We all have had a poster or two of a famous person we admired on our bedroom wall. Looking forward to the next live performance of your favorite band; sitting in front of the computer screen, hoping to get a ticket for a certain event; reading the review of an upcoming film with the actor you admire – we all know what it feels like. We have all been there….well, most of us.
Even if you haven’t had such experiences, the image of a young person engrossed in his or her favorite star is something familiar to us all.
Many Japanese have the same experience, but for a large number of people, the object of their admiration is an idol.
Idols are a part of Japanese pop culture, attracting many millions of people all over the country. They have a huge presence in the media so if you live in Japan, you are probably familiar with their names and faces even if you are not a fan.
Japanese idols vary enormously in characteristics. They could be female or male. They could be a teenager or in their 40s. What’s in common is that their appeal is their image, rather than what they do or how well they do it.
So what are Japanese idols like? We looked at the male idols in a separate article “Japanese Male Idols: Why are People in Love with Japanese Idols?”, which you can find here. So in this article, we’ll take a look at the female idols who are currently in the public eye, captivating many people in Japan.
How Famous are Female Idols in Japan? And Who are their Fans?
Female idols began to emerge in the 1960s just as the entertainment industry in Japan was experiencing a significant change: the decline of the film industry and the dawn of the TV era. However, the image of the archetypal idol was not created until the 1970s.
Traditionally, the majority of fans who followed female idol groups have been male. Although they attract young people, the more dedicated fans are in their 30s, 40s, and 50s who are able to afford to purchase CDs, the concert tickets and have more freedom to travel to the events held for their fans.
However, in recent years, there has been a surge of growth in the number of female fans. They are still the minority – only around 20 % of the fans – but their presence at the events and concerts have become noticeable. Some say this is due to an increase in the appearance of the idols in the area that was not associated previously with the idol industry, such as theaters and fashion magazines, where many of the audience are female.
Also, they have started to appear on children’s TV programs, releasing songs more suited to a younger audience, creating a new group of fans.
Style of Japanese Female Idols in Japan
Many of the female idol groups who dominate the industry in recent years are modeled on a female idol group called Morning Musume. They were formed as a group that “does not disband when members leave”.
Morning Musume was formed in 1997. At the time, there was a popular audition program on TV called “ASAYAN”, in which a leading music producer Tsunku judged young aspiring talents. There were five girls who went on the program but failed the audition yet they left a lasting impression amongst the viewers. As they started to gain popularity, the production company thought the girls might succeed as an idol group and Morning Musume was created. Based on the viewers’ suggestion, they decided to model themselves on a Puerto Rican based boy band called “Menudo” who was one of the biggest Latin boy bands in history and was a sensation in both South and North America in the 1980s. This group consisted of young boys who had to leave the group when they turned 16 years old. When they left they were replaced with younger members and the band carried on.
This is the biggest characteristic of Morning Musume. This has become a norm in the female idols industry but it was new to most people at the time. The group has seen the 30 members join and “graduate” over the past 20 years. The current lineup consists of 11 girls and they have a dedicated army of fans.
Who are the Most Popular Japanese Female Idol Groups in Japan?
Here are some of the more popular groups currently active in Japan:
Formed in December 2005, this group was born as a result of Yasushi Akimoto’s desire, who is a leading music producer in Japan, to create a new type of idol groups for the next generation. With its concept “idols you can meet”, they perform live on stage daily at their base theater in Akihabara, in Tokyo. Most of their fans are male in the 30s, 40s, and 50s.
Unlike other traditional idols, who receive training in singing, dancing and acting before their debut as accomplished idols, the members in AKB48 appear on stage only a month or two after they were selected at the audition. The idea is that AKB48 is like a talent school where the members who are “ordinary” girls who cannot sing or dance are trained to become professional entertainers. When a member is ready to “graduate”, she makes an announcement and performs her last show before actually leaving the group and pursuing her professional career.
The appeal of AKB48 is that the fans go through a journey with the group members, witnessing them growing from ordinary girls to fully-fledged professional talents.
The production company holds auditions to find the replacements for the graduated members. The first audition was held in October 2005. Out of 7,924 applications, only 24 were selected. The second audition in 2006 attracted 11,892 applicants, 19 of which were chosen as the members of the group. The 16th, which is the most recent audition, was held in August 2016 and 19 girls became new members.
The group is also unique in that they consist of a large number of members. The group originally consisted of 3 teams, 16 members in each team, in total 48 members. Due to its size, they rarely perform with all the members together. They often perform solo or in small groups. Originally they were more like “Chika idols”, who perform on the street and advertise their performance schedules on social media so there is not much exposure to outside of their own fan base, but as their popularity and fame grew to a national scale, they started to appear on TV. In order to decide who gets to perform on the screen, they run an “AKB general election”. They run an election campaign prior to the voting and the votes are cast only by the member of the fan club or people with a voting ticket that come with their CDs. It’s been organized every year since 2009.
These events keep fans gripped. Some fans buy a few copies of the same CD in order to obtain the ticket for the events like the general election or meet and greets.
They have released 54 singles and 9 albums in the past (not including the CDs released under an indie label). Their next single「ジワるDAYS」(Jiwaru DAYS) is due to be released at the end of March this year. This will be their 55th single.
