No superlative seems too great in describing the success achieved by Ayumi Hamasaki in the decade since her debut in 1998. She sold more than 50 million CDs, she claimed a bevy of top-league chart records, and the scope and size of her presence in the show biz world would suffice for the entertainment industry of a whole country: she’s a fashion icon with her own brand of clothes, her songs were used in movies, TV shows, and anime series, she had a cartoon about herself, she hosted TV and radio shows, and even opened a restaurant. Perhaps the crucial point of her successful career, modeled after her icon Madonna, was the degree to which she retained control over her own media persona, not relinquishing it to labels and agencies (although that took some fighting).
Her beginnings couldn’t be more humble. Abandoned by father at three, Hamasaki had to work as a model from the age of seven just to make ends meet. A bright but rebellious kid, she dropped out of school to try her hand at modeling, but failed due to her short height. Her musical debut — a hip-hop EP Nothing from Nothing (1995) — went nowhere, and her stabs at acting never got her farther than TV shows and B-movies. Hamasaki began wasting her time shopping and singing in Tokyo karaoke bars, which was where she met Max Matsuura, the producer from Avex Trax with an eye for potential stars. Matsuura was impressed by Hamasaki’s singing and offered to sign her to Avex. Hamasaki initially refused, expecting his motives to be less than chaste, but eventually believed he was serious. She dropped out of Japanese vocal school he enlisted her in, complaining the teaching was too rigid, but Matsuura sent her to study singing in New York, which went better. Reading Hamasaki’s well-written letters, Matsuura also encouraged her to compose her own lyrics, which she has been doing ever since. Hamasaki debuted on Avex with the single Poker Face (1998), which scored number 22 and turned out to be the beginning of a swift upward trend that brought her debut studio LP, A Song for XX (1999), to number one and provided it with one million-plus sales. The follow-up Loveppears (1999) nearly doubled this figure and topped the charts as well, its success boosted by ad contracts that Hamasaki has raked in ever since as a spokesman, beginning with the Asian cosmetics juggernaut Kose (later she also worked for the likes of Honda and Panasonic).
Hamasaki peaked in the early 2000s: in 2000, she simultaneously topped the single, DVD, and album charts, the album being Duty, her best studio effort with 2.9 million total units sold. The first serious friction between her and the label dates to this period as well — she was opposed to the release of her compilation A Best (2001), claiming insufficient material (the release still sold 6.7 million copies in Asia), — and this led Hamasaki to take control of her own career, starting with writing her own music (credited under the name of Crea). The first Crea-penned tune was M (2000), and she also wrote most songs for I Am (2002), another two-million seller and chart-topper. The lyrical content of the album was influenced by 9/11, marking the beginning of Hamasaki’s international advancement, which continued with her collaborating with the German label Drizzly until 2004 and appearing at an MTV event in Singapore in 2002.
The album Rainbow (2002) featured English lyrics, but it marked a relative decline (in Hamasaki’s terms), failing to sell over two million copies. Although the 2003 EP Memorial Address sold more than one million copies, & (2003) became her last single to shift over 500,000 units. In 2004, Hamasaki became involved in a power struggle at Avex, but when the label’s stocks plummeted at the rumor of her leaving, Matsuura, who enjoyed her backing, won the fight, which resulted in increased creative and career control for Hamasaki. However, her sixth album, My Story (2004), became her last to top the one million mark, and the sales of her maxi-single Bold & Delicious/Pride (2005) slumped, although it still peaked at number one, same as the albums (Miss)understood (2006) and Secret (2007), the latter of which topped the charts in Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and China to boot, prompting Hamasaki to tour these regions, with the tickets sold out within hours. Guilty (2008) broke her unprecedented streak of eight consecutive number one albums, charting at number two, although that didn’t hinder Hamasaki’s international expansion — the digital version of the record was released in 26 countries, and the 2008 remix albums featured a bunch of Western DJs, including Armand Van Helden and Carl Craig. The digital single “Together When…” (2007) that preceded Guilty sold 3.3 million downloads. In January 2008 Hamasaki announced that she had an inoperable condition that led her to become deaf in one ear, but she vowed not to let it slow her down and supported Guilty with an Asian tour that included stops in Taipei, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.