J-Month: J-pop Idols and their Fandom

[Note: The following is part of a university assignment that was constructed around the Fieldwork trip I took to Japan. Even though part of the assignment brief was that it could take the form of a blog, it was still to be constructed academically. As such, this following piece is a little different to the typical 1Up Culture article, both in length and style. I hope you can still find it enjoyable, and for what it’s worth, it comes with more pictures and video! Enjoy]

In the modern pop culture spectrum it is not uncommon to come across Japanese or Japanese inspired media, and now more than ever with the internet providing fans all over the world with avenues to consume and engage with their media of choice consumers are no longer bound by what industry executives think the masses will enjoy. But while some media spreads across the world, others continue to build their niche within their home countries. While Asian music has spread further than ever before in recent years, the J-pop scene and specifically the idol genre, has rarely spread to the west. In travelling to Tokyo, I wanted to look into the kind of media spread and fandom the idol scene promotes, not just from its big name acts like AKB48, but from the lesser known groups as well. During the trip, I was able to engage with not just the live scene, but also come across other areas of media exposure such as transmedia influence and merchandise. The focus of this research will be directed on girl idol groups. While there are male examples of the genre, the live shows I was able to attend were all female-based, and so the first hand experience would be too heavily skewed in that direction if I were to try to analyse both aspects of the idol genre.

During a previous trip to Tokyo I had come across a mall performance at the Ikebukuro Sunshine City Plaza. While I had a growing interest in Korean pop music (K-pop) at the time which had also introduced me to some J-pop, I had little knowledge of the genre and its fan demographic. Seeing LinQ perform was an eye opening experience. Going in I had assumed that the target demographic for J-pop resembled western pop markets, where the audience is mostly teenaged girls. While the performance was in a public space where anyone could stop and watch, there was a very clear gender imbalance in the crowd. A large majority of the audience were adult men, and this gap was even more noticeable among those I perceived to be dedicated fans who either clearly knew the songs or were standing in a cordoned off V.I.P-like section.

The audience was not what I expected at all. Not just was the gender dynamic a surprise, but watching the crowd perform dance moves and chant along with the songs made for an entertaining but confusing experience. They were learned actions that labelled their fandom but also allowed for them to participate with the show. The experience of seeing LinQ perform ended up being one of the main stories I would tell to friends who asked about the trip when I returned.

When the oppourtunity arose to return to Tokyo, I knew I wanted to try to attend a show or two while I was over there. Part of it was because of a natural interest in music, but beyond that I wanted to see if my experience seeing LinQ was unique or if it represented idol shows in general. I did not expect to see a similar mall appearance, but I was able to, alongside another student who was interested in the topic, find a couple of shows that seemed relevant to our research but also genuinely interesting.

Both shows were held at The Loft, a music venue that seemed to hold a wide variety of gigs with the visual aesthetic of a typically western rock venue. The Tuesday night show was Necronomidol, an idol group who seemed to resemble BabyMetal, describing themselves as an “Ultradark Tokyo-based Idol unit” who played ambient death metal (Necronomidol official website). The following night was ‘Idol File Night Vol.1’ which appeared to be a collection of different idol groups. I did not know what to expect from either night, but it would provide an area of analysis and comparison to my previous experience.

Throughout the course of the week and a half I spent in Japan as part of the fieldwork trip I was able to interact with even more of the idol scene than I previously expected. On top of the two shows I had marked as points of interest, there were two additional performances I was able to take in. The first occurred on the first day, when we were exploring Odaiba, situated in Tokyo Bay. Outside the Gundam Statue, Tower Records sponsored a live performance by the idol group アップアップガールズ(), or Up Up Girls (Kari). The second additional performance was in the same location I saw LinQ, at Sunshine City. While spending time in the indoor complex to escape the rain, I found a poster advertising a performance by Rev. from DVL. On top of these four shows, I also came across examples of cross-promotional advertising and merchandising that aided in accessing their media impact. All four shows, as well as my interaction with other aspects of the Idol medium during my trip, helped to inform my understanding on the product.

