Is Japan’s Taste in Music Really that Diverse? A Look at Japan’s Top 25 Heisei and Showa Era Sellers (Part 1)

One look at the Oricon charts today and it’s often hard to tell what Japan’s music tastes are. Idols seem to constantly be topping the daily, weekly, monthly, and year-end charts, and with large fan bases, English subbed TV shows, and near-full music videos, they’re certainly the most easily accessible. But talk to any longtime J-Pop fan and they’ll tell you that idols are just a small part of Japan’s very large and very diverse music market. But how can that be, you might be asking? Idols seem to be everywhere. On variety shows, on music shows, in ad campaigns, in the news (both in Japan and internationally), and of course on top of the charts. So where are these diverse artists fans speak of? Are there any non-idols that even outsell massive idol groups like AKB?

Over the years, Japan’s music industry has changed from trend to trend, and the way artists promote themselves and  their music has also changed. Looking at one small chunk of time within the industry won’t give you enough of an indication of Japan’s likes and dislikes. Japanese music show Music Station recently had a countdown on their August 28th 2-hour special of the top 25 sellers in both the Showa Era (1925-1989) and the Heisei Era (1989-Present). Over the next two weeks, we’re going to take a look the top acts from both eras and see just how diverse Japan’s music taste has been over the years. Will be it be all idols? Will it be rock bands? Soloists? A mixture of everything? Let’s find out! Starting with the current era of Japanese music, the Heisei Era!

The Heisei Era

The Heisei Era began on January 8th, 1989, after the death of the reigning emperor, Hirohito. In terms of where the music industry was at the time, the era of 80s idols (the 80s was known as the “golden era of idols”) was coming to a close, and rock bands were on the rise. The end-of-year charts saw idols dominate, but the next year (1990) saw a drastic change with soloists and bands like B’z, DREAMS COME TRUE, and Southern All-Stars land multiple spots on the chart. The band boom continued throughout the 90s, with soloists on the rise and dance/vocal units like SPEED, MAX, DA PUMP, TRF, and ZOO coming into the picture. The late 90s and early-mid 2000s was the soloist boom and genres like Hip-Hop and Urban gained traction within the industry. The 2010s was the beginning of a new idol era, with idol groups like AKB seeing their popularity explode. Which ones charted and sold high enough over the era to make the top 25, though? And just how musically diverse is that list? Check out the info and music below!

(Note: Some info was not completely provided on the Music Station special, so a few artists are missing total album/single stats)

#25: Spitz

Genres: Alternative rock, Power pop, Jangle pop, Post-punk
Combined Total Sales: 20,850,000
Total Single Sales: 10,050,000
No.1 Single: Robinson (Copies Sold: 1,620,000)
Total Album Sales: 10,800,000
Things to Note: Has sustained commercial success in the Japanese market for 20 years. They are also noted for melodic compositions, symbolic lyrics, and clear high-pitched vocals by the group’s chief singer-songwriter Kusano. Their music is influenced by Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan.

#24. Makihara Noriyuki

Genres: Pop
Combined Total Sales: 20,950,000
Total Single Sales: 9,390,000
No.1 Single: Donna Toki mo. (Copies Sold: 1,660,000)
Total Album Sales: 11,560,000
Things to Note: Nicknamed Mackey, he has written, produced and performed songs for many other artists, the most notable being SMAP’s Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana. He is ranked at No.84, in a list of Japan’s top 100 musicians, according to HMV. Some of his music has been translated into other languages, and “Donna Toki mo.” specifically has been remixed by Bemani artists “Dream Line Out” for use on Konami’s Beatmania game series. Much of his music’s lyrical content has revolved around the subject of romantic love, though themes of profound joy, reminiscence, gratitude and deeper spiritual aspects of the human condition have become predominant in recent years.

