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Kumi Koda: The Coolest Diva in J-pop

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Kumi Koda.

Kumi Koda.

Kumi Koda is a Japanese pop star who is best known for her prolific, chameleon-like releases and cool, sexy image. From her slow start as a RnB artist on Avex Trax's "Rhythm Zone" sub-label to her legendary breakthrough as the biggest solo female act in Japan, Kumi Koda has carved a name for herself in the Japanese music industry and has, over the long years, established herself as one of the biggest names in J-pop.

I've "been" with Kumi as a listener and eventual fan since the release of her single "Crazy 4 U" in early 2004, three years after her debut. I've seen her go from a nearly never-talked about nobody in the industry to the surprising boom her popularity experienced. I've followed her career closely since then as well. This hub is a dedication to the hard work and amazing image and stamina of a woman who never gave up in Japan's cut-throat music industry.

School photo of teenaged Kumi Koda.

School photo of teenaged Kumi Koda.

Kumi appears at 1:05

Early Life

Kumi Koda was born Kumiko Kouda on November 13th, 1982 in Kyoto, Japan. She is the eldest child of a lounge singer and her husband. A couple years later a little sister, Misono, was born. Their mother instilled a love for music into both sisters until both harbored a desire to become singers themselves. Kumi decided to attend auditions on her own while Misono enrolled into the prestigious Okinawa Actors School.

Kumi's first audition was for "Hello! Project's" third generation of famous girl-group Morning Musume. She auditioned alongside soon-to-be famous idol Maki Goto who would go on to become the only third generation member. (It is not known if Kumi was accepted into Morning Musume and declined or not.) Around the same time, Kumi participated in Avex Trax's "Avex Dream 2000" auditions. She auditioned with the song "Alone" by Mayo Okamoto and wowed the judges, scoring second place overall and being offered a contract on Avex Trax's RnB sub-label Rhythm Zone. (In a surprise announcement it was declared that instead of one Grand Prix winner there would be three - the trio selected would go on to form supergroup dream.) Shortly after departing down the road to her dream it seemed that Kumi had already arrived at her destination.

Kumi Koda promoting her first album, "affection".

Kumi Koda promoting her first album, "affection".

Debut and Struggling Sales

From the beginning, Kumi took control in writing the lyrics to her songs. Her debut single "TAKE BACK" dropped in December, 2000 and was met with less than impressive sales and a spot only at #59 on the charts, even though it had a high-profile tie-up in a Kanebo Cosmetics commercial. Kumi plowed on, however, and over the course of the next year, she released two more singles that met with only similar success. (Although her second single, "Trust Your Love", managed to crack the top 20.) "TAKE BACK" and "Trust Your Love" were remixed extensively and released as dance singles in the United States where they placed decently on the Billboard Dance charts.

Regardless of her hard creative work, the failure of her singles (and perhaps the success of her little sister in pop group "day after tomorrow") depressed Kumi and she fell into an over-eating disorder. According to her, her management (including producer Max Matsuura) criticized her for her "fatness" and refused to promote her anymore in her current state. Kumi put herself on a strict fish diet and, with the support of her boyfriend, put herself into Avex's good graces again. She was selected to participate in the "Song Nation" project in honor of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Her and successful label mate BoA together sang the single "the meaning of peace", with all proceeds going to support the families of September 11th victims.

In 2002 Kumi's debut album, "affection", released and managed to reach #12 on the Oricon charts, Kumi's highest position yet. With this renewed fervor Kumi plunged herself into creating more singles, including two that failed to garner any real success once again. Talk floated that Kumi's contract wasn't going to be renewed and she would be dropped as fast as she was signed, a harsh statement from a label that is still renowned for "hanging on" to unsuccessful artists. Kumi was going to need a real hit to stay in the industry and was going to need it fast.

The Golden Hit

Kumi was chosen to sing the theme to the PlayStation 2 game "Final Fantasy X-2", and in early 2003 she released the single "real emotion / 1000 no Kotoba". Initially the single reached #6 on the charts, proving to be her biggest hit yet. But the party train hadn't stopped yet - the following week it climbed up to #5, and a few weeks later it peaked at #3. The video shows clips from the game as well as promoting a dual dance of Kumi and the FFX-2 character Yuna. "real Emotion" would go on to be the defining Kumi song of this era and is still a performance staple.

