J-Pop is a music genre that entered mainstream Japanese culture in the 1990s, and has since become world famous. Modern J-pop has its roots in traditional Japanese music, as well as 1960s pop and rock. In the ‘70s, the pop genre in Japan was redefined by an electronic synthpop style, and while it maintains some of this influence today, J-pop has amalgamated earlier influences to become the hybrid it is today.
Many J-pop artists have created multi-million dollar empires with their music, and have branched out to modeling and fashion careers, and huge endorsements - much like their American and European counterparts. However, unlike the biggest Western stars, J-Pop stars haven't been widely diffused across the continents. Their brand of Japanese language synthetic pop is still a niche interest on this side of the pond.
Oricon Inc. is the Japanese equivalent of America’s Billboard, and keeps track of the yearly best-sellers in Japan. All of the artists on this list have, at one point, been on Oricon’s top charts. Although it isn't always easy to pinpoint the exact and overall earnings of some of these celebrities, here are the most lucrative best-sellers according to Oricon earnings throughout the years.
Other research around endorsement deals and other sources of wealth has been combined with this information to rank the 15 highest-paid and richest J-pop stars of all time.
15 Masahiro Nakai - Approx. $10 million
Masahiro Nakai is the leader of the Japanese idol group SMAP. He was also the host of the longest-running variety show, Utaban, from 1996 to 2010. In 1987, Nakai joined the Johnny & Associates talent agency at the age of 14, and he is one of only two people who has skipped auditions and gone directly into the agency as a trainee.
In 2003, Nakai hosted no less than 10 programs, of which he was paid between 3 and 4 million yen per episode ($24,000 to $33,000). Partly because of his involvement in these variety shows, Nakai was identified as the highest taxpayer of any entertainer in Japan by the Japanese National Tax Bureau in 2003.
14 Momoiro Clover Z - $43.4 million (2013)
Momoiro Clover Z is a relatively new Japanese idol group. The band is commonly abbreviated as Momoclo. The group was ranked as the most popular female idol group in 2013 and 2014 surveys, and they are known for their energetic performances that incorporate elements of ballet, gymnastics, and action movies.
In 2013, the band had the 4th highest total sales revenue in Japan, grossing 5.2 billion yen, or $43.4 million. They formed in 2008 as a six-member unit, without the “Z” on their name, and the group’s slogan was “Idols you can meet right now.” In other words, the group was composed of ‘innocent girls who want to bring happiness to people,’ according to their 2-year anniversary video.
13 B’z - $44.5 million (2013)
B’z (pronounced Biizu) is a Japanese rock duo consisting of Takahiro “Tak” Matsumoto (guitarist, composer, producer), and Koshi Inaba (lead singer, lyricist). Together, B’z is one of the best-selling music artists in the world, and the best-selling band in Japan of all time, with over 80 million records sold worldwide. They have released 46 consecutive #1 singles in Japan.
B’z became the first band from Asia to have their handprints and signatures put on Hollywood’s RockWalk. In 2011, guitarist Tak Matsumoto ranked first in a poll on who the Japanese people thought was the best guitarist to represent their country.
12 Ikimono-gakari - $46.5 million (2010)
Ikimono-gakari is a 3-member pop rock band from the Kanagawa Prefecture. The group began as a duo in 1999 with harmonicist and guitarist Hotaka Yamashita, and bandleader and guitarist Yoshiki Mizuno. They were joined by vocalist Kiyoe Yoshioka later that same year. The group’s name is a reference to a group of children who are responsible for looking after plants and animals in Japanese elementary schools.
In 2006, they released their first single under Epic Records Japan, an imprint of Sony. Several of their albums have hit #1 on the Oricon weekly rankings, and their songs have also been featured on TV commercials, anime shows, TV dramas, and the 2012 Olympic broadcast theme song for NHK.
11 Kis-My-Ft2 - $78.5 million (2012, 2014)
Kis-My-Ft2 (or “Kiss My Foot Two”) is a 7-person boy band managed by Johnny & Associates. The group was a former Johnny’s Jr. unit (a subgroup of the agency that specializes on people who haven’t debuted as a unit or solo act yet) from 2005 to 2010. Their first debut announcement in 2010 was postponed due to the Great Tohoku Earthquake.
10 Mr. Children - $82.3 million (2012)
Mr. Children are a long-running four-piece pop rock band that formed in 1988. The band has maintained its original lineup since its creation. They are the second best-selling artists in Japan of all time (behind B’z) with over 50 million records sold. In the mid-1990s, they created the “Mis-chil Phenomenon.”
The band consists of lead singer, composer, and guitarist Kazutoshi Sakurai, guitarist Kenichi Tahara, bassist Keisuke Nakagawa, and drummer Hideya Suzuki. Mr. Children held the record for the highest first-week sales of a single in Japan for 15 years (1.2 million copies on their 10th single), and they have 30 consecutive #1 singles.
9 Kanjani8 - $127.8 million (2012, 2013, 2014)
Kanjani Eight, stylized as Kanjani∞, is a seven-member Japanese boy band from Japan’s Kansai region. They are managed by Johnny & Associates. The group formed in 2002, and their sound changed by 2006 to become a mix of pop and rock. The band was formed from the combination of four top-leading Kansai Juniors and the popular V. West rock group.
