Japan is famous for many things. Seen as a hub of wacky trends and colorful fashions, people associate Japan with innovation and uniqueness. The country attracts people who love anime and manga, and its comics and series’ have a huge fan base.
However, there is another part of Japanese entertainment which is something of a phenomenon and now dominates the industry. It is Idol Culture, and it is attracting people both in the country and overseas. This massive industry is getting bigger all the time and generates huge amounts of money for the music industry.
Idols are everywhere, on every TV and billboard. Young people dream of becoming them and look up to them. However, despite the flashy perception of an idol’s celebrity life and the glamour associated with it, there is a dark side to this life and this industry. Is it really so good being an idol in Japan? Is it liberating, or just entrapping? Lucrative, or just exploitative? And does it matter either way, if people want to be idols despite the drawbacks?
The Idol (アイドル) is a term coined to describe young entertainers in Japan. These idols start young, are always cute, and are often trained to sing, dance, MC, voice act, entertain, model, and play musical instruments. It can’t be overstated just how influential and massive idols are in Japan. They attract massive followings and drive crowds crazy.
Idols are not just seen as entertainers, they are also regarded as role models for young people. Therefore, the public perception of them has to be positive. An idol is a reflection on society, a picture of the ideal Japanese young citizen, and as such their image must be flawless.
Because of this, idols are expected to work very hard, putting in hours training, performing, touring, staying in shape, communicating with fans, holding interviews, and generally keeping people hooked.
Idols can achieve great success, which is an attractive option for young people looking for fame and fortune. If they play by the rules, they could have a promising and lucrative career. However, one mistake, and they could say goodbye to their career, their friends, their fans, even their family.
It is a stressful job, in a country where social pressure is palpable. But some would say it is giving a chance to regular people who may not otherwise get the chance to be rich and famous. Perhaps it is just a simple message that hard work brings rewards.
There are many idol groups in Japan. If you visit Tokyo or Osaka, you will likely see idols promoting their latest album or tour, or witness fans queuing for merchandise. Here are two examples of very famous idol groups in the country with fans nationwide.
— Time Channel (@Time_Channel) October 8, 2017
Perhaps one of the most well-known idol groups in Japan is AKB48. AKB48 is just one of several female idol groups run by the massive idol brand Project 48 (PJ48), along with others including SKE48, NMB48, HKT48, and NGT48. Sound pretty similar don’t they?
That’s because they are fairly similar, all following generally similar ideas of what looks good and sounds good. AKB48 consists of around 130 members although this does fluctuate. It is well known that there is intense and vicious competition not only to make it into the group, but to become one of the popular girls in the group.
AKB48 holds fairly regular auditions, which attract young girls from teenage years up until their early twenties, desperate for a chance to be an idol.
— mam (@mam80710746) October 8, 2017
Male idols are also a big thing in Japan, and one of the leading idol brands for male idol groups is Johnny and Associates, which owns several idol boy groups including the legendary SMAP. SMAP disbanded in 2016, but were active from 1988 and had a huge following.
SMAP consisted of just five members, but came to be known as a national treasure in Japan and paved the way for future idol groups such as V6, TOKIO, Arashi, and Hey!Say!Jump. The process for recruiting members was fairly similar as in AKB48, holding auditions and then training programmes for young boys.
These boy bands attract mainly young girls, and there is rife competition to become a member, as it can pave the way for lucrative careers in the entertainment industry.
Idols are paid by their idol brand employers, but an idol’s salary can fluctuate and vary widely depending on how much they promote themselves and how popular they become. This industry has thought of many clever marketing tactics to bring in the cash.
Perhaps one of the most interesting is the ‘handshake ticket’. This is where fans buy CD’s, and each CD has a raffle ticket inside it which can get them prizes. If they are lucky, they may win a handshake ticket which means they can shake hands with one of their idols at a fan appreciation event.
Of course, this not only brings a good amount of money in but also ensures that idol tracks go straight to the top of the music charts as fans buy multiple copies of their releases. Another big money maker is the selling of merchandise. Fans of these idols are extremely committed, and will often spend a lot of money on the latest t-shirt or lunch box with their favorite idol on.
Very popular idols can go on to ‘graduate’ from their idol group and make their own money, for example by releasing their own songs and appearing in advertisements or at events. So some could argue that the pay off for being a hard-working idol is future wealth.
This industry has many dark sides. While behind the scenes rich idol group managers are benefiting, the young idols doing the hard work have to sacrifice a lot for their hope of success and fame.
A Picture of Innocence
Idols are, above all, expected to be purer than pure, flawless, angel-like beings. The image of innocence and naivety is very attractive and strong in Japan. Of course, this applies to all idols but mostly applies to female idols. Idols have to give the impression that they are romantically unattached and sexually inexperienced.
There are several examples of idols having secret relationships. If the media uncovers this news, basically, the idols career is likely to be over. This can be hugely stressful for idols in their early twenties, for example, who are at the age where romantic relationships are normal and healthy. Rejecting any sort of sexual and romantic life is a big sacrifice.
Sexual Harassment and Exploitation
There have been many, many reports of female idols being sexually harassed by their industry employers and managers, the majority of whom are men. Sadly, Japan still has a long way to go with regards to preventing and cracking down on sexism and sexual harassment. This is reflected in the fact that despite numerous reports of abuse and harassment, basically no action is ever taken.
Exploitation is also another negative aspect which comes with the job as an idol. Not only are idols financially hugely exploited (many earn not much more than minimum wages, whilst the men behind the curtains rake in fortunes), but they are paraded around cities and at events in bikinis and high heels purely for the satisfaction of men.
Having to Deal with Creeps
Particularly at these handshake ticket events, there have been reports of male fans being more than a bit creepy towards idol girls, and sometimes being straight up psycho.
In 2014 two members of AKB48 and one staff member were viciously attacked by a man with a 50 cm handsaw. The members still have scars, and since this attack security has been increased at these types of events. However, this is only an extreme example, and let’s face it, there are creeps everywhere!
Being an idol can be fun, but it requires a lot of effort, luck, and sacrifice as well. Idols work to the bone in an effort to be everything Japan wants them to be, but perhaps this is unattainable. It depends on what the idol wants more, fame and recognition, or a normal life?
Next time you watch famous Japanese idols on your TV screen, looking happy and smiling for the cameras, remember that there is a hugely dark and negative side to this industry which is often not addressed, but which perhaps should be.