Ami Suzuki is an exceptional artist and role model in many ways. She has defied and challenged the rules of Japanese entertainment, where idols are perceived have no control over their musical career and where they are at the mercy of their record label. She achieved the feat of returning back to the competitive and fickle entertainment scene after being effectively blacklisted, something which is unheard of in Japan. Armed only with sheer persistence, Ami has proven that she is not your average idol who will take a fight lying down.
|Name: Ami Suzuki (鈴木 亜美)
Birthdate: 9th February 1982
Birthplace: Zama, Kanagawa
Blood Type: A
Record Label: avex trax
Ami was born on the 9th February in 1983 in Zama, Kanagawa. Her family loved music and therefore her childhood was surrounded with musical influences. Her parents frequently took her to karaoke and encouraged her to enter several singing auditions. In the beginning, Ami admits that she wasn’t very interested in attending these auditions because she was more keen to participate in her school’s athletics team. Furthermore going to Tokyo from Kanagawa was time consuming and tedious.
“Looking at everyone rehearsing their singing and lyrics intensely, I thought it was a bit of a shame. I thought I should show the true me and just be natural, so I was eating sweets and talking to staff.”
However, one day a friend of hers convinced her to attend an audition and she skipped athletics practice. In early 1998, at the age of 15, Ami attended an audition for the TV variety show “Asayan”. This show was looking for young girls who had singing talent and the first price was a contract for a high-profile music career with Sony Music Entertainment Japan. This show gradually garnered a lot of attention, to the point that it eventually was aired in other Asian countries too. 13,500 contestants competed for the top prize, and Ami won the competition with 802,157 phone calls in May. Ami’s confidence and lack of nervousness attracted the attention of the audience, because Ami simply aimed at being herself and to act natural.
In April, Ami started recording her debut single and after winning the audition, Ami signed to the management company AG Communications and the record label Sony Music. Tetsuya Komuro sponsored Ami to be on his own sub label on TRUE KiSS DISC. Komuro was on the top on his career at that time, working also with famous artists such as Namie Amuro and hitomi At that stage of her career, Komuro became the sole writer and producer of Ami’s discography.
In July, Ami would break into the J-Pop market with her debut single “Love the Island”, reaching the #5 position on Oricon and selling an impressive total of 288,000 copies. This song was so popular because it was used by the government of Japan as the main theme of the “Guam Island Campaign Summer 1998″. This campaign was to promote the increase of Japanese tourism in Guam and therefore the song received a lot of exposure. Furthermore Sony would promote the single quite well. Ami appeared on the covers of various magazines and they even shipped Ami to Guam, where she performed the song live on MTV Japan.
Her success didn’t stop with her debut, as the following single, “alone in my room” was yet another tie-in with the Guam campaign. This single would surpass the sales of her debut single and debut on #3 on Oricon. In October, Ami had her radio debut, with her own show ” RUN!RUN!AMI-GO!”. This show topped the radio popularity rankings. Furthermore Ami signed a contract with the clothing brand, “Kissmark”, which was promoted all over Asia. Not long after, Sony started promoting her third single “all night long”. This song received a lot of airplay time in the most famous club in Japan, Velfarre and was a huge hit. It made it’s debut at #2 on Oricon.
Ami’s “girl next door” looks and her sweet personality attracted a lot of attention and fans. She got so popular that she managed to sell 1,879,000 copies of her debut album, “SA“. This is quite an impressive feat for a debut album. In just one year Ami won various awards and became one of the major pop acts in Japan.
“I was perceived more as an idol than an artist, and I was expected to perform a wide variety of activities, not focus on music. So, despite my success it didn’t feel right to me to think, ‘Great, I have a hit.’ “
However Ami wasn’t as happy as Sony was with her success. Since she debuted at a very early age, Ami was a minor and she just did what she was told by her management and producer. Ami would mention how she felt quite depressed since she felt like she had no control over her own future.
Rise to Success
Despite of Ami’s growing frustration at being seen only as a pretty face, Ami’s popularity kept soaring. At this time, she was considered one of the top competitors for the Japanese Pop Queen status along with Ayumi Hamasaki. Both had started their careers almost at the same time and both had rising potential for a diva status. Thus the media kept comparing these two artists and referring to them as “rivals”. Despite of all the competition created by the media, it seems that Ami and Ayumi shared a friendship as they were on friendly bases in variety shows.
In July 1999, Ami and Ayumi Hamasaki were into a heated race of getting the #1 spot. “Be Together” beat Hamasaki’s ninth single “Boys & Girls”, by selling 318,000 copies in the first week. This was the first single which reached to top of the charts, making it one of the most popular songs in 1999.
“I had actually written lyrics from an early stage, hoping one day they would be accepted. It was more important to me than sales and chart rankings to know that I had put my thoughts and feelings into what I was singing.”
