Hiromix is as big in the East as Madonna is here, and when she throws a tantrum, you'd better duck. Richard Lloyd Parry meets a typical product of Nineties Japan
Celebrities who are known to the world by a single name - Madonna, Prince, Gazza - are often wary when it comes to journalists, and the young Japanese starlet known as Hiromix is no exception. Securing an audience is a strenuous business, beginning with phone calls (to her agent, a mysterious Svengali-like figure known as Mr Yoshida), continuing with faxes (confirming the phone calls), and climaxing with a bulging parcel (containing copies of this newspaper, proposed questions and my own CV in two languages). Finally, the waiting is rewarded. At six o'clock on a weekday evening I find myself descending into a basement cafe in Daikanyama, one of Tokyo's grooviest neighbourhoods. I am early, but Mr Yoshida - reassuringly normal despite his off-hand phone manner - is here already.

"Many Japanese artists can't express themselves naturally from their creative soul," he tells me as we await the main attraction, "but from the beginning she has trusted her own lifestyle. You'll see it today when she comes - a very special feeling, a very nervous feeling, a special way of thinking." As we settle ourselves at the cafe table, Mr Yoshida rests his hand on the empty chair, broad-backed and leather-covered. "This is the throne," he says with what seems at the time to be irony. "For the queen." I can hardly wait.

Hiromix may not be as famous as all this fuss suggests but, in the trendier corners of Tokyo at least, she is famous enough. During her five-year career there have been Hiromix books (the latest, published by Steidl, has been available in the UK since early January), Hiromix T-shirts, and Hiromix CD-Roms. She has appeared on advertising billboards, late-night youth TV, published a CD of her favourite bossa nova songs (called I Love Bossa, it is adorned with a drawing of the naked Hiromix, by Hiromix), and recently recorded her debut album as a singer/songwriter. In all this, she is a conventional example of what is known in Japan as the "idol" (pronounced, appropriately enough, "Eye Doll") - the generic term for the transiently popular stars, male and female, who clutter up Japan's pop charts, quiz shows and TV mini-series.

With her fellow idols in the worlds of music and TV, she shares youth (22 now, she made her debut at 17), a catchy handle (derived from her real name, Hiromi Tonegawa), and a tendency to strip to her undies in front of photographers. But Hiromix's fame comes not from the traditional idol vocations of modelling, acting or singing. Instead of merely cavorting in front of the camera, she has made her reputation behind it, as the country's first teen photographer idol. And from the moment she walks in and ascends the cafe throne (20 minutes late - she has been out shooting on the streets), it is clear that Hiromix takes herself very, very seriously.

Her beauty is obvious from her many self-portraits, with her soft, striking features, heavy lips and ghostly almond eyes. But in person there is a warmth and alertness about her which is missing from the photographs. In her books, it is the other subjects (often friends and family) who laugh and joke around. Hiromix presents herself as impassive and almost masklike, even with most of her clothes off; the rare smiles are tense and ambiguous, somewhere between shyness and seduction. There is a simple and artless reason for this. "When I did this book everyone said that I was just cute, and I don't like being called cute," she says, in a mixture of Japanese and basic English. "People came to think of the photographs as being in the realm of `cute', and I didn't want that impression to continue. I hated it, so next time I wanted to do something different. I try to express myself as cool, reticent, a bit stand-offish. I try not to show too much of myself."

In lots of ways, Hiromix's short career is a mirror of recent Japanese pop culture, and especially of the changing fortunes of young Japanese women. During the extraordinary "bubble" years of the Eighties, Tokyo was a male-dominated city. It was men who ran the companies which paid the expense accounts which fuelled a boom in restaurants, bars, clubs, sex shows, cinemas, theatres, fashion and art galleries. Women flourished decoratively on the margins as wives, girlfriends, hostesses, and models - cute, exploited, or both. The emblematic photographer of this period was Nobuyoshi Araki, who made his name with quasi-pornographic depictions of writhing young women bound, gagged and naked.

Then in the early Nineties the bubble suddenly burst and, as Japan sank deeper into recession, it was men who suffered. First the corporate expense accounts, and recently many of the corporate jobs, were slashed. Manufacturers, advertisers and the media shifted their focus from the salarymen to the salarymen's children and particularly their daughters - as trend-makers, consumers and sex objects.

Japanese families are becoming smaller, leaving more pocket money to go round even in a recession. The past two years have also seen the phenomenon of "assisted dating" - prostitution, practised by high school girls, not out of economic desperation, but in order to earn more money for clothes and gadgets. The Tamagotchi, the "electronic egg" which became a worldwide craze after catching on among Japanese girls, is just the most dramatic example of the remarkable potential of the female Japanese youth market. Over the past two years, a small industry - of youth magazines, TV programmes, and marketing companies - has sprung up dedicated to predicting and harnessing its tastes and spending. So young Japanese women are both arbiters and victims, endowed with abundant choice and disposable income, and yet in many ways living out images created by men. It is into this complex and ambiguous world that Hiromix emerged.

