Each year the popular Japanese magazine Bunshun surveys thousands of readers to rank their most popular actors.
Former gravure idol 36 year-old Haruka Ayase topped the list again this year, and she won by a wide margin.
While there were some younger newcomers who broke into the Top 15 for the first time, experienced actors generally held their own to retain the top spots.
The Chinese central government recently made the headlines by banning all celebrity rankings to “rectify chaos in the fan community.” How about Japan? Nothing to worry about over here, where ranking actors remains almost a national sport.
The annual survey of Japan’s most popular actors was just released by the magazine Bunshun. Like People Magazine’s similar annual report for the U.S, let’s see who made the cut.
The survey was conducted for 24 days, from June 4 – 27. A total of 7,580 votes were received. 63% of the respondents were women, and 37% were men. They ranged in age from 10 to 92 years old.
Keys to Success
The most important factors for determining success or failure at the upper echelon of Japanese female actors differ somewhat from how male actors achieve professional recognition.
Modeling Pedigree as a Base
Just about every entrant in the Top 15 has modeled at one point in their career. Some have, however, more traditional experience in live theater.
5th ranked Yuki Amami’s popularity can be traced back to her experience as a member of the famous Takarazuka Review (宝塚歌劇団), an all-female musical theater troupe founded in Kansai in 1913. It still enjoys almost a cult-like following throughout the country.
Like the former alliance of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt or the phenomenon of “Bennifer,” the relationship between Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck, which has, apparently, recently been rekindled, a few of these Japanese “A-Listers” benefit from having a popular spouse in the same business.
Notable examples include Erika Toda (#14), who recently married Tori Matsuzaka. He ranked #8 on Bunshun’s list of the Top 15 male actors in Japan.
The “power couple” of Yui Aragaki (#4) and Gen Hoshino, a very successful J-pop singer who has recently branched out into acting. Aragaki had co-starred with Hoshino in the made-for-TV series The Full-Time Wife Escapist (逃げ恥婚).
Some readers may recognize Keiko Kitagawa (#6) from her bit role in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. She just got married to rock musician DAIGO. He is a famous Japanese singer-songwriter of the rock band Breakerz and was formerly known as Daigo☆Stardust (including the star emoji).
Plenty of these actors have, however, achieved success on their own and remain single.
Age before Beauty? Not Necessarily…
Compared to the age distribution of Japan’s most popular male actors, the female actors from the Bunshun survey tend to be a little younger. Almost 50% are in their 30s. There is, however, one teenager, Kaya Kiyohara (#10), who still has a long “runway” ahead of her. At the other end of the spectrum, 76-year-old Sayuri Yoshinaga (#9) just made it into the top ten. The age distribution is as follows:
According to the fan comments, the most popular actors tend to attract a multi-generational following based upon the breadth of opportunities they have had on screen.
You may not be familiar with any of these names. Very few Japanese female actors have had much success in Hollywood—especially beyond movies with an Asian theme.
Perhaps you may recall Yuki Kudo (工藤夕貴) or Kaori Momoi (桃井かおり) from Memoirs of a Geisha. How about Koyuki Kato (加藤小雪) in The Last Samurai? No? Well, while you may remember their faces and/or characters from these movies, you can be forgiven for having difficulty matching them to their real names.
To date, almost none have gone on to become a household name in the West. Some of the talent on this list is, however, well-positioned to enjoy success beyond the borders of Japan at some point.
So, who made the cut?
Counting Down from Bottom to Top
#15 Kyoko Fukuda (深田恭子), Age 38
Known simply as “Fukakyon” in Japanese, Fukuda has quite a following in Japan. Her official Instagram account has, in fact, almost 3.7 million followers.
Fukuda fell a couple of notches since last year’s survey, but she remains popular. On May 26 it was, however, announced that she would be taking a break from performing due to maladjustment disorder or tekio shogai in Japanese (適応障害). This news sent shockwaves throughout Japan. The comments were filled with concern and support.
A 20-year-old female fan declared,
I believe that she will come back with a beautiful smile after taking a rest!
A 46-year-old man commented,
I hope that she will take her time to rest her body and soul and show us her good health again.
#14 Erika Toda (戸田恵梨香), Age 33
Toda, who ranked 7th last year, just got married rather hastily in December 2020 to Japanese actor Tori Matsuzaka (松坂桃李), Age 32 (ranked #8 on the list of popular male actors). This type of sudden matrimony is called dengkikon (電撃婚) in Japanese, and it attracted a lot of attention in the Japanese media.
