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.
SMAP has gone on to be one of the most popular J-pop bands in the world, and is the 10th highest-selling Japanese band of all time, with total single and album sales of 33.73 million units.
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.
They began as a street act, but quickly rose to popularity. They gave themselves a new group image in 2011, adding the “Z” to their name, and wore “transformation belts,” as many people do in Japanese superhero movies. In 2013, their second full-length album, 5th Dimension, sold 180,000 copies in its first week, debuting at the top of the Oricon charts - a goal the band had been trying to reach since its creation.
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.
Both members have also had successful solo careers. According to Oricon, B’z had the 2nd and 3rd best-selling albums of 2013, and earned 5.38 billion yen in 2013, or $44.5 million.
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.
In 2010, Ikimono-gakari’s fourth studio album, Hajimari no Uta, helped earn them 5.62 billion yen, or $46.5 million, and put them at #5 on Oricon’s yearly highest-earning musicians list.
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.
The name Kis-My-Ft2 derives from the names of its seven members. Since their 2011 debut, the band has become one of the hottest groups in Japan. In 2012, they had the 6th highest earnings of bands in Japan, earning $36.5 million, and in 2014 they had the 10th and 11th best-selling albums, helping them reach #4 in the top-earners list with $42 million.
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.
In 2012, they released two albums, both of which dominated the 2012 Oricon yearly chart, selling over 2.5 million copies. The combined efforts of those albums helped Mr. Children place #4 on the Oricon yearly earnings list with 9.95 billion yen, or $82.3 million.
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.
According to Oricon, Kanjani8 were the #5 highest-earning Japanese artists in 2012 and 2013, making $40.7 million and $39.1 million in those respective years. In 2014, they jumped to the #3 overall spot earning $48 million with their album “Kanjanism” selling nearly 330,000 copies and becoming the 9th best-selling album in Japan.
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.
For three consecutive years (2010 to 2012), they were on Oricon’s yearly top five list of the highest earning Japanese bands, moving up a spot each year. In 2010, they made it to #4, earning almost $50 million. In 2011, they pushed up to #3, and in 2012, they had their most successful year yet, positioning at #2 and earning 12.18 billion yen, or $100.8 million.
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.
In 2010, AKB48 made it to #3 on Oricon’s highest-earning list. They pushed to the #1 spot in 2011 and 2012, with record sales of $226 million in 2012 (more than U2). In 2013, they fell to the #2 spot, but still had total sales of $110 million. In 2014, they stayed at #2 on the list, earning $108 million.
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).
Arashi dropped to #2 behind AKB48 in 2011, and #3 in 2012 behind AKB48 and EXILE, but they regained the #1 spot in 2013 and 2014, earning a combined total of $231 million. Their 2013 album ‘LOVE’ was the #1 selling album of the 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.
Jonathan Ross of BBC has called Koda the Christina Aguilera of Japan, while many others compare her career to that of Britney Spears. She has sold over 15 million physical records in Japan alone, and is the 18th all-time best-selling solo Japanese artist.
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.
Utada is best known in the West for making two theme song contributions to Square Enix and Disney’s hugely popular series, Kingdom Hearts. She has been signed with EMI Music Japan, and currently is signed with Universal Music.
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.
Over 20 years after her debut, Amuro has remained one of the longest-running popular female acts in Japan. In 2008, her first greatest hits album, Best Fiction, spent six consecutive weeks at the #1 spot on Oricon’s weekly charts, and was elected the “best album of the year” at the 50th Japan Record Awards. She is the 12th best-selling artist in Japan of all time, and has sold over 30 million records.
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.
Fukuyama’s 2009 album, Zankyō, debuted at #1 on the Oricon weekly charts, with sales of 151,000 copies in its first week. That same year, he held his 20th anniversary national arena tour, covering 36 performances in 12 cities, and playing to a total audience of 500,000. One of his singles in 2003 sat atop the Oricon singles chart for five consecutive weeks, cementing him as the best-selling male solo artist in Japan at the time.
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.