Idols

My first real introduction to Japan and Japanese was through idol culture.  Morning Musume, to be precise.  So it’s no surprise that I’m unusually knowledgeable about the subject.  I can name quite a few idols from Morning Musume, AKB48, Sakura Gakuin, and a few others besides.  And those that I can’t name, I might be able to recognize.

I know about the scandals of both Sashihara Rino and Minegishi Minami, and how they resolved.  I know why those scandals occurred in the first place, and I understand some of the cultural context behind them.  I have a few posts on this blog, even, about my thoughts about some aspects of Idol culture.  I’m not always complimentary, but as it’s my first introduction to the culture, it’ll always hold a place in my heart when it comes to Japan.

But it’s not something I really understood.  I still don’t.  But after thinking about it, I think I understand a little better.

The thing I think many foreign otaku, and foreign fans that are not otaku (such as me) don’t really understand, is a very simple fact.  Us gaijin can keep up with idol culture, and they might even acknowedge and be appreciative of that, but at the end of the day, we are not the target audience.  Idol culture is Japanese.

Take, for example, the garish and gaudy costumes that they were.  AKB48 wears a colorful pastiche of a Japanese school uniform, and Morning Musume tends to wear outfits that hurt to look at.  But Japanese students wear very conservative and conformative school uniforms.  While those costumes are garish and over the top to our western eyes, to a Japanese eye, perhaps it is that very garishness that they like.  Because it is a slap in the face to conformity.

Celebrities in a culture often represent something to non-celebrities that the non-celebrities would like to emulate.  Sometimes they’ll even live vicariously through them.  Japanese idols are no exception.  They offer something to their fans that is otherwise lacking in their lives.  Something that we in the west only dimly understand.  Idols are very cheerful and energetic, and their youth is infectious.  These are things we in the west understand and appreciate.  But to a Japanese person – I get the impression that they are something more.  Perhaps an ideal Japanese person that they were always told existed, but never found outside the carefully crafted narrative of idol culture.

Of course that’s speculation.  I’m not Japanese.  But there’s a reason why so many otaku glom onto idols that they will never have even the slightest chance of exchanging more than one or two words with if they’re lucky.  And I think it’s a little more than just desperation.

I’m not sure the idols know exactly what they are to Japanese culture.  But I do think most of them understand what their role is. And for those who will “play ball”, it can be very lucrative.  After all, for the services celebrities offer, they are often extremely well paid.

It just needs to be understood that those services have little to do with what they’re actually getting paid for.

Kawaii Aidoru

YouTube is an incredible distraction throughout most of the issues that have been going on in the world, and in my country.

One thing I’ve been watching is Babymetal reactions.  It’s quite amusing to see someone reacting for the first time – “Well, this is a band with… three girls?  And they’re Asian?  Korean maybe?  Well, I have no idea what to expect…”  “SOMEONE GIVE THOSE GIRLS SOME CHOCOLATE”  Anyway, I find it amusing.

There’s this one guy, NeonReaperGaming, who has been really going down the foxhole – to the point where he’s diving into Sakura Gakuin’s stuff, just to see where Su, Moa, and Yui came from.  He comments all the time about how cute they are – and they are!  And there’s nothing really wrong with that.  I find some of Sakura Gakuin’s stuff to be super cute as well.

But something doesn’t sit well.  It’s something that hasn’t sat well with idol culture for me, for a long time.

All we see of idols is exactly what they want us to see.

Are the members of those idol groups (Morning Musume, AKB48, Sakura Gakuin, et al.) cute?  Damn right they are!  But are they really cute, or have they been trained to be cute just so we can have a dose of cute?  Is it really respectful to them to look at what they present to us and judge them solely based on that?

I saw a video once of one of the lesser known AKB48 members.  She made a video where she was crying that she didn’t have enough money for chicken nuggets and matcha cookies.  While I felt a little bad for her, and thought it was a little bit cute, I remember it.  Because that was a look behind the scenes, when the curtain falls.  Even though her concerns were a little trivial in some ways, she was actually sharing a little of her true self with the world.  All she wanted in life at that moment were some chicken nuggets and matcha cookies.  Don’t we all experience that every once in a while?

