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Japanese Pop Culture Throwbacks: The Rivalries of the Female Artist Boom

Posted by Motifive, 25 April 2017 · 1862 views

Idol fans may be familiar with the term 'Idol Sengoku period.' The success of AKB48 started the idol boom of the 2010s and led to the debuts of many more idol groups aiming for the top of the idol world, a trend that hadn't been seen since the 1980s. With all of these idol groups co-existing at the same time, rivalries were formed and enforced by fans.

But rivalries are nothing new in the Japanese music industry. Most rivalries are centered around female celebrities who share something in common. Similarly aged, debuted around the same time, aimed toward the same demographic or any combination of the three. Most of these rivalries are drummed up by the media and the fans, not the celebrities themselves.

In 1998, the female artist boom kicked off. Many female artists debuted that year and found success at a time when the charts were dominated by mega producer Komuro Tetsuya and rock bands. In response, labels continued to debut and hype up female artists to ride the wave. The boom only lasted until the early 2000s, but most of these singers had such impact at the time that they are still active, or remembered, to this date.

It would take forever to detail all of the rivalries of this era, so here are the ones that were the most notable at the time, or had lasting impact.

Amuro Namie vs. Kahala Tomomi (1996-1997)

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Technically, these two were categorized as idols at the time of their rivalry. They also preceded the female artist boom that began in 1998, but the absence of their stardom at that time could perhaps be linked to the reason why there were countless young female artists that debuted in their absence, in hopes of earning the positions they occupied in the industry.

Amuro debuted in 1992 as the center of the Okinawan idol group SUPER MONKEY'S. Despite being unlike any other group at the time because of their dance training, they didn't receive an audience. On the brink of being disbanded, the group finally had a hit when they rebranded in early 1995 with Amuro as the centerpiece, the other members as backup dancers and their music went from idol pop to Eurobeat music. Amuro's tanned skin, high heeled boots and miniskirts turned her into a top idol immediately and a fashion icon. By late 1995, mega producer Komuro Tetsuya decided to produce Amuro's music after seeing her perform and she was signed as a soloist to avex trax.

Shimowagara Tomomi started her musical career that same year. She had originally started her career by modeling. She soon met Komuro Tetsuya who took a liking to her. Komuro gave her the stage name Kahala Tomomi for her musical debut, so that they could have matching initials. Kahala, unlike Amuro, did not have any dance ability and she didn't have much stage charisma. But, her bright, bubbly airhead personality, awkwardness and her referrals to herself in the third person ("Tomo-chan") made her all the more lovable to the public. She became known as the 'Cinderella' of the music industry, going from a somewhat unknown model to a superstar quickly.

With both kicking off successful solo careers in 1995, the media began to pit them against each other the following year. It didn't help that not only did they share the same producer, but they were foils for each other. While Kahala was smiley and bubbly on stage, Amuro was sleek, cool and 'wild.' In March of 1996, Kahala released her hit single I'm proud, and the following week, Amuro released her hit single Don't wanna cry. Both singles proved their longevity on the charts as the singers both continued to release a streak of hit singles.

In June, Kahala released her debut album LOVE BRACE, which opened with sales of over a million copies. Her highly publicized relationship with Komuro also became a focus point for the media. In July, Amuro released her debut solo album SWEET 19 BLUES, which opened with sales of 1.9 million copies, not only surpassing the sales of Kahala's album but smashed records at the time. Amuro's reach began to extend far beyond Kahala's: she was featured in a film with Johnny's idol Yamaguchi Tatsuya, she had her own variety show with comedian Imada Koji and was a regular on the hit music cover program Yoru Mo Hippare. She also became a fashion leader and started the Amuraa trend, which would evolve into the gyaru trend in 1997.

By the end of 1996, Kahala's I'm proud still managed to outsell Amuro's Don't wanna cry and outranked it on the Oricon Yearly Singles Chart. But Amuro's debut solo album outsold and outranked Kahala's. So for the most part, the two were still within the same league.

1997 began and the two singers' streak of domination over the music charts continued. Amuro released the wedding themed single CAN YOU CELEBRATE?, which became the best selling single by a female artist of all time, a record she still holds to this date. Kahala also enjoyed success with a streak of successful singles and continued to be admired among young women as she ranked first once again as the celebrity women wanted to look like.