Riding the success of "real Emotion", Kumi dropped her second album, "grow into one". Her sophomore album had double the sales of her first, coming in at #9 on the charts and selling nearly 200,000 copies. This album still contained a RnB feel but decidedly moved more towards pop like "real Emotion" than her debut album.

Her next single, "COME WITH ME", featured remixes and English versions of her FFX-2 songs, but it wasn't enough to propel the single into the top 10. Likewise, her next ballad single, "Gentle Words", also hung out in the top 20. Kumi and her management held a meeting to decide what to do with her career. She had moderate success but the excitement from "real Emotion" wouldn't last much longer and it was possible Kumi's sales would plummet again. They both reached a mutual decision to drastically change her image and style. Kumi was about to go from normal teen-idol to a very, very grown woman.

Kumi promoting her third album "feel my mind" and sporting her new "ero-kakkoii" image.

Kumi promoting her third album "feel my mind" and sporting her new "ero-kakkoii" image.

The Coming of "Ero-Kakkoii"

When her single "Crazy 4 U" dropped in early 2004, Kumi was a noticeably changed woman. The video showed her scantily clad, drenched in water, and dancing seductively with a belt alongside two backup dancers who were almost more provocative than she was. Shots of Kumi in a car depicted her in various stages of undress and in various "fetish" attire such as secretaries. This new image was called "ero-kakkoii", or, "Ero-Cool". Kumi was considered the fore-front singer of this new image, and the experiment proved to be a moderate success as both the single and the subsequent album, "feel my mind', charted higher than usual. First press versions of the album included the bonus track "Cutie Honey", a remake of the 1970 hit of the same name. Following this the single "LOVE & HONEY" was released, featuring the "Cutie Honey" title track and others played in the "Cute Honey" anime remake and live action movie. The single did almost as well as "real Emotion" when it peaked at #4 on the charts.

2004 continued with the release of the upbeat single "Chase" (which was her last single to not chart in the top 10) and the ballad single "Kiseki". In November she released "GIRLS ~Selfish~", a DVD single featuring the videos of three new songs, one of which, "Shake it", was notably adult in nature as Kumi danced in various sexual positions with other women. One last single, "hands", appeared in early 2005 before Kumi's fourth album, "secret", dropped in February. The album was a large success as it hit the top 3 and sold over a half-million copies. It seemed that Kumi was finally a solid artist to take seriously.

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Superstar Success

In late spring Kumi released "Butterfly", her highest ranking single yet at #2. Butterfly proved so massively popular that it won the 47th prestigious Japan Record Award for best single/song later that year, Kumi's first and only win in that category.

Avex and Kumi decided that the time was ripe to release her first best album. After a couple more singles September rolled around, and so did Kumi's first best album, "BEST ~first things~". Nobody anticipated the response the best album would get: it shot straight to #1 (Kumi's first) and sold almost two million copies in total. Fans rejoiced and Kumi found herself in the eternal media spotlight. Meanwhile, Avex decided it was also time to unleash a brand new marketing strategy.

In December Kumi began releasing an unprecedented 12 singles over the course of three months, with one single a week. Each single held one original song (and its corresponding instrumental) and was of limited quantity except for the first single, "you", the eight single, "No Regret", and the last, "Someday / Boys♡Girls". To tie the singles together was an international theme with Kumi dressing up in the traditional wear of cultures from around the world. Each single also came with a music video. Two of the singles, "You" and "feel", shot to #1 on the charts, her first in the singles category.

Shortly after the completion of this project, Kumi released her second compilation album in a half year, "BEST ~second sessions~". The album had similar success to the first best album, reaching #1 and selling nearly two million copies in total. At this point, Kumi was a certified heavy-hitter in the J-pop music industry, and her peak was still climbing.

Kumi promoting her 36th single, "FREAKY".

Kumi promoting her 36th single, "FREAKY".

Further Success and Scandal

2006 continued to prove to be yet another golden year for Kumi. Her first post-best single, "Koi no Tsubomi", charted high and had the highest first week sales for a female solo artist of the year at the time. She surpassed herself that summer with the release of her quadri-A-side single "4 hot wave". Fall saw the ballad single "Yume not Uta / Futari de...", in which both tracks shared the same composition but different temperaments. Her first original album of the year, "Black Cherry", was the first to stay at #1 for four consecutive weeks since Ayumi Hamasaki's "Duty" in 2000.

