The word “icon” is thrown around a lot, but who are the real iconic females of Japanese pop? An icon should stand apart from their peers and embody the spirit of their generation. They should be distinct to a particular time and place while at the same time transcending it. That being said, Utada Hikaru is perhaps the only contemporary Japanese pop figure who fully inhabits this role. By looking at her predecessors we can find some revealing reflections of both Utada herself and the eras they helped define.
In the late 1990s, Utada’s most immediate predecessor was Namie Amuro. Her image was modern and fashionable, providing a contrast to the girly idol eras that came before and after. Namie represented a period when JPop was learning to see itself as something that could stand alongside the Western music from which it took many cues.
Utada took this and ran with it. Her background growing up in the US added extra authenticity to her already unusually polished style of R&B, leading her to surpass both Namie and her other main rival of the era, Ayumi Hamasaki.
If an icon is defined in part by longevity, then few can surpass Seiko Matsuda, a singer who remains the face of 1980s Japan even today. While Seiko and Utada’s careers have parallels, with both dominating Japanese charts but having little success with their American releases, they are largely opposites.
Underneath Seiko’s sweet, hyper cute image laid fierce ambition. She also an idol rather than an artist. Her legacy is best expressed in singles rather than albums. Seiko was all about artifice while Utada urges you to consider the substance.
For a better understanding of what Utada is aiming for, it would be more useful to look at who wrote Seiko’s hits, with some of the biggest (“Akai Sweet Pea,” “Nagisa no Balcony,” among others) being the work of another female pop icon: Yumi Matsutoya.
At the same time she was contributing to Seiko Matsuda’s record breaking run of #1 hit singles, Yumi’s own career was much more focused on albums. The balance she struck between commercial success and artistic integrity is a source of inspiration to many aspiring musicians. When Utada chose the path of singer-songwriter over idol, whether she knew it or not, she was following in the footstep of Yumi Matsutoya.
Where Utada and Yumi differ most is in their background and environment. As a teen, Yumi, who was then known by her maiden name of Yumi Arai, was hanging out in vibrant late 1960s / early 1970s artistic circles that included novelist Kobo Abe, filmmaker Akira Kurosawa and musicians like Haruomi Hosono, Akiko Yano and others. Surrounded by creative equals, Yumi’s career has been characterized by collaborations, most prominently with her husband Masataka Matsutoya.
Born in New York and removed from the Japanese music scene, Utada’s first foray into music came via her musician parents. The Utada family formed the unit U3 before Utada began her solo career. Her mother, former enka singer Fuji Keiko, is perhaps Utada’s single most defining musical influence.
Enka may seem far from the R&B-influenced pop she is most famous for, but with its raw emotional appeal, enka in its heyday is perhaps the closest parallel to the role Utada plays among her own generation.
In the 1950s and 60s the biggest star was undoubtedly enka singer Misora Hibari. She began her career as a child star who lifted Japan’s shattered spirits after World War II. She grew up and matured alongside the postwar generation, channeling their experiences through her music.
The impact of Utada’s return after her 2011 hiatus stems in part from how she has connected to the generation that has grown up alongside her.
However, if Misora Hibari has transcended mere pop stardom to become a mythical figure and Seiko Matsuda embodies the glitz and glamour of the bubble era’s excess, Utada Hikaru is something a little more subdued and even melancholy.
Coming onto the scene in 1998 amid delayed banking collapses that followed the bursting of the bubble era, with the memories of the 1995 Kobe earthquake and Tokyo subway gas attack still fresh, Utada is an icon for a generation united in their sense of alienation.
Her current return comes in the aftermath of her mother’s tragic death in 2013 and the hope represented by the birth of her son last year. Perhaps the message Utada greets her generation with, as they struggle through a fresh era of uncertainty, is simply, “We’ll get through this one too, somehow.”
Ian Martin’s full article can be read here.