But, trouble was up ahead for both singers. Kahala's relationship with Komuro being stuffed down the media and the public's throat began to receive negative attention that year. The two were unlike the majority of Japanese celebrity couples at the time, they openly flaunted their relationship and enjoyed the media attention. The two were on the cover of her 1997 album (after already being featured her debut album's booklet) and even parodied the attention their relationship received in the CM for the album. This 'open' image made Kahala a constant topic in the weekly tabloid magazines. The tabloids often talked about Komuro and Kahala's relationship, but by mid 1997, allegations of Komuro's infidelity (which wasn't hard to believe, as Komuro was well known in the media for being a playboy), Kahala being a party girl and even allegations of drug abuse began to arise. Kahala's Cinderella image was starting to crack.

In the fall of 1997, a 19 year old Amuro shocked the industry and the public by announcing she was pregnant and that would be marrying dancer SAM, a member of the Komuro produced group TRF. Amuro was an idol at the time, just shy of her 20th birthday, and SAM was 15 years her senior, so the country was rightfully stunned. The two held a press conference and Amuro's new look came as a surprise to the public, and more importantly, to her fans. Her trademark long hair was gone and her makeup was much less pronounced than usual. The black turtleneck and Burberry skirt combination would become a sought after look the following year. Amuro announced at the press conference she would be going on hiatus and return post-maternity leave. The sales of Amuro's final single before her maternity leave were roughly 100,000 copies less than the previous single, which reflected the negative impact of her sudden announcement.

The beginning of 1998 seemed bleak for fans of the two artists. Amuro was on maternity leave with tabloids reporting on her in-law troubles and a rocky relationship with her husband, and Komuro and Kahala's romantic and business relationship came to an immediate end. Although Amuro was no longer an issue, Komuro distancing himself from Kahala made her image worsen and her decline soon began.

This also brought about a change in the music industry. Labels began signing and debuting young female singers to take the place of the scandal ridden pair that once dominated the music scene. This in turn gave rise to the female artist boom that started in 1998.

Hamasaki Ayumi vs. Suzuki Ami (1998-2000)

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Amuro and Kahala vanishing off of the top of the charts left huge holes in the industry. avex trax, Amuro's label, was without a star to be at the forefront of their brand. Komuro was without both of his successful soloists. And so, both Hamasaki Ayumi and Suzuki Ami debuted in 1998.

Hamasaki Ayumi debuted in the spring with a huge push from avex trax and her producer, Matsuura Max (who was credited with SUPER MONKEY's rebranding and turning Amuro into a star). With this huge push came push back. Hamasaki was immediately called out for being a blatant Kahala Tomomi ripoff. Her simple image, high pitched speaking voice and her airhead act, including referring to herself in third person, were all too similar to Kahala Tomomi. Despite the bashing, Hamasaki very slowly started to gain popularity throughout the year for what the public perceived as her 'honest' nature and surprisingly brooding outlook on life that she only displayed in magazine interviews and through her lyrics.

Suzuki Ami was a contestant on ASAYAN, competing to become the latest artist under the Komuro Tetsuya brand and would be signed under Sony Music Japan. Even with her lack of singing talent the 15 year old became popular for her bright energy and tomboy look. ASAYAN regularly showed Suzuki with her friends from school, at home and being a normal girl, which made her more relatable than her follow contestants who were shown to be stoic and seemed only focused on the competition. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Suzuki won the contest by a large margin with 800,000 votes for her to win and debuted in the summer of 1998. Of course, with Komuro as her producer, 'Amigo' as she was dubbed by her fans was aiming to occupy the seat once held by Kahala Tomomi as well.

While Hamasaki was marketed more as an artist, penning her own lyrics, Suzuki was marketed more as an idol. Nevertheless, the two were promoted aggressively throughout the year with Hamasaki releasing a total of five singles and Suzuki releasing four singles. Their sound was somewhat similar, pop music with the slight dance infused sound that Kahala Tomomi became so well known for. With Suzuki's running head start coming off of a hugely successful program, she held the lead over Hamasaki throughout the year.