"It was just fantastic timing," says Mr Yoshida who discovered Hiromix while working as an editor on Studio Voice, a magazine for lovers of hip eye-candy. "The established Japanese photographers were all older, but the readers of Studio Voice were very young, 16 or 17. There was a great demand for young Japanese photographers, someone of the same age and background. Plus, she's a genius, of course." The magazine ran a feature on young photographers, and the letters that poured in were all in praise of Hiromix. A session as Araki's model followed, further enlarging her reputation within the photographic world. She entered, and won, the Canon prize for new photographers. By the time Studio Voice published its special "We Love Hiromix" issue - 50 pages devoted to a 19-year-old high school girl - Mr Yoshida had left his job to become her agent. "Not the kind of contrived photography that excuses itself with theoretical presense," Studio Voice burbled of its protege. "It's the yearning to look at an image and experience that feeling of love for the first time."

Her pictures are actually much better than this kind of gush suggests, although whether they are as good as Mr Y believes is another question. Recently she has started using more sophisticated equipment, but her early work was all shot with a compact point-and-shoot camera of the kind that every high school girl carries round in her handbag. The contents of her first book, Girls Blue, were taken in just that way, on nights in Tokyo out with her teenage girlfriends. "I chose those pictures as a symbol of life in senior high school," she says. "They were taken before I was conscious of being a professional photographer." These are the photos which she now denounces as cute. But, despite being much imitated since, they are a unique and remarkable achievement for one so young and still, I think, her best and most characteristic work.

They are simple, almost throwaway, snaps of a young woman's world, suffused with a quality of nostalgia that makes Nineties Tokyo feel like Sixties New York: a collection of stuffed Snoopies, out-of-focus puppies and kittens, her friends dressed in boas and glitter, preening in front of bathroom mirrors - and Hiromix herself, often in her underwear. A few of them display a mildly erotic, sub-Madonna frisson; others, like plates of fried eggs and blurry flowers, are more difficult to get excited about. One critic described it as "a world view that seems to have been learnt from bubblegum wrappers and old copies of The Face, and then photographed with duty-free purchases." The new book is indeed cooler and more restrained, but the basic formula and themes are much the same. "She takes pictures only she can take - in the toilet, in the bedroom," explains Mr Yoshida. "Before Hiromix, we've never seen inside a young woman's toilet or bedroom before. So we are very surprised."

Hiromix herself is neither comfortable nor articulate in talking about her own work, preferring to turn the question back on the interviewer or leave it to her agent. (After one of Mr Yoshida's more fervent monologues she expresses her approval by giving him a little round of applause.) Weary of this routine, I opt for a more direct line of questioning. Very quickly, it all starts to go terribly wrong.

Even if she is not very good at answering questions she is very good at being offended by them. A casual remark about her youth meets with tetchy reproach: "I don't want to be considered very young. I hate it when people say how young I am. Perhaps I am that age, but spiritually I think of myself as in my fifties." A question about how she chooses and edits her published pictures hits a similarly raw nerve: "When I take a picture I think of the photograph as part of myself. I don't want it cropped or trimmed because when it's been cropped it's totally different. A photographer should be in control and I like to control everything." Most of the work she does these days is on commission from Japan's innumerable youth and fashion magazines, but she sounds like an editor's nightmare. "There are two kinds of photographs," she asserts, "fake photographs and documentary. I hate fake photographs! I hate so-called fashion photographs!" I am beginning to understand what Mr Yoshida means by her "very special feeling, a very nervous feeling, a special way of thinking". But too late.

It is the toast that does it. Mr Yoshida has been talking about his protege's influence on other photographers and on the tremendous number of Hiromix wannabes who have sprung up in her shadow, enthusiastically snapping their puppies, Snoopies and breasts. "But in 10,000 people, there is no one who can imitate her," he says, as Hiromix nods. "The differences are so subtle - the shadows, the way the shot is framed." I ask for a concrete example from the new book. It opens at what is perhaps one of Hiromix's less distinguished pictures: a photograph of a piece of toast, unbuttered, lying on a small plate.

The response is immediate. "That is unreasonable!" she says, eyes glistening. "You are a journalist and you should know in advance that it is wrong to ask a question like that. Photography was established almost 150 years ago but still this idea persists that pictures have to be beautiful! Things change! Pictures must change too! I feel restricted in the pictures I take and it is all because of people like you who don't know photography and don't know what you're doing!"

And with that she is gone. Twenty-five minutes have passed. For a few seconds I sit gawping like a goldfish in front of the artful piece of toast. Then Mr Yoshida leans over and smiles apologetically. "You couldn't ask for more than that. The last person who interviewed her [the man from The Face] lasted only two minutes. For Hiromix that was very good, that was a very long interview."


On youth

"Youth reflects transparency and beauty. Despite our lack of experience, the world often confronts us with unforgiveable situations. We believe, more than anyone, in things that cannot be seen."

On her inspirations

"Many unknown worlds are awaiting us. Surrounded by people and things we love, we smile carefree smiles. It was perhaps because I wanted to keep a record of this that I take photos of myself."

On photography

"Photography is the place where I can express all of what I feel and think in my everyday life. It would not be understood by grown-ups or kids - only we can see what it is. So, I don't expect everyone to understand it. It just makes me so happy when it reaches people, even a few."