#23. TRF

Genres: Pop, Dance-Pop
Total Combined Sales: 21,720,000
Total Single Sales: 11,400,000
No.1 Single: Crazy Gonna Crazy (Copies Sold: 1,580,000)
Total Album Sales: 10,320,000
Things to Note: The band debuted as “trf” in the year 1993. During the period of 1994 to 1995, the band released 5 singles produced by Tetsuya Komuro, each selling over a million copies under the Avex record label. In 1995, their song “Overnight Sensation: Jidai wa Anata ni Yudaneteru” received a Japan Record Award. Group member SAM was married to popstar and TK protege Namie Amuro in 1997, who was three months pregnant with his child at the time, but the couple were divorced in 2002, due to irreconcilable differences. Amuro has full custody of their son, Haruto.

#22. TUBE

Genres:  Pop rock, Power pop, Surf rock, Blues rock
Total Combined Sales: 22,030,000
Total Single Sales: 8,990,000
No.1 Single: Natsu wo Dakishimete (Copies Sold: 930,000)
Total Album Sales: 13,040,000
Things to Note:  Tube members Maeda and Haruhata have composed for other artists under the Pipeline Project alias. Since the group released most of its songs in April to July, the catchphrase originated “Summer comes with Tube”.

#21. Masaharu Fukuyama

Genres: Pop, Rock
Total Combined Sales: 22,540,000
Total Single Sales: 13,850,000
No.1 Single: Sakurazaka (Copies Sold: 2,290,000)
Total Album Sales: 8,690,000
Things to Note: While Masaharu can also be seen in Japanese television dramas, he is best known for his singing career. His 1992 breakout single “Good night” gained a wide audience because of its tie-in with a drama. In 1993, he made his first appearance in Kohaku Uta Gassen, where only successful J-pop and enka artists are invited to perform.

#20. Ohguro Maki

Genres:  Pop, Dance-pop, New wave
Total Combined Sales: 22,670,000
No.1 Single: La La La (Copies Sold: 1,330,000)
Things to Note: Because of her rare public appearances, she was originally known as a phantom singer, much like Izumi Sakai of Zard.

#19. Every Little Thing

Genres: J-pop, Synthpop, Pop-Rock, Soft Rock
Total Combined Sales: 22,720,000
No.1 Single: Time Goes By (1,140,000)
Things to Note: Also known as ELT by their fans, Every Little Thing was originally a trio but became a duo in 2000 with Kaori Mochida as the singer and Ichiro Ito as the guitarist. Mitsuru Igarashi left ELT following the release of their third original album, Eternity.

#18. EXILE

Genres: Pop, R&B, Dance, House
Total Combined Sales: 23,440,000
Total Single Sales: 8,420,000
No.1 Single: EXILE PRIDE ~Konna Sekai wo Aisuru Tame~ (Copies Sold: 1,010,000)
Total Album Sales: 15,010,000
Things to Note:  The leader of the group is Hiro, who debuted as a member of Zoo under For Life Music, but Exile has released their singles and albums under Avex Group’s label Rhythm Zone. Hiro and Avex’s president Max Matsuura came from the same high school. HIRO started his own company “LDH” (“Love, Dream, Happiness”) in the early 2000s. The company operates several boy bands and girl groups and a dance school named “EXPG”.

#17. KinKi Kids

Genres: Pop
Total Combined Sales: 26,060,000
Total Single Sales: 17,800,000
No.1 Single: Glass no Shounen (Copies Sold: 1,790,000)
Total Album Sales: 8,260,000
Things to Note: A Japanese duo consisting of Koichi Domoto and Tsuyoshi Domoto under the talent agency Johnny & Associates. Although the members share the same surname, the only relation they have to each other is that they both hail from the Kinki region, hence the duo’s name. KinKi Kids hold the Guinness World Records for having the most number of consecutive No.1 singles since debut.

