Regardless of where you are, the type of music is the same all over the world. For instance, when someone says, “This is a metal rock band.” you know exactly what kind of music they perform. When there is a CD sold in the “Jazz” section, it doesn’t matter if the artist is from Japan or Canada, you can imagine what it will sound like.
Most of the time, that is.
When someone says “I have a CD by a famous idol from Japan”, can you imagine what he or she looks like or sounds like? “Idol” is not actually a type of music; it describes a certain type of person who is famous and admired by many people.
Male idols in Japan
So what is an “idol”? The word “idol” actually means “an image or representation of a god used for people to worship”. It also has another meaning, which is “a person or thing that are greatly admired.”
In Japan, a male idol is usually a person or a person in a group who mainly sings and performs. This sounds like any ordinary musicians but they are different. Similarly to typical musicians, idols record their songs and sell them as CDs or DVDs. They also perform on TV or live in front of their fans. What’s different is that people see an “image” rather than the music.
Male idols in Japan traditionally belong to talent agencies. They create certain images for the idols by giving them songs that are specially selected to suit the image of the idol to maximize the sales potential. Their appearances are also carefully planned and chosen to give audiences the best impression possible.
Their activities are not constricted to music. They are also given training in singing as well as dancing and acting even before they begin their career as an idol, usually by their agency. When they debut, they release CDs, DVDs, and tour around the country, performing and meeting fans. They appear on TV frequently, too, on talk shows, in soap operas, sometimes even on political chat shows. It is said that 50% to 70% of the TV commercial in Japan have idols in them.
The male idol industry is dominated by the “Johnny & Associates” talent agency since the 80s and 90s. They train aspiring young boys and turn them into multi-talented idols.
One of their biggest groups was SMAP, who sadly split up in 2016, due to some internal disagreement within the agency. They were the leading idol group for more than two decades and were regarded as “national idols” in Japan. When their break up was announced, TV stations interrupted their Olympic broadcasts to report the news. It was also picked up by newspapers all over the world.
How Famous are Idols in Japan? Who are the Fans?
Big male idols are household names in Japan. Even if you have no idea whatsoever about what goes on in the pop culture or on the music scene, the chances are that you have seen these faces on billboards, on posters on trains or on the TV.
They appear on TV regularly, on chat shows as guests, on their own TV programs or in soap operas, so they have plenty of exposure to various types of viewers from different age groups.
Some of the groups have been in the limelight for over decade or two (or more). People who were teenagers when they first became fans have grown up with their idols. They are still as devoted as they always have been, in their middle age.
The majority of fans are female but some groups have male followers, too.
Style of Male idols in Japan
Each idol has their own image, which is different from others. Some have more a rock band image or others a sophisticated image. Others might have an urban feel to their image or might have more dancing in their performances.
However, they all have something in common; they are all very nice and pleasant. Japanese people tend to prefer orderly, polite and pleasant people. There is plenty of unpleasantness in real life, so you don’t want to go home and watch unpleasant people on TV or think about horrible things happening in the world. The idol groups provide people with somewhere they can escape, helping them to forget about dreadful things.
Most of the idols are “normal” in their looks and talent. Often they are not particularly good looking, some can’t sing or dance. This makes them feel close to ordinary people and when they watch them live or on TV, it makes them feel like they are sharing times with nice people.
Who are the Most Popular Male Idol Groups in Japan?
Here are some of the most popular male idol groups in Japan.
They are the most popular group in Japan right now.
The group belongs to Johnny & Associates and was formed in September 1999. It consists of 5 members who are: Satoshi Ohno, Sho Sakurai, Masaki Aiba, Kazunari Ninomiya, and Jun Matsumoto.
Although their debut single “A・RA・SHI” – released in November 1999 – reached the No. 1 in the charts and sold nearly a million copies, it took over 7 years before they became one of the major idol groups. The sale of subsequent singles was somewhat slow and some believe this was due to their choice of music style –a cross between pop and alternative – which was unusual for an idol group.
In February 2007, their 18th single “Love so sweet” was released. It was used as a theme song for a TV drama “Hanayori Dango 2” in which one of the group members, Jun Matsumoto, played the role of a rich schoolboy. During the first week of its release, it reached No. 1 in the chart but only sold just under 0.43 million copies. Despite the low record sales, this became a turning point in their career and their record sales started to increase. They became one of the major idol groups in Japan.
They are seen to have a better singing and dancing ability than other groups but people seem to be charmed by their “normal” image. According to their fans, they are less manufactured and individual personalities come through. They are known to get on well with each other and are seen as genuinely nice people.
On 27th January this year, after releasing 16 studio albums, 56 singles, and having performed 475 concerts over the past 19 years, they announced their decision to take a break from their professional life after the 31st December this year. The following day of the announcement, this news was broadcast on NHK – atypical as they rarely report news on pop culture.
As for the reason, they have not made it clear but some say it’s because they want to focus on their personal life. They are all in their mid to late thirties and it is possible that some are considering getting married and settling down. Others say that they are planning a much-needed rest before they resume their career refreshed and reenergized, hoping to continue their career beyond their 40s.
It is their 20th year this year and to celebrate their anniversary, they are going on “ARASHI Anniversary Tour 5×20”. It began at the end of last year and will end this December. They have announced an additional 32 performances and this will be their biggest tour yet. It will have pulled in almost 2.4 million people by the end of the tour.