Up Up Girls presented a similar format to the LinQ performance I had seen the previous year. It too was a public performance where both fans and non-fans could listen to and potentially engage with the product. It also featured a separate roped off section, although this was noticeably bigger and better resembled a mosh pit. The first thing that caught my eye was that many in the audience were wearing coloured shirts. While it might seem like insignificant that some audience members were wearing red shirts, it became apparent that the shirt colours seemed to correspond with specific members of the group. When a specific singer would begin a solo part of the song, members wearing a certain colour would become more active. They would jump higher, sing louder and generally make themselves more noticeable. This would change between singers, and it was soon clear that the colours represented their favourite member of the group. One audience member even had a shirt with two colours, red and mauve, that was split down the middle.

Further research once I returned revealed that this was the case. Each idol member in Up Up Girls has a specific colour assigned to them. Some even had the name of the idol on their shirt. I made note of the name Sengoku Minami on the back of a red shirt, who turned out to be the leader of the group. This is not a concept unique to the band. Many other idol groups assign colours to each of their members. The regularity of this concept is highlighted by the fan run Hello! Project Wiki, which specifies that “In early June [2011], each member was finally assigned an image color”. The choice of ‘finally’ suggests that this is almost an expected part of the Idol band build. This type of colour coding can be seen in the live Momorio Clover Z performance below, especially when the camera shows the crowd while one idol member is front and centre. In the case of Momorio Clover Z, the colours act as a continuation to the Super Sentai/Power Rangers motif the band utilises.

The devotion and push of singular members within the group is a major part of many idol bands. Not only are fans encouraged to choose their favourite member and show them support, it becomes instrumental to the idol’s success. In certain groups like AKB48, which has so many members that it is split up onto sub-groups, building fan engagement is important in regards to their own standing in the group. Voting and general elections decide which idols will lead the band and the sub-groups, and that same voting concept can decide if an idol member earns a coveted spot in the band’s next music video and centre placement in dance routines, which will in turn gain them more exposure and popularity (Matsutani 2013). This year’s winner, Sashihara Rino, earned more than 194 000 votes (AKB48 Wrap Up, 2015)to lead all the other members of AKB48 and the various sister groups like HKT48, which is Rino’s group. There is also the sale and marketing of idol specific photo cards, books and dvds which allows a fan to further engage with the specific member.

Attending the Up Up Girls show with no prior knowledge of the group, it was clear early on that the idols represented by the red (Minami) and green (Mori Saki) had the most fans at this particular event. Fans were far more active than what I had seen at the LinQ gig the previous year, and there were clear examples of the fans passion being directed to specific members of the group. Often the idols would acknowledge this kind of response, directing a finger point towards them during parts of the routine that allowed for it which only seemed to further inspire them. This kind of behaviour is nothing new to music. Pop, rock and metal concerts alike often feature an element of fan to artist interaction during the performance. What made this passion more noticeable was the context, where men in their thirties and up were acting this way towards significantly younger girls (the ages of the group vary between 24 and 17). This seemed to be a barrier for several in our group who were watching, who were experiencing the dynamics of an idol performance for the first time. Outside of the core audience who were participating in the performance from inside the roped off area, several groups passing by seemed confused by the dynamics as well.

The second show featured many key differences to the Odaiba performance. Necronomidol performed in their second ever solo show at the Loft in Shinjuku. While Up Up Girls performed the kind of bubblegum pop you might expect from the typical idol group, Neconromidol’s sound was completely different, and they were also performing to paying attendees as opposed to anyone who would walk past. Being held in a dedicated music venue with stage decoration also helped to make it feel more theatrical. In spite of the differences, it did help to further define some aspects of idol fandom. Like the Up Up Girls performance, there were clearly defined moments in songs where the fans were expecting and encouraged to participate. In the video below (which is footage from the actual show we attended) there are points in the song where the fans are clearly encouraged to mimic the dance moves performed by the artists, but also where the crowd chant without the aid of the artists.