Luckily for Ami, she eventually was granted the wish of using her own lyrics for the first time. In January 2000, Ami penned the lyrics for her 10th single, “Don’t Need to Say Goodbye“. This was and still remains quite a rare feat for an idol. At that stage, Ami finally felt as if she belonged to the music industry and started to enjoy herself as an idol.
“I suddenly found myself not singing a note, and the entire crowd was singing those words and melodies back to me. That was the most special moment.”
Ami kept being one of the most popular and successful faces in Japan. All of her releases were top-selling hits, she endorsed a variety of commercial products and she also started acting in a dorama. Ami seemed unstoppable. At the end of 2000 Ami had sold a grand total of 10 million releases in the form of albums and singles.
Ami’s high powered career came to a crashing halt in July 2000. Eiji Yamada, who was the president of AG Communication, was convicted for tax evasion. Nonetheless he still managed to escape jail time and was only fined. Later on, it was revealed that government officials were connected to the corruption. AG Communication tried in vain to distance Ami from getting any negative publicity with the creation of the subsidiary “Music Tribe”.
However, at this stage her parents decided to step in and filed a suit in the Tokyo District Court in order to dissolve her contract. AG Communications was purposely underreporting their profits and consequently they were underpaying royalties to their artists. Thus her parents filed the lawsuit to have access to AG Communications Financial Records, in order to ascertain if Ami Suzuki was being compensated properly. Despite having having huge profits, Ami’s earnings were frugal. At the beginning of her career Ami earned only $1500 a month, which was just 0.4% royalty rate on her releases. In 1999 it was raised to $9780, equaling to 0.55% royalty rate.
Furthermore, Ami’s parents were afraid that her association with this corrupted company would tarnish her image. The Tokyo District Court ruled in Ami’s favour. However this was a pyrrhic victory. By filing a lawsuit, her parents had broken one of the key unwritten rules of the entertainment business in Japan: artists who participate into legal trouble are blacklisted. The media spread rumors that her family was simply greedy and wanted to get a better deal for Ami.
“Lots of lies were being thrown about in the media, and I couldn’t believe that. For people to hear little things on the TV and believe that to be the truth about me was a surprise, and I suddenly realized the kind of world I was in!”
Ami’s career quickly disintegrated in front of her eyes. She lost all her commercial endorsements, drama roles and her radio show got cancelled in March. In April, Sony quickly dissolved her fan club and rushed out a greatest-hits compilation called “Fun for Fan” in a final attempt to milk Ami. Despite the lack of promotion and the blacklisting, her fans showed their support by buying her album to the point that it reached the top spot on Oricon. Her fans also started buying her debut single, which appeared after four year on the Oricon charts. However Sony was not willing to support Ami any longer and practically everyone deserted her, including Komuro, who refused to comment on the situation. In a few words, Ami vanished overnight.
Ami was faced with the huge problem where no one wanted to be associated with her. Record labels did not want to sign her in and she spent two years trying to make a comeback with close to no success. Everyone signed her off and believed that her chances for making a comeback were practically zilch. In the J-Pop industry there was no shortage of idol wannabes and most idols have a short staying power, thus no one seemed to miss Ami.
Ami was simply a persona non grata in the media and entertainment scene. No one wanted to have anything to do with Ami and so the press did not discuss Ami’s court case. Despite the fact that everyone pushed Ami aside, a foreign journalist, Steve McClure became interested in Ami’s case. He started covering Ami’s legal problems for the Japan Times. McClure got warned that he might lose his career if he continued to persist on following the case. Despite of these veiled threats he revealed the whole case on December 8th, 2001. Rori Caffrey, from the Daily Yomuri, also took a particular interest in this case. McClure arrived to the conclusion that despite the fact she won the case, “the system cannot be fought“.
“What kept me going was the thought of one day being able to tell the truth myself.”
In November 2003 she reached an out-of-court settlement with Sony in a dispute over contract terms. Her contract was still scheduled to end in December 2004 but Sony refused to release anything due to her blacklisted status.
Despite of all that Ami went through, she was still as determined as ever at making a comeback. Ami decided that if she couldn’t release an official single, she would attempt to release a single through another way. In April 2004, Ami released a photobook called “Tsuyoi Kizuna” (Strong Ties) with an accompanying CD through Tokyo-based publisher Bungei Shunju.
“Making a CD was a way to connect with fans, and if that would not be possible, I would find another way. After some research, I found that adding a CD to a book, such as those found in language-teaching books, would be a possible alternative.”