Suzuki turned the tables toward the end of 1998 by releasing a harder techno based single, a daring move by Komuro, in order to break her away from the Kahala Tomomi image. Hamasaki similarly did the same in early 1999 after the release of her debut album with a house based single. Hamasaki's debut album sold 548,210 copies in its first week while Suzuki's debut album, released two months later, sold a little over a million copies in its first week. Suzuki still had the edge for the first quarter of 1999.

It was announced then in the early summer of 1999 by their respective labels that the singers would be releasing singles on the same day. And so, on July 14th, Suzuki's BE TOGETHER and Hamasaki's Boys & Girls were released. Other acts releasing that day were Johnny's group V6 and Morning Musume, adding to the risk factor. Up until that point, all four had first week sales that were somewhat close in range (with Suzuki's sales totals outselling all four), so fans of each were nervous. Oricon did not release daily rankings at the time, so the public, fans of each act and the media were on the edge of their seats waiting for the weekly ranking. Suzuki and Hamasaki appeared on Music Station together during the wait for the weekly numbers, where they coyly confirmed they were each other's rivals.

The weekly ranking was then announced with Suzuki at #1 with a little over 310,000 copies and Hamasaki at #2 with a little over 260,000 copies. The following week saw Hamasaki's single push Suzuki out of the #1 spot and stay at the top spot for another two weeks following. Suzuki's single went on to sell 900,000 copies while Hamasaki's sold just over a million, a feat neither had achieved until then. Hamasaki's label quickly pushed out another single, A, about a month after Boys & Girls to ride off of the hype of the single still occupying the #1 spot.

Hamasaki further eclipsed Suzuki as 1999 pushed on. Not only were both her singles Boys & Girls and A at the #1 spot for 6 non consecutive weeks, but Hamasaki quickly changed her image, starting her own version of gyaru that not only attracted female fans who would look up to her but male wota who were drawn to her 'clean' gyaru look. She also continued using the techno infused pop rock sound that sounded refreshing to the public's ears after half a decade of Komuro Tetsuya dominated charts.

By the end of 1999, Hamasaki had reached new levels, with her sophomore and second album of the year selling 1.2 million copies in its first week. She had successfully taken the seat left vacant by Amuro Namie, becoming a fashion icon and a figure for young girls and young women to aspire to. Suzuki attempted to shed her tomboy image and go for a more fashionable image as well but it was a bust, as most of her fans were male wota who preferred the old Ami. Her new look only lasted months before she returned to the look that made her famous and settled back into her idol image. But between Hamasaki establishing herself as a fashion icon and moving into the new millennium with a fast release pace of 8 releases total in the first quarter of 2000 alone, Suzuki could not keep up. The rivalry was no more by the end of 2000.

But the 'Ami & Ayu' rivalry was one of the few rivalries of this era that did not spill into the fanbase. Fans of one were fans of the other, with most Amigo wota becoming Ayu wota as well. This led to the formation of the 2channel board Ami & Ayu in January 2000 where wota would discuss both artists and even organize offline meetups during both artists' spring tours that year.

Suzumi Ami vs. Abe Natsumi, Morning Musume (1998-1999)

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It seems odd to include this rivalry, since this one was between Suzuki as an idol and Abe Natsumi, an idol herself. But due to the 90s being the 'Idol Ice Age', Morning Musume was considered a direct rival to the female artists that also debuted in 1998. Suzuki was the biggest rival of the group.

So we all know the story of how Morning Musume was formed on ASAYAN, but not about how they were almost ruthlessly pitted against fellow ASAYAN family member Suzuki Ami. The hosts of the show, comedians Yabe Hiroyuki and Okamura Takashi often drummed up a rivalry between Suzuki Ami and Morning Musume center Abe Natsumi. Both short haired girls that were just a year apart in age. Suzuki was still quite ahead of Morning Musume with her CM deals, magazine appearances and sales. But the rivalry was still brought up constantly.

ASAYAN alumni would often appear on the program when they had a release to promote and the hosts of the program would bring up the rivalry with both Suzuki and Morning Musume on stage. Abe seemed to take it more seriously than Suzuki did and often pouted silently when the hosts praised Suzuki purposefully.

