POP music is mercilessly efficient. It makes nobodies into singers, it makes
singers into idoru (idols), and it makes millions of fans spend billions of
yen. Then, after a few years of hysteria, it makes the idoru into nobodies
again. It does not make exceptions.
But the world of J-Pop never bargained for
Namie Amuro, an obstinate beauty who has revealed that the music machine has a
loophole. In the mid-1990s she was a classic idol: bigger in Japan than any
Western star and creator of a teenage look that still dictates Tokyo fashions.
She was supposed to have fizzled out when
she married seven years ago, stunning Japan by doing so when pregnant at the
age of 21. When her mother was brutally killed by Amuro’s uncle, it seemed
unlikely that the starlet would surface again.
Instead, she has undertaken the biggest
Asian tour by a Japanese singer and her latest album reached No 2 in the
charts. She is even optimistic about a European tour. But Amuro’s turnaround
breaks Japanese social patterns that go beyond music. She is a single working
mother. She has endured a messy divorce with her celebrity husband and a family
tragedy. She has repeatedly defied her music company bosses. Disturbingly to
the industry, her return to fame has been done without the media blitzing that
J-Pop supremos have always assumed essential.
In her first interview with a non-Japanese
paper, Amuro says: “Even my closest friend said I was finished, but I think I
may be a little different from the others. My popularity plunged three years
ago and I didn’t try to court publicity. It was a real challenge forcing myself
to be consistent in not playing up to my fans.”
There is an atmosphere of melancholy about
Amuro. When she had her first tattoo, it spawned a giant fad across Japan. Her
latest piece of body art is a sombre memorial to her mother on her upper left
arm. It all jars with the idoru tradition. Japanese starlets have always made
their names by being irrepressibly genki — meaning energetic and vivacious.
They are designed to be dumb, pretty and low-risk guests on TV shows. In the
1990s, Amuro played the role to perfection; now it seems impossible to
associate her with that “bubbly world”.
She says: “I came back to do a live concert.
Nobody had done that before and I know my managers were worried. I stopped
caring what people thought. I just wanted to sing again.”
Amuro asserts that what has happened is a
jump from idol to artist: “I write songs now, I plan concerts. When I was
younger, there was a huge gap between what I wanted to do and what I could do
as an idol.”
The murder of her mother, Emiko Taira, near
her home on the sleepy island of Okinawa was a major news event.[…] Just one year before the killing, Emiko had
published a bestselling book of her own, describing repeated beatings by
Amuro’s natural father and the punishing series of jobs she had held down to
put her children through school before remarrying.
This violent upheaval in Amuro’s life gave
her a chance to think, and that let her undermine the J-Pop regime. “I knew
what I wanted to do. When I was snowed under with the work of an idol, I didn’t
have time to think. I never had the chance to consider what or how I wanted to
At the age of 12 Amuro was singing to
shoppers for her local supermarket’s promotional drive. A TV station later paid
her to dress in a furry rabbit suit on a children’s show. She was spotted by
Masayuki Makino, a music promoter who would become her great mentor. He put
Amuro in a teen group called Supermonkeys. While with this band she was noticed
by Tetsuya Komuro — who made Avex Japan’s most powerful idol factory and was
supreme in the 1990s. He penned one hit for her in 1995, Body Feels Exit, and
Amuro at 17 was suddenly bigger than Madonna in Japan. Her concerts sold out
within ten minutes of tickets going on sale.
What followed defined the entire idol
concept. Her tanned skin, common on Okinawa, suddenly became a must-have look
for teenage girls across Japan and self-tanning lotion sales exploded. Every
detail of her clothes, her make-up, and her accessories were copied by hundreds
of thousands of girls, who began calling themselves the “Amuraa”.
“It was a shock to see teenage Amuraas. The
phenomenon was out of my control. I don’t think I did anything special to make
myself charismatic for these girls. I think I was a mirror for what they wanted
to look like and how they wanted to feel.”
She is realistic about what was going on
behind the scenes and, even in the boardroom of Avex’s Tokyo offices, she
describes the company as a “machine”. “People around me called me an idol, so
that’s what I was,” Amuro says, describing a two-year frenzy during which she
appeared on a different TV show almost every night. “I enjoyed the
opportunities, but there was no time to think. I had no choice in the decision
to make myself available. I was not always doing things I wanted to do.”
At the peak of her fame with more than 20
million album sales, she sang the theme tune to the Pokémon movies and starred
in a corny high-school film about cheating in exams. It was her reaching that
idol apex that made her marriage to Sam, a dancer from the boyband TRF, all the
more shocking to the Japanese. Marriage is still widely viewed as a woman’s
moment to bow out of whatever she’s been doing.
More humiliatingly, while still under the
control of her J-Pop bosses, Amuro and Sam, by now with a baby son, were
induced to appear in a government TV campaign urging young Japanese to settle
down and have children. She laughs when it is pointed out that the Japanese
birthrate has fallen since her campaign.
Her divorce from Sam four years later has
left Amuro again testing the limits of the Japanese system, this time as a single
parent. Particularly outrageous, she says, was the criticism by Japanese papers
that equated her comeback with the abandonment of her child. “During my grief,
I realised there was nothing I could do for my mother, but I did have a child.
I began to think more like a mother myself, and to become positive in my work
again,” she says. “I wish I could balance life as an artist and a mother, but
sometimes when I am doing live concerts, I have to ask people to help me in my
Despite her return to fame, Amuro lives
quietly. She does not have a boyfriend, rarely goes out in the evenings and
seldom meets her fans.
Amuro signalled her comeback by winning a
huge singing show live on TV. In front of one of Japan’s biggest TV audiences,
she wept when she realised how much the public wanted her back. “You never know
whether the fans will be waiting for you. All in all, I’m happy, but we’re
groping in the dark.”