The Tokyo Hot List 2010: 20 people to watch

The Tokyo Hot List 2010: 20 people to watch

It's the people that make a place, so we've selected 20 of the top talents in Japan from the worlds of entertainment, business, sport and more who are shining brightly this year
Erika Sawajiri
Japanese model, singer and actress Erika Sawajiri flies the flag for the hottest Tokyo talent 2010.

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1. Erika Sawajiri: Comeback Queen

Actress, model and singer Erika has been the princess of controversy in 2010, yet has strode with utmost confidence back into the Japanese entertainment world -- and this time she's doing it her way. The 24-year-old had left Japan with her husband Tsuyoshi Takashiro following press attacks on her attitude and bad behaviour in 2007, chosing to live and study in England and Spain. Her faxed announcement in March that she'd set up her own management in Spain and would be coming back filled column-inches nationwide, not least as she laid down strict rules for media wishing to report on her. A semi-nude salon poster in Ginza followed by magazines covers and a stunning live comeback performance at the Girls Awards 2010 on May 22 -- not to mention the announcement of her divorce -- have made sure Sawajiri is the name on everyone's lips, and it's about time the sterile world of Japanese idols finally had a girl with attitude and talent shake things up.

2. Mademoiselle Yulia: Color wheel

Mademoiselle YuliaMademoiselle Yulia

Club culture darling Mademoiselle Yulia is a DJ, MC and singer who has been invited to perform with the likes of M.I.A., Steve Aoki and of the Black Eyed Peas. Quickly becoming the most-sought after DJ for VIP and fashion events at Tokyo's chic clubs, she was seen this month playing at events in Berlin and Stockholm. With her rainbow-colored Cleopatra bob and penchant for outré clothing, she’s been hailed as 'The Lady Gaga of Japan' (the 'Japan' part bespeaks a subtlety compared with Ms. Germanotta). Only 22, Yulia has already released two second remix albums and started a line of accessories called GIZA, but there’s more to come -- and more hair colors to explore.

3. Tadashi Yanai: Brand brain

Fast Retailing was once a quaint Yamaguchi prefecture-based family business that sold cheap, generic casuals to dads in backwater locales. But under the leadership of Yanai, FR's brand Uniqlo has become the best-selling fashion brand in Japan -- and with the +J Jil Sander collaboration line, one of the most trendy. Taking the number-one slot on Forbes' Japan rich list in 2009 has only flamed Yanai's ambition. He now hopes to turn his company into a ¥5 trillion revenue global powerhouse by 2020 and recently announced that all staff will need to speak English to achieve it.

4. Tsubasa Masuwaka: Beloved underdog

She may not be in a powerful talent agency or star of a TV show, but 24-year-old model Tsubasa Masuwaka has used the incredible support of fans to become the 'It Girl' of the moment. The 150cm Saitama-native grew to fame through her amateur modeling in gyaru fashion magazine "Popteen." After becoming the mag's top model, she moved onto product endorsements for small brands, which apparently generated up to ¥100 million worth of economic activity. After a 2007 shotgun wedding with Men's Egg model Naoki Umeda, Masuwaka retired for a few months to become a full-time mom. Motherhood only emboldened Masuwaka -- she's back as the primary model of new Shibuya-Harajuku hybrid magazine "PopSister", has launched her own line of fake eyelashes called Dolly Wink, and is a frequent guest on TV variety programs.

5. Ryo Ishikawa: Club heartthrob

Ryo IshikawaRyo Ishikawa

At 15, Ishikawa became the youngest golfer ever to win a tournament on the Japan Golf Tour. Now at 18, he's ranked number 51 as of July 2010 on the Official World Golf Ranking, no.1 in Japan, and set a record for the lowest score ever carded in a Japanese tour event, 58, on May 2 at The Crowns. While he has yet to win a major international tournament, he's won the hearts of Japanese women with his good looks and demure demeanor. He's not nicknamed the Hanikami Oji, or 'Bashful Prince,' for nothing. Ishikawa is also becoming the prince of promotional work, cutting ads for ANA, Toyota and Lotte.

