, Crossroad, and L plus eight new songs to complete the list. If the said album would top the charts, Hamasaki is the only female artist in Asia to have twelve original studio albums to top the Oricon consecutively for 12 years.