It is a pre-defined point and it happened in several of the songs. It is something that separates the dedicated fan to the more casual listener, and it is clear that at points where the crowd joins up to move forward and backwards that some in the crowd were not familiar with that fan participation. Stevens describes the fans who engage in this kind of participation as ‘exuberant creators’, adding to the performance with their choreography and vocals (2010), and this engagement adds to the fan experience of the event, as well as a connection with the group that they feel they can contribute to the show.

The post show of both this event and the Up Up Girls event shed light on another aspect of idol fandom. After both performances there was time set asides to paid interactions with the band. In the case of Up Up Girls, there was a handshake event, where fans lined up to shake the hands of each idol in succession. During the handshake some words would be exchanged, and the handshakes themselves could last for up to eight seconds at a time, as opposed to the typical handshake that might last for a second or two. In the case of Necronomidol, instead of a handshake event, fans could line up to pose with the band in a coffin and receive a polaroid photo. It was another example of how while Necronomidol is still heavily influenced by idol pop concepts, it is adapting those concepts to fall in line with the dark tones of the group’s style. There were variations of this kind of event at each of the four shows I witnessed on the trip.

The third show, Idol File Night Vol.1, also at the Loft, presented a very different atmosphere compared to the previous two shows. This was a collection of idol groups at varying levels of experience. The average age of some of the performers was also noticeably younger than the shows I had previously encountered, and it gave the group an insight into the early stages of an idol career once they had graduated past the training stage. While the previous shows had dedicated fans that could energise the performance, as well as participate in the chants and dancing, some of these groups did not have that established relationships with fans. Due to the nature of the event, some fans would leave after their preferred group’s performance in order to interact with said group, so the amount of people actually watching the performances fluctuated throughout the night.

The tone of the show did change as the night went on, but it is hard to assess it in relation to the typical idol show. Several members of our group filled the empty space in front of the stage during 三好爽/Sawa Miyoshi’s performance and danced along. This continued with the groups that followed, and the rest of the crowd embraced the enthusiasm culminating in a very active crowd during the final performance by おやすみホログラム/Night Hologram. It is hard to know to what end this affected how the rest of the show played out. Night Hologram’s fans had the same insider knowledge represented in the previous two shows to know when to chant and when to perform specific moves, but the interactions with us gaijin tourists definitely affected the show to an extent. This was not a one off type of show, in fact they were running Vol.2 the very next night, and it is difficult to analyse the latter half of the show without having experiences at other similar events to compare it to.

The fourth show acted as a reflection of the LinQ show I saw the previous year. Held at the same location, the Rev. from DVL performance followed a similar format. There was a small cordoned off section for specific fans, while both hardcore fans and non-fans watched from the several levels overlooking the performance area. One aspect of the public performances that was of particular note was that photography of the event was banned. Signs were posted warning against recording the event and there were people patrolling both events who would stop people from doing so. This was not a case at the Loft performances, or if it was it was not enforced. While I was not surprised by this as I had the same experience at the LinQ show, it seemed counter to western trends where fans capturing their experience would go onto social media and provide further exposure. It would seem that these restrictions tie into the tightly controlled image of the band that provides the foundation for their structure.

The groups are all carefully marketed, and they are specifically designed in order to appeal to the target demographic. The cute, ‘kawaii’ image that many of the idol groups foster is intentional and designed to attract and engage their target market. One of the performers at the Idol File Night was月乃あかり(Tsuki Akari). She described herself as a DIY idol who had been researching the idol genre for some time. Her performance attire, which was heavily influenced by kawaii with a frilly skirt and white/pastel pink colours, had been chosen after studying trends and popular themes in the idol industry. The marketing of these idols as kawaii is selling idealised feminine traits, but according to Ito (2008), this concept breaches traditional gender distinctions and becomes something that can be adopted and emulated by all. The men who consume the idol media are engaging with this concept of kawaii. It employs the typically kawaii traits of sweetness, cuteness and innocence through both their physical appearance but how they act and perform (Kinsella, 1995)