6. Alan Dawa Dolma: Tibetan wailer

Ok, she's not Japanese, but Tokyo resident Alan Dawa Dolma, better known simply as Alan, has been making waves ever since she sang the theme tunes to John Woo's Red Cliff saga last year. Able to sing in a high pitch Tibetan wail, and perform traditional instruments such as the Chinese fiddle (erhu), she'll shortly be performing two symphonic concerts in Tokyo. Her debut solo live in January this year saw her sing a mix of ballads, J-pop and traditional Tibetan material and we think she's one Asian singer with a voice that transcends any language barrier.

7. Hisako Nakajo: Hostess helper

Women's fashion magazines are one of the most important cultural forces in Japan, yet few have females at the top of the editorial chain. Nakajo of "Koakuma Ageha" has shattered the glass ceiling by stewarding her 'cabaret club hostess' fashion magazine into a popular national title, arguably the most influential magazine of the moment. The magazine's extreme sparkle-graphics spreads now inform the design of magazine "Popteen" and have even infected "Non•no" -- the ultimate 'good girl' magazine. Without Nakajo, the growing hostess sector would never have its own magazine, and we'd have no idea that hostesses were so influential on Japanese culture.

8. Meisa Kuroki: Dark star

With Japanese men increasingly infatuated with the under-15 set and Japanese women growing sympathetic toward 'regular'-looking girls, things could be tough for a dark, mysterious beauty like Meisa Kuroki. Yet the Okinawa-native has become one of the biggest faces in recent years, modeling for "JJ," singing hit songs and acting in films and popular drama series such as Shinzanmono. Her biggest feat may be on the horizon. She recently snagged away the part of heroine Moriyuki in the live adaptation of "Space Battleship Yamato" from troubled actress Erika Sawajiri. Will she dye her hair blond for the role or will Moriyuki stay dark?

9. Exile: 14-part machismo machine

Exile, JapanExile

Like the mochi in your bowl sticking to everything, this macho singing group has latched onto every branch of the pop-culture tree. The seven-member bad-boy R&B dance and vocal troupe spawned 34 hit singles, seven best-of albums, a lifestyle magazine, several acting careers, and, oh yeah, they recently announced their 2010 tour taking in 22 cities that is expected to sell 1.1 million tickets, setting a new Japan record. Success of course, means expansion, so earlier last year they upped the number of members to 14. Now even if they stop producing hit records, fans will still spend years trying to remember them all.

10. Shogen: Smoking hottie

Shogen is a 31-year-old upcoming actor who silently permeated every street corner on the Seven Stars cigarette vending machine poster. His cool stare and come-hither smile elevated his street presence, but the Okinawan has moved on from mere modeling. He now has 10 feature-length films to his credit, including the "Seven Samurai" remake. His rugged looks, coupled with nice-guy demeanor, have earned him enough popularity to spur a meme called 'Shogenism.'

11. Makoto Azuma: Petal to the max

'Flower arrangement' has a staid reputation, but the 33-year-old Azuma is working to change that. Originally a guitarist in a grunge rock band, Azuma quit music to work on his emotive flower and plant-based art. Although his overseas exhibitions have highlighted the artist's neo-Japonesque side, Azuma's recent exhibition at GYRE, Distortion x Flowers, perfectly melded rock aesthetics with the natural world by arranging BOSS distortion pedals in a bed of flowers. If you want Azuma to work your wedding or create a bouquet for a special someone, visit his flower shop Jardins des Fleurs in Ginza.

12. Kayo Ume: Silly shooter

In her pursuit of immediacy and intimacy, the 28-year-old photographer has become the inheritor of the 1990s 'girl's photography' boom in Japan. She adds to the genre, however, a devilish sense of humor and eerie ability to catch the world's silly foibles at the perfect instant. Ume's work travels around the world in gallery shows, but performs just as well as stand-alone photographs sent around as Internet gags. There may be more arty, serious young photographers out there, but let's face it, Japanese culture has ceased to be arty and serious. Ume is not a photographer chronicling the zeitgeist -- she is the zeitgeist.

13. Tao Okamoto: Deluxe bowl

Tao OkamotoTao Okamoto

Tao Okamoto’s 'rice bowl' hair may be the most valuable cut in the world. After chopping off her locks in 2008, the androgynous model has walked on nearly every big brand runway. Okamoto landed the Ralph Lauren advertising campaign last year -- the first time ever for an Asian model. Phillip Lim did a fashion show with all models done up in her hairstyle, and last November’s "Vogue Nippon" was dedicated to Okamoto's destiny to be the next supermodel. Now a Ford Model, 2010 has seen her build her reputation and name further.

