Have you ever wondered what it would take to become a J-pop idol? Well, it’s a lot different nowadays than how it used to be, even only ten years ago. And the good news is, it’s a lot easier than it was before. Mind you, it still takes a lot of hard work, genuine talent, and a ton of creative energy to rise to the point of super-stardom, but the doors to success are not as closed as they were back in the day. Nowadays, any talented and popular artist wandering the streets in Tokyo’s fashionable Harajuku district has the potential to rise to pop idol heights.
Pop idols in Japan are powerful institutions and are even more influential on the culture than many Western pop idols are in the West. So prominent are they within Japanese society, that there is an entire genre of Japanese manga comics which focuses specifically on stories about obscure people rising to the heights of super-stardom and becoming pop idols. Unlike in the West, J-pop idols are always looked up to and expected to be positive examples for young people.
This mythology surrounding the J-pop idol has come into being for a very good reason. In the past, an idol had to be initiated at a talent agency from an early age and pass many gruelling tests of their abilities in many different pop groups before they could attest to true pop idol status. So, you could be sure, if you saw a J-pop idol, that a phenomenal amount of effort and hard work had been put into it to get them into the position they are in now.
A perfect example of this traditional process for creating pop idols is J-pop idol, Suzuka Nakamoto. Also known as “Su-Metal” in the popular J-pop group “Baby Metal”, Nakamoto’s career followed a fairly typical path to stardom for a J-pop idol. She was signed to a talent agency before she was ten years old after having won a talent audition. She was then placed in a kid’s idol group called “Karen Girl’s”. When she became a young teen, she was placed in teen idol group “Sakura Gakuin”. She was then chosen to be the lead singer in wildly popular group “Babymetal”, which has helped define the new genre of “Cute Metal”. Since agencies first began taking control of the J-pop scene back in the early 1990s, this was literally the only way to become a J-pop star.
With the great expansion of the Internet over the 2010s, the whole world has become more “grassroots” in how it approaches everything, from celebrities to advertising. The spread of social media has democratized talent, in a way. Nowadays anyone with the creativity and intelligence to generate a following can make it pay, for themselves as well as for their potential investors. This is the way of the world nowadays, and J-pop is not immune to that.
The perfect example of this new way of making yourself known as a pop artist is the now uber-popular J-pop idol “Kyary Pamyu Pamyu (きゃりーぱみゅぱみゅ)”. Unlike Su-Metal, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu did not spend her childhood being trained and groomed by a traditional talent agency. She began as a humble beauty and fashion blogger who would walk around Tokyo’s legendary fashion district, Harajuku, attracting attention with her interesting fashion statements. With time, she generated an online following and became well-known enough to be able to model for Harajuku fashion magazines. As her fame grew, she was invited to participate in fashion shows. It was at one of these fashion shows that she met the producer of one of her favourite J-pop groups, “Perfume”, and this producer recommended that she try out as a singer. The rest, as they say, is history.
Known as Japan’s incubator for creative expression and artistic development, Harajuku is a real source of grassroots talent for modern producers to tap into, not only for fashion but for music and J-pop as well. They aren’t letting this endless reservoir of talent go to waste. If you’re as keen a student of modern Japanese culture as I am, then you’ll be fascinated to observe the newest Harajuku artists and try to guess which ones are likely to rise to prominence.
I’ve personally enjoyed seeing my favourite model Yuri Nakagawa rise from the humble origins of fashion blogger up to become the official model for prominent fashion shows all around the world, and so grow into a genuine public figure whose profile keeps rising. Harajuku models and fashion bloggers like Yuri Nakagawa are continuing to prove every day that talent and star appeal itself can make you rise to the top of Japanese popular culture these days.
So, what’s holding you back? With the advent of social media and the dominance of the Internet for personal expression, anyone with enough talent and creative energy can try to become a pop idol, not only in Japan but pretty much anywhere else on Earth. Gone are the days when a gatekeeper would decide who is good and who is not. Nowadays, the people decide. So, if you think you have what it takes to be a star, then get out on the streets of Harajuku and prove it!