In Japanese pop culture "idol" (アイドル, aidoru, a Japanese rendering of the English word "idol") is a term typically used to refer to young manufactured stars/starlets marketed to be admired for their cuteness. Idols are intended to be role models. They are supposed to maintain a good public image and be good examples for young people. Idols aim to play a wide range of roles as media personalities (tarento): e.g. pop singers, panelists of variety programs, bit-part actors, models for magazines and advertisements.
- Ambiguity of the term
- Modern idols
- Selective list of notable idols and idol groups
- Famous active idols and idol groups
- Net and virtual idols
- Photo idols
The term is commercialized by Japanese talent agencies, that hold auditions for boys and girls with little or no prior experience in the entertainment industry, often as aspiring stars/starlets to be adored for their sweetness and innocence with the intent of creating a passionate following. Most idol singers work across genres of Japanese pop music, usually in the genre that is most popular at the moment, but since many idols sing cute sentimental songs, one can say that those kind of idols form a sort of music genre of their own. Their songs typically do not require great singing skills; their popular appeal comes largely from the attractiveness of their public image. Idols are often not considered "serious" musicians or "serious" actors. Consequently, many young stars now reject the idol label in their desire to be seen as professionals rather than as objects of fanatical devotion.
A lot of Japanese people who are fans of female idols see them as akin to sisters or girl next door types; they empathise with the idols and love the way in which they are presented as ordinary kids who happened to become popular, enthusiastically following their growth from inexperienced amateurs to famous experienced artists.
The biggest annual idol concert festival is the Tokyo Idol Festival (TIF) held since 2010. More than 300 idol groups, about 1500 idols performed and attracted about 80,000 spectators in 2016.
Ambiguity of the term
Although idols are often defined as something like "young manufactured stars/starlets", there are idols who transgress the boundaries of such a definition, like members of the group Arashi, who range in age from around 30 to over 40, or idols who use the Internet to produce themselves.
The term is commercialized by Japanese talent agencies, that hold auditions for boys and girls with little or no prior experience in the entertainment industry and market them as idols, often as a sort of aspiring stars/starlets to be adored for their sweetness and innocence and to have a frenzied following. Whether a person is categorized as an idol depends on how he or she got into the entertainment business and whether he or she is promoted as being an idol. Some entertainment (mostly music production) companies and music projects specialize in idols, and they automatically market everyone they sign as an idol. Such idol music projects have their own steady following, i.e., idol fans who prefer the style of one particular project they support. But bigger companies can choose, for example, not to refer to a new pop group they create as an idol group. As a result, there are some girl groups and boy bands with practically the same kind of fan following that are not idols according to their official profiles.
The idol phenomenon began during the early 1970s, reflecting a boom in Japan for the musician Sylvie Vartan in the French film Cherchez l'idole in 1963, with Japanese title Aidoru wo sagase (アイドルを探せ) in November 1964. The term came to be applied to any cute actress or female singer, or any cute male singer. Teenage girls, mostly between 14 and 16, and teenage males, mostly between 15 and 18, began rising to stardom. One in particular, Momoe Yamaguchi, was a huge star until her marriage and retirement in 1980. Idols dominated the pop music scene in the 1980s, and this period is known as the "Golden Age of Idols in Japan". In a single year, as many as 40 or 50 new idols could appear, only to disappear from the public spotlight shortly afterwards. A few idols from that era, such as Seiko Matsuda, are still popular.
In the 1990s, the popularity of female Japanese idols began to wane, as the music industry shifted towards rock musicians and singers for whom music was a more important sales point than looks or wholesomeness, as well as towards genres such as rap that were harder to square with conventional prettiness. At the same time, the popularity of male Japanese idols, such as SMAP, Kinki Kids, Tokio, and V6, grew. They gained high popularity in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Initially the term "idol" arose to describe very young newly emerging female singers who were noted for their innocence and freshness and sang cute songs. A diversification occurred in the 1990s and instead of few idols vying for popularity, a number of idols with specific characteristics divided the market. There is, however, an opinion that it is incorrect to use the word in this broader meaning and that an idol by definition should have some kind of fanatical overexcited following, something that a minor magazine model can't achieve. In the mid-1990s, idols became much younger than before, and groups of idols like Speed and Morning Musume became prominent.
Idols also became a fixture in countless anime by singing opening or ending songs that have little relevance to the anime itself. Some experimented with being voice actors, and so voice actors themselves became somewhat like idols, becoming increasingly popular. Even today, some are still involved with the video game industry, though they are not always entirely successful.
The 2000s saw the rise in popularity of idol groups such as Arashi, a boy band formed in 1999 and produced by Johnny & Associates, Inc., the largest male idol talent agency. The year 2002 saw the addition of the Hello! Project Kids, who later formed Hello! Project idol groups Berryz Kobo and °C-ute, sister groups to Morning Musume. In 2007 NHK Kouhaku Utagassen, "Idol group from Akihabara" AKB48, "Otaku idol" Shoko Nakagawa, "Idol from the U.S." Leah Dizon performed a medley called "Special Medley: Latest Japan Proud Culture" together, introduced as "Akiba-kei idols".