#16. Yumi Matsutoya

Genres: Pop rock, Jazz fusion, Folk rock, Kayokyoku, Adult contemporary
Total Combined Sales: 26,630,000
Total Single Sales: 6,090,000
No.1 Single: Manatsu no Yoru no Yume (Copies Sold: 1,430,000)
Total Album Sales: 20,540,000
Things to Note: A singer, composer, lyricist and pianist, she is renowned for her idiosyncratic voice, and live performances, and is an important figure in Japanese popular music.

#15. CHAGE and ASKA

Genres: Folk Rock, Pop Rock
Total Combined Sales: 28,180,000
Things to Note: From 1989 to 1997, Chage had a parallel project called MULTIMAX, a band he formed with guitarist and multi-instrumental master Keisuke Murakami (former The Alpha member) and singer Hiromi Asai. They released seven singles, seven albums, two videos and did some tours. On the other hand, Aska has conducted a solo career since 1987.

#14. globe

Genres: Synthpop, Trance, Alternative, Eurobeat
Total Combined Sales: 28,940,000
Total Single Sales: 13,310,000
No.1 Single: DEPARTURES (Copies Sold: 2,280,000)
Total Album Sales: 15,630,000
Things to Note: Originally consisting of Komuro, Keiko Yamada and Marc Panther, the group’s singles consistently hit the charts. In late 2002 Yoshiki, former drummer and pianist for X Japan, joined the group, but he left the band about a year later. Their 1996 debut album, Globe, sold over 4 million copies, and their 1998 single “Wanna Be a Dreammaker” won the grand prix award at the 40th Japan Record Awards, the Japanese record industry’s highest honor.

 #13. L’Arc~En~Ciel

Genres: Alternative rock, Pop rock, Post-punk
Total Combined Sales: 29,270,000
Total Single Sales: 16,540,000
No.1 Single: Honey (Copies Sold: 1,230,000)
Total Album Sales: 12,720,000
Things to Note: With a reported 40 million records sold, they were the first Japanese act to headline at Madison Square Garden. In 2003, they were ranked 58 on a list of the top 100 Japanese pop musicians by HMV Japan. While they first got their start as a visual kei band, they have not had any association with the movement since their major label debut in 1994.

#12. Arashi

Genres: Pop, Rock, R&B, Hip-Hop
Total Combined Sales: 30,480,000
Total Single Sales: 21,800,000
No.1 Single: A-RA-SHI (Copies Sold: 970,000)
Total Album Sales: 8,680,000
Things to Note: With the release of their eighteenth single “Love So Sweet”, Arashi began gaining commercial success as “Love So Sweet” was used as the opening theme song for the high-rating drama Hana Yori Dango 2,making it one of the top five best-selling singles of 2007 in Japan and the group’s first single to exceed 400,000 copies sold overall in nearly seven years. For the next two years, Arashi gained a number of achievements and records as they became the first artist to place the top two rankings on the Oricon singles yearly chart for two consecutive years with their singles “Truth/Kaze no Mukō e” and “One Love” in 2008 and “Believe/Kumorinochi, Kaisei” and “Ashita no Kioku/Crazy Moon (Kimi wa Muteki)” in 2009, simultaneously topped the 2009 Oricon singles, album and music DVD yearly charts, and became the third artist in Oricon history to monopolize the top three best-selling singles of the year. In 2010, all six of Arashi’s singles ranked within the top ten of the Oricon singles yearly chart, and their million-selling studio album Boku no Miteiru Fūkei was named the best-selling album of the year in Japan.

#11. Namie Amuro

Genres: R&B, Pop, Pop-rap, Rock, Dance, Electro, EDM, Urban, House
Combined Total Sales: 32,390,000
Total Single Sales: 16,680,000
No.1 Single: Can You Celebrate? (Copies Sold: 2,290,000)
Total Album Sales: 15,710,000
Things to Note: Over two decades after her debut, Amuro has remained one of the longest surviving popular female acts in Japan. She continues to successfully combat social stigma as a divorced, working, single mother. On July 30, 2008, Amuro released her first greatest hits album, Best Fiction, since transitioning to R&B music. It spent six consecutive weeks at the number-one position on Japan’s Oricon weekly charts, and was elected as “the best album of the year” at the 50th Japan Record Awards. From 2008 to 2009, she toured Japan to promote the album. It was estimated that she played to an audience as large as 400,000 people, potentially the largest of her career. At the beginning of 2015, she left her longtime management Vision Factory for her own personal agency Stella88, and private record label under Avex, Dimension Point.