They are constantly expanding with 6 sister groups in Japan and a further 6 outside Japan: Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, China, Taiwan (two groups), Vietnam and India.
This group formed in August 2011 as an official rival group to AKB48, as a joint project by Sony Music Entertainment and Yasushi Akimoto, who produced AKB48.
Before they became one of the nation’s idols, AKB48 belonged to one of Sony Music Entertainment’s own record labels, DefSATR Records. Since the departure of the group, the company has shown their regret losing them so this project perhaps reflects this feeling.
The project was given a code name “shadow” and it exists as a “shadow cabinet”. They are different from AKB48 but there is always an echo of their rival group in their songs, image and the way they are produced.
Similarly to AKB48, the group has a large number of members and as the name suggests it consists of 46 of them (though they have had more members in the past), which is two less than AKB48. The original members were young girls who were already active in the entertainment industry.
Unlike AKB48 who perform live daily on their own stage, their main stage is on TV. In order to decide which members go on TV, rather than holding a general election like AKB48, the members perform on a theater stage. Instead of campaigning for an election, they were given a script for a play and then practice for the big day. After the performance, the vote is cast by the audience.
The reason for choosing the theater for the selection process probably comes from their intention to create members who can act on a theater stage. During the training, the emphasis is placed on dancing for this reason.
They are also consciously differentiating their music from other idol groups by adopting French pop into their songs.
Despite all these differences, they are very similar to AKB48, even some say they are more popular than AKB48.
This seems to be because they have exposure to the wider population of Japan. You may be able to see AKB48 in person everyday but you have to travel to their theater whereas Nokizaka46 are on TV, which is watched not only by their fans but also people who might not be familiar with the group. Also, some of the members are professional models who appear in fashion magazines, which have mainly female readers.
With 8 of their members leaving the group in 2017 and 2018, people are speculating for more changes and the group is possibly facing a new phase.
Their 46th album is due to be released in April this year and they are touring the country in the Summer.
ももいろクローバーz (Momoiro Clover Z)
Momoiro Clover Z was formed in 2008 by the Stardust Promotion talent agency, by selecting members from a group of young girls who had already signed up with the agency. It was their first attempt to create an idol group and they did not have sufficient funds, resources or structure in place to promote the group. The members, who were at school at the time, had to perform on the streets in Tokyo at weekends, handing out the flyers by themselves to draw in the audiences. They continued performing this way for 2 years before their major debut. This is an unusual way to start a career in the idol industry.
They also have a different approach to selling CDs. For most idol groups, selling the maximum number of CDs comes top of their priority list as it brings in money. In order to increase CD sales, many groups employ a tactic, in which they include event tickets or freebies in the CD. They organize events, such as meet and greet, regularly. In order to attend these events, you need to bring the ticket you get with the CD. Some fans want to attend these events more than once so they buy more than one copy of the same CD. In order to meet the ticket demand, the groups have to release CDs frequently, typically every 3 months.
In order to escape the pressure to sell more CDs, Momoiro Clover Z decided to change record label. In 2010, they moved to King Record who gave the group more freedom to decide how they want to create and sell their CDs.
Since 2011, the group stopped selling CDs with event ticket or any freebies and they have only released one single a year in the past few years. This resulted in shrinking CD sales. Even though the record company has a relaxed attitude, they still have to make money somehow. So how do they do it?
Although their CDs sales are less than satisfactory for an idol group’s standard, they manage to sell more than enough tickets for their concerts to keep them making a profit and bringing in a huge crowd of people. Their fans may not be buying multiple CDs at around ¥1,000 a copy, but they are happy to spend a minimum ¥9,000 for their concert tickets. Unlike other idol groups, who are busy promoting themselves through fan events, shaking hands and signing things, Momoiro Clover Z has more time to refine their performances. This seems to show on the stage. Twice in the past, they broke the record as a female group who pulled in the biggest audiences in a year.
They also appear at various music festivals. Once they appeared at OzzFest, which was a music festival founded by Ozzy Osborne who is famous as a vocalist of the heavy metal band Black Sabbath. They also have regular live shows in Spring, Summer, and Winter.
In addition, they differentiate themselves from other female idol groups. A typical idol would be touring around the country meeting fans, promoting themselves on TV or even appearing in public wearing revealing clothes. Whereas Momoiro Clover Z is closer to a typical music band, in which their selling point is their music and their live performances.
What Challenges do Japanese Female Idols Face?
Since 2010, it is said that we are in the “Idol Sengoku Era”, with many idol groups appearing and disappearing very fast. After almost 20 years, the idol scene in Japan seems to be changing its direction. 2018 has seen the biggest change with almost 10 female idol groups announcing their split up. Over 20 members have “graduated”.
Their dedicated fans are aging so the industry needs a fresh audience.
Increasing numbers of young people are said to be distancing themselves from TV, relying more on social media or the Internet for their entertainment. If they are streaming and downloading music they like rather than buying a copy of CD from a record shop, the talent agencies, and record companies cannot rely on them for record sales.
In order to attract young people’s attention, they might need to increase the number of appearances not on TV but on social media and the Internet in general. For example, some say the reason for Nokizaka46 being more popular than AKB48 is because their music is easily accessed on YouTube.
The Japanese idol industry has gone through big change many times in the past. Perhaps we are expecting the next big transformation in the near future, with new types of idol groups and better use of technology to promote them.