This idea proved to be a small victory for Ami. She managed to schedule a few appearances on some variety shows and the photobook sold 150,000 copies, despite the poor promotional campaign. Furthermore it hit the #1 spot of the best-selling non-fiction books. With these sales Ami got the confirmation that she still had a strong and active fanbase. Thus in August, she set up her own independent label, “Amity” and released a single titled “Forever Love“. It ranked at #21 on Oricon and shot to #1 on the Independent Chart on Oricon. Later on Ami would release a mini-concert DVD, “2004 SUMMER FLY HIGH -ami shower-“.
“My acting on impulse and will to succeed was something they wanted to support.”
Return to the music scene
In autumn of that same year, Ami’s luck finally began to change. Ami performed live at the annual festival of her school, Nihon University. Incidentally among the alumni attending the show there was the infamous president of avex and producer, Max Matsuura. Matsuura is well known for finding talents and developing them into famous stars and Ami immediately caught his attention. Despite the fact that record labels were still afraid to defy Sony, Max asked her to sign to avex trax, Japan’s largest independent label.
On December 30th 2004, Ami’s contract with Sony finally expired. Thus on that day, Ami officially announced her return to avex trax at her last performance of her nationwide tour, AMI’s LOVE FOR YOU-LIVE. After three and a half years, Ami finally managed to return to the music industry. This was a fresh start and a chance for Ami to prove herself as a singer.
“I wanted to make sure that both sides understood the situation, how tough it had been. Avex did do that, and so I felt I could trust them.”
Looking back at 2005, it is quite plain Ami worked relentlessly to start over her career. Ami released her first single, “Hopeful” in the form of a downloadable ring tone and tune version on the 1st of January. Later on she released another ringtone titled “For yourself”. Her following release and her first physical single was released on March 24th. It was titled “Delightful” and was quite a success. This single has two extra versions with her photo book and essay book. It shot up the Oricon Charts to #2 and sold 97,218 copies. Her following single was called “Eventful” and was moderately successful, which won a gold prize for Best New Artist at the 47th Nihon Record Taishou on December 31, 2005. In August she released a ballad called “Negaigoto”, where the promotional video contains a lot of influences from her problematic past.
In October, Ami released her first album in five years. The album was originally going to be called “Hopeful” but ended up being titled “AROUND THE WORLD”. It debuted at #4 on the Oricon Chart and sold 55,000 copies. Her “AROUND THE WORLD” single which was limited to 10,000 copies sold out in two weeks. Ami performed at the 56th annual Kouhaku Uta Gassen, which marked her 4th time appearing on this show.
In 2006 and 2007 Ami would collaborate with several artists, such as H/\L, Ai Otsuka, Nakata Yasutaka and Studio Apartment. She would a string of releases following the formula of dance tracks, pop numbers and ballads. As a result, Ami released two collaboration albums. Furthermore Ami would return to the acting scene, with the movie “Rainbow Song”.
In 2008, Ami celebrated her 10th anniversary with two singles and an album, “Supreme Show“. Ami mentioned how she was trying to find a genre of music which would fit her and realised that house and electro were perfect for her style. For this reason all her 2008 releases were produced by the electronic producer and capsule leader Yasutaka Nakata, where Suzuki reinvented herself as a disco queen. The media would portray Ami as the new fashion leader portraying the popular ero-kakoii style.
During her collaborations with Nakata, Ami would attend a lot of club events with Nakata as a DJ. Ami would become so interested in the clubbing scene that she would eventually start to DJ in clubs too. Her Nakata releases had moderate success. Ami’s sales might not be spectacular but her sales suggest a stable fanbase which is what Ami always wanted in the first place. In February 2009, Ami is scheduled to release a new single. It shall be produced by Taku of m-flo.
“I have made a lot of different styles of music in my career, and I want to be free to go with what I feel in my bones at the time. People may wonder which form is the one I enjoy the most, or which one fits me best, but at this time I can say with confidence that this electro style is great for me.”
Nonetheless Ami is still adamant in regaining her popularity back. In the past couple of years, Ami has also started returning to the acting scene. On November 24th, Ami returned to the drama scene, with “Love Letter“. Ami was offered the protagonist role of the hearing-impaired Minami Tadokoro, which was quite challenging. She also had the starring role in AVEX 20th Anniversary musical, ‘Kokoro no Kakera’, her debut in a musical.
“I want to try things that make me feel different. Playing a role that you would not normally ever get to experience is a great feeling.”
Ami Suzuki might never go back to the superstar status she used to enjoy in the past. However I feel that right now, Suzuki is happier than she has ever been before. She has been given a second chance and she is quite pleased with that. Right now she is doing what she loves most and additionally her record label are giving her the freedom she sought for so long.
Personally I feel she is a huge role model, with unceasing determination to be an artist and yet walk on her own rules. Despite all her obstacles and troubles within the entertainment industry, she still persists in following her own dreams and aspirations. These are quite a rare qualities in a country like Japan and for that she deserves a lot of respect.
“You can never lose your dream, and I think if you can make it come true when you are young, you should really go for it.”