#10. SMAP

Genres: Pop, R&B
Combined Total Sales: 35,180,000
Total Single Sales: 23,790,000
No.1 Single: Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana (Copies Sold: 2,580,000)
Total Album Sales: 11,400,000
Things to Note: While originally consisting of six members, the group currently consists of five: Masahiro Nakai, Takuya Kimura, Goro Inagaki, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, and Shingo Katori. The group’s name is an acronym standing for Sports Music Assemble People. The members of SMAP have also pursued careers outside of music, including involvement in television variety shows, dramas, commercials, and movies, making them one of the most popular Johnny’s groups. Largely due to their popularity, Johnny & Associates became the most successful agency in Japan, with earnings of almost three billion Japanese yen in 1995.

#9. Utada Hikaru

Genres: Pop, R&B, Rock, Alternative, Dance, Electronica, Synthpop, Experimental
Combined Total Sales: 36,220,000
Total Single Sales: 15,500,000
No.1 Single: Automatic (Copies Sold: 2,060,000)
Total Album Sales: 20,720,000
Things to Note: After releasing the commercially unsuccessful English-language album Precious under the stage name “Cubic U” in 1998, she rose to prominence in 1999 with the release of her second album, First Love, which sold over seven million copies in Japan and became the best selling Japanese-language album of all time. With the release of First Love, Utada became a recognized pop icon in Japan, and experienced continued success with follow-ups Distance (2001) and Deep River (2002), the former of which sold over three million copies in one week, collecting the largest first-week sales of all time in Japan and in the world. Her first compilation, Utada Hikaru Single Collection Vol. 1 (2004), charted for 149 weeks in Japan and became her longest-charting project.

#8. Southern All-Stars

Genres: Pop rock, Soft rock, Folk rock, Blues rock, Southern rock, New wave, Kayokyoku
Combined Total Sales: 36,570,000
No.1 Single: TSUNAMI (Copies Sold: 2,930,000)
Things to Note: The band is composed of Keisuke Kuwata (lead vocals and guitars), Yuko Hara (vocals and keyboards), Kazuyuki Sekiguchi (bass), Hiroshi Matsuda (drums) and Hideyuki “Kegani” Nozawa (custom percussion). In addition to the present lineup, former guitarist Takashi Omori had worked in the band until 2001. After the contract with Victor Entertainment, the band released their top-ten charting debut single “Katte ni Sindbad” in 1978. Since then, Southern has been one of the best-selling music groups in the past 30 years of Japan, selling more than 47 million albums and singles in Japan alone. They have had over 40 top-ten hit singles and 16 number-one albums on the Japan’s Oricon Charts as of 2008.

#7. ZARD

Genres: Rock, Pop-Rock
Combined Total Sales: 37,460,000
Total Single Sales: 17,730,000
No.1 Single: Makenai de (Copies Sold: 1,640,000)
Total Album Sales: 19,730,000
Things to Note: Originally a group of five members, with lead vocalist Izumi Sakai as group leader. However, Sakai was the only member who stayed on in the group while others joined and left regularly. As such, Zard and Sakai may be referred to interchangeably.

#6. GLAY

Genre: Pop rock, Power pop, Progressive rock
Combined Total Sales: 38,530,000
Total Single Sales: 20,180,000
No.1 Single: Winter again (Copies Sold: 1,640,000)
Total Album Sales: 18,340,000
Things to Note: Glay primarily composes songs in the rock and pop genres, but they have also arranged songs using elements from a wide variety of genres, including punk, electronic, R&B, folk, reggae, gospel, and ska. Originally a visual kei band, the group slowly shifted to less dramatic attire through the years.

