Most people outside of Japan have at least heard of AKB48. The Japanese “idol” girl band is named after the trendy region Akihabara, the beating heart of pop culture and anime/manga culture in Tokyo. But it’s more of a pop troupe than a band, with over 130 singers on their payroll. They are also one of Japan’s biggest selling groups. Its success has sparked no less than 48 spin-off groups from various cities around the world. Some of the girls are as young as 12.
Indeed, the sheer size and variety of idol groups these days is staggering. An article in RocketNews24 covered a Western analysis of the categories of girl bands that have sprung up in different Asian countries. Japan’s pop idols are all about numbers; Korean bands are identical beauties. Taiwan is all about money but also exposure. And China takes the best bits out of the various types of acts. While that may be slightly exaggerated, it also has a patina of truth about it.
This somewhat unusual band format is not a new thing in Japan. Globally, it was the Spice Girls in the late 90s that triggered a spate of “manufactured bands” where individual talents are put together to form a band. But Japan already had a long track record of this, and throughout the history of J-Pop, such bands that have had some international success in mainstream pop – Morning Musume in the 2000s, and Onyanko Club in the 1980s. Onyanko Club was another mega idol group with 52 members, with one of their famous songs being “セーラー服を脱がさないで”, or “don’t make me take my sailor’s uniform off” i.e., the typical high school girls’ uniform in Japan. That should give you a rough idea of the tenor and intended purpose of idol groups. (As an aside, AKB48 paid tribute to their roots with a cover of Onyanko Club’s hit tune years later.)
The Unique Japanese History of the Word “Idol”
These girls are referred to as アイドル (“idols”) which is obviously a 外来語 (gairaigo; foreign loan word) from English, but which has a distinct meaning in Japan.
The term “idol” has been used in English since the 1920s to refer to stars and popular trend-setters. In Japan, by contrast, such standouts were (and even today are) typically called “stars” as opposed to “idols”. The term “idol” didn’t come into popularity until the 1960s with the worldwide boom in instrumental bands. The term eventually became to be used to refer to primary female performers; it was also adapted in the phrase グラビアアイドル (gurabia aidoru; from the English “gravure idol”, an old form of intaglio printing), which refers to young women whose primary claim to fame is scantily clad and sexually provocative photo shoots for men’s magazines.
It was in the 80s when Onyanko Club hit their streak that the term バラドル (bara-doru, or “variety show idol”) became popular, as Onyanko Club became the darling act on Japan’s ubiquitous talk show circuit. However, the term quickly died out, as the picture of purity that was supposed to be projected by idol acts didn’t gel with the other uses of the term. It came back into vogue in the late 1990s and early 2000s as groups like Morning Musume and Hello! Project began to define the structure of idol groups as we know them today: a large group of young women who fight to move up the ranks of the group, with members eventually “graduating” to other group projects or to solo careers. Members of idol groups are forbidden from having relationships, and forming one on the sly can lead to scandal (at best) or expulsion (at worst); members who violate this rule are also slandered relentlessly on social media by male fans.
To call the idol concept “popular” in Japan would be an understatement. The list of idol groups past and present on Wikipedia JP gives you an idea of the scale of the operation. Idol groups routinely make public appearances, the most common type being the hand-shaking event (拍手会; hakushukai), where fans can stand in line for hours to do a quick meet-and-greet with their favorite performers. The idol phenomenon has even sparked a related movement, “live idols” (ライブアイドル). Also called 地下アイドル (chika aidoru, or “underground idol”), these are young women whose job is to stir up huge followings on social media, and use their influencing power to bring their fans into shops and restaurants where they’re scheduled to appear.
Was Japan Ahead of World Trends?
Although the Japanese borrowed the word “idol” from the West, in some ways, it seems they have been ahead of world trends. Many try and analyze this “phenomenon” of making young girls into manufactured performers, which is supposedly unique to Japan, but it is very much what we now see in shows like American Idol, Pop Idol, and X Factor – the main difference being that, in recent years, the West puts a stronger emphasis on creating individual “stars” as opposed to super-groups. Japan commercialized and commoditized pop idols way ahead of the rest of the world, and have been taking it from strength to strength since – producing bands that are a brand rather than unique talents. Mass-producing pop singers is what they do best: get a mold and sell a standard product.
While in most places around the world, musicians and artists flourished in the 1970s, in Japan, non-idol musicians were few and far between. Since the mid-1970s, music genres targeting those over the age of 30 continued to decline, while music for the young grew and grew. This has happened more recently in the US where the sales in genres such as hip hop, R&B, and even rock have been in decline, and the emphasis has shifted to marketing young performers like Miley Cyrus or Ariana Grande.
There is also the fact that Japanese teenagers can apparently get away with leaving school early to pursue their pop career. In most countries, certainly in the UK, this would be a very difficult thing to do with compulsory full-time education until the age of 16. In Japan, a lot of the idols are in their early teens and “pursuing a career as a pop idol” appears to be a legitimate reason to be granted leave from schools – a surprising development in a country that’s seen to be very rule-following, and that places such a high value on education.
Whither Idol Groups?
But will the Japanese pop idol continue to grow and flourish? A respected Japanese TV celebrity and comedian, Matsuko Deluxe, famously begged for AKB48 not to perform at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, saying, “please use somebody for the opening and closing ceremonies that won’t be an embarrassment.” It seems some are souring on the notion of idol groups representing Japan on the global stage.
Moreover, women’s issues are coming to the fore in Japan as they are in the rest of the world. The recent scandal with Tokyo Medical School, where it was discovered that personnel in the school were intentionally downgrading women to lower female admission rates, sparked an outline outcry. In the age of #MeToo and sensitivity around gender discrimination, can Japanese music producers continue to find success with numbers about peeling off one’s high school uniform?
With this increasing feminist movement in Japan and the concomitant rise of strong, outspoken Japanese women, I would be surprised if the “everything kawaii” culture of which idol groups are a large part – can ride it through much longer. Time will show what Japan decides to show at the Olympics, which will be a clear barometer of which direction the Japanese pop world is headed.