In an age where anyone and (it often seems) everyone can be an idol, it takes something special to be an icon.
An icon should stand apart from their peers and embody the spirit of their generation. They should be distinct to a particular time and place while at the same time transcending it.
Hikaru Utada is perhaps the only contemporary Japanese pop figure who fully inhabits this role, but by looking at her predecessors we can find some revealing reflections of both Utada herself and the eras they helped define.
In the late 1990s, Utada’s most immediate predecessor was Namie Amuro. With an image that was modern and fashionable, in contrast to the girlish idol eras that bracketed it, Amuro represented a period when Japanese pop was learning to see itself as something that could stand alongside the Western music from which it took many cues.
Utada took this even further, her background growing up in the U.S. adding an extra veneer of authenticity to her already unusually slick take on R&B — eclipsing both Amuro and her other main rival of the era, Ayumi Hamasaki.
If an icon is defined in part by longevity, then few can surpass Seiko Matsuda, a singer who remains the face of 1980s Japan. While Matsuda and Utada’s careers have parallels, with both dominating domestic charts while misfiring in their attempts to transfer that success to the States, they are largely opposites.
Matsuda’s sweet, hyper-cute image masked a fierce ambition, and she was first and foremost an idol rather than an artist. Her legacy is best expressed in singles rather than albums. Matsuda was all about artifice while Utada urges you to consider the substance.
For a better understanding of what Utada is aiming for, it may be more useful to look at who wrote Matsuda’s hits, with some of the biggest (“Akai Sweet Pea,” “Nagisa no Balcony,” among others) being the work of another female pop icon: Yumi Matsutoya.
At the same time she was contributing to Matsuda’s record-breaking run of No. 1 hit singles, Matsutoya’s own work retained an almost militant focus on albums, and the balance she struck between commercial success and artistic integrity is a source of inspiration to many aspiring musicians. When Utada chose the path of singer-songwriter over idol, consciously or not she was following in Matsutoya’s footsteps.
Where Utada and Matsutoya differ most is in the background and environment. As a teen, Matsutoya (then known by her birth name of Yumi Arai) was hanging out in vibrant late-1960s and early-1970s artistic circles that included novelist Kobo Abe, filmmaker Akira Kurosawa and musicians like Haruomi Hosono, Akiko Yano and others. Surrounded by creative equals, Matsutoya’s career has been characterized by collaborations, most prominently with her husband Masataka Matsutoya.
Born in New York, removed from the beating heart of the Japanese music scene, Utada’s first foray into music came through the more insular world of her musical parents (under the name U3). Indeed, her enka-singer mother, Keiko Fuji, is perhaps Utada’s single most defining musical influence.
Enka may seem far from the R&B-influenced pop she is most famous for, but with its raw emotional appeal, enka in its heyday is perhaps the closest parallel to the role Utada plays among her own generation.
In the 1950s and ’60s the biggest star was undoubtedly enka singer Hibari Misora. First a plucky child star who lifted Japan’s shattered spirits after the war, Misora grew up and matured alongside the postwar generation, channeling their experiences through her music.
The impact of Utada’s return after her 2011 hiatus stems in part from how she has connected to the generation that has grown up alongside her.
However, if Misora has transcended mere pop stardom to become a mythical figure from some fable of the reconstruction, and Matsuda embodies the glitz and glamour of the bubble era’s excess, Utada is something a little more subdued and even melancholy.
Bursting onto the scene in 1998 amid delayed banking collapses that followed the bursting of the bubble economy, with the wounds of the 1995 Kobe earthquake and Tokyo subway gas attack still fresh, Utada is an icon for a generation united in their sense of alienation.
Her current return comes in the aftermath of her mother’s tragic death in 2013 and the hope represented by the birth of her son last year. Perhaps the message Utada greets her generation with, as they struggle through a fresh era of uncertainty, is simply, “We’ll get through this one too, somehow.”