In the following years several new idol groups appeared; Momoiro Clover, S/mileage (another Hello! Project group), SKE48 (a sister group of AKB48), Tokyo Girls' Style and many other groups made debut. A TV-based group Idoling!!! has its own program on Fuji TV and gets some popularity. The fiercely competitive situation in the Japanese idol scene is called "Idol sengoku jidai" (アイドル戦国時代; lit. Idol war age). In 2011, Momoiro Clover changed its name to Momoiro Clover Z and gained popularity more than before. During 2014, about 486,000 people attended their live concerts, which was the highest record of all female musicians in Japan. Momoiro Clover Z has been ranked as the most popular female idol group from 2013 to 2015. The group is known for its energetic dance performances. They are heavily choreographed and feature acrobatic stunts, also incorporating elements of ballet, gymnastics and action movies. Momoiro Clover Z, as many other Japanese idol groups, use color(ja) to facilitate the identification of the members and to make an individual character more clear.
The culture of Japanese idols has changed over the years and it is questionable whether past idols would have the same amount of success if given the same opportunity today. Most of those called idols have sung songs that would fit J-pop and they are generally considered to be pretty, cute, or fresh-faced, if not beautiful.
In the 1970s, idols had an aura of mystique that left much of their lifestyles secret. Their public and "private" lives were carefully orchestrated—they always appeared perfect in all situations and seemed to enjoy a lavish lifestyle that most Japanese could only dream about. In reality, however, they were placed under continuous surveillance by their promoters and were unable to enjoy the private lives invented for them. Their pay is considered to have been surprisingly low. They were often overworked and even if their songs sold well most of the money went to the musicians and writers. Fans had few opportunities to see them beyond a few minutes on TV or radio and it was difficult to share their interests. Magazines were the best source for information and many idols had an official fan club that periodically mailed what little information would be released.
In the 1980s, idols became much closer to average Japanese people; this is likely because the average lifestyle of the Japanese improved. While still tightly controlled, idols were allowed to show more of their actual personalities and were permitted to let out some carefully scripted outbursts. The media often fabricated "competitions" between two or more idols, based on things like the number of records sold, the number of fans in the official fan club, etc. In the late 1980s, instead of relying on magazines and TV, some started experimenting with new media and technologies like video games, with mixed results. The working conditions of idols improved and even those with limited success could live modestly and more of the money made was paid to idols themselves, though they still only received a small portion.
In the 1990s, instead of being marketed as people who lived better and were better than average, idols became people who just happened to have a little something to become popular. Where the tastes of past idols had to be saccharine, it was now acceptable for an idol to simply love eating ramen or to display something other than a smile, to lament having got a little out of shape or to admit to shopping around for lower prices.
Besides being cute, idols present an image of purity, as defined by Japanese culture. Among other things, this means that idols should not have boyfriends or girlfriends and should appear to be entirely inexperienced romantically and sexually. Occasionally, a Japanese publication will publish an exposé in which an idol is revealed to have a romantic partner, usually accompanied by grainy pictures of the idol kissing or holding hands with the partner. If the idol's agency cannot plausibly deny the allegation or explain away the evidence, the idol's career is badly damaged and sometimes comes to a quick end. Whereas in previous years an idol kept up her idol image until she chose to retire or was simply too old to continue being a credible idol, in recent years several ex-idols have successfully matured from being an idol to becoming full-fledged actresses, singers or musicians who are respected for their craft as opposed to merely being admired for their looks and image.
The idol singer fandom has particular features like supporting and cheering favorite artists on stage by performing so called wotagei (chanting and lightstick swaying reminiscent of cheerleading). One can say that the idol fandom is a subculture, like heavy metal or such.
There are also several anime and arcade games based on the concept of idols, such as Aikatsu and Oshare Majo: Love and Berry, which are marketed to young girls from the age of 6 to 13.
Selective list of notable idols and idol groups
Famous active idols and idol groups
Some idol groups (e.g. Morning Musume, AKB48 and its sister groups, Sakura Gakuin, and Super Girls) have a rotating member system, with members leaving when they get older (or when they want to start a career, or many of them leave to simply concentrate on their school activities and return to the life of an ordinary teen). Such idol groups and idol projects are usually created as a result of an audition and regularly hold new auditions for members to take the place of the ones who left.
Net and virtual idols
A new genre of idols called Net idols became known in the late 1990s, only appearing on websites. Even today, net idol groups are being created with the hopes of gaining popularity and fame outside Japan in the same way that professional idol groups do. Many have received wide spread attention due to a recent spike in popularity for the last few years.
In 1997 there appeared Kyoko Date, the first "cyber idol" or "virtual idol". Kyoko Date has a fabricated history and statistics and her own songs. Since 2007, a new category of idol, the virtual idol, is growing popular in Japan. Thanks to the advent of Vocaloid 2 and its famous character Hatsune Miku, the "virtual idol" is enjoying great popularity, gaining a solid fan base. This new type of idols, in addition to the usual media, often receive adaptations in other dedicated media spanning anime, manga, novel, video games, etc. Another example of this new category is The Idolmaster franchise.
Meanwhile, gurabia aidoru (グラビアアイドル, i.e. "[photo] gravure idols") have largely appeared skimpily clad in "cheesecake" photographs.