Toda is currently playing the lead role in the summer drama series Hakozume (ハコヅメ).
From the beginning, I liked her appearance and atmosphere. I became a fan at once after seeing her perform on stage. Her voice can be heard clearly, and it is kind to the ears.
A 51-year-old female respondent disclosed,
Takako Matsu is really excellent. There are many roles that only she can handle.
#12 Suzu Hirose (広瀬すず), Age 23
Suzu Hirose, one of the youngest members in the Top 15 who was ranked 8th last year, fell four ranks to finish in what is still a very respectable 12th place for 2021. This spring Hirose played the lead role in the mini-series Nemesis (ネメシス). She was also chosen as the CM Queen for 2020, another contest in which celebrities are ranked by the number of times they appear in television commercials.
“I can feel her hard work. I think her commercial for the bridal brand Zexy (ゼクシィ) is already a legend.
A 25-year-old female admitted,
I like her ‘crying performance.’ Every scene in the movies in which Hirose cries has left a strong impression on me. Even just remembering them makes me cry.
#11 Satomi Ishihara (石原さとみ), Age 34
Satomi Ishihara, who announced her marriage in October 2020, also fell a few spots but remains popular. The fact that she recently appeared for the first time with short hair has become a hot topic in the Japanese press.
She is really beautiful. You can see it clearly. I like her so much that I wanted to be born like this.
A devoted 39-year-old male fan critiqued,
In Love Deeply (恋はDeepに) she played the oceanographer Nagisa Oto, a character who loves the sea and has a soft and natural atmosphere. It was the perfect role for Ishihara. I was introduced to this female actor by her smile in Tokyo Metro: Find my Tokyo (東京メトロ：Find my Tokyo). I was healed by her expression.
#10 Kaya Kiyohara (清原果耶), Age 19
The youngest member of this exclusive club, Kaya Kiyohara, made a big leap from 18th place into the Top 10. She debuted in the NHK serial TV novel Asa ga Kita (あさが来た). In the serial TV novel Okaeri Mone (おかえりモネ), which aired during the first half of 2021, she played a heroine who aims to become a weather forecaster.
In Firefly Grass (蛍草), despite being young, she played a neat Japanese woman brilliantly. Even in Transparent Cradle (透明なゆりかご) her performance was rich with emotional expression. I am eagerly looking forward to her forthcoming role in the NHK morning made-for-TV drama Okaeri Mone.
A 33-year-old male who seems to be simultaneously attracted and repelled by her facial expressions explained,
Kiyohara draws you in with her facial expressions, even in a role with few words. That expressiveness is horrifying as a teenager. I strongly want to go to the theater to see this person’s acting. It’s wonderful.
#9 Sayuri Yoshinaga (吉永小百合), Age 76
By far the oldest member on this list, Sayuri Yoshinaga rose from 20th place in 2020 to 9th place. She was propelled into the Top 10 thanks to the enthusiastic support of older fans who have remained loyal for decades. Yoshinaga is praised not only for her acting but also for her active participation in various peace movements. Lately, she has not appeared much in the public eye, but after a two-year hiatus in May, her new movie A Morning of Farewell (いのちの停車場) was released to rave reviews.
She is, curiously, married to a much younger man, 48-year-old Taro Okada.
Yoshinaga has enjoyed a loyal fanbase for decades at this point. A 54-year-old male respondent commented,
There has never been an actress (like Yoshinaga) who hasn’t changed for decades and can continue to play the leading role. You can be healed just by looking at her.
A 37-year-old man explained,
I think it’s terrific to have a great attitude toward work (like Yoshinaga) that will serve as a model for young people.
#8 Kasumi Arimura (有村架純), Age 28
Kasumi Arimura, who broke into the Top 10 seemingly out of nowhere, is on a roll. Her official Instagram site now has more than 4 million followers.
A 28-year-old female fan mentioned,
I became more fond of Arimura when I saw Life’s Punchline (コントが始まる). She was effortlessly able to transition from acting as a drunk to being able to cry convincingly.
A 62-year-old female fan commented,
I’ve been noticing Arimura’s performance in Meet Me After School (中学聖日記). I pay closer attention to what will happen to her as an adult female actor from now on.
#7 Tao Tsuchiya (土屋太鳳), Age 26
Tao Tsuchiya, who ranked 5th last time, came in at 7th place this year. In the spring, she became the emcee of the show, Shibuya no Oto (シブヤのオト), a new program that features the newest talent among Japan’s up-and-coming singers and songwriter which airs on national broadcaster NHK. That was quite a break for Tsuchiya. This year alone, she has, moreover, already appeared in two movies. Her latest release, How to Repel a Dove (鳩の撃退法), is a story based on a novel by Naoki Prize-winning author Masago Sato.
