Japan’s idol industry reaches a new level of danger

Being an idol in Japan is more than exploitative – it is dangerous.

Hannah Lee

Politics, Society and culture | Asia, East Asia

16 May 2018

Japan’s idol industry is lucrative for its entertainment agencies, but its teenage girls are at risk of stalking and misogynistic expectations. Hannah Lee writes.

At first glance, Japan’s young idol groups look cool, enticing and somewhat strange. They have that quirky appeal – they are a product of an enthralling pop culture, bringing over 20 million visitors to Japan each year, but underneath the polish of the choreographed dances and ridiculously cute outfits lies a dark perversion: one that is both lucrative and increasingly dangerous.

The biggest Japanese pop stars are called ‘idols’. Idols are teenage girls whose performances are in high demand. Their songs, outfits, image, dances and appearances are all tightly curated by their talent agencies.

Most fans who follow groups like AKB48 are middle-aged men. The idols themselves are teenagers, who begin performing at around 13 years old. Idols are often presented in cute school outfits and perform in synchronised groups. Whilst sexualisation of women is not limited to Japan, Japanese idol groups specifically pander to a young girl fetish, which is encouraged for the sake of record sales.

But what young girl would ever consent to this? If consent is ‘free and informed’, there is simply is no way that a girl, at 12 years old, can knowingly consent to being sexualised by men four times her age.

As a child, she cannot comprehend the nature of the idol job. As an idol, she will have to please creepy men at ‘hand-shake events’ and performances, film provocative videos and be subjected to intense media scrutiny.

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She will not be allowed to date, lest she ruin the fantasy. More worryingly, fans of idols say that the attraction lies in the idol being ‘not fully developed’ and therefore, non-threatening. These men also exert control over an idol’s success, as promotions in supergroups are decided via votes from fans. The control that fans exert over their teenage idols reinforces the widely held idea, that in Japan, to be successful, a woman should comply with male expectations.  With this norm in mind, it is little wonder Japan maintains such a deplorable gender equality ranking.

Nor will this idol be adequately paid for her exhausting work. The idol industry now is worth an estimated 800 million USD. And yet, the girls earn only salaried wages, despite being so high in and their work generating huge amounts of revenue. Shohei Sakakura argues that these conditions amount to child labour, especially when many idol groups enjoy no.1. chart positions. In contrast, 16-year old Britney Spears made $15 million following the release of…Baby One More Time.

And even then, it gets worse with their obsessive fans. Kyoko Miyake’s Tokyo Girls  followed an otaku fan and his worship of a 16-year old girl. He saw her perform every night, and even quit his job to follow her bicycling tour around Japan.  The documentary’s repeated shots of these middle-aged male fans, waiting to catch a glimpse of their teenage idols, is somewhat unsettling.

Yet in Japan this obsessive behaviour is encouraged, so as to increase an idol group’s CD sales. Idols have complained about finding this behaviour ‘uncomfortable’ before. And yet the normalisation of following an idol everywhere has resulted in some men believing it is perfectly acceptable to engage in what would otherwise be intimidating conduct.

Increasing rates of stalking interestingly coincide with the rise of the idol industry. Incidences of stalking in Japan have surged at an all-time-high of 20,000 reports in the past year. It is undeniable that the marketing of idol groups reinforces a disturbing thought which continues to plague contemporary Japanese society – that women are ‘things,’  largely for men’s pleasure. Idol groups commodify girls to the point that fans believe the idols actually belong to them. This thought inspires some men to stalk, injure and kill young women, with two AKB48 members suffering serious injuries following a saw attack at a fan event in 2014. Just last year, idol Mayu Tomita was stabbed 20 times by a fan.

Being an idol in Japan is more than exploitative – it is dangerous. The industry profits from reinforcing problematic social norms which endanger its performers, and more broadly, Japanese women, who face increasing risks of violence from their rabid fans. The industry exacerbates Japan’s underlying misogynistic tendencies; specifically, the idea that women are objects, to be fetishised or disposed of, or stalked. The success of the idol industry is a symptom of a society sick with consumerism, where even an 11 year-old girl is a product to be marketed to old men. Online commentators agree that this practice is ‘sick’ and amounts to ‘kiddie porn’.

The idol industry in Japan will only be able to redeem itself once stars are not forced to make public apologies for dating, and are paid in proportion to the revenue they generate. This perverse industry will never be morally justifiable, as is it built on the explicit commodification of children, and a unique abrogation of women’s rights, made in the pursuit of exciting old men.

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