And I value that genuineness much more than artificial cuteness.

Manufactured cute is a distraction.  Real cute is what melts hearts.

It’s an industry that can chew up young girls and spit them out when it’s done with them.  I’ve even written a few posts (one of which is really popular) about just this topic – I’ve wondered if Akimoto Yasushi is doing the world a service or a disservice by coming up with the AKB48 groups.  It’s an industry that can lead to, to put it charitably, unrealistic expectations, both of the girls and of the relationship the girls have with the fans.  It’s an industry that, I imagine, can put a lot of pressure on young girls to perform in ways that maybe they’re not ready or able to.

It’s an industry that, quite literally, sells cute and innocent.

Is cute and innocent something I want to consume, as a product?  Those girls are someone’s daughters!

I don’t know.  It makes me uncomfortable.  But at the same time, it’s nice to know there’s a little bit of cuteness in the world right now, even if it’s manufactured, packaged up, and sold with a little sailor-uniform bow.

But I most treasure those little moments where the mask comes down and you can see who they really are.  Because those are the few moments where they’re not producing, and I’m not consuming.  It’s too bad that those moments are, by their very nature, one-sided and rare.

The petals of our tears

Namida no hanabiratachi ga harahara

The blooming of the sakura trees in Japan is a joyful, yet bittersweet moment, as they, in a very real way mark the passage of time.  The passage of time is both a time for new beginnings, and bittersweet goodbyes.  Sometimes goodbyes are temporary, sometimes they are permanent, and sometimes they are final.

Goodbyes are often accompanied by tears, as tears are often associated with loss.  It is an unfortunate consequence of life that loss is unavoidable, but it never hurts any less, does it?

In this time of pandemic we are having to deal with more loss than most of us have in our entire life, and many of us don’t know how to deal with it.  It causes tears, it causes anxiety, and sometimes worse, as everything we know falls apart in front of us.  Some of us don’t know where our next meal is coming from, as government bumbles around incompetently with little information and even less idea of what the right thing is.

sakura no hanabiratachi ga saku koro
dokoka de dareka ga kitto inotteru
atarashii sekai no DOA wo
jibun no sono te de hiraku koto

But often with loss comes opportunity, as clearing out the old brings opportunity that may not have existed, for those that can allow the tears to fall, to splash on the ground, and ultimately to dry, forgotten about.  Tears contain the essence of that which we leave behind.  Tears must be shed, and sometimes copiously, but they are no longer a part of us once they leave, and ultimately, we move on without them.

Our tears fall to the ground like sakura petals, and for much the same reason.  As the cherry trees must shed their petals to make room for next year’s beautiful display, so must we shed out tears to make room for that which lies ahead of us.  Sometimes what lies ahead of us are more tears – and sometimes many more tears.  But sometimes the tears will dry, and the door will open, and we will see the vast expanse of what is waiting for us as we leave our tears behind.

The petals of our tears fall to the ground with little splashes, yes.  They will fall, and we will see them on the ground like little drops of dew, the sun reflecting from them as they dry, and

kono hoho wo nagareochite arukidasu
aoi sora wo miage ookiku

If you look to the sky, the tears are already forgotten.

Namida no hanabiratachi ga harahara

Why does a Classically Trained Pianist like J-Pop?

As I might have mentioned at one point, I am a classically trained musician.  I am familiar with most of the works of many major composers, but my favorite classical pieces – or romantic pieces, as the case may be, are some of the more famous piano concertos.  Those by Saint-Saens, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Schumann – I love them all and have been listening to them for many years.  I love the complexity, the interplay between the soloist instruments and the orchestra, and most important, how even though there are many notes (the piano itself can have thousands spread over the better part of an hour) not one is wasted and every note has a place.

