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Rosemary Mulvey
Prof. Gage
East Asia: Gender and Identity
12 May 2017

The Japanese Idol Industry: What It Is, Who They Are, and What Does It Mean

When we turn on a pop music radio station, we know what to expect: some kind of

electronic beat, a singer who can riff on relatively simple lyrics, and one of very few formulas for

the melody and style. This is American pop music, and fans are very familiar with the stars of

this industry and their international success. Japanese pop music, or J-Pop is a musical genre

much like American pop music that is driven by the marketability of the musicians that are loved

by fans for more than just their music.

Idols are Japanese pop stars that are created by production companies to fit a niche in the

music industry that has and continues to be incredibly profitable. They are picked from

obscurity for their boy or girl next door persona, often from singing competitions and at a very

young age where they are then trained by production companies and placed into large singing

groups/bands. Idols are not incredibly talented or beautiful, but a relatable role model and

friend for their younger fans, and a nostalgic persona of youth for older fans. Their cute, pure

innocence that is propagated by the production companies is used to perpetuate this, but also

is an initial hint to some of the less savory aspects of idols. The fetishizing of youth and the lack

of agency of individual idols which leads to a variety of problems for them generates a social

justice issue in which idols, primarily the female idols, are the victims[ CITATION Hir00 \l 1033 ].

Idols are the product of Japans musical and cultural evolution, and are incredibly popular not

just within Japan but also across Asia and in the West. Idols, compared to American musical
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stars, highlight the primary differences between the American and Japanese music industries,

but also the universal aspects and problems of stardom and the music industry.

Japanese pop music, or J-pop, is the current form of the kayokyoku genre of Japanese music.

This pop genre has evolved since the 1960s from a more traditional Japanese history, into a

western influenced genre. The 1960s in Japan saw a rise in the popularity of American folk

music, and many Japanese artists followed that style[ CITATION Phi97 \l 1033 ]. The sub-genre

of idol-pop emerged in the late 1960s, more geared towards the youth. The exact inspiration

for the birth of idols is intricate. There was some influence from American pop-artists, all the

way from Frank Sinatra, to Candi, the Spice Girls, and to Britney Spears over the years while

idol-pop has continued to evolve[CITATION Hir05 \l 1033 ], but idols were primarily marketed

towards young people for their music needs, as folk music and kayokyoku was appreciated more

by older generations[ CITATION Phi97 \l 1033 ]. There is also a rumor that idol-pop was created

because of the popularity of the French movie Cherchez Lidole, titled in Japanese Aidoru o

sagase or In Search of Idols which in addition to its plot featured French pop stars who would

make cameos to perform their songs throughout the movie. The popularity of the film and the

subsequent fame of one of the stars of the film in Japan motivated a music producer to create

idol-pop for the promotion of young personalities[ CITATION Hir05 \l 1033 ]. Idols as they are

known now have existed since the sixties, and their celebrity is an incredibly profitable thing for

their production companies because of their control over the idols and their wide

popularity[ CITATION Hir00 \l 1033 ].

Idols are relatable figures in Japan with dedicated fans who feel deep connections to

them as role models, friends, and an attainable goal [ CITATION Hir00 \l 1033 ]. In North
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America, individualism and being different and/or better are very important to society, not just

with the youth but in all stages of life. Japan, however, is more culturally apt to conform to the

norm. This cultural difference is highlighted by the differences of celebrities in the West and

Japan. Idols do not have the outstanding talents or attributes that make American celebrities

popular, but are fairly standard: appearance, ability, and charm that are above average, but not

so much as to alienate or offend the audience, [CITATION Hir05 \p 67 \l 1033 ]. Idols are life-

sized, meaning that they keep pace with their fans as familiar personalities or friends which

creates an intimate relationship between idols and fans. An idol is a companion for their fans,

and the interpersonal relationship between them is more important than the idols talent or

achievements [ CITATION Hir05 \l 1033 ]. Idols also are often members of groups, such as

Johnnys Idols which are in charge of many different idol groups[ CITATION Kaz12 \l 1033 ], or

bands such as AKB48 which is made up of about ninety girls of different ages statuses[ CITATION

BBC13 \l 1033 ]. Idols in a group maintain their individuality as a companion for their fans, but

their interactions within the group with their fellow band members can help to fuel the

imaginations of fans about what interactions and contact with them could be like[CITATION

Kaz12 \p 102-103 \l 1033 ].

Idols also perform activities as part of their status to foster these relationships with fans that

go beyond what an American celebrity would do for fan interactions. These interactions are part

of their duty as an idol and are expected of them by their production companies and their fans.

