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.