On Tuesday night the BBC aired a one-hour documentary based on the life of Tokyo-based ‘idol’ Rio Hiiragi, and her legions of ‘brothers’ who will seemingly stop at nothing to follow her, attend her concerts, and buy her merchandise. ‘Tokyo Girls’ attempts to offer an insight into the life of an idol, and the superfans known as otaku, but completely misses the mark in capturing a social phenomenon which extends far beyond the idol industry.
Tokyo Girls explores the Japanese pop music industry and its focus on traditional beauty ideals, confronting the nature of gender power dynamics at work.
No, this documentary is not an exploration of the Japanese pop music industry. To merge the notion of the idol genre with pop in contemporary culture is a grave generalisation to make considering the two are now so different. Times have changed since the end of the Lost Decade, where there was a much finer line between ‘idols’ and ‘artists’. Nowadays in the era of AKB48, Momoiro Clover Z, and solo idols such as Rio herself, the ways in which they are marketed, and constructed to appeal to their audience have certainly changed. However, it is not the idol industry which has instigated the alarming presence of grown men such as Koji, 43, who have given up on their jobs and dreams to devote themselves to their obsession with young women, ranging from early teens to mid-twenties. Rather, it is the nature of the very society which has bred the otaku culture, which spans beyond idols into other traditionally ‘geek’ interests such as video games, anime, and manga.
The documentary aims to offer an insight into the idol-otaku relationship, but Rio’s involvement largely serves to create a grim backdrop to what becomes a disturbing glimpse at the extremities of otaku men. I say ‘men’ because there is absolutely zero focus on otaku women, which is an entirely different story left out in order to pursue the documentary’s precise purpose: to shock a Western audience who are naive to the realities of both idols and otaku.
And judging by the subsequent reaction, the documentary achieved its aim:
One commentator posed that otaku culture is now more accepted, and gradually becoming mainstream, yet I cannot agree. We as an audience are not positioned to accept these men. An interview with student Naoyamumu is conducted in a darkened room under harsh lighting, where the camera nervously jitters around his face in an extreme close-up shot.
It is evident that the audience are not only being made to view these men as representative of the entire otaku population, but also as the epitome of the typical idol fan.
Even now in 2017, being an otaku is still not accepted, and it certainly isn’t mainstream. It is instead recognised as a fast growing subculture.
As such, my biggest problem with this documentary is its blurring of idols and otaku. By blending the two narratives of Rio and her fans, we take a grim view of the idol industry alongside otaku culture, when in reality, and despite their interactions, the two are entirely different phenomena.
But what has instigated the recent rapid rise of this subculture? Cultural commentator Akio Nakamori describes how the bursting of Japan’s ‘bubble economy’ in the 1990s evoked a large cultural response, reflected in the low national mood. In a rigid society with little room to vent one’s problems amongst the economic slump, we are once again seeing similar attitudes today, and what do people do when they cannot look forward? They reminisce on better days, they escape. This is not just seen in viewing a younger self and feeling like a kid again in idols, but in immersing oneself with childhood interests, such as anime, manga, and video games. In more mainstream terms, it is evident we are living in a worldwide society which almost worships popular music from the 60s, 70s, 80s, and now 90s. Essentially we are in a time when anyone who is grown up enough to look back will do so, and see it as a means of escaping our gloomy reality.
Nakamori examines a very relevant and valid topic in the correlation between the state of the economy and the national mood. However he then goes on to make a strange point in stating while the UK invented the Sex Pistols, Japan invented the idol. This is the precise problem, because the concept of an idol in this scenario has been constructed purely to reinforce the creepy old men narrative which is just a whisker away from leaning into what we know as paedophilia.
Idols are nothing new, they have been around since the early 1970s, and show no signs of fading from their place in the entertainment industry anytime soon.
Yet it is frustrating to think that for the many who watched this documentary, it was their first insight into the idol industry, and will thus come away with a hugely negative impression. If this was your first insight into the idol industry, then you can be forgiven for thinking they mainly consist of pre-pubescent teenage girls, singing energetic pop songs to appeal to their audience of grown men with limited social skills, stalker-ish tendencies, and borderline predatory behaviour. The presentation of Rio as an innocent and young-looking girl leads you to think of her as vulnerable, particularly when she works on her own, and is often supported by her parents. We feel pity when she breaks down thinking about the opportunities to be a voice-actor and sing the opening to an anime which were taken away from her. Yet at 22 she is legally a fully-grown woman, and the highs and lows she has experienced are part-and-parcel with any entertainment industry across the world.