With the success of her first two best albums, Kumi released her third, "BEST ~BOUNCE & LOVERS~", in early 2007 alongside the anticipated single "BUT / Aishou". Both releases charted at #2. Kumi mentioned that "BUT" made her think of homosexuality, and the video showcased her flirting with other women. This would become a trend in future releases, eventually escalating to more risque acts with other women in her videos and on stage.

Another trend to emerge was the release of a multi-a-side summer single, and "FREAKY" stood in for 2007. However, only one of the songs, the title track, would make it on to most future releases. The next notable release was her collaboration single with K-pop boyband Tohoshinki with the single "LAST ANGEL". All these singles plus more made it on to her early 2008 album, "Kingdom", which contained a music video for every track on the album. It debuted at #1 with over a half million copies sold.

Kumi's career came to a standstill shortly after. While she was on a radio show promoting her latest album she talked about the recent marriage of her manager. She mentioned that she told her manager to have children as soon as possible because "when women are around 35 years old their amniotic fluid goes bad". Backlash was immediate as avex pulled all promotion for the album and even took down Kumi's website. Endorsements were lost and many letters came in from women all across the country, lambasting Kumi for her comments. Kumi quickly went on a TV show dressed in formal wear and no make-up to tearfully apologize. However, a majority of the public thought it wasn't enough to make amends for her offensive comments. Kumi found herself floundering for her success once again.

Reclaiming For 10th Anniversary

Kumi stayed quiet for a while as three of her endorsements were lost for good (the others returned, however.) Her summer multi-song single was "MOON" and surprisingly reached #2 on the charts, proving that Kumi wasn't over yet. A few months later she released "TABOO", another upbeat dance song featuring the queer life in its promotions. A winter ballad, "stay with me", reached #1 along with "TABOO". The subsequent album, "TRICK" released in January, 2009, and stayed at the top of the charts for two weeks. Although 2008 was a rocky year for Kumi, she still pulled out on top with two #1 albums and multiple #1 singles.

2009 was another year of experimentation and success for Kumi. First she released the best album "Outworks & Collaboration Best" and her first official remix album, "Driving Hit's". Neither album broke the top 5. In March she collaborated with sister Misono on the single "It's all love!" to high acclaim and success. The summer single of the year was "3 Splash" which reached #2 on the charts. In autumn her single "Alive / Physical thing" became her last #1 single to date.

In another unconventional marketing move, Kumi's next best album "BEST ~third universe~" was released in the same case as her eighth studio album "Universe" in 2010. It easily reached #1 on the charts again. For 2010 she released the summer single "Gossip Candy", and in the fall came the ballad "Suki de, Suki de, Suki de / Anata dake ga". "Gossip Candy" met a "dismal" 4th place on the charts and "Suki de" crawled to #2, even with her sister Misono appearing in the videos. Her first cover album, "Eternity ~Love & Songs~" only reached #3. The singles were rounded up for the 2011 10th Anniversary album "Dejavu".

Marriage and Child

2011 was a return to success form for Kumi with the release of the summer single and her 50th, "4 Times". For the first time since "4 hot wave" all the tracks were treated as a-sides. It didn't debut at #1 - in fact, it only managed to make #6 on the weekly single charts. Her next album "JAPONESQUE" took on a traditional Japanese visual theme and, like the album "Kingdom", had a video for every impressive 17 songs. The album hit #1 on the charts and sold over 100,000 copies.

In December, 2011, Kumi made the sudden announcement that she was going to marry Kenji03 from the band BACK-ON, who were featured on her single "4 Times". Three days later she confirmed that she was two months pregnant with his child and intended to take an extended maternity leave after the release of "JAPONESQUE". During her leave, she released another remix album, "BEACH MIX", in the summer.

On July 17th, 2012, Kumi gave birth to a baby boy. Currently, she's enjoying her maternity leave while planning to release a new single, "Go To The Top", in October.

Major Awards

All refer to in Japan / Oricon only unless otherwise stated.

  • Triple Crown award at the Japan Gold Disc Awards in 2006, for "Pop Artist of the Year", "Pop Album of the Year" and "Music Video of the Year".
  • 47th Japan Record Award for "Butterfly".
  • Pop Grand Prix winner at 2007 Best Hit Kayousai for "Ai no Uta'.
  • Grand Prix winner at the 39th Japan Usen Grand Prize.
  • "Best Jeanist" Award for five consecutive years from 2006-2010.
  • "Nail Queen" Award for three years, thus barring her from future wins.


N A R S H A on April 18, 2014:

I love her!! Great article!! :)

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