Teens have long had a presence on the country's charts, but the stars have gotten younger lately.
Mana Ashida is the most famous child in Japan, and that's saying something. The seven-year-old has starred in a dozen movies over the past three years, been in enough commercials to warrant a 13-minute-long YouTube mashup of them, and co-headlined the ratings-smash Marumo No Okite, a drama program featuring a talking dog.
But Ashida's biggest claim to ubiquity is music. Alongside Marumo co-star and fellow seven-year-old Fuku Suzuki, she recorded the hit "Maru Maru Mori Mori!," an infectious slice of Chuck-E-Cheese pop that made Ashida and Suzuki the youngest artists to ever appear in the Japanese music charts' top 10. "Maru Maru Mori Mori!" stuck around for the rest of 2011, and Ashida has since released more singles and a mini-album, Happy Smile that sold solidly. Most impressively, respected Japanese advertising agency Dentsu named Ashida the sixth best Japanese "product" of 2011—placing her in front of hybrid cars and emergency supplies.
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Ashida, who released her latest song on May 16, stands as an extreme example of the Japanese music industry's recent embrace of young performers. For more than half a century, the country has turned barely adolescent singers into stars, but over the past year the number of groups packed with school-aged children has been rising as the actual ages of the members keeps falling. This shift is in large part a result of a clever business model that has been used for decades but has seen its biggest success recently.