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.

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.

A Tale of two Idols

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.