So why does someone like me like J-Pop, which is essentially none of these things?  In many cases, the performers don’t harmonize or even have any idea what harmonizing is, the lyrics are trite (though for those who don’t know Japanese that doesn’t really matter, the fact that they’re Japanese is good enough), the harmonies can be intersting but are rather poppish – it’s everything classical music isn’t.  You could get rid of half the notes and it really wouldn’t matter, and all but one or two singers are superfluous in most cases.  By classical standards, J-Pop is barely even worth noticing, much less paying attention to.  About the only thing they really do well is dance around in sync with each other, for the most part.

Nonetheless, I still rather like it.

I’ve remarked before on the Japanese word “ganbatte”, or “ganbarou”.  It basically means “good luck” or “try my best”, but there is an undercurrent of demand there.  Basically, if you fail, you didn’t “ganbatte”.  You can only be said to “ganbatte” if you’ve succeeded.  You can sometimes hear one of the girls in J-Pop saying “I didn’t try my best” when they fail at something.  The implication being, that if you try your best, you will always succeed.

I think this is the spirit around J-Pop that I like, even more than the music themselves.  They’re always challenging themselves, and deliberately so.  Take AKB-48.  People said “they can’t dance well”, so they made a piece that deliberately was the most difficult dancing they’d ever done.  People said “they can’t harmonize”, so they release an a-capella choir piece.  People said “Well, they can’t sing solo”, so they actually had an a capella piece where there was a solo singer and a few of the girls were actually singing harmony.  People said “OK, they can’t play any instruments.”  Well, I guess, challenge accepted, because they put together “gimme five” where some of the girls learned how to play instruments just to prove everyone wrong.

Basically, J-Pop seems to be mostly oriented to an “I’ll show you” kind of “ganbatte” attitude.  If you tell them they can’t do something, they’ll do it just to spite you, and be all smiles and cute all the way.

I was watching a performance of Saint-Saens concerto #4 today – one of my favorites, especially the last movement, and I was watching the performer’s fingers dancing all over the keyboard, and I realized, for all of their talent and practice, most classical musicians don’t seem to have this quality.  They work on playing their instrument, on perfecting their instrument, and sometimes get a job on a symphony orchestra or as a soloist career.  But unless they want to branch out into different kinds of music, that’s where it stops.  Don’t get me wrong, you can become very well known and prosperous doing that – but to me, it seems a bit like a waste.  You only learn to do one thing very well.

But the J-Pop artists seem to alwys want to improve themselves, always try new things, always branch out into new ideas and see if they work.  Take Babymetal, for example.  If you tell a person off the street to try to merge heavy metal and J-Pop, they’ll look at you like you’re an idiot and say “that would be awful.”  And I can’t tell you how many Youtube reaction videos I’ve seen where the sentiment is “Holy crap!  That shouldn’t work at all, but it does!  What did I just watch?”  And then they go down the foxhole.

I think this is why I like J-Pop.  They’re always reinventing and improving themselves, trying new things.  Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t, but they never seem happy with the status quo.  You say “well, you can’t do that”, and they say “oh yeah?  Watch me.”  And they do.  One even got into a play-off with a true concert pianist playing Mozart’s “Turkish Rondo”.  You could tell the difference in their playing – the concert pianist was far better – but she held her own.  Someone challenged her, and she said “ganbatte”.  I’ll try my best.

And that is why I, being a classical pianist admire groups such as Morning Musume, AKB48, Sakura Gakuin and its offshoot Babymetal, and a few other groups besides.  It’s not that their music is particularly interesting – most professional musicians could – and do – wipe the floor with them.  Even the K-Pop artists are in such a different class performance-wise that the J-pop artists seem to get a complex when watching them.  But at the end of the day, they understand “Ganbatte”.  Trying their best.  And that’s why I like them.

They’re scrappy, and if someone tosses a challenge at them, they own it.

It’s really hard not to admire that.  Even as a classical pianist.

The Shallowness of Exported Japanese Culture

A recurring theme of this site is my continued wonder at why I’m bothering to learn Japanese at all.  I mean, it is an interesting language, it’s difficult, it’s a challenge.  All these things are true.  But at the end of the day, as a gaikokujin, I find that my reasons for learning the language are really, at the end of the day, somewhat puzzling.