I’ve been rooting for her since she was in Hanako to Anne (花子とアン). Tsuchiya can play anything from a sparkling girl’s manga heroine to a dark role. The action she showed in Rurouni Kenshin (るろうに剣心) and Alice in Wonderland (今際の国のアリス) was also amazing! She is also a wonderful human being who cherishes each role she plays.
A 21-year-old female respondent mentioned,
I was very impressed by her humble attitude and her performance in the musical Roman Holiday (ローマの休日), which I saw for the first time last year. I love Tsuchiya because she can both act and dance.
An impressed 25-year-old female fan said,
I have been attracted to Tsuchiya since I saw her for the first time in Suzuki Sensei (鈴木先生). She is the only actress that I am so passionate about. I am a fan not only because of her acting in dramas and movies, but also from the polite and heartfelt words she writes on her blog since more than 10 years ago (recently transitioned to Instagram). I can feel that Tsuchiya is a truly wonderful person.
Putting her money where her mouth is, a 14-year-old female respondent gave a vote of confidence by saying,
I want Tsuchiya to be cast more frequently in action movies. The action in Rurouni Kenshin (るろうに剣心) was really cool! She is cute in variety shows, too. I joined her fan club for the first time with my pocket money.
#6 Keiko Kitagawa (北川景子), Age 34
Keiko Kitagawa, a former model who ranked 18th last year who is married to singer DAIGO, jumped up to 6th place this year. It is difficult to imagine how she has time to do everything, especially considering that she gave birth to her first child in the fall of 2020. This February, Kitagawa appeared in First Love (ファーストラヴ), a movie based upon the Naoki Prize-winning novel. It was the first time she played the lead role in a movie during the past three years. In August, another new movie, God of Kinema (キネマの神様) was also just released. Her official website lists more details.
A 51-year-old female fan remarked,
I became a fan of hers after watching the made-for-TV drama Rikokatsu (リコカツ). I was also impressed by her marriage to DAIGO.
The fact that Kitagawa continues to be active on stage even after giving birth inspires many Japanese female fans. A 21-year-old female respondent explained,
I like her because she is very open-minded. I think she is a hard worker, raising a child and working as an actress at the same time.
A 56-year-old female fan exclaimed,
It’s so cool that she is both an actress and a mother.
A 26-year-old female fan commented,
I think it’s great that she’s still working hard even after she got married and had a baby. I hope she doesn’t overdo it too much.
#5 Yuki Amami (天海祐希), Age 53
Yuki Amami, who ranked third last year, dropped two places but made it into the top five. This summer, she starred in the fourth season of the wildly popular drama Emergency Investigation Room (緊急取調室). Amami had enjoyed a loyal base of fans from her youth when she appeared on stage in the Takarazuka Revue.
Aragaki’s marriage to Gen Hoshino made me rewatch Run Away is Shame (逃げるは恥だが役に立つ), but her transparency and cuteness are still the best. She is too cute. He’s too cute. He’s an angel.
A 17-year-old female fan mentioned,
No matter how old she gets, her goofy smile is really cute! I was surprised to see her get married, but I’m really happy for her! I hope Aragaki will continue to be active in the future.
A 37-year-old woman confessed,
I fell in love with Aragaki even more after watching many of the chicken ramen commercials in which she has appeared.
Aragaki has, in fact, appeared in 15 television commercials for Nisshin’s famous Cup Ramen. She has showcased this work on her own YouTube channel called Yui TV.
#3 Masami Nagasawa (長澤まさみ), Age 34
Masami Nagasawa, another former model, moved up 8 ranks from last year. She appeared in the April drama series Dragon Cherry Blossom (ドラゴン桜) for the first time with the much older Hiroshi Abe (Japan’s #1 ranked male actor). Nagasawa will appear as the heroine in Masquerade Night (マスカレード・ナイト) to be released in September, following her role in the previous film Masquerade Hotel (マスカレード・ホテル).
A 58-year-old female fan outlined,
I like the way she is willing to play both leading and supporting roles in high quality films such as MOTHER and The Wonderful World (すばらしき世界) rather than simply going for money-makers of little entertainment value. Her acting ability also shines through.