If this image is broken, it can adversely affect the idol’s position within the group. In 2013, AKB48 member Minami Minegishi was captured by tabloid photographers leaving the apartment of her boyfriend, breaking one of the rules within the AKB48 group that forbids dating. This rule is common among other groups in the genre which are designed to keep up the pure and innocent image, and exists along other boundaries like no smoking. In the days after being caught she shaved her head, an act in Japanese culture that can either signify a new start of a way of apologising and begging for forgiveness (Martin, 2013). It is not the first time a member of the group has been caught in this situation, but the video of her apology went viral, bringing with it a lot of attention from outside the usual interested parties, and gave the rest of the world an insight into the stress and restrictions that are set to promote the ideal image.

The interaction with the medium extended beyond the live shows. During the week and a half I was in Japan, the 7/11 convenience store chain was running a promotional event built around the Nogizaka46, a group designed to compete with AKB48. The band’s image was displayed throughout the stores, and while consuming through the store would open up possible band related rewards like posters, they would also be selling food with the faces of some of the members on the packaging. The promotion was part of a collaboration with the chain store which would be selling exclusive versions of the band’s newest single “Taiyo Knock” (AKBzine, 2015). It also featured an appearance by the group in one of the 7/11 stores, wearing the store uniform and serving the customers.

Like AKB48 and the many spin-off groups that have grown from it, Nogizaka46 is constructed around the ‘Idol you can meet’ philosophy that encourages fan connection and interaction (press release, 2009). This is achieved by the idol groups through marketing promotions such as the one described above, the many handshake events that occur or for some through the daily live performances at dedicated theatres. The most famous of these theatres is the AKB48 theatre, situated in Akihabara, their namesake and where the group was created.

Situated on the 8th floor of Don Quijote, the theatre is a small and intimate stage where different sub-groups of the band perform daily. Because of the group’s popularity and the size of the theatre, attaining tickets is notoriously difficult, especially when more popular sub-groups are set to perform. Such theatres have been designed for other sister groups across the country, like the HKT48 theatre in Fukuoka, further encouraging their regional influence of each idol group.

It is unfortunate I was not able to attend one of the theatre performances to provide another insight into the idol scene in Japan, but their presence and popularity serve as examples of the idol process at work. They are concrete locations where fans can go to interact and engage with their favourite idols, rather than relying on touring schedules that cross wards and districts. It is the group’s home, and the fans are invited to visit them there. Considering this alongside handshake events, the strategy to build connections between fan and idol is clear. One Direction fans in the west have to rely on sporadic appearances to feel a personal connection to their favourite performer, but these idol bands foster a more accessible image. This, matched alongside the kawaii image, makes it easy for fans to feel a connection.

This strategy is not for every idol group. The kind of preparation to run daily shows requires a far larger group than what most idol groups can offer. But there are elements presented in these largest outfits that can be correlated back to the smaller groups. These idol groups still foster the personal connections between fan and artist, and simple shorthand such as shirt colours go a long way in creating that identification. It allows an idol to pick out one of her fans among the group and make an effort to create eye contact with that fan, or to offer them a wave in between songs.

I did not expect to be able to, but I can speak personally on that kind of connection. While much of the Night Hologram performance was hard to analyse because of the unusual circumstances created around our group’s involvement, there was a moment where I was lifted up by several of the men in the crowd and brought to the front of the stage where the two idols were performing. For a period of about twenty to thirty seconds I was face to face with one of the idols, who spent that part of the song looking at me and pointing to me. While I and the rest of our group were clearly foreigners who they recognised knew little to nothing about the group, there was a clear attempt to forge a connection, and in all truth it worked. While the circumstances again may be unusual, there is something profound to be the object of attention, even momentarily, by an artist who is performing. It is seen in shows around the world, but there is a particular focus in these idol groups, through the handshake events and the fostering of the fandom, that can take a moment like that beyond just the feeling of ‘he/she noticed me!’ and to something deeper, and it can be achieved through the kind of constant exposure that many idol bands receive.