With July 14, 1999 marking a single sales battle between Hamasaki Ayumi and Suzuki Ami, ASAYAN wanted to drum up the Amigo/Nacchi rivalry even more than it should've been by announcing Morning Musume would be also releasing a single that day. The media often forgot to mention Morning Musume, as most were more interested in the rivalry between 'Ami & Ayu' in an era where female artists were at the top of the charts. To rub it further in Morning Musume's faces, the comedian hosts of the show even told Suzuki they were rooting for her to win to get a reaction out of Abe and the rest of Morning Musume.

And so, July 14 came. Morning Musume's Furusato was released that day along side Hamasaki and Suzuki's singles. Again, BE TOGETHER ranked at #1 and Boys & Girls ranked at #2. Furusato came in at #5, with first week sales of 102,720 copies. Though that was not too much lower than their previous single, they were the only act that did not see an increase in sales because of the July 14th 'single battle.' As a cruel form of punishment, ASAYAN set up Morning Musume in one room and Suzuki in another to react to the news of their rankings. Upon finding out she ranked #1 for the week, Suzuki was shown celebrating while the staff congratulated her. In the next shot, Morning Musume upon learning they ranked #5 for the week was deathly silent until leader Nakazawa offered a brief, upset statement over their loss. Morning Musume's single dropped off the charts completely after a few weeks, selling only roughly 170,000 copies total with Suzuki's single, again, selling roughly 900,000 copies total.

But even during early promotion for Love Machine, Abe still insisted Suzuki was their rival when asked about Morning Musume's relationship at that time to the singer on Utaban. Even the freshly debuted Goto proclaimed Suzuki was her rival in a survey Utaban provided to her and even sung BE TOGETHER for her audition.

If it weren't for the rivalry between Suzuki and Morning Musume which led to Morning Musume's failure, the group wouldn't have seen their first crisis. This crisis led to a rebranding of their image and sound with Love Machine with sales totals that ended up outselling Suzuki's BE TOGETHER. It also led to the start of the group's Golden Era.

Utada Hikaru vs. Kuraki Mai (2000)

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When Utada Hikaru debuted in December 1998, Japan was shocked. Here was a mysterious 15 year old dancing in front of a chair singing R&B, a genre that was hardly explored by the mainstream music industry.

When Kuraki Mai debuted in December 1999, Japan was shocked once again. Here was a mysterious 16 year old dancing on and in front of a chair singing R&B, a genre that had become popular mostly due to Utada's influence.

Somewhat confusing, to say the least. It didn't help that Kuraki's hairstyle in the PV had some similarity to the hairstyle Utada wore at the time, which added to the confusion. It might be hard to believe now when we live in a time where a simple Google search could fix the confusion, but there were people who thought Kuraki actually was Utada.

Utada and Kuraki wota, as they were called, argued constantly. Think of the insults and arguments between AKB wota and H!P wota during the height of the Idol Sengoku period. Now picture them co-existing on the same 2ch board, and you have a fraction of how heated the Utada wota and Kuraki wota arguments were. They argued constantly on 2ch's music board, a hugely popular board dedicated to artists and bands. Where nowadays the idol boards on 2ch see the most traffic, the music board was the most popular board back then and reflected a time when the music industry was dominated by female artists and bands.

The rivalry became an even more heated issue in June of 2000. Utada, after a year of not appearing on television due to her focusing solely on her academics during the school year, began promoting her second single of 2000 by appearing on music programs. One of these appearances, on June 26, was on the popular music variety program Hey!Hey!Hey! hosted by popular comedian duo Downtown. During the talk segment, Downtown's Hamada Masatoshi suddenly brought up Kuraki's debut PV as subtly as he could and Utada subtly acknowledged she understood what he meant. Hamada's duo partner Matsumoto was left puzzled about what they were talking about as they didn't directly mention Kuraki. Hamada continued to say that when he first saw Kuraki's debut PV he thought it was 'plagiarism.' Utada, going along with the joke, said that when she saw Kuraki's PV on television she thought Kuraki was her. The two, and the audience who caught on, laughed about it.