A 38-year-old woman explained,
I was surprised that she took on the role of the poisonous mother in MOTHER, a decision which much have involved a degree of risk. I was a little shocked because I had seen her in action since she was a teenager, when she played the character Masami Nagasawa who became homeless and had a meaningless relationship with a man. As an actress her readiness to take on any role is amazing.
A 41-year-old man expounded,
I just love her, and her cuteness has grown even more since she entered her 30s.
#2 Rena Nonen aka “Non” (のん), Age 28
Retaining second place for two years in a row, former fashion model Rena Nonen, who changed her stage name simply to “Non” during the summer of 2016, is very popular in Japan. This is, however, despite the fact that she is being shunned by Japan’s insular television industry. Her agent has explained that this ongoing misunderstanding is hardly keeping her from working. Non is, though, currently limited to working in the movies, which includes narration work.
Since May 2020, Non has been hosting a monthly live show on-line called Non: Live to Watch at Home (のん おうちで観るライブ), which has, apparently, been considered to be a direct shot across the bow by the television industry. Non is truly multi-talented. In 2022 Non will be releasing a new movie called Ribbon which she wrote, directed, and starred in.
Even if she does not appear in made-for-TV dramas, Non is doing her best by winning the Japan Film Critics Award.
A 54-year-old male fan clarified,
I’m always amazed at her willingness to go ahead with whichever projects that she loves without hesitation, just like how her eyes always appear to be looking straight ahead.
A 66-year-old woman mentioned,
I want to support her, as she carves out a new path on her own, without complaining or getting discouraged, even though her path to becoming a national actress, which was promised by the success of her first morning drama, is now inexcusably closed. It’s a pity that at my age, I won’t be able to watch her until she becomes a great actress.
After two years as #2, perhaps “Non” will be voted into the top spot next year. It would certainly send a shockwave throughout the television broadcasting community.
In any case, Non certainly has her work cut out for her, going against #1 ranked Haruka Ayase.
#1 Haruka Ayase (綾瀬はるか), Age 36
After launching her career as a provocative gravure idol in 2000, Haruka Ayase has come a long way since being a pin-up model. She is both a singer and actor active in both movies and on TV.
Her performance in the January drama Heaven and Hell (天国と地獄) propelled her to the top once again this year. There was, moreover, a comfortable margin between her and #2 ranked Non.
In Heaven and Hell, Ayase played the role of both a man and woman who switch places. Acting beside Issei Takahashi, who was recently ranked as the 6th most popular male actor in Japan, Ayase’s performance touched the viewers’ hearts.
A 48-year-old female fan concluded,
I was overwhelmed by the eeriness of her performance as a man in the drama Heaven and Hell, where she played a bizarre murderer with a smile on her face. I was reminded once again of the greatness of Haruka Ayase. Among the many female actors of her generation, I think she is the best in terms of acting range and acting ability.
Ayase has been compared to Anne Hathaway and other famous female actors in Hollywood. A 44-year-old female made an additional comparison,
She is the Japanese version of Angelina Jolie, an actress who can do anything. She has a good personality, and I’ve always loved her.
A 50-year-old female fan explained,
“Ayase showed us a new world in the drama Heaven and Hell. She proved to the world that she is not just a cute female actor. Her acting is good, her sex appeal is appropriate for her age, and I think she will climb the stairs to becoming a great female actor.
A 37-year-old male fan concluded,
Ayase can effortlessly switch between on and off. When she is not acting, such as in interviews, she is so natural that you wonder if Ayase is really an actor. She is always sincere and a perfectionist when it comes to acting. I am always surprised by the gap between her and the other actors on stage.
While the language barrier often precludes many Japanese actors from gaining much of a following outside Japan, some of their work is now being translated. The made-for-TV dramas and movies of these top-ranked actors would, however, be an excellent place to begin for any student of the Japanese language and culture. Unlike China, where such lists are now banned, Japanese fans are quite fond of such rankings. Thus, you’ll have to check back in a year from now to see how it moves up and down.
Mark Kennedy is a native of Chicago who has spent more than 20 years living, studying, and working in Japan. By day he is Country Head - Business Development, Nexdigm - Japan but becomes a writer after work. Mark is a lifelong student of the Japanese language and culture. He loves to travel throughout the country. Mark also is the author behind the "Real Gaijin" Substack, countryroadsjapan.com, as well as the Country Roads Japan and Coastal Sailing Japan YouTube channels. Photo supplied courtesy of the author who had stopped to check out the free-roaming horses and cows about half-way up to the summit of Mt. Aso, an active volcano in the center of Kyushu.