What I mean is this:  after learning Japanese, I’ll have the following abilities:  I’ll be able to read manga in its native language (yay!).  I’ll be able to consume Youtube videos and other media in their native language (yay!).  I’ll be able to…

Umm,  hmm.  What will I be able to do, other than that?

This became clear when I read that AKB48 is not going to have their annual elections this year, and I thought, oh hey, maybe I can post about that!  And then I thought… why would I want to do that?  What possible reason would I have to post about something so incredibly shallow as a bunch of (admittedly quite pretty and cute) Japanese girls getting up on stage and crying because they won a popularity contest?

And the answer came:  Because, as a gaikokujin, I’ve got nothing else interesting to post about!

So I’ll be able to read manga.  So I’ll be able to watch AKBingo videos, or “Gaki No Tsukai Ya Arrahende”.  Or maybe I can watch “Swing Girls” or “Gou Gou Datte Neko De Aru”.  Or some random anime that butchers the language but is interesting nonetheless.  And maybe I won’t need subtitles or translations.

And that’s all there is.

Is it worth the time and money I’ve been spending on it?

It’s an open question.

As of right now, I have no idea what I would even use it for.

5 Reasons J-Pop sucks

AKB48 CafeI’ve posted previously about what I like about J-Pop, but I don’t like everything about it!  As with everything, it has its good sides and bad sides.  Here, in my opinion, are the bad sides.

The Music Can Be Uninteresting

I’ve posted previously about how I think that J-Pop is far more interesting than western pop – but that doesn’t really mean it’s interesting.  At the end of the day, it’s still pop, with all of the insipidity and appealing to the lowest common denominator that that entails.  I love how poetic J-Pop can be, but how many songs can one group write about sakura?

There is Little Focus on Talent

J-Pop performers are selected, basically, for cuteness and relatability first, and they seem to take the attitude that growing as a performer will come in time.  And, that being their criteria, they choose well.  But all told, they aren’t really all that talented.  Those who have the acumen or opportunity to parlay their cuteness into success are very successful.  Those that don’t fade into obscurity.  And that seems to have little to do with their actual potential as a performer.

Honestly, though, this is not a reason J-Pop sucks.  The reason is that it almost seems as if the lack of talent is seen as a positive, rather than a negative.  What, then, of the girls who actually want to make something of themselves as an actual performer?  There is room for that, but, frankly, many don’t.  And as seen on Produce48, many don’t even know it until reality smacks them in the face.  Is this doing them a service?  Maybe.  I’m not so sure.

What You See is Not What You Get

When I was younger, I remember a strong thunderstorm that rolled through.  As the storm left, the sky turned a lurid pink.  It turned out that the anvil was still over us and the setting sun was shining underneath it.  But since the clouds were somewhat transparent, you couldn’t see the clouds – it just looked as if the sky turned pink.

J-Pop feels a little like that.  You are given the opportunity to “get to know” the girls – but it’s all scripted and carefully controlled.  So what you see is what you think you get, but you don’t.  It’s a character.  Perhaps it’s a form of the Japanese tatemae, but the people you think you’re getting to know, well, you’re not.

If they were up front about that it wouldn’t really bother me so much, but I think many people think that the performers are the same as their stage personality, and this leads to much misunderstanding.  And that leads me to

The Fans

This is, frankly, the part of the J-Pop scene I detest the most.  I mean, you could kind of class me as a fan in some ways – I know a lot of their music, a lot of the performers, I even have my favorites if you want to get picky.  But at the end of the day, I know they’re just a bunch of girls doing a job, and I keep it in perspective.

But many fans don’t seem to.  I’ve heard of fans buying thousands of CDs just to get the little tickets to vote in the senbatsu and then throwing them all away, I’ve seen people go absolutely nuts when they meet their favorite idol, and frankly, it’s kind of embarrassing all around.  Yes, it’s kind of interesting in its own way, but in the same way you only mostly cover your eyes when you see an inevitable train wreck.  I really hate being a fan because of who it is I end up lumped in with by association.

