Amuro Namie: The Eternal Queen of J-Pop

album cover of "_genic" (2015)

I first visited Tokyo in 1997 and stayed at the home of a Japanese family. There was a girl a couple of years older than me, but we didn’t talk much during my week there. We were in that teenage stage of awkward self-consciousness and grudging indifference to others. When the time came for me to leave, she gave me a present. It was the single CD of “Can You Celebrate?” by Amuro Namie.

It was like Fortnum & Mason tea from London or Chanel perfume from Paris, common and aspirational at the same time, the iconic souvenir. And a token over which a Japanese and a Korean girl could bond. It was my favorite song of that year. It remains the best-selling single by a solo female artist in Japanese music history.

the single cover of Amuro Namie’s “Can You Celebrate” (1997)

A generation had passed since WWII, and it was officially prohibited for South Koreans to import Japanese pop culture. Yet, in the late 90s, Japanese pop music—J-Pop—was at its peak throughout Asia and we all knew Amuro Namie. I remember the shock that year when she, the super idol who had just turned 20, announced her marriage and pregnancy, but also the cutest Burberry miniskirt she wore at the press conference. It sold out instantly in Japan.

Last September, when Amuro Namie announced that she would be retiring a year later, on her 40th birthday, the shock was double. First, Amuro Namie is forty?! And she still looks younger than me?! Second, why do I feel that a single year is too short to bid farewell to a singer? Throughout her 25-year career, Amuro Namie was a hero we grew up. 

Amuro Namie began as a teen idol supernova. Her solo debut single “Body Feels Exit” launched her into stardom in 1995. Her album “Sweet 19 Blues” in 1996 sold more than 3.6 million copies with euro dance pop backed by J-Pop-defining producer Tetsuya Komuro. Amuro was the face of 90s modern Japanese women, with her tanned skin, high-heeled platform boots, and miniskirts.

album cover of “Sweet 19 Blues” (1996)

From the peak of her stardom, however, she disappeared for a year for maternity leave. It seemed to have snapped a bond between her, a newly married mother, and Japanese girls who wanted to be her. Then the day Amuro released her comeback single “Respect the Power of Love” in 1999 came the gravest personal blow: her mother was murdered.

A mother’s death can drain the strength out of any young woman, but there were more layers in Amuro’s tragedy. Amuro was born and raised in Okinawa, the southern island of Japan (it’s like Rihanna coming from Barbados, if Barbados were a part of the US), by a single mom. Her mother supported the family by working as a nursery school employee by day and a bar hostess by night. Such a mother. Then she was killed by her new husband’s brother for money.

Amuro couldn’t escape to work, either. Her albums in the 2000s didn’t sell as well as they used to. She seemed to be both a symbol and relic of the 90s, out of time in a new era. Two years later, she ended her marriage and became a single mom herself.

It was a situation that could break any person. For Amuro, who fell from the highest of heights, the depth must have been deeper.

Few knew they were about to witness the making of a legend.

From 2001, Amuro distanced herself from producer Komuro and started to try new musical styles, occasionally writing her own songs. It’s not rare for an idol singer to try independence. It’s as common as those singers failing in the gap between ideal and reality. At first, Amuro seemed one of them.

Through the early 2000s, Amuro’s sales and popularity declined and her music sounded all over the place. In fact, I didn’t listen much, skipping her new songs after the first ten awkward seconds. Her 2005 album “Queen of Hip-Pop” was a relative success, but as a former fan, I felt a little bit embarrassed by the title. Why does she try to incorporate hip-hop (well, she coined the term ‘hip-pop,’ but come on), with her cute face, soft voice, and delicate dance moves? Why does she mix in English lyrics when I cannot even tell them from her Japanese? Is she juggling to impress the American market because she can’t make it at home?

Regardless of my doubt, Amuro tested a variety of western sounds, from R&B to EDM, and built her own music, her own stage, and her own style. Slow and steady. And in 2007, when I first saw the cover of her new album, “Play,” I felt a jolt of joy and relief (for the readers who don’t know Amuro: do you remember the happy tear you shed watching the music video of “Circus” by Britney Spears, after Britney’s blackout years? It’s like that.)  With horsewhip in hand, she interpreted the visual elements of sexual fetishism through her own pop persona. The album charted number one for the first time in more than seven years.

album cover of “Play” (2007)

Since then, Amuro stayed on top for a decade until her retirement, on her own terms.

Her promotional campaign, named Fashion x Music x VS, with Japanese hair company Vidal Sassoon in 2008 was sensational. She created three singles, reinterpreting the music and fashion and hairstyles of the 60s, 70s, and 80s for each. Her third compilation album, “Best Fiction” was released the same year and stayed on top for six weeks straight. Her song “Hero” was the official theme song of the Japanese team at the 2016 summer Olympics. Each album reached the top, and throughout her career, Amuro has sold more than 36 million albums in Japan alone. As of her retirement, it is more than the amount Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Kesha sold in the US combined.

Meanwhile, other Japanese female singers faded along with the diminishing influence of J-pop. Even in South Korea, at the height of idol culture, it was hard to find a powerful and mature female solo pop star who can claim Amuro’s throne. As Mt. Fuji stands alone, it felt that Amuro would be there, standing on top for good.

I remember talking about the idol groups of Korea with a friend in a Seoul cafe. When she asked me if there was any idol I liked, I named Amuro. With a deadly serious face, my friend proclaimed, “Amuro is not an idol. She’s an artist.” I apologized immediately. Although her career in this century is less known in Korea than it was before, she is yet special in my generation’s heart. Now, imagine the thunder in Japan, and for me, when she announced her retirement plan last year.

The year before her retirement, Amuro released her last album, “Finally,” did a stadium tour of Japan and Asia, and finished her journey with a farewell concert in Okinawa, as she had foretold. Though incomparable to the national grief in Japan, I felt a small loss in my heart, too.

Missing Amuro, I watched her music video “Baby Don’t Cry” again. Then I realized how powerful her smile was since I rarely saw her smiling on album covers or in concert. Even when she sang about a ‘sexy girl’ or a ‘love story,’ she didn’t seduce the audience with her smile. Her music improved in her own stable way, and her dance became sleek and never dull. She’s been the epitome of work ethic, diligent and steely. Therefore, when she smiled and delivered lyrics like, “we’re sure to always have the strength to face the darkness,” it rang true to me through the YouTube screen.

In an industry where her average competitions were teenagers, and 20-somethings are called ‘mature’, this woman stayed on top over the age of forty with the power of her personal brand. When the whole nation aimed hostile cameras at her in the middle of her personal crisis, even though her marriage, pregnancy, and loss were not her ‘fault’, Amuro never showed her anger or collapsed. It was not that she was detached. As a mother, she worked hard to support her son. As a professional, she worked hard to find her own path. With the tattoo of her son’s name and the date of her mother’s death on her arm, releasing more than one song every single year for 25 years, from debut to retirement.

It’s not just in Japanese society that we still hear sexist stereotypes, looking down on female professionals, saying that women are swayed by emotions, selling their womanness. Amuro Namie struck down those stereotypes by getting things done superbly. That’s why women of my age, in our working 30s, have looked up to her as the role model of today, beyond nostalgia.

On September 16, 2018, Amuro Namie turned off the spotlight herself and walked off the stage. I wish her happiness as a fellow woman of our time, but I still miss having such a magnificent person as my idol.

Youjin Lee

Youjin Lee

Youjin Lee is editor-in-chief of April Magazine and South Korean private attorney. She divides her time between Asia and Europe, dreaming of writing a cozy murder mystery someday.