It is difficult to try and conclude anything concrete with only a week and a half in Japan, especially when you factor in the language barrier. During that time, and with research done after the trip, many of the things that seemed odd to me at that first LinQ gig have been clarified after being able to engage further with the media and doing so with a more grounded knowledge base. Witnessing idol bands at varying stages of development provided an insight that is next to impossible to achieve without being there, and helps to frame where AKB48 came from. Their first show in the AKB48 theatre in 2005 drew only seven audience members (AKB official website), and now their group is a pillar of not only Akihabara but Japanese popular culture. The scene is also developing, while the bubblegum pop musical style is still dominant, there are more and more groups trying something unique. While BabyMetal has earned worldwide publicity after their videos went viral, groups like Necronomidol are following in their footsteps, blending idol concepts with other genres and becoming their own niche. Momorio Clover Z started out as a typical idol group that struggled to earn recognition. By stepping out of the constraints and trying something unique, they are now performing alongside KISS and are regarded as one of the most popular groups in Japan.

These idol groups are constructed from the ground up in order to appeal to the potential fanbase, from the way they dress and act to the avenues for interaction. While you might be one in a thousand of people lined up at an AKB48 handshake event, the personal connections felt towards the group continues to encourage the fandom. It is a subculture, but the media influence idols have can be noticed by billboards and products around Tokyo and beyond. It is a fandom that has remained mostly within the Asian boundaries however. AKB48 have appeared and performed in the U.S, but their true impact has not matched more organic discoveries like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu or BabyMetal, or the Korean wave that has introduced the world to K-pop. The idol fandom relies on the ability to engage and interact with the groups, and while people still may enjoy the idea or the music these idol bands produce, that kind of fanatical responses we witnessed while on this trip may be nearly impossible to create without that constant connection and engagement that is offered by their proximity.

References:

AKB Official website, AKB48 theatre

http://www.akb48.co.jp/theater/

AKB48 Wrap Up (2015). Final Results of AKB48 41st Single General Election 2015

http://www.akb48wrapup.com/2015/06/final-results-of-akb48-41st-single-general-election-senbatsu-souseknyo-2015/

Hello! Project Wiki, Up Up Girls (Kari).

http://helloproject.wikia.com/wiki/Up_Up_Girls_(Kari)

Ito, M (2008). ‘Gender Dynamics of the Japanese Media Mix’, in Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming, MIT, Cambridge, pp. 97-110.

Kinsella, S. (1995). ‘Cuties in Japan’. In L. Skov and B. Moeran (eds.), Women, Media, and Consumption in Japan (pp. 220-254), Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Martin, Ian (2013). AKB48 Member’s ‘Penance’ Shows Flaws in Idol Culture, The Japan Times

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2013/02/01/music/akb48-members-penance-shows-flaws-in-idol-culture/#.VaJIkvmqqko

Matsutani, Minoru (2013). Voting for Idols is Bigger Than Politics, The Japan Times

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2013/07/01/language/voting-for-idols-is-bigger-than-politics/#.VaH9_Pmqqkp

Necronomidol official website.

http://necronomidol.com/

Press release (2009). ‘Japanese Idol Group AKB48 to Perform at MIPCOM, 28/07/09. Reuters.com.

http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/07/28/idUS219130+28-Jul-2009+BW20090728

Reika (2015). Nogizaka46 & 7-11 Collaboration Single. AKBzine.com

http://akbzine.com/2015/06/16/nogizaka46-7-11-collaboration-single/

Stevens, C (2010). You Are What You Buy: Postmodern Consumption and Fandom of Japanese Popular Culture. Japanese Studies, 30(2), pp.199–214

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