I will therefore devote the following section into offering a greater insight into what exactly defines an idol, and attempt to distance the notion from the otaku subculture which has manifested itself into the industry. Following this, I shall then examine further the dynamics within the fascinating rise of the otaku, and portray a more complete representation of the subculture, contrary to what we have seen on Tokyo Girls.
Idols like Rio are talented in ways unbeknown to a Western audience. While in the West a celebrity may specialise in one or two areas of the entertainment industry, a Japanese celebrity has a presence in a vast array of roles as a media personality. These roles can range from pop singers, panelists on variety programmes, actors, magazine models, and advertisements. At its most basic level, while in the West a text creates publicity for the entertainer, in the East the entertainer creates publicity for the text. Idols have become huge money-makers in recent times, endorsing almost any product you can think of. The wide-scale convergence in Japanese mainstream media means the big idol groups such as AKB48 and Morning Musume are known and supported by a mass audience as well as their niche audiences, which as you can guess, the latter is what got all of the attention in Tokyo Girls. Note the mentioning of ‘groups’, as soloists such as Rio are a minority compared to the dominance of groups who operate under umbrella record labels such as AKS Co., Hello! Project, Avex, and Johnny & Associates.
Up until this point we have only discussed female idols, and it may surprise many that male idols hold equal footing in the industry, having dominated the 1990s and 2000s through boybands such as SMAP and Arashi. SMAP are a particularly prominent example, once known as ‘the eternal idols’, having formed in 1988 and only recently disbanded at the end of 2016. By the time the five members split up, they had already aged into their 40s, but were considered a national treasure, with famous songs such as ‘The One and Only Flower in the World’ holding such a profound legacy that it is taught in elementary school textbooks.
The term ‘national idols’ was used once in the documentary, but rather clumsily. The term is typically only used when a song generates such a public reaction that it becomes a social phenomenon, thus launching the group into widespread acclaim. We have seen this in SMAP’s example, but it is also profoundly present in Nakamori’s explanation mentioned previously. In 1999, at the peak of the low national mood, Morning Musume’s single ‘Love Machine’ had an explosive impact with its uplifting lyrics and catchy dance that generated optimism that life would improve in the new millennium. Four years ago, we saw almost the exact same occurrence with AKB48’s ‘Koisuru Fortune Cookie’. Once again, relevant, meaningful lyrics and a catchy dance routine go a long way in creating a national buzz.
You either love or loathe idols, they’re pushed into the faces of Japanese people just like chart music is forced through our ears in the West. As such, too much exposure can have potentially deleterious effects, and no doubt since the arrival of AKB48 has the market become saturated. To say the idol industry is ‘booming’ today is a complex statement. Yes, it continues to make serious money, but it is beginning to slip away from mainstream attention, and just like the early 1990s, we could be heading for another ‘idol ice-age’, where there is a distinct absence of idols on mainstream television and radio.
The sad reality for idols like Rio is that they face an even steeper climb to achieve their ambitions by advancing beyond the idol image and becoming a fully-fledged singer. In the early 2000s, the outright popularity of Morning Musume meant that once members left the group, they would go on to enjoy established solo careers, and continue to thrive as celebrities. However, ever since AKB48 changed the shape of the industry with their roster of over 300 members, the market is now more fiercely competitive than ever. More worryingly, the management team of AKB48 and its sister groups have moved towards prioritising an image which appeals to fans’ sexual interests rather than maintaining quality music, and producing performers with lively, and real personalities. Because of this, if you compare performers from now to twenty years ago, the differences are profound. To put it explicitly, there is currently little vocal talent in the idol industry, and most performers who leave their groups are quickly forgotten from the hectic and unforgiving world of mainstream media.
