Ever since I started learning Japanese, I’ve made it a personal goal to try to understand idol culture, because I feel that in doing so maybe I can understand a little more about what makes the larger Japanese culture tick.
I want to discuss two idols: Koharu Kusumi and Minegishi Minami. Because in looking at their individual cases, I think it becomes a little clearer what it’s all about.
In 2013, Minegishi-san was caught spending the night with a man. She faced expulsion from the group she was an idol in – AKB48. Before she learned her fate, she ended up shaving her head (as an idol she had beautiful hair) and made a tearful apology video where she was regretful that she let everyone down. She ended up getting demoted to a “newbie” team – essentially having to start from zero.
In 2014, Koharu-san had a rather tone-deaf interview on the radio (and make no mistake, “utterly clueless” would be a nice way to put it) where she essentially admitted that she only joined Morning Musume to jumpstart her career, and that she really wanted to be something else. This upset Michishige Sayumi, who had been her mentor (and by all accounts she was also inexperienced and failed at it) a great deal. The interview was a disaster and many of her fans lost respect for her.
The fact that many of her fans lost respect for her, I think, is the insight into Japanese culture that I’ve been looking for.
AKB48 and Morning Musume (Hello Project) are businesses, and the idols are employees. This is a very important thing to understand, because the job of the idols is to sell records, and do whatever is necessary to sell those records. Just because the employees are girls in their early teenage years and their job is to have loyal fans who buy their music and see their concerts does not change the fact that it is a primarily business relationship. From a purely business perspective, Koharu-san was very mature for her age, as she understood exactly what she was getting into. One could make the argument that Michishige-san was quite a bit less mature in that regard, because she appeared to have a personal loyalty to Tsunku and Hello Project. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – having a personal loyalty to your employer is a two edged sword but helps you succeed in the company – but she didn’t even appear to understand Koharu-san’s point of view on that.
But Japanese value loyalty. Koharu-san’s sin was not that she was clueless, though obviously she did not gain any favors with Sanma-san and the others in the interview, but her sin was that she was disloyal. She made what she thought was the best decision for her – to graduate at 17 and move on to modelling – but she did it in what is, in Japanese culture, a very selfish manner.
Seen from this perspective, Minegishi-san’s actions, which see inexplicable from our militantly individualistic western perspective, make perfect sense. She knew what the rules were, and she broke them. This was disloyalty. So she had to show her loyalty to AKB48, and the way she did that was an act of sacrifice. She cut off her beautiful hair.
And she was allowed to stay on the project. By all measures, her sacrifice worked.
The fans, though, I think share a lot of blame for allowing this situation to come into being, and believe me, I kind of get it. You get to know the girls and eventually you kind of start to care about them – and I would imagine you buy their music because of the same kind of loyalty. Even now I can see in my mind’s eye the confused look on Takahashi Minami-san’s face whenever something happens that confuses or surprises her. But it’s all just business.
Koharu-san understood this. I think Minegishi-san may have, although she responded in a culturally appropriate manner. I don’t think Michishige-san did.
Idol culture is built, from its very foundations, on manufactured loyalty.
And that, I think, is the insight I’ve been looking for.