They have handshaking ceremonies, get-togethers, written correspondences, and online video

sessions with fans. These interactions and other practices like having a hotline for a recording of

an idol talking are meant to foster that intimate relationship so fans feel like they know their
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idol and that their idol knows them too [CITATION Hir05 \p 70-71 \l 1033 ]. This relationship

between idol and fan are used to fuel advertisements, but also to influence the youth into what

the state wants through campaigns such as anti-drug campaigns. What idols support, fans will

support because of their close relationship [CITATION Hir05 \p 73 \l 1033 ].

[The Japanese music industry creates] performers who can create revenue

streams from a wide range of activities of which corporate promotion is the

most central. The end result is that these firms; (1) promote created idols over

self-motivated performers, (2) emphasize pleasant looks and demeanor over

artistic talent, and (3) invest most time and resources into securing

advertisement deals rather than creating entertainment content itself, [CITATION

Dav12 \p 51 \l 1033 ].

The industry uses performers to make the most money possible in whatever way they can, and

it is best done through the use of easily moldable and innocent young performers who feel

honored to be in their position despite the flaws in the system that infringe upon their

rights[ CITATION Dav12 \l 1033 ].

The idol system is also a prevalent force in the rest of Asia, and has international fans as

well. In the nineteen eighties, when the first big idols were gaining popularity in Japan,

economically developing Asian countries also were becoming idol fans. The idol industrys

influence on the music industry of these developing countries exemplifies the influence of Japan

on their economies and politics[ CITATION Hir05 \l 1033 ].

In my view, the spread of idol performances in NIEs [New Industrial Economies] is

an outcome of the commercial advancement of the Japanese idol industry in


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these countries, the acquisition of Japanese idol-marketing techniques by local

producers, and the popular acceptance of Japanese style idols by local

consumers. [CITATION Hir05 \p 232 \l 1033 ]

Throughout Asia, Japan is in vogue, [CITATION Leo96 \p 170 \l 1033 ]. Japans influence on

South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia from Thailand to the

Philippines shows a distinct power dynamic Japan has a strong economic influence on its fellow

Asian countries from the popularity of its media to its historical influence and economic

imperialism[ CITATION Leo96 \l 1033 ]. In Taiwan, they have created their own idol industry

based off the Japanese idol industry. Young performers are given a new personality, image,

songs, and style that commodify them in the same successful way as Japan[CITATION Leo96 \p

178 \l 1033 ]. The successful promotion of the Japanese idol systems and national idol systems

is due to their social influence Japan has over other countries; young people look to Japan for

trends. The idol style is relevant in these countries because of Japans relevance with the young

people, and therefore Japanese idols have influence not over just Japanese youth, but a wide

variety of the young Asian population, [CITATION Hir05 \p 240-241 \l 1033 ].

Many idol fans dream about becoming idols themselves someday, because their idols

support that dream. Idols candidates are recruited into agencies either by machikado sukauto or

street-corner scouts or through talent competitions. They are usually quite young, about

thirteen to fifteen years old. The ones who seek out being recruited through competitions want

to become like the most famous and their favorite idols, so are willing to maybe put more effort

into their training than those who are found. Production companies, typically run by men, train

the potential idols in voice and dance intensively as groups. The teachers are harsh and are
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willing to use intimidation to get the results they want from the trainees the childlike, kawaii

style that typifies idols. New, feminine characters replace the personalities of the novices over

their training period [CITATION Hir05 \p 105-111 \l 1033 ].

The idol aesthetic is cutesy and kawaii. Idols, primarily the female idols, are meant to be

young and cute, innocent and pure, and a girl next door for a best friend or girlfriend for fans.

As Aoyagi says:

The cute style, as it is called, encompasses pretty looks, heartwarming verbal

expressions, flimsy handwriting, and singing, dancing, acting, and speaking in a

sweet, meek, and adorable way. [CITATION Hir00 \p 312 \l 1033 ]

Female idols are innocent but coy: they are adorable and play up their youthful characteristics,

but pose coquettishly. They are not supposed to seem aware of their appeal. Male idols are, in

contrast, supposed to be cool and stylish, with their fans admiring their swagger, rather than

their youthfulness[ CITATION Hir00 \l 1033 ]. Female idols have been known to dress up as

children or dolls, but are more classy in recent years. They still maintain the purity of that

youthfulness, however, with their general aesthetic. They use young looking handwriting and

associate themselves with cute animated animals in their autographs[CITATION Hir05 \p 76 \l

1033 ].

