A seiyuu (声優) is a Japanese voice actor or actress. Seiyuu's most commonly provide voices for anime and game productions, but they also can provide voices in foreign films or film narrations. The seiyuu also appear at several events related to the productions they work on. They often form one-time units with other seiyuu of the same production. In this sense, a seiyuu is a sort of idol in the anime/game industry.
Currently, Japan is responsible for producing 60% of the world's animated series. Because of high rate of animation produced in Japan, becoming a voice actor has become a well sought after career path. Unlike in the United States where most voice acting roles are filled by television and film actors, seiyuu can base their career strictly from doing voice work.
In Japan there are now institutions in place to help someone aspiring to become a seiyuu. There are now over a hundred different seiyuu schools around the country. Those aspiring to become seiyuu can also join various types of acting troupes. Broadcasting drama troupe's train and they work towards seiyuu roles, mainly working in radio drama acting. They can also join different troupes while in school to help perfect their skills. Young children can join juvenile theatrical companies at a young age, and when in high school take part in theatre troupes (such as Nanri Yuuka joining Minami Aoyama Shoujo Kagekidan).
Seiyuu's have begun to branch out more in resent years. Many seiyuu's branch out and start a music career, some of which become extremely popular (such as Hayashibara Megumi and Mizuki Nana). Some seiyuu have also been known to branch out into television and live action film roles.
With the increase in the seiyuu business in recent years, more and more talents are branching out into the seiyuu career. Various idols and actors are branching out to become seiyuu. Well known singers and actors such as Yamada Yu have also taken the step forward.
In the beginning, Japanese voice actors were known as Koe no Haiyu (声の俳優; Voice Actors). The term seiyuu was created by combining the first and last kanji of Koe no Haiyu. Even though the term was around it was not widely used until the run of Uchuu Senkan Yamato in the 1970s.
In 1925, the Tokyo Broadcasting Company started to make radio broadcasts. Here is where the first real seiyuu appeared in Japanese media. Twelve students who had been studying sole voice performances started to perform on a radio drama for the station. During this time, they were known as Radio Yakusha (ラジオ役者; Radio Actor). Over the next twenty years radio drama become more popular and by 1941 NHK opened a program to help train up-and-coming Radio Yakusha, which was called Tokyo Chuuo Hoso Kyoku Senzoku Gekidan Haiyuu Yosei Sho (東京中央放送局専属劇団俳優養成所; Tokyo Central Broadcasting Channel Actor Training Agency). A year later it's first drama troupe made its debut.
During the 1960s, television became a staple to the Japanese life style. During the early years many of the shows and movies placed on Japanese broadcasting were foreign. At first the releases were subtitled, but it soon the releases were dubbed into Japanese. This demand for dubbing created a lot of work for the seiyuu.
Because of this, the first seiyuu boom took place. Many of the seiyuu during this time become popular and well known for dubbing different roles by certain actors. Work was prominent for seiyuu during this time because of the Gosha Agreement, which stated that television and movie actors were not allowed to work in dubbing of foreign movies for television.
The first Japanese dubbed program was the 1955 run of the American cartoon Superman. The first live action dub was Cowboy G-Men, which aired in 1956.
The seiyuu trend went out of style for a couple of years, and didn't re-appear until the late 1970s. During this time seiyuu for Bishounen anime characters became quite popular. During this time seiyuu started recording music. Also radio programs started featuring seiyuu as DJs became quite popular.
It was during this time that Ogata Hideo, the then editor-in-chief of Animage magazine, started to publish articles talking about the transformation of seiyuu into idols. Other anime magazine's followed his trend, and started to report on the different seiyuu. Because of all the interest in the seiyuu, more students started to enroll in the seiyuu training school.
During the early 1980s we saw the first anime idol. The series Choujikuu Yousai Macross, which housed the anime pop idol Lynn Minmay. Because of the success of the series, Lynn's seiyuu, Iijima Mari became an instant star. This anime idol trend continued through the 1980s with other series such as Mahou Tenshi Creamy Mami. The popularity of seiyuu started to die down during the second half of the decade.
During the first two booms, seiyuu mainly focused on one media, such as radio or television. In the 1990s mainly seiyuu's began working in many entertainment fields such as radio shows, Original Video Animation, television game shows, and Internet. During this time also saw the birth of the first seiyuu magazines such as Voice Animage and Seiyuu Grand Prix.
Seiyuu such as Hayashibara Megumi and Shiina Hekiru became well known during this time, working as seiyuu and as radio personalities. Like most seiyuu during this time, they also branched off into successful musical careers. Shiina Hekiru had many successful concert series, and performed sold out shows at Budokan two years in a row. Hayashibara Megumi is the seiyuu success story of the 1990s, and she is still often considered the most popular seiyuu ever. She set many records in the '90's with her album and single sales and rankings.
The seiyuu boom cooled off into the 2000s. In the last couple of years seiyuu have once again started to become popular. Mizuki Nana is currently the best selling seiyuu. In 2009, Mizuki's single "Shin'ai" reached #2 on the Oricon, and her album "Ultimate Diamond" reached #1 on the Oricon chart.
Thanks to popular anime series such as Lucky Star and Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuuutsu, seiyuu such as Goto Yuko, Chihara Minori, and Hirano Aya have become quite popular. The three even released one of the best selling singles of 2006, "Hare Hare Yukai".