Who Mattered Most in Japan 2009

Who Mattered Most in Japan 2009

It was a year of political change, economic recession and celebrity scandal. Here are the 16 people that most influenced the last 12 months in Japan

Let's face it: 2009 was a bit of a downer. In a land where sophisticated consumerism once dominated, basic necessities and dangerously low-priced jeans took center stage. And our celebrity royalty got more press for their performances in hotel suites and court rooms than in their movies and TV shows.

Yet the kanji of the year was "new" (新). A political sea change of late August 2009 has already resulted in major changes to the government. A new lay judge jury system inspired a renewed debate about civic responsibility. The rise of the gyaru and yankii subcultures has provided crucial energy to the otherwise declining cultural industries.

Here are the personalities who made the year what it was, for better or worse.

Yukio Hatoyama: A new beginning

who mattered mostPrime Minister Yukio Hatoyama

Before its historic landslide victory in August, the Democratic Party of Japan was considered a "lite" version of the LDP and uninterested in major change. In the span of a few months, however, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, along with DPJ shadow master Ichiro Ozawa, has already moved ahead with bold policy iniatives: wrangling power from the bureaucrats, rearranging spending priorities, abandoning postal system privatization and opening a few of the elite press clubs to outside media. Hatoyama himself has also created a new kind of persona for Japan's top politician: slightly aloof but willing to engage in pop culture without the smug self-absorption of predecessor Junichiro Koizumi. And now that Hatoyama has dodged criminal charges on illegal fundraising, he may even continue to be PM in 2010.

Tadashi Yanai: Clothing the nation

2008 was a standout year for the mass clothing retailer Uniqlo, but in 2009 the company took a near monopoly position in the apparel market. Economic and social conditions have forced us to demand low-priced underwear, sweaters and slacks, but Uniqlo's CEO Tadashi Yanai has figured out how to make us feel good about it. Just this year we saw the ultra-functional Heat Tech line's expectation of selling 50 million units, the Ginza flagship's doubling in size, the overly-successful 6am sale and the auspicious debut of the Jil Sander collaboration +J line. Even Fast Retailing's cheaper brand g.u. scored big news with its ¥990 jeans.

Noriko Sakai: Fallen angel

who mattered mostFormer idol Noriko Sakai

The actual criminal case of Noriko Sakai was relatively unsubstantial. The ex-idol singer received a suspended sentence for possessing a tiny amount of amphetamines. Yet the wider drama absorbed the entire country's consciousness this autumn. The story of a good girl turned bad captivated a nation, and while her entertainment career may be over, the scandal did add to her super-stardom: Her song "Aoi Usagi" hit #1 on iTunes despite her label pulling all albums from distribution.

Manabu Oshio: The dark heart of Japanese celebrity

The criminal case of bad-boy actor and singer Manabu Oshio had a tragic and explosive quality worthy of a Tarantino epic. A drug-related death of a young Ginza hostess in a Roppongi Hills apartment owned by a lingerie tycoon, reports of mysterious bail payments from a legendary business magnate and rumors of another celebrity allegedly admitting prior drug use with Oshio to police. As for Oshio, he received a suspended sentence for using ecstasy. Japan has been gripped by the case and given a glimpse into the nexus of power, fame and money in Tokyo.

Yu Darvish: The ¥330 million man

who mattered mostPitcher Yu Darvish

Yu Darvish is Japan's baseball superstar, and this year was his brightest yet. Despite recent trouble with his shoulder, Darvish still became the youngest player ever to sign a contract for over ¥300 million a year. Next year will no doubt see more people ask: When does he defect to the American leagues?

Haruki Murakami: Writing for the masses

Overseas, Haruki Murakami is one of the most popular Japanese writers of all time, thanks to his highly engaging fictional explorations of the post-modern human condition. Back in Japan, Murakami's latest dark and difficult novel "1Q84" somehow became the best-selling book of the year. With the third volume expected in summer 2010, the 60-year-old writer may repeat the feat next year too. Last year was all about the barely literate "cell phone novel," so Murakami may be single-handedly preventing the dumbing down of Japanese culture.

Seishiro Kato: Driving into your heart

As if people were compensating for the exposure they suffered to the very adult lives of Japan's celeb entertainers, the public collectively fell in love with child actor Seishiro Kato. The 8-year-old has achieved fame for his starring role in Toyota's "Child Store Manager" commercial series. He may be running afoul of the Japanese work ethic by leaving the office to eat apple pie, go swimming -- or attend elementary school -- but he's adorable in so doing.