The media went into an uproar. Though most people had thought the same and it was commonly accepted, it was the first time it was pointed out. And even if Kuraki was not directly mentioned, it was still the first time it was done by the media. Kuraki, who had made no television appearances at the time, which was another factor that led to most believing she was a complete 'Utada copy', did not have the opportunity to respond. Wota of the two ran to the music board on 2ch and a flame war ensued immediately. Fans, the public and the media paid close attention as Kuraki's debut single and Utada's single would release on the 28th, two days after the Hey!Hey!Hey! appearance, to see how the scandal would affect the sales.

On the day of their album and single's release date, Utada took to her blog to express surprise that her fans and Kuraki fans were fighting online and tried to clear up the confusion. She explained that she really didn't think Kuraki was like her at all, and that she and Hamada were talking about the similarity in labels/agencies. She also went on to say that Hamada should not have made such a comment and that she should not have laughed. But even with a response from Utada herself, Kuraki wota were even more fired up and called for a boycott against not only Utada, but also Downtown's Hamada and even the channel Hey!Hey!Hey! was on.

When the weekly rankings were out, both singers were #1 on the album and single charts. Kuraki's debut album opened with a little over 2 million copies in its first week and went on to sell 3 million copies, becoming the best selling album that year. Utada's single opened with sales of a little over 450,000 copies. Those would be impressive numbers for any other artist, even at the time, but they were Utada's lowest first week sales to date. They were roughly 400,000 copies less than her last single released only 2 months prior and roughly 600,000 copies less than the single before that. Many attributed the low sales to Utada's 'behavior' on Hey!Hey!Hey! and her subsequent blog post.

Kuraki wota saw Utada's single falling short in sales and Hamada finally issuing an apology as a win for their idol, but it was too little too late. The increasing sentiment that she was nothing more than an 'Utada copy', the media's focus on the fallout with her father and the fact that she dropped out of school (so unlike Utada, the public thought Kuraki had no valid reason for not appearing on television) made her the target of bashing and lowered her status in the industry. Her sales saw a decline only months after the release of her successful debut album. And with Utada's absence in the latter half of 2000 to attend university in New York, the rivalry fizzled out by the end of the year.

Hamasaki Ayumi vs. Utada Hikaru (2001 - 2008)

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Between the Hamasaki/Suzuki rivalry and the Utada/Kuraki 'feud', these two weren't often compared to each other even though they were the true stars of the '1998 debuts.' They had little in common besides being top artists: Hamasaki was 22 and Utada was 18 at the time, Hamasaki focused mainly on the techno infused pop rock styles that made her a hit while Utada's releases were R&B influenced, Hamasaki's image was so perfect that her fans called her a robot while Utada blogged openly about her thoughts and daily life. And besides Utada's single snatching the #1 spot over Hamasaki's album recut single in November 1999, there wasn't a real reason that would pit the two artists against each other.

After a 6 month hiatus from the industry, Utada announced she would be releasing her sophomore album, Distance, on March 28th, 2001. There were high hopes for the album. In February she would be releasing a highly anticipated single, the theme song for the hugely successful drama HERO with SMAP's Kimura Takuya as the star. The media already began projecting sales for her sophomore album.

A month later, Hamasaki Ayumi's label, avex trax, then announced Hamasaki would be releasing a best album, A BEST, on March 28th. It came as a shock, not only with it being released the same day as Utada's sophomore album but also with Hamasaki's singing career just being shy of 3 years old. Best albums, back then at least, had the image of being for artists who put years into the industry or were disbanding. Besides, Hamasaki had already released two million selling singles in December and January and had another single slated for early March. Hamasaki wota on 2ch's music board went into a panic and accused avex of not only overworking Hamasaki but trying to get her to 'ride off of' Utada's sales.

From January to early March, Utada's single and Hamasaki's three singles dominated the monthly Oricon charts. avex launched an aggressive campaign to promote Hamasaki, including CMs released daily that counted down to the album release. Hamasaki's face was on the cover of almost every magazine released in March, regardless of genre. She also added Hi-Chew candy that month to the long list of endorsements she had, she won the Annual Japan Gold Disc award just two weeks before the album's release date and announced her first Dome tour that would take place in the summer. All of this built up further anticipation for A BEST.