Kanjani is a portmanteau of the words Kansai Johnny’s, and the “8“ comes from the channel that an early stage play of theirs aired on. Originally, they were also an eight-member group. Kanjani8 has been hugely popular since their debut, but it wasn’t until the last three years that they really saw huge success.
8 EXILE - $180 million (2010, 2011, 2012)
EXILE is a 19-member Japanese boy band. The leader of the group, Hiroyuki Igarashi (Hiro) was a member of the Japanese band Zoo, from 1989 to 1995, until forming EXILE (first as J Soul Brothers) in 1999. The band officially became EXILE in 2001. They have sold over 20 million records in Japan alone.
Atsushi Satō (Atsushi) and Shunsuke Kiyokiba (Shun) are the lead vocalists of the group. The group consists of 19 performers and dancers, all with stylized stage names - shortened versions of their real names. Their 2005 collaboration with Japanese rock band Glay peaked at #1 and sold over 500,000 copies on the Oricon charts, skyrocketing their fame.
7 AKB48 - $543 million since 2010
AKB48 is an all-girl J-pop group, and the 2010 Guinness World Record holder for the “largest pop group” when they numbered 48 people. Since then, they’ve expanded their roster to 140 members, including different teams and sister groups in China and Indonesia. According to Oricon, as of January 6, 2012, AKB48 sold a total of 11,787,000 singles, setting a record for “most singles sold in Japan by a female group.”
AKB48‘s 23 latest singles have topped Oricon weekly singles chart, and a record 18 singles of theirs have sold over a million copies. The group is more of an entertainment empire at this point, making it to the yearly top five highest-earners list by Oricon for the past five years, earning more than $100 million each year since 2010.
6 Arashi - $560 million since 2009
There have been two bands that have dominated the Japanese charts in the past five years: AKB48, and Arashi. The two groups have competed for the top spots on Oricon’s yearly market charts since 2009. Unlike the 140-piece female J-pop group AKB48, Arashi is a more traditional, five-member unit. Arashi has been around since 1999, though they faced declining sales after their debut single in 2001.
In 2009, Arashi came back in a big way, topping the 2009 Oricon singles, album, and music DVD yearly charts. They monopolized the top three best-selling singles of the year and were ranked #1 on Oricon’s highest-earning artists in 2009 and 2010 (earning $142 million in the latter year).
5 Kumi Koda - $50 million
Getting down to the single richest J-pop artists, we come to Kumi Koda, a singer from Kyoto. She is known for her R&B and pop songs, and gained fame for her seventh single, “Real Emotion/1000 no Kotoba,” which was used in the video game Final Fantasy X-2. Her popularity grew with her fourth album, 2005’s Secret.
Koda’s early releases presented a quiet, conservative image, but like so many young pop idols, she adopted a sexier and provocative style later on (as early as 2003). She has become a fashion leader amongst young women, and has lent her face to many advertisements.
4 Hikaru Utada - $55 million
Hikaru Utada, who goes by the mononym Utada, is a Japanese-American singer and songwriter. Her Japanese debut album, First Love, went on to become the best-selling album in Oricon history. Three of her studio albums have reached the top 10 best-selling albums list of all-time in Japan. It is estimated that Utada has sold more than 52 million records worldwide.
Time Magazine described her as a “Diva on Campus” after her brief stint at Columbia University in 2000. In 2009, The Japan Times called her “the most influential artist of the decade” in the Japanese landscape.
3 Namie Amuro - $100 million
Namie Amuro is a J-pop and R&B singer who was considered the “Queen of J-Pop” or “Japanese Madonna” during the height of her career. She debuted as an idol in the girl group Super Monkey’s at the age of 14.
She’s been active since 1992, and became a commercial success in 1997 with her single, “Can You Celebrate?”, which became Japan’s best-selling single by a solo female artist at the time. Amuro is also an actress and fashion model, and has started several fashion trends.
2 Masaharu Fukuyama - $175 million
Masaharu Fukuyama is a multi-instrumentalist from Nagasaki. He is a member of the entertainment company Amuse, Inc., and has been one of Japan’s most successful entertainers since 1990, when he debuted his first single. Fukuyama is best known for his singing career, but he’s also a famous actor, working on no less than 15 TV dramas since 1991, and nine films.
1 Ayumi Hamasaki - $400 million
Depending on who you talk to, Ayumi Hamasaki (called Ayu) is worth somewhere between $70-, $185-, and $400-million. Throughout her entire career, Ayu has written her own lyrics, produced her own music, and has enforced her position as an artist, rather than a “product.” This has helped make her the wealthiest Japanese artist of all time.
Ayu has sold over 53 million records in Japan alone, making her the best-selling solo or duo artist in Japan (female or male). She has the most #1 hits as a female artist, the most consecutive #1 hits by a solo artist, and the most million-sellers.
Thanks to smart stock investments, substantial property holdings, and lucrative endorsement deals (such as with CoverGirl), Hamasaki is far-and-away the richest Japanese entertainer. She owns several restaurants in Tokyo, a football team (the “Fukuoka Angels”), and has launched her own brand of Vodka, perfume, and a fashion line.
Though Time magazine has noted that she lacked talents such as the dance moves of Namie Amuro, or the “vocal pyrotechnics” of Hikaru Utada, her music is often considered one of the major factors in shaping Japan’s current music trends.
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