Nobutada Saji: Whiskey baron

who mattered mostNobutada Saji of Suntory

In July, booze group Suntory announced a merger with rival brewery Kirin, with Suntory Chairman Nobutada Saji taking the lead. Both companies have the same mission to tap into overseas markets, requiring greater economy of scale, and the tie-up fulfills that objective. Although the merger still has some hurdles, we give temporary points to Suntory now for its successful resuscitation of the "highball" after a long period of ridicule as an old man drink.

Forever 21: Fast fashion feats

Opening in April on the heels of rival H&M's well-publicized 2008 launch, American fast fashion company Forever 21 was not poised to make any real impact on the Japanese apparel market. But after a year of huge lines at its Harajuku location, plans for a Ginza store in a former Gucci space and reports of outselling H&M almost two to one, Forever 21 is now a top player. Just goes to show: Today's female consumers are more interested in cheap, cute clothing than associations with fancy high-fashion brands and European design.

Tsuyoshi Kusanagi: Baring all

Back in April, the media went crazy over the arrest of SMAP member Tsuyoshi Kusanagi for drunkenly screaming while wandering around a Roppongi park at midnight -- buck naked. His immediate defense to the cops -- "What's wrong with being naked?" -- became a beloved punchline on internet bulletin boards and may just have been the best slogan of 2009. Of course, Kusanagi's management company, Johnny's Entertainment, was able to quickly rehabilitate the star's career, but not before Kunio Hatoyama, brother of the current Prime Minister, called Kusagani a "terrible person" in public.

Tao Okamoto: Global model

who mattered mostModel Tao Okamoto

Boyish model Tao Okamoto had been an institution at Japanese fashion shows, but in 2009 she became one of the hottest faces on the international runway circuit. Okamoto is the first Asian face to lead a Ralph Lauren advertising campaign, and her bowl haircut inspired hairstyling for 3.1 Philip Lim's collection show. Okamoto is to fashion what Matsui is to baseball.

EXILE: Machismo army

From 2007, veteran male vocal group EXILE has been a ladies' favorite, but they raised the bar in 2009 by merging with J Soul Brothers to create a 14-member group. Now as a coterie of soulful hunks with a smattering of roguish charm, EXILE has been able to branch out of music into the world of publishing with its own monthly magazine called, high creatively, "EXILE." We are hoping that EXILE takes on the franchise model of Morning Musume to ensure a solid decade of pop chart dominance.

Hideki Matsui: American hit

who mattered mostYankees slugger Hideki Matsui

Hideki "Godzilla" Matsui has long been a baseball hero to the Japanese nation, and he has even been beloved in America for his hard-hittin' work for the New York Yankees since 2003. His World Series MVP this year, however, took him up to legendary status. Matsui is now the first Japanese-born player to ever win that accolade.

The Cast of Rookies: Bad boys make good

Speaking of baseball, the highest grossing film of 2009 was "Rookies: Graduation." The movie follows a team of deeply tanned delinquent high schoolers who battle their own personal demons in their quest to play in the Koshien national baseball championship. We don't want to spoil the end, but let's just say the spirit of sports prevails over the spirit of youth criminality. The film's success also shows that 2009 was the year of the "yankii": Japan's homegrown delinquent subculture. Herbivore men just aren't doing it for the ladies.

Nozomi Sasaki: Fitting the role

who mattered mostActress and model Nozomi Sasaki

Slim 21-year-old model Nozomi Sasaki was once the face of soon-to-be-defunct Pinky magazine, but in 2009 she successfully kicked off a larger career as a spokeswoman and actress. Her lanky dance moves in commercials for Lotte's new Fit's gum on TV and YouTube helped the chewing treat become one of the year's best selling products. This is just the beginning.

Shiho Fujita: Gyaru goes farming

In recent years, there has been an aesthetic divide between the gyaru, who love heavy make-up and shopping at Shibuya 109, and the "earthy girls" who dress in beige and prefer eco-friendly products. Enter Shiho Fujita, aka Sifow, who is working to fuse these two trends by creating a new agricultural project with gyaru labor. She and her so-called "Nogyaru" (field-gyaru) friends head up to Akita on the weekends to plant and harvest rice which they sell later as "Shibuya Kome." Japan may be increasingly underpopulated but the fields, with Fujita's help, will not go fallow.

W. David Marx was CNNGo's initial Tokyo City Editor. His writing has also appeared in magazines such as GQ, Brutus, Weekly Diamond, and Nylon, as well as his web joural Néojaponisme.

Read more about W. David Marx