from ja­pan

In J-pop, teen dreams be­come night­mares

Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture - - NEWS - By cather­ine ko­muro

In J-pop, teen dreams be­come night­mares.

When I try to talk to peo­ple about idols, I fal­ter. I say things like, “Maki Goto is my Brit­ney Spears” or “Mikitty was like Christina Aguil­era to me.” That’s a gross over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, even on a good day. The ap­peal of idols, to me, is see­ing sup­pos­edly or­di­nary girls per­form su­per­hu­man feats of stamina.

Brit­ney gets a pass for lip-synch­ing be­cause she’s danc­ing for 90 min­utes. Idols aren’t let off the hook that way; they bounce from ra­dio in­ter­views to day­time va­ri­ety shows to two-hour-plus evening con­certs, and still no one dares lip-synch. It’d be an in­sult to the fans who came out to cheer them on, tow­els and glow sticks held high.

And then they get up the next morn­ing and do it all over again.

From the time I was 13 years old, I was ob­sessed with the Ja­panese su­pergroup Morn­ing Musume and its ever-shift­ing lineup. Girls aged out and “grad­u­ated” to be re­placed by a new crop of faces, and why shouldn’t I have been one of them? I taught my­self their chore­og­ra­phy from pro­mo­tional videos, played ev­ery cd on end­less re­peat

un­til I knew the songs by heart and could iden­tify each girl’s voice. I drilled my­self on im­i­ta­tions, try­ing to swap be­tween Charmy’s breathy squeak and Miki “Mikitty” Fu­ji­moto’s vo­cal fry in the beats be­tween lines. Ev­ery year, I scoured Ja­panese newspapers and fan-run fo­rums for news about that year’s au­di­tions, mak­ing my older brother help me with kanji I didn’t un­der­stand.

Idols are uni­ver­sally ac­knowl­edged as man­u­fac­tured—even by their fans. To an awk­ward teenager, this can seem like more of a fea­ture than a bug. A crack team of mar­keters and stylists pack­ag­ing me as my most ap­peal­ing self sounded like ex­actly what I needed. And if they were build­ing me a per­son­al­ity, I wouldn’t have to worry about flesh­ing one out on my own.

That I be­lieved be­com­ing an idol could make me my best self shows that Morn­ing Musume func­tioned ex­actly as it was meant to. The idol mill can only run if it is fed a steady stream of fresh fe­male bod­ies. Morn­ing Musume’s tele­vised au­di­tion process, from its in­cep­tion in 1998, in­voked an as­pi­ra­tional fan­tasy of or­di­nary girls cat­a­pulted into star­dom through sheer hard work. In 2000 and 2001, au­di­tions for the fourth and fifth gen­er­a­tions of Morn­ing Musume bal­looned to more than 25,000 ap­pli­cants (though num­bers dropped in sub­se­quent years as pro­ducer Tsunku im­ple­mented nar­rower age re­stric­tions).

Idols are meant to pro­vide a vi­sion of ac­ces­si­ble fem­i­nin­ity to girls: some­thing you can grow up to be. For boys, they’re meant to be ac­ces­si­ble in a dif­fer­ent way: the at­tain­able celebrity girl­friend, the girl next door. These dual pur­poses are sup­ported in part by how bloated idol groups be­come. Morn­ing Musume’s cur­rent ros­ter stands at 14 girls rang­ing from ages 15 to 22. AKB48, a mas­sive group es­tab­lished in 2005 that main­tains its own theater in Tokyo’s Ak­i­habara neigh­bor­hood, con­sists of 125 girls be­tween the ages of 12 and 26. With such a di­verse lineup, any fan can find a fa­vorite to look up to or lust af­ter. Par­tic­u­larly de­voted fans may be­come wota, who func­tion some­what like cheer squads for their fa­vorites. They de­velop spe­cial­ized chants and nick­names for their fa­vorite singers and syn­chro­nized dances to their songs, dom­i­nat­ing con­cert venues with their co­or­di­nated per­for­mances.

Ac­ces­si­bil­ity, or the il­lu­sion of it, is built into most idols’ con­tracts. The girls are sub­ject to gru­el­ing sched­ules to keep them in the pub­lic eye as much as pos­si­ble. In a

2009 in­ter­view with the Ja­pan Times, fifth­gen­er­a­tion Morn­ing Musume mem­ber Risa Ni­igaki said that the girls were each al­lot­ted a to­tal of 15 va­ca­tion days per year. Con­tracts of­ten also in­clude moral­ity clauses re­strict­ing not only pub­lic con­duct but pri­vate re­la­tion­ships as well.