The Costumes

Oh holy mother of dog, the costumes.  Some are okay, but some of them look like the designer took ate crayons and threw up on fabric.  They’re so loud it’s amazing to see.  It’s like they took a Japanese school uniform and turned it to 11, blowing out the amp.  I’m no fashion critic, and I suppose maybe their target audience thinks differently, but this just helps to cement my opinions about the Japanese taking existing things and taking them in directions no reasonable person would ever even consider.  Sometimes it’s strange and wonderful.  Sometimes it’s J-Pop costumes.

The Sparkle! It Burns!

These are the reasons I think J-Pop sucks.  Of course, there are also plenty of reasons it doesn’t.  What do you think?

(I am trying a new format for blog posts.  Like it?  Hate it?  Let me know!)

Photo Credits:

AKB48 cafe by User: (WT-shared) 耕太郎 at wts wikivoyage [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Costume By Dick Thomas Johnson from Tokyo, Japan [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday Song #4: Sakura No Hanabiritachi (AKB48)

I haven’t written one of these for a while, and this one’s a little late.  I have some good excuses which you don’t care about, but if you knew them, you’d agree that they’re good, so we’ll just leave it at that.

This is an interesting song.  Its first few bars of introduction are really catchy and high energy – they actually remind me of an 80s or 90s song.  In fact, that’s how I found this song, because they kept playing that intro on AKBingo and I liked it enough that I wondered what song it belonged to.

This is a song about endings and beginnings.  As I have mentioned, the sakura (or cherry tree) seems to have a significance to Japanese culture, and at least in the way it’s usually used in J-Pop songs, as a marker of time.  For the sakura blossoms only for a few days a year, and then they all fall off, waiting for the next year to come around.

This is a sweet and sad song, about graduation from school and heading into adulthood.  That’s an experience that, for many reasons, I never really had, but it seems that in this song they are trying to capture the bittersweet feelings that must come with that kind of an event.  As the petals drop from the cherry tree, so does one stage of life end and another begin.

The petals of these tears go pitter-patter
On these cheeks they come out, flow, and fall
As we look up to the blue sky
And breathe in deeply
The petals of these tears go pitter-patter
Memories of that part make me happy
The stairs to adulthood before our eyes
Together we climb and wave our hands

This is something I’ve really grown to appreciate about J-Pop.  It can be very sweet and saccharine, it can be fun and mindless, it can be sweet and sad, it can even be tragic, but there is a depth and poetry that is very much missing from western pop, and has been for many, many years.  It’s like, they want to sell albums, but they are also proud of what they produce.

What would it look like if we could take A-Pop (what I call American pop) and infuse a Japanese sense into it?  The sense of beauty that the Japanese have cultivated over thousands of years, and even now, manifests in a bunch of young girls and women dancing around in frilly, colorful (and sometimes downright loud) costumes and singing about things they may or may not understand?

What would it look like, indeed.  I’d like to know.  It would be nice if there was actually some “A-Pop” that one didn’t have to feel embarrassed to do anything but make fun of.

Am I Otaku?

I’ll be honest. I dont identify as otaku and I dont want to be otaku.

But last night I sent a bunch of funny links to my friend from AKBingo, explained to him who Takahashi Minami and Shinoda Mariko are, and then gave him the backstory on how Shinoda-san became an idol. Then I was humming “Oogoe Diamond” and the intro to “Sakura no Hanabiritachi”, after I went through most of their discography to find out where that intro came from (it’s catchy).

Unfortunately I guess that makes me otaku.

Why does that upset me?

Because I consider otaku somewhat unbalanced, tbh. One commenter to this very site told me he’d punch someone out if they dissed his favorite AKB48 member. And that is disturbing. Sure they’re cute and funny, but they’re just entertainers and I’m entertained. Sure, if I were escorting an idol down the street and someone threatened her I’d open a can of whoopass, but that’s because it’s the right thing to do, not because they’re idols.

