For Westerners, the singer/songwriter Miyuki Nakajima can be described is the female Japanese equivalent of Bob Dylan -- she's a bit younger than Dylan, and her guitar-based, intelligent, and wordy folk songs are heavier on melancholy than social issues, but she's also enjoyed a long career and plays a similarly important role for Japanese popular music and the country's modern culture in general: suffice to say, she's the only musician to be included in the National Language Council of Japan in the ‘90s. She's not just acclaimed, but commercially successful, too: most of her 30-plus albums charted in the Top Ten, her sales totaled over 21 million units, and that's not counting over 90 songs she wrote for other artists, and numerous covers of her works performed throughout East Asia. Moreover, she built her reputation while consciously abstaining from appearing on TV, which is almost unheard of in Japan.
Nakajima was born in a well-off family in Sapporo and graduated from Fuji Women's University. She debuted as a singer/songwriter while still in high school, and continued to perform as an amateur, but it was only after her graduation in 1974 that she decided to become a pro. She went about it with dedication, writing over a hundred tunes before she got signed, which happened after she won the ninth "Popcon" music contest and the Sixth World Popular Song Festival, both organized by Yamaha, in 1975. She debuted with the single "Azami Jou no Lullaby" (1975) and the album Watashi no Koe ga Kikoemasuka (1976); since then, she has mostly stuck to a yearly release schedule. Her first big hit was "Abayo" (1976), penned for Naoko Ken; her own breakthrough happened in 1977, when the single "Wakareuta (The Parting Song)" topped the Oricon and sold 700,000 copies. The album Aishiteiru to Ittekure (1978) capitalized on that, and in 1979, Nakajima released Okaerinasai, the first in a series of records where she performed songs written by her for other artists. The album went on to sell 500,000 copies.
Nakajima's career peaked in the '80s, when seven out of her eleven albums, mostly from the first part of the decade, reached number one. She also wrote hits for artists like Keiko Masuda, Yoshie Kashiwabara, and Shizuka Kudo, sometimes working with the producer Tsugutoshi Goto, and in 1985 she had her first release outside Japan with "Cold Farewell" (Tsumetai Wakare), which featured Stevie Wonder on harmonica. In 1988 she launched her famous Yakai project, a set of theatrical quasi-musicals mixing songs and performance, that would go on irregularly through the ‘90s and 2000s, usually filmed and released on DVDs. In the ‘90s, Nakajima also broke her self-imposed ban on TV, starring in a couple of dramas and an ad campaign for the national post office; besides, she had began to write theme songs for TV series, and one of those, "Sora to Kimi no Aida Ni," went on to sell 1.4 million copies in 1994. In 1996, her compilation album Daiginjo made her the oldest female artist to top the Oricon (though she had since lost the records she'd set previously), but then sales took a dip for the rest of the ‘90s. That didn't spell the end of her career, though: in 2000, Nakajima changed from her label Pony Canyon to Yamaha and had a triumphant return with the single "Earthly Stars (Unsung Heroes)/Headlight Taillight," which sold 1.1 million copies, charting in the Top 200 for 202 weeks. She finally gave up and appeared on a live TV show as well, featuring in the top New Year event of Japan, the Kohaku Uta Gassen music program, in 2003 (her first live stint on TV since the ‘70s). Nakajima continued to record on her own in the 2000s, and also wrote some songs for the pop/rock band Tokio; the song "Sorafune" that she penned for them in 2006 became her first outside contribution (both lyrics and melody) to top the charts since 1976. In 2009, Nakajima was awarded a Medal of Honor by the Japanese government. ~ Alexey Eremenko