"It is necessary that I am viewed as a product. I am a product."

-- Ayumi Hamasaki, quoted in TIME Asia

Ayumi Hamasaki (浜崎あゆみ) is a Japanese phenomenon.

In the last few years, Hamasaki -- universally known just as Ayu -- has become ubiquitous in Japan as pop star, TV star, advertising model... like most tarento or idoru in Japan, who never limit themselves to one forum. A cute little girl with immensely large eyes and an irritatingly nasal voice, I used to sneer and call her the Britney Spears of Japan, a manufactured entertainment product for the masses.

And I was right -- but with a very unexpected twist. Read the quote above carefully: because the only person who manufactures Ayu is Hamasaki herself. Ayumi Hamasaki is not Britney Spears of Japan; but odds are she is well on her way to becoming its Madonna.

新しく 私らしく
あなたらしく 生まれ変わる

Like new, like me,
Like you, I am reborn

"Far away"

Ayu is, at best, a mediocre singer. Prior to some tentative attempts on her last few albums (under the pseudonym CREA), she did not compose by herself. While certainly attractive, her looks and her diminutive frame alone would not be enough to compete in the Japanese market, already full of überbabes like Hitomi, and while she did model as a teen she was canned by her agency at the ripe old age of 16. In fact, it's a small miracle that she became a star at all; she was spotted at a karaoke bar by Avex talent scout Max Matsuura, who wheedled her for several years and even paid for several months of singing lessons in New York before getting her to sign a record contract.


In a place that is nowhere
I am standing on my own


Instead, she has blazed her trail primarily through sheer originality. Ayu is extremely particular (and, it must be said, at times extremely odd) about what she wears; her wardrobe ranges from combat fatigues to a kimono over jeans, while accessories range from fox tails clipped to a belt to soda can pull tabs as a necklace -- Björk comes to mind, to make yet another poor parallel to the West, except that everything Ayumi wears becomes the height of fashion overnight. (The mindless devotion of most of her fans is, alas, entirely identical if not worse than the Western sort.)


I am no longer afraid of anything
I am no longer alone


Perhaps more importantly from a musical point of view, Ayu writes all her own lyrics, which are often as quirky as their writer. The themes of love and lack thereof do feature heavily, but you won't find a single "Oops, I Did It Again" or "I Am A Slave 4 U" in her output. A love song? Try "Audience", one of her biggest hits, whose refrain extols skipping along hand in hand -- and tells people to liven up their mundane lives by going ahead and screwing up beautifully. A lack-of-love song? Try the balladlike "Scar", telling about her boyfriend crying as he left her.

While her songs are musically run-of-the-mill J-pop, she has cleverly extended her appeal by becoming, literally, the most remixed artist in the world. All her albums are released in multiple "ayu-mi-x" versions, usually one "Non-Stop Mega Mix" featuring techno/trance remixes, another "Acoustic Orchestra" with classical reworkings of her songs, and more of than not eurobeat and trance versions as well. The list of her remixers is a who's who of the dance scene: Ferry Corsten, Junior Vasquez, System F, The Orb... Unlike most Japanese singles, which are usually 3-inch mini-CDs, Ayu's singles are full-sized CDs containing up to 10(!) remixes of the same track.

To date, Ayu has sold over 30 million records in Japan alone, half of them singles and the other half albums. 12 of her singles and all of her full albums (plus one of the remix albums) have reached #1 on the Japanese charts. These have been flooded out at such a speed that she at one point had four albums in the top 10! Unfortunately, Ayu's output is (song titles excluded) entirely in Japanese, which severely limits her potential overseas. But thanks to extensive exposure on MTV Asia, she has become a fashion icon in much of the rest of Asia, and I was not a little surprised to find life-sized cardboard cutouts amd hear her songs playing in the crowded corridors of the Sungei Wang mall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.


In that memory, and others since, the sea grows wider
Somewhere meeting, connecting, flowing
And surely we see the same scenery

"Far away"

Personally, my musical tastes coincide with hers poorly enough that the only Ayu-products I really appreciate are the techno/trance a-yu-mixes; mix III, in particular, has some truly excellent tracks. But I have a lot of respect for her as an artist, and her music is so omnipresent in Japan that I can't help getting all goosubumpy and natsukashii when I hear some of her songs.


Born: October 2, 1978 in Fukuoka, Kyushu, Japan
Height: 156 cm
Weight: 46 kg
Size: 80-53-82
Blood type: A
Marital status: Engaged to childhood friend and pop star Tomoya Nagase of boy band TOKIO


http://www.avexnet.or.jp/ayu/ (official homepage, Japanese)
http://www4.ocn.ne.jp/~ayuready/ayuuta1.htm (lyrics, Japanese)
http://www.time.com/time/asia/features/ayumi_hamasaki/ (interview, English)
http://www.v-stuff.net/japan/jpop/ayumi_hamasaki/biography.htm (bio, French)
http://home.no.net/ayumi (fansite, English)
Translations by yours truly