#5. AKB48

Genres: Pop
Combined Total Sales: 38,690,000
Total Single Sales: 34,010,000
No.1 Single: Sayonara Crawl (Copies Sold: 1,950,000)
Total Album Sales: 4,680,000
Things to Note: Pronounced “A.K.B. Forty-eight” is a Japanese idol girl group named after the Akihabara (Akiba for short) area of Tokyo, where the group’s theater is located, and its original roster of 48 members. As of August 2014, the group has expanded to include 140 members aged from their early teens to their mid-20s. AKB48’s producer, Yasushi Akimoto, wanted to form a girl group with its own theater (unlike pop groups performing occasional concerts and seen on television) and performing daily so fans could always see them live. This “idols you can meet” concept includes teams which can rotate performances and perform simultaneously at several events and “handshake” events, where fans can meet group members. Akimoto has expanded the AKB48 concept to several sister groups in Japan, China and Indonesia.


Genres: Pop, New-Wave, R&B
Combined Total Sales: 43,560,000
Total Single Sales: 15,020,000
No.1 Single: LOVE LOVE LOVE (Copies Sold: 2,480,000)
Total Album Sales: 28,540,000
Things to Note: The band originally consisted of Miwa Yoshida (lead vocals), Masato Nakamura (bass), and Takahiro Nishikawa (keyboards). Band member Takahiro Nishikawa departed after the album Sing or Die in 1997.

#3. Ayumi Hamasaki

Genres: Pop, Dance, Electronic, Rock, Classical
Combined Total Sales: 50,560,000
Total Single Sales: 21,490,000
No.1 Single: Trauma (Copies Sold: 1,630,000)
Total Album Sales: 29,070,000
Things to Note: Hamasaki has achieved popularity in Japan and Asia by enforcing her position as an artist and not trying to be forced as a “product”, which was a common factor within the Japanese music culture and Avex Trax.Through her entire career, she has written all her lyrical content, produced her own music and has sometimes co-composed her music.

#2. Mr. Children

Genres: Pop rock, power pop, progressive rock
Combined Total Sales: 59,120,000
Total Single Sales: 28,630,000
No.1 Single: Tomorrow Never Knows (Copies Sold: 2,760,000)
Total Album Sales: 30,490,000
Things to Note:  As a group, they are one of the best selling artists in Japan and one of the most successful Japanese rock artists , having sold over 50 million records and creating the “Mis-chil Phenomenon” in the mid-1990s in Japan. They held the record for the highest first week sales of a single in Japan for 15 years, with 1.2 million copies of their 10th single “Namonaki Uta”, have 30 consecutive number 1 singles, replaced Glay as the all-male band (with 3 or more members) to have the most number 1 albums on the Oricon charts, and won the Japan Record Award in 1994 for “Innocent World” and in 2004 for “Sign”.

#1. B’z

Genres:  Hard rock, pop rock, blues rock
Combined Total Sales: 81,820,000
Total Single Sales: 35,820,000
No.1 Single: Ai no Mama ni Wagamama ni, Boku wa Kimi Dake wo Kizutsukenai (Copies Sold: 2,020,000)
Total Album Sales: 46,030,000
Things to Note: B’z is one of the best-selling music artists in the world and the best-selling in their native Japan, having released 46 consecutive No. 1 singles, 25 No. 1 albums and sold more than 80 million records worldwide. In 2003, HMV Japan ranked the band at number 30 on their list of the 100 most important Japanese pop acts. In 2007, B’z became the first band from Asia to have their handprints and signatures put up in the Hollywood’s RockWalk.

Top 25 Heisei-Era Artists: Genre Breakdown
32 Genres Total

Top 25 Heisei-Era Artists: Types

Next week we’ll go back even farther and check out Japan’s top 25 selling Showa-Era Artists (1925-1989)!
Any comments or questions are appreciated!

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  • Very cool! I love SPITZ ♥