While the idol industry may be on the decline in the eyes of the public, it is the more devoted fans who ensure the groups continue to thrive. In a world where social liberalisation is on the rise, we are seeing now a broad influx of new types of fans. This article from Wota in Translation describes the recent increase in teenage girls attending Hello! Project concerts, and just to confirm that idol obsession isn’t a male-led phenomenon, take a look at this picture from a live SMAP performance:
I hope by this point you are beginning to see the clear similarities between East and West. We already knew what idols were a long time ago, because they exist all over the world just without the ‘idol’ tag. Pre-pubescent teenagers with the opposite sex obsessing over them? Justin Bieber, One Direction spring to mind, even Take That could be considered a parallel to SMAP from their beginnings as mischievous teenagers to fully-grown men. Idols exist here in the West, it’s just they are more prominent on the male side, with fans’ obsessions more recognised on the female side.
In this sense, I am attempting to normalise the previously alienated topic of idols, but then again, it is perfectly valid for someone to come and point out that it would not be considered ‘normal’ for grown men to harbour obsessions over the Spice Girls, Girls Aloud, or any other girl group (at a bit of a stretch here). This difference is made more profound when we account for the low presence of female performers under the age of 18 in mainstream Western media. This is where the differences begin to really settle in, and now I will attempt to analyse why the otaku subculture is growing, and manifesting itself heavily in media industries such as television and music.
There are a number of factors responsible for this rise, not just the obsession with young girls that the documentary places an emphasis on. While there are in reality a minority who have genuine sexual impulses for young idols, I believe Japan’s obsession with youth is often misunderstood. As mentioned in the documentary, Japanese people are said to have a very low sense of self-worth; combine this with notable statistics such as the high suicide rates and rising NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) figures, and we understand that in such a strict, conformist society, many Japanese people harbour a harmful sense of rejection, both internally and externally. In the depiction of idols as bright and energetic superstars, fans see a work-ethic and determination they wish they had within themselves. Fans often become obsessed with one particular idol, and take pleasure in watching them grow from pre-pubescent child to fully grown adult. There are many gratifications to this, such as pride from an idol’s maturity, and control from a sense of having supported and protected them from a young age. One fan said meeting his favourite idol was like looking in the mirror- the performers they look up to and support are quite literally ‘idols’, except tragically, they’re a version of themselves they know they can never reach.
Having mentioned our backward-facing culture earlier, I would like to mention that the obsession with idols offers just one source of the gratifications that otaku often seek. This is an area in which I believe the documentary does an excellent job of portraying on the male side. ‘These men never try to hold hands with regular women. They think they should be loved and accepted without making any effort’. Instant acceptance without risk- in any society this is rare, let alone Japan. With tumbling marriage rates, and with hikikomori cases- instances where people outright withdraw from society- on the rise it appears the world of idols is an easy escape for those seeking comfort and acceptance without the confidence or social skills to cope in normal society. This is a major problem faced in Japanese society today, and with little measures taken to ensure people can integrate into the real world, many are rejecting it for the haven of the virtual world. Escapism from video games, anime, and manga has thus become just as prominent as a coping mechanism for the strikingly large numbers of those who feel that cannot meet the demands of Japan’s highly pressurised society.
It’s a fascinating, but sad development in Japan which really deserves its own focus rather than the antagonising presentation on Tokyo Girls. An otaku is of course a very broad term, and while it can denote those who simply have keen interests, there are also many who do need genuine help to prevent them from withdrawing or worse, resorting to taking their own lives out of shame for struggling to cope. These people need help, not more shame. With seemingly no help available to restart their damaged lives, can you really blame them for thinking themselves good by supporting a young idol’s career through attending their concerts and buying their merchandise? Yet having watched that documentary, our sympathies lie only with the idols struggling to leave their mark in the entertainment industry. This is why I believe it was wrong to merge the two narratives- both are undergoing their own struggles, but we shouldn’t demonise one to raise empathy for the other.
Idols and their fans will always be two different stories, both with their own problems that need addressing. While Tokyo Girls was an interesting viewing, I believe it only offered a narrow insight into two discourses which face their own separate issues. While the grown men who obsess over young girls are ultimately what serve to disturb the documentary’s audience the most, I would argue that the real danger to the young idols today is the extent their management will go to ensure they generate money. With relentlessly tiring work schedules, unrealistic beauty standards, and the pressure to achieve sales by any means possible in a ruthlessly competitive market, it appears the real threat to the Tokyo Girls lies not in front of the stage, but behind it.