I dont want to be associated with that. But I guess by talking about it, I am.

So what to do?

When Reality Attacks

I have always found idol culture in Japan interesting, but partly because I sought to understand it.  I found this video which helped a little.

These are several members of AKB48 who were in a contest with a bunch of Korean idols, and found themselves so lacking in comparison it seemed to completely wreck them.

I’ve often wondered how well the Japanese idol culture (in general) prepares the girls for a life in media.  They’re not great at dancing (better than me, for sure, but not great objectively), they’re not all that good at singing (if you disagree, hold that thought, and then find one where they’re singing solo without accompaniment.  They’re almost always way out of tune), they can kind of act but they’re not great at it.  And that’s because that’s not their job.  Their job is to be cute and funny, and incidentally, sell music.

And they’re really good at it.  Ishikawa Miori (Fresh Lemon) comes to mind.  I don’t know how you can get cuter than this:

But I have to wonder if they are well served by that.  As they grow older, it becomes harder to be cute and funny, and if they don’t have any real skills to fall back on, what good has it done them?  They’re kind of insulated from it because their fans love them for how cute and funny they are, until…  they get slapped in the face with the rather rude realization that that’s all they’ve been trained to be.

As in the above video.  It’s almost heartbreaking to watch them suddenly realize that when put in a competition with people who have been trained to sing, dance, etc., they don’t even come close to measuring up.

Japanese idols don’t really seem all that poorly treated (a little exploited, yes, but not in an abusive way), they look like they generally have fun, and even when it’s difficult they seem to have an attitude of “ganbatte” that helps them to be resilient.  But I wonder how those girls will react to the horrible dose of reality they just got.  Will they become depressed?  Will they “ganbatte” – try their best with what they have?  Or will they get themselves trainers and resolve that that will never happen again?

If I were in their shoes…. I don’t know which I’d choose, to be honest.  But I’m pretty sure I’d react like they did.  That’s not fun at all.

Ohori Meshibe

In my seeking to understand Japanese culture, I found this YouTube video, and found it very interesting.

 

Ohori Meshibe (also known as Ohori Megumi, but that was her name for this recording) was a 25 year old AKB48 member who was given an opportunity, but with a catch:  we’ll give you a solo debut, but you have to sell 10,000 CDs within a month or you’ll have to graduate.

So for a month, she went all over, selling one CD at a time, giving little performances all over the place, and even ended up sleeping on the ground one night (though there was a cameraman there so I’m very much doubting that she was truly in any danger).  Finally, the month was over, and this documented her trying to get over the finish line in the last day.

Halfway through the day, she had a nervous breakdown, and Sata and Kiyoto ended up having to go out and entertain the crowd while she pulled herself together – and it was a close thing, she even started to hyperventilate a bit.

But there are a few observations about this, some of which I found out through other means.

Many westerners would have given up and accepted their fate, honestly, at about the time that she had her nervous breakdown.  We would have ran out and never looked back.  But she pulled herself together, went out, and ended up meeting her goal, after many of the other members came by and helped out.  Her fans also pulled together and filled the last “hug event”.  This is the Japanese idea of “ganbatte” – or “try your best” – anything less than your best is not an option, and it seems they just pull themselves together and get it done.

This is even more poignant because of something they don’t tell you:  she lost her beloved grandmother – the only person in her family who supported her idol career – two days before the producer pulled her into a room and offered her the solo debut.  So she was already dealing with a lot, and then…

I don’t know how much of this was scripted, to be honest.  Probably more of it than appeared.  I’m also not at all sure if she would ever have been allowed to graduate.  I’m even not sure if the timing of it wasn’t an accident so that it would increase the drama.  But it shows a lot about Japanese “ganbatte” culture.  She tried her best, even surmounting some pretty incredible odds.

And it’s hard to not find that inspirational.

Lately she got married and had a child.  Which seems to be the ending of all idol (or gravure) related activity, as Japanese culture seems to expect women to raise children when they have one (something I generally respect, tbh).  Still, I wish her well.