How to collect Japanese pop music, part three: the idols course

How to Collect Japanese Pop MusicNow, it’s on to the nitty-gritty, as we go genre to genre (or something) for the next five weeks of How to Collect Japanese Pop Music. This week, we start with a genre that, despite it not really being any different than its contemporaries, somehow stands out as being distinctly Japanese: the idol group. You know, those groups of boys or girls that one either is swooning for, or working hard to be like, or other, unfortunately more, um, awkward, things.

Let’s be honest here: idol groups are not exactly the best entry point to Japanese music. They tend to sing simple songs that are either cute or sentimental – listen to enough of them and you might leave with the impression that they’re all the same. (Like pop groups from other countries, really.) However, idol groups provide a fascinating look into Japanese society and sensibilities. Idol groups are really heavy on image: the aspirations of an entire country (or at least a particular subset of it) is in their shoulders, and making sure they remain “credible” enough to do so is a very painstaking process. It’s also worth looking at how differently things work for male idols and female idols – how the former tend to have a better shot at a long career, how the latter tend to be really “used” for their innocence, that sort of thing. This is going to get deep, I think.


Idols have been a thing in Japan since the 1960s: an early example is Momoe Yamaguchi, whose heyday in the 1970s ended abruptly when she married her on-screen partner Tomokazu Miura, and subsequently retired from showbusiness. The idol’s dominance in the 1980s was shattered when rock musicians began to get the spotlight. (We’ll have them in a couple of weeks.) However, some idol groups – mostly male ones – kept working through the 1990s, its members starting much younger than before, and the task of breaking out much harder to accomplish.

One of that era’s successes is Morning Musume, founded in 1997 by producer Tsunku after the runners-up to a televised talent search he mounted were put together. Their debut single, “Morning Coffee”, performed well in the Oricon charts, but their biggest success was their 1999 single “Love Machine”, an optimistic (albeit cheesy) pop track that remains their best seller to this day. The group has seen many changes to its line-up: an annual ritual of sorts involves auditions for new members while existing members “graduate”, either to pursue a solo career or because they’ve gotten too old to maintain the idol image. They’re not the first to do this – that honor goes to Onyanko Club, which had 52 official members throughout its mere two years in the scene, from 1985 to 1987. (And, yes, that song I just linked to is that frank – a bit of a contrast to the Japanese idol’s innocent, sexually-inexperienced image.)


Morning Musume achieved international success, but perhaps the biggest Japanese idol group is AKB48. Arguably their success is down to the sheer scale of the project: it has 48 members at one time, allowing its members to split into teams (or units, in K-pop parlance) and perform in many places at the same time. (AKB48 has inspired many sister groups in Japan, China and Indonesia – there’s even a Manila-based group on the way, supposedly.) Also, the group’s idea of “idols you can meet” – they started off as a theater-based group, after all, in contrast to other groups who did most of their work on television – was a natural endpoint of the evolution of the Japanese idol’s image, from the extremely perfect (and saccharine) 70s idol, to the more accessible 90s one.

Founded in 2005, AKB48 is one of the highest-selling acts in Japan, with their singles occupying the top of the annual Oricon charts, from the success of “Beginner” and “Heavy Rotation” in 2010. (“Kimi wa Melody”, released this March as their tenth anniversary single, was their 30th straight chart-topper. They’ve just released a new single, “High Tension”, which I actually really, really like, but it won’t hit stores until Wednesday.) There’s considerable interest in the lead-up to the group’s single releases, when elections are held to determine which of their members and trainees, across all groups, get to perform in their next single. (Either that, or rock-paper-scissors tournaments.) The huge following of some of the individual members has meant they have a successful career after graduation, like Atsuko Maeda and Yuko Oshima, the group’s prominent centers during the early part of this decade.


Idol groups typically uphold this pure image – not necessarily the “virgin” interpretation, which would go at odds with those videos of AKB48 performing in swimsuits; but rather, the idea that they are “perfect” and will work their hardest to achieve, or keep, that perception. That idea persists no matter what the outward concept is, from Momoiro Clover Z‘s anime-inspired acrobatics (the unorthodox approach makes sense, considering they were not formed by a talent agency) to Babymetal‘s really-odd-at-first fusion of idol imagery and metal riffs – or “kawaii metal”, in their words.

That juxtaposition earned Babymetal international attention: while purists scoff at the whole idea of pop metal, others appreciate the creativity of merging two disparate premises together. Formed in 2010 as a subunit of Sakura Gakuin, an idol group with a high school concept – you have a tennis club, a cooking club, and this, the “heavy metal club” – Babymetal saw their first hit with “Ijimi, Date, Zettai” in 2013, and later saw international success with the worldwide release of “Gimme Chocolate!!” The group’s success – they even collaborated with DragonForce and Judas Priest – was such that Amuse Inc., their talent agency, decided to break the rules and keep them intact despite lead vocalist Suzuka Nakamoto (aka Su-metal) supposedly graduating from Sakura Gakuin as she’s left real-life junior high. So there’s that.


There are, of course, male idol groups in Japan. Things go slightly differently for them: while members can still be booted for questionable behavior – Hey! Say! JUMP’s Ryutaro Morimoto was kicked out smoking despite being underage, for instance – male idol groups tend to stay together for longer, with its members free to pursue solo careers, usually in acting, without having to leave the group. (One exception: Tomohisa Yamashita, or Yamapi from News, left the group to go solo.) Members of the legendary group SMAP, for one, are in their early 40s, while Arashi are in their 30s – and still carrying such youthful appeal. Now I have to tread lightly: Shalla melts for Matsumoto Jun.

Arashi started strong, but went through a string of commercial disappointments at the early part of the noughties. But then came the television series Hana Yori Dango, whose theme song, “Wish”, was a huge success. (Jun was a part of that show’s cast.) The theme for that show’s sequel, “Love So Sweet”, was a bigger success, and suddenly Arashi was popular inside and outside Japan. With SMAP retiring at the end of the year, Arashi is now set to be the biggest act for Johnny & Associates, the talent agency behind some of the biggest male idols in the country. You can say they have a monopoly on Japanese boy bands, but not exactly: LDH also has several boy groups under its umbrella, formed through a continuous audition process, although a bunch of them are arguably spin-offs of Exile, the father group (so to speak) of E-girls.


All that said, there are several musical groups in Japan that don’t exactly fall under the idol category, but are here solely because they’re groups. Like, how do you categorize Kiyoshi Ryujin 25, comprised of the singer of the same name – and five ladies who are all supposedly married to him? Another exception is Perfume, a three-piece that was not formed through an audition process, but when its members met at a talent academy. Also wildly popular across Asia, the group began with some sort of Shibuya-kei sound, through their 2002 debut “Omajinai Perori” (which was distributed only in their hometown Hiroshima) before transitioning to a more otaku-leaning Akiba-kei sound when they moved to Tokyo.

Their 2007 single “Chocolate Disco” caught tastemakers’ attention, which led to the national success of “Polyrhythm”. But it took the release of “Love the World” in 2008 for the group to explode: it topped the Oricon charts (beating legendary popsters Namie Amuro and Koda Kumi) and slowly brought them to success not just in Asia, but around the world. By then Perfume’s transitioned to a more familiar synthpop sound, heavy on vocoders and nostalgia. It’s recognizable enough that, despite the clearly different language and less complicated choreography (that’s typical with Japanese idols), some will confuse this for K-pop. But then, it’s more proof, really, of how varied Japanese pop is, at least to us strangers. [NB]


[Next week: we look at Japan’s solo acts.]


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