So a rivalry like this hadn't ever been seen before in the music industry. Utada, the artist whose debut album sold 7 million and shattered Oricon records, and Hamasaki Ayumi, a fashion leader whose popularity was so spectacular she could release successful albums and singles at a pace unlike any other artist before. The media enjoyed every minute of it, with wide shows polling people on the street on who they thought would 'win.' Even music stores took a stand. Tower Records had giant Utada posters at their entrances while HMV, whose main branch at the time was based in Shibuya (known as the gyaru capital), had giant Hamasaki Ayumi posters lined on every corner.

Unlike the the rivalries they had with other female artists, the two did not acknowledge each other in the lead up to the albums' release. Hamasaki explained that she was worried about the album after expressing some displeasure that her 2000 album, Duty, did not do as well as she had hoped (it sold a whopping 2.6 million copies that year but came second in year end sales to Kuraki's debut album) and was worried that the release of a best album so soon would signal the end of her peak.

In a documentary 3 years later, Hamasaki further explained she was opposed to not only releasing a best album so early into her career, but that her label was creating a feud with another artist. She also stated in that same documentary she attempted to stall production by requesting to re-record the older songs in her discography, but that only made A BEST more valuable for the public. She also chose the cover concept for the album as a 'rebellion' against avex, which featured Hamasaki shedding a tear, alluding to the fact that she felt trapped by her own label.

Then came March 28th. CD stores set up stands outside because the lines were much longer than expected on release day. Oricon still hadn't implemented its daily ranking system, so the public anxiously waited until the weekly rankings were out. Utada was at #1 with first week sales of 3,002,720 copies and Hamasaki at #2 with 2,855,000 copies sold. These numbers shattered records and established the world record for most copies sold in a single territory in its first week, a record that was broken 14 years later by Adele's album through both physical and digital sales.

Both Distance and A BEST took turns at the #1 and #2 positions for their first four weeks and sat in the top 5 for a little over a month. Both albums charted for a little under 50 weeks, with final numbers for year end putting Distance at 4.4 million copies sold and A BEST at 4.2 million copies sold. In October 2016, Oricon finally released the first day sales numbers to Music Station who was glossing over the Distance/A BEST rivalry in a VTR segment. Both artists sold 1.6 million copies of their albums in a single day. With albums being released in a single edition back then and without any incentive to buy a release on its first day, these numbers are highly impressive even to this date.

Utada secured the titles of best selling single of 2001 and best selling album of 2001 with Distance. Utada also had the best selling album the following year but Hamasaki's summer single outsold all Utada's 2002 releases and was the only single to sell a million copies that year.

And unlike the rivalries above, the Utada and Hamasaki rivalry lasted for years. Both became known as the 'queens' of Japanese pop music well into the 2000s. And interestingly enough, unlike all the above rivalries, the two never appeared on television together or even addressed the other artist directly. Even though Utada was known for being outspoken unlike most Japanese celebrities due to her having lived overseas, she never mentioned Hamasaki and kept mum about the album drama. The same for Hamasaki who kept referring to Utada as 'another artist', 'that other artist' in the 2004 documentary mentioned above, which was the first time she spoke about the album battle. The two finally acknowledged and even appeared together for the first time on Music Station in 2005. Hamasaki affectionately called Utada 'Hikaru-chan' and Utada said she sung Hamasaki's songs at karaoke.

Finally, almost 14 years after the Distance and A BEST feud, Hamasaki appeared on a tribute album dedicated to Utada after being requested by Utada herself. Hamasaki surprisingly opted to cover one of Utada's early R&B hits, Movin' on without you. Hamasaki's version was well received by fans of both and caused the media to reminisce about the iconic 'album battle' of 2001.

This was a nice big juicy post. :good:  Some of these I knew and some of these I'd only heard/read snippets about. And those old 2ch comments are nuts. I guess with the lack of idols back then it makes sense for wota types to end up following these singers but yeesh.

I remember that around 2005, I first read the name "Ayumi Hamasaki" in an English textbook in school (in Europe). The topic back then was Japan, and Ayumi was introduced as the number one singer of the country. For some reason, that stuck in my head and I never realized that Utada Hikaru was just as popular back then.


Thanks for writing these, and for putting Morning Musume's history a little bit in perspective! :)