14. Yuya Nara: Do righter

As director and creative stylist of SHIMA in Harajuku -- one of the city’s most popular hair salons -- Nara is as much a celebrity as his star clients. Long the 'charismatic' pin-up idol for the young men who adhere to his salon-kei fashion style -- a mix of dressy high fashion and punk casual -- Nara recently moved to the grown-up world by working with "Vogue Hommes Japan" and styling Hollywood celebrities such as Lady Gaga and the Olsen Twins.

15. Mao Asada: Snark-proof sister

Ranked third in the world in May 2010, 19-year-old Asada is Japan's top ice skater. Japan generally loves its ice skaters, but Asada has become even dearer to the nation's heart thanks to her 'little sister' good looks and cheery attitude. Finishing second to long-time Korean rival Kim Yun-Na at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver only made her more detemined, and her March gold medal win at the 2010 World Figure Skating Championships won her more fans. These combine to make her a perfect spokeswoman for commercial interests such as Olympus and Nestlé. There's really nothing to be snarky about here. When Asada wins, we all win.

16. Yu Darvish: Perfect pitchman

Yu DarvishYu Darvish

Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui are baseball heroes, but sometimes they seem like superhuman demi-gods living on a higher plane. Twenty-three-year-old half-Iranian, half-Japanese Nippon Ham Fighters pitcher Darvish, however, is hot, hot, hot -- a perfect combination of physical prowess and movie-star good looks. He posed shirtless on the cover of "An•An"'s Sex issue in 2007, but before girls could go too crazy, Darvish announced his shotgun marriage to actress Saeko. Despite the heavy drooling of American scouts, Darvish has no plans to relocate anytime soon to the Major Leagues. He's got a family here in Japan and a contract with Nippon Ham Fighters.

17. Maki Nishiyama: Ebi-chan 2.0

When model Yuri 'Ebi-chan' Ebihara 'graduated' from ultra-popular fashion magazine "CanCam" in 2008, few thought that her replacement, Maki Nishiyama, would be able to keep together the Oneekei coalition of well-primped girls. But Nishiyama has topped expectations and become the latest heroine for Japan's young OL population. Ebi-chan had her 'Ebi' shrimp burger at McDonalds, but Nishiyama landed the spokeswoman role for McDonald's and Docomo's ID x M collaboration. Sure, Nishiyama is clearly living under Ebi's shadow, but it's good to see brown hair, bright makeup and pink clothes continue to march into a new decade.

18. Yoshikazu Tanaka: Season's GREEtings

Mixi is still the number-one social networking service in Japan, but Tanaka's GREE is hot on its tail. The 32-year-old IT entrepreneur took the risk earlier this year on a heavy promotional campaign for his Internet service, which emphasized the site's multitude of games rather than traditional networking functions. The risk paid off -- GREE recently replaced Mobage Town as number-two in the market. Tanaka hit number 24 on the "Forbes" Japan's richest list this year, with an estimated $850 million in value. With Mixi growth hitting a plateau, Tanaka will have the next year to go head-to-head against his rival and prove that GREE has the better formula for Japan.

19. AKB48: Winning by numbers


When is a girl group not a girl group? When it has more members than each member has had hot dinners. Named after geek-district Akihabara, the AKB48 girls are split in to three units of nearly-managable 16, named A, K and B. With their own theater, they perform once daily and more on weekends to their 'otaku' (nerd) fans, but the surprise is the ubuiquity they now have on all media in Japan, with fans increasingly from all walks of life. Appearances at anime conventions worldwide and a tie-up with 7-eleven mean that they are likely to be the most unavoidable force in the Japanese entertainment industry for some time to come. They've even spawned two more groups already, SKE48 and the soon to launch NMB48 in Osaka.

20. Keisuke Honda: Football fashion icon

Japan's impressive performancs in the recent world cup only emphasized the fact that attacking midfielder Honda, 24, is not only Japan's leading light, but one of the fast rising stars in world football. With his bleached hair and good looks, he's also become a soccer-style icon, replacing Hidetoshi Nakata. Currently playing for CSKA Moscow he debuted in the UEFA Champions League against Seville, scoring the winning goal, and is a likely summer transfer target for many of Europe's big boys. The only shame is we don't get to see enough of him in his home country.