One of the most popular idols ever, the Madonna of Idols, is Seiko Matsuda 1. In the

eighties, she became the face of the kawaii style: Matsuda was flat-chested and bow-legged

and on TV she wore childrens clothes, took faltering steps and blushed, cried, and giggled for

the camera, [CITATION Kin95 \p 235 \l 1033 ]. Seiko Matsudas music was the typical unoriginal

1 She is mentioned in nearly every source that I found.


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music, but what drew her fans to her was her image. Matsuda was everything an idol was and is

supposed to be, and was incredibly successful with it. She was so popular that in the late

eighties when her career started to decline she tried to expand her audience to the United

States. Her flirtation with the American music scene reinvigorated her career in Japan in a way

that most idols cannot achieve. Unlike most idols, who disappear into oblivion, or to the sexy

shot back pages of mens magazines, Matsuda has taken great pains to reinvent herself and her

image. As she was the exemplar of the cute and innocent idol figure of the 1980s, her

transformation, and the independence she gained from handlers and production companies, is

remarkable, [CITATION Jam02 \p 87 \l 1033 ]. Seiko Matsuda began her career as the poster

child of the idol industry, and eventually evolved into a shrewd and independent artist on her

own, which is almost unheard of because of the strictness of the idol system. Her life is a

testimony to the fact that a woman can challenge the world in spite of many obstacles and

establish herself as a successful entertainer, homemaker, mother, shop owner, seductress, and

independent worker simultaneously, [CITATION Hir05 \p 171-172 \l 1033 ].

Idols inhabit a space that is both fictional and real. They are manufactured commodities but

also real people. Reconciling these two sides of the performers reveals the social flaws in the

idol industry. These performers lose their agency for their status and are at the mercy of their

production companies and fans. Idols are also meant to be pure, but also sexual. The marketing

of their youth and the subsequent fetishizing of it shows some obvious pedophilia that is

ingrained within the fan base[ CITATION Pat12 \l 1033 ]. Commodifying people isnt seen only in

the Japanese music industry. Hollywood and the US music industry absolutely takes advantage

of their performers and sexualizes them, commodifying particularly female performers. The
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question is whether this practice is just a reality of these industries, or if these industries can

function without objectifying their performers. Performance is essentially selling yourself, your

talent, or your image. However, it is when the performer loses their agency to choose for

themselves what to sing, wear, or do that the problems of sexism, sexualization, and

objectification emerge.

The ongoing scandal between the American popstar Kesha and her producer Dr. Luke was a

turbulent story in the media for a long time in the United States. In 2014 Kesha sued Dr. Luke to

void all of their contracts due to verbal, physical, emotional and sexual abuse that nearly led to

the singer losing her life. Court battles continued over the abuse allegations and Keshas ability

to produce music independently of Dr. Luke. Celebrities and fans all spoke out in support of

Kesha throughout this process [ CITATION Mau16 \l 1033 ]. The comparison of this case and

incidences of Idols being involved in any type of scandal highlights the differences of the

American music industry and the Japanese music industry[ CITATION Pru12 \l 1033 ]. Likely, the

majority of celebrities in the United States have been arrested in the US for drug charges,

domestic violence, and DUIs, and most of them continue their careers unscathed. Even

celebrities who have been charged with violent crimes maintain devoted fan bases. It is hard to

damage the reputation of a celebrity in the United States enough for them to be shunned by

everyone. This is not the case with Idols. Idols who draw attention to any type of aberrant

behavior or cause problems with their production company do so at the risk and guarantee of

losing their contract, careers, and ways of life[ CITATION Pru12 \l 1033 ]. Ami Suzuki was a

popular idol in Japan. She did nothing illegal herself, but her manager was arrested on tax

evasion charges and her family wanted to end their relationship with the production company
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to protect themselves and their reputation from that scandal. Because of this, she was

blacklisted from the industry and lost her fame and her fans (except her most dedicated ones,)

[ CITATION McC01 \l 1033 ]. Sakai Noriko was a nationally well-known and well-loved idol who

lost her career and was essentially ostracized after serving jail time for drugs. After her downfall,

fans saw her transgression as unforgivable and renounced her completely. They felt betrayed

because in their eyes she went against everything she was meant to stand for, for them and

violated the intimate relationship they felt[ CITATION Pru12 \l 1033 ]. Idols lack the agency of

celebrities in the United States that allows them to get away with breaking laws or causing

scandals. Idols are at the will of the production companies and their fans because of the

relationship that is fostered between them. Their personas are innocent and inexperienced and

they become commodified as sexual objects and best friends. They are at the mercy of their

companies and fans who control their careers through a system that can and will take advantage

of them if they try to go against it[ CITATION Pru12 \l 1033 ].