Kanjani Eight (関ジャニ∞)
This once struggling group is now rapidly gaining popularity.
They are also a Johnny & Associates’ group. It consists of 6 members, You Yokoyama, Shingo Murakami, Ryuhei Maruyama, Shota Yasuda, Ryo Nishikido and Tadayoshi Okura. They are all from the Kansai region, which is famous for people who insist on delivering a punch line. (It’s also famous as a region for producing many talented comedians.) Their original name was “Kansai Jonny’s” but because it originally had 8 members, it became “Kanjani Eight”. 8 at the end became ∞ meaning “infinite”.
Their debut single “Naniwa iroha bushi” was released in August 2004. It was unusual in that the style of music was rap with “Kawachi ondo”, which is a piece of traditional folk music found in a part of Osaka. It was released in the Kansai region only and became No.1 in the “Enka and kayou” section of the chart but only reached No. 5 in the main pop chart. It sold 17.5 thousand copies and the national release followed a month later.
They had no money, no fame, and no audiences for the first few years. They struggled to fill a venue with 1000 seats for three years.
Their name started to spread in 2007. That year, their 6th single was released, which only sold just under 240 thousand copies, however, they toured every single prefecture in Japan – 47 in total, did 113 performances to 0.7 million fans – over 5 months. No idol has done this before and soon people started to talk about them.
They were still struggling to make their breakthrough, but in 2010, they changed their performing style to those of a music band. Their single “Life (Me no Mae no Mukōe)”, released that year, was their first single as a band. Previously their songs were strongly associated with the Kansai region (including reference to the region or dialect) but they decided to drop all that. It’s unusual for an idol group to play musical instruments and this unique character seems to have attracted people’s attention.
In 2015, they started to appear on TV. They were given their own programs “Kanjam kanzen nensho”, which is a music program where the group and the guest musicians performed and another program “Kanjani kuronikaru”, which is a variety show where the group members try out different challenges each episode. This made them a household name.
Some say that the reason behind the increasing popularity lays in the change of dynamics within the talent agency. After the breakup of SMAP, it is said that the internal dynamics have shifted and there is now an opportunity to push their name forward.
Their attraction seems to be that they are a little different from other male idol groups. They have experienced hardship and they do not hide their personal information (relationships, for instance), which was not allowed to be spoken of in public previously. They are also very funny and seem at ease with their various TV appearances. Also, they create their songs and play musical instruments, which is still rare for an idol group.
Their “5 Dome Tour” started in July last year at Sapporo Dome in Sapporo and they performed 14 times at 5 separate venues includes; Nagoya Dome, Kyocera Dome Osaka, Tokyo Dome, and Fukuoka Yaofuku! Dome, ending on 16th September. This was their first live performance in front of a large audience after their 7th member, Subaru Shibuya, left the group, and it pulled in over 45,000 fans over the three months.
Their new single (42nd) “Crystal” is due to be released on 6th March this year. It will be used as a theme song for a drama on Fuji TV “Toreisu (kasouken no otoko)”.
This group also belongs to Johnny & Associates and it consists of 4 members. They are Shigeru Joshima, Taichi Kokubun, Masahiro Matsuoka, and Tomoya Nagase, who are also famous as a group of farmers as well as an idol group.
Their debut and biggest selling single “LOVE YOU ONLY” was released in September 1994, selling half a million copies in the first week but only reached 3rd in the charts. It took them 7 years before they topped the charts, which is slow for a group that belongs to Johnny & Associates.
In 1995, a TV program “The Tetsuwan Dash” began as a new type of show where the group members try to become self-sufficient. They learned how to farm, milk, fish and make things and their limits were challenged. This program became synonymous with the group. Some people only know them as farmers and the group is now called “Farming idols”. This increased their reputation further to a group of people who would not have known them otherwise.
Another reason for their popularity is that they play their own musical instruments, write lyrics and music and produce their own music, so they are seen as a band. They are the only major idol group who appeared at music festivals where traditionally only musicians and artists performed. This made the group popular amongst the male population.
The group originally started with 5 members, but in 2018, Tatsuya Yamaguchi was accused of indecently assaulting an underage female. This led to him being dropped from various bits of work including TV appearances. After two months it was formally announced that the contract with the talent agency was terminated on his request.
After this incident, people feared that the group was under threat of breaking up but the 4 members are still often seen on TV and are busy with their solo activities. There is a rumor that the group will be reunited on their 25th anniversary this year and they are working on the new material.
What Challenges do Japanese Idols face?
Once heavily manufactured, male idol groups are changing. They have a stronger will to show their individuality, and more freedom to express their personality. The career span of male idol groups is getting longer and longer but in order to survive beyond their middle age, they have to give their fans more than just being present on stage and TV.
The popularity of male idol groups was once determined by the record sales and the number of TV appearances. These days, with young people using social media for information more than TV or magazines, some of the idol groups have started to use a different approach to promote themselves. One such type of groups is called “Chika idol” who perform on the street and post their schedules on social media.
The traditionally produced idol groups still dominate the industry, however, the most influential talent agency is experiencing internal struggles which lead to the break-up of the biggest idol group to in Japan. Some people see this as a turning point in the male idol industry. If this presiding figure loses its power, it will create more space for other agencies and idols to grow.
Also with some of the big groups announcing their retirement or a career break, it will be interesting to see who will take over their position.
Izzy / Japan