Moral­ity clauses, and the vi­o­la­tion thereof, have been a con­stant source of ten­sion in the idol in­dus­try for more than a decade. Ai Kago of Morn­ing Musume was dis­missed from her tal­ent agency af­ter be­ing pho­tographed smok­ing on sev­eral oc­ca­sions and vis­it­ing a hot springs with an older man. Her band­mate Maki Goto found her own im­age tar­nished when her younger brother bur­glar­ized a con­struc­tion site; Goto was in­ter­ro­gated about the crime in in­ter­views, and pub­licly blamed her­self for be­ing inat­ten­tive to her brother’s needs. How­ever, the most con­tro­ver­sial as­pect of an idol’s “ac­ces­si­ble” im­age is the chastity clause.

Al­though Morn­ing Musume mem­bers were for­bid­den to date (the rev­e­la­tion of

Mari Yaguchi’s se­cret re­la­tion­ship forced her res­ig­na­tion from the group in 2005, and Fu­ji­moto left the group for the same rea­son two years later), two high-pro­file cases from com­pet­ing mega­group AKB48 have gar­nered in­tense me­dia scru­tiny in re­cent years. In 2012, tabloid Shūkan Bun­shun pub­lished a tell-all from a man claim­ing to be the boyfriend of AKB48’S Rino Sashihara. While Sashihara de­nied the al­le­ga­tions, she was trans­ferred to Fukuoka-based sis­ter group HKT48 as a re­sult of the scan­dal.

Yet more trou­bling was the reaction to the news that Mi­nami Minegishi had spent the night at the house of a mem­ber of boy band Gen­er­a­tions. The scan­dal, again re­ported by Shūkan Bun­shun, caused AKB48 pro­ducer Ya­sushi Aki­moto to de­mote Minegishi to “trainee” rank within the group. (Iron­i­cally, Aki­moto is mar­ried to Mamiko Takai, a former idol. The two met while Takai was a mem­ber of the 1980s idol group Onyanko Club, also pro­duced by Aki­moto. Takai re­tired upon an­nounc­ing their mar­riage.) The of­fi­cial AKB48 Youtube chan­nel also posted a video of Minegishi, her long hair shorn into a messy crew cut as a sign of con­tri­tion, sob­bing as she apol­o­gizes to her fans and pleads to be al­lowed to con­tinue as part of AKB48.

The video gen­er­ated instant con­tro­versy. In­ter­na­tional me­dia picked up the story, and fan fo­rums ex­ploded into ar­gu­ments over whether or not AKB48’S man­age­ment had over­re­acted to the in­ci­dent. Many fans felt that Minegishi was at fault for vi­o­lat­ing her con­tract, vow­ing that they would no longer sup­port her. How­ever, she was re­in­stated as a full mem­ber of AKB48 later that year.

De­mands on idols to ap­pear “ac­ces­si­ble” and “at­tain­able” cul­ti­vate a sense of en­ti­tle­ment in fans that re­in­forces the use of chastity clauses de­spite the Tokyo District Court’s

2016 judg­ment that such terms are un­con­sti­tu­tional. Men in fan fo­rums (some of whom are sig­nif­i­cantly older than the ob­jects of their de­vo­tion) fre­quently state that they would not sup­port idols with whom they didn’t think they had some “chance.” The en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try de­pends on the vast amounts of money these men spend on lot­tery tick­ets for meet and greets, mul­ti­ple press­ings of cds, photo books, and other mer­chan­dise. While the idol con­tracts for­bid them to date fans, these men nurse the hope that they can be the ex­cep­tion to the rule. They re­act to any threat to this fan­tasy with ex­treme hos­til­ity, ac­cus­ing idols caught dat­ing of “cheat­ing on their fans” and “be­tray­ing” them.

This hos­til­ity goes be­yond nasty com­ments on the in­ter­net. In 2014, a man at­tacked Anna Iriyama and Rina Kawaei of AKB48 and a staff mem­ber with a hand­saw at a meet and greet, lead­ing to in­creased se­cu­rity mea­sures


at fu­ture events. In 2016, a fan-turned-stalker flew into a rage and at­tacked Mayu Tomita of the group Se­cret Girls af­ter her agency re­turned a gift he had mailed to her. The mul­ti­ple stab wounds she in­curred left her with vi­sion prob­lems and dif­fi­cul­ties speak­ing, bring­ing her ca­reer to a pre­ma­ture end.

Due to the man­u­fac­tured na­ture of idols, their im­age of ac­ces­si­bil­ity may do more harm than good. Fans are of­ten un­able to re­spect bound­aries be­tween an idol’s pub­lic char­ac­ter and pri­vate life, be­liev­ing that their sup­port of the former en­ti­tles them to the lat­ter. Idols are re­duced from per­son to ob­ject, and at­tempts to as­sert their per­son­hood fre­quently pro­voke in­tense back­lash. The myth that an idol is uni­ver­sally beloved can only hold true as long as she can jug­gle chastity with an il­lu­sion of ap­proach­a­bil­ity— an im­pos­si­ble stan­dard at best.

Be­low: Morn­ing Musume ‘17

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