Another thing that rocks the boat and could damage an idols career is becoming involved in

a romantic relationship. Celebrity romances are cherished in the United States, from

Bradgelina to Taylor Swift, et al. Idols are not allowed by their production companies and their

fans to have romantic relationships and could lose their position if they had one, because it

would damage their innocent personas and get in the way of their relationships with fans. Fans

want to have their relationship with their idol not be blocked by a known relationship that could

get in the way of any of their fantasies. Logically, fans know that idols are young adults and

should be learning and experimenting with relationships, and even are aware that it happens,

but the majority do not want them to be public about it [ CITATION Ask16 \l 1033 ]. In 2013,
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member of the band AKB48 Minami Minegishi was caught leaving her boyfriends home by

tabloids and the photographs published. She was an original member of AKB48 when it was

launched in 2005. A condition of being in the band is that no members are allowed to date. In a

traditional act of apology, she shaved her head, and then published a four-minute-long video

apologizing for her transgression on the AKB48 website. However, this extreme event was met

with critiques from journalists and fans in Japan and internationally, because of how public and

heartbreaking the event was [ CITATION BBC13 \l 1033 ].

Idol cults are another intriguing aspect of the idol industry. While many fans or otaku are

relatively moderate in their love of their idols like a thirteen-year-old and her favorite boy

band some fans become somewhat obsessed with their idol, becoming a cult around them,

as Aoyagi states. This is a voluntary cult, for the most part, with the fans as willing participants

and the idol not demanding anything from them expect to ask them for their support. Idols

foster close relationships with all their fans, but extreme idol fanatics essentially worship their

idol. This is because, it is postulated, they feel isolated from society and therefore are finding

the human relationships they need from their idols [CITATION Hir05 \p 229-230 \l 1033 ].

Aoyagi spoke with some adult male hardcore idol otaku about their love of young female idols.

They were fans of these idols because they represented a pure, cute young woman who was not

influenced by any sexual liberation; they were meek and cute and desperate for their male

attention. The idols are not violently sexualized, but their youth and innocence is desired by

men often much older than them. Their submissiveness is seen as attractive. And, as with many

struggling, young female performers, idols can turn to pornography for more success[CITATION

Hir05 \p 217-221 \l 1033 ].


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The idol industry in Japan is the epicenter of a fascinatingly complex system of music,

media, business, consumers, and performers. The idol system as it is today has been evolving

since the nineteen-sixties to become a ubiquitous force in Asian music and trends. Idols are

both incredibly powerful and exceedingly subjugated. Their devoted fans support them both

financially and emotionally through their close relationship. Fans receive a lot more from idols

than just their music; they get intimate relationships from a party who is dependent on them

for their success. Idols ask their fans for their support, and otaku are more than happy to pay for

their favorite idols.

However, the idol system places their performers in a precarious position. They are at

the mercy of production companies who want to make the most money possible from them and

are willing to do almost anything to get it. They are also subservient to their fans, who they rely

on for their success. Idols lack agency through the system, their contracts, and the fabricated

images of themselves that replace their true personalities. The separation of the person and the

idol by the industry and the squashing of the real person leaves the performers vulnerable. Idols

are trapped in the system after being convinced by other idols and society to pursue it because

of the honor and fame that comes with being an idol. Overall, Idols are designed to contribute

to the industrys establishment in the market by virtue of their abilities to attract people and

perform as lifestyle role models, [CITATION Hir05 \p 3 \l 1033 ]. They are young people who

want to perform and be seen as an exemplary figure for their fans. However, as it can be seen in

many industries, the commodification of people leads to social justice infractions by both the

producers and consumers of the media source.


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Ask Japanese. Should LOVE be FORBIDDEN to idols in JAPAN? 30 August 2016. YouTube.

BBC Asia. AKB48 pop star shaves head after breaking band rules. 1 February 2013. 11 May 2017.
<http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-21299324>.

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Ching, Leo. "Imaginings in the Empires of the Sun: Japanese Mass Culture in Asia."
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Johnston, Maura. Kesha and Dr. Luke: Everything You Need to Know to Understand the Case. 22
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Stanlaw, James. "Open Your File, Open Your Mind: Women, English, and Changing Roles and
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