To look into the indications of a new idol culture emerging in Japan, we asked Raira Ito, former member of HKT48, to write this article.
Raira Ito became a member of HKT48 in 2012. HKT48 is a sister group to Japan’s most popular idol group, AKB48. Raira was an idol geek before joining HKT, and after spending time as an idol for 4 years, she graduated from the group in 2016. She has two perspectives when it comes to idols, one as a former idol herself, and one as a fan. She currently wants to be a part of the idol business in the future. Here is Raira’s “Idology”.
■Do you have your own “Oshi-mem” and/or “Oshi-group (a girl group you recommend)”?
There are those who can answer this question immediately, if they have a TAN-OSHI (meaning they have one particular member that they recommend/like), while others may be a DD (they like everyone, and “DD” comes from the initials of the Japanese words, “Daredemo Daisuki”). Not only that, even those who are not interested in idols or who are haters will likely nevertheless have heard of the word “Oshi-mem”.
“So, what exactly is an “Oshi-mem”? Oshi-mem is short for “the member you recommend the most (Ichi-Oshi no member)” in Japanese, which means this is the person you like the most in an idol group or a member that you root for. It may sound a bit over-the-top, but it is also like a title you give yourself, as a fan.
The word “Oshi-mem” started to spread about 10 years ago. The way you supported your favorite idols were different before then. It used to be that supporting an idol meant to watching them on TV or going to their concerts, which was more of a one-way interaction, with the fans on the receiving end. But after the arrival of AKB48, fans were given the chance to talk directly with the idols, and fans were also given more opportunities to take a part in raising the idols. So not only do the idols perform their best for the fans, the fans also became able to do the best they could to give back to their idols. An interactive support system emerged. Within that structure, the idea of “the member you recommend the most” started to spread.
In Japan, there are more than 1,000 idol groups today, from standard, cute ones to those that are more offbeat. The groups, their concepts, and the fans are all diverse and varied.
As an example, I would like to look in to two idol groups. ‘Morning Musume.’, who has kept their relationship with their fans constant for 20 years and is still one of the most popular groups in the industry, and ‘AKB48’, who spearheaded the formation of a new type of relationship between the fans and their idols. By comparing these two groups, we can see the changes in idol culture and what impact the “Oshi-mem” concept gave to that culture.
■Morning Musume.: The group with one of the greatest performances in Japan.
’Morning Musume.’ and the idols from Hello Project (Hello Pro) are said to be the idols with the best performance skills in Japan. I love Hello Pro and go their concerts a lot, but they can keep singing and dancing for two hours without a break. Morning Musume. marked their 20th anniversary this year, but there have only been 41 members, including ones who have graduated in the past. The generation that I loved most was from the latter half of 2007 to the end of 2010, when Ai Takahashi was the leader. Even while the group‘s exposure in the media was dropping, they kept polishing their performances for their live tours. This time was later dubbed the ‘Platinum era’. I might be clouded in my judgment here because I love them so much, but I have never seen such performances from an idol group in my life, and I believe there will never be another like them in the future. Of course, the present-day Morning Musume. is very attractive too. They never lip-synch during concerts, their group dance routines and singing skills are high-quality and they have been creating a buzz again in the industry and winning over new fans. Their high-quality performances touch the heart of every fan, which may be why they seem to have more female fans compared to other idols. Fans have a one-way relationship with the group. They go to see these polished performances at concerts or through DVDs of their lives, and enjoy them on a visual, audio, and sensory level. In this way, I think Morning Musume. has managed to keep a very typical relationship with their fans, which has lasted for more than 20 years.
＜Morning Musume. ‘Ai no Gundan’ （Dance shot ver.）＞
■AKB48, a group that achieved CD sales of over a million for more than 30 songs in a row.
Next, I want to talk about the idol group that sells the most CDs in Japan: AKB.
The “48 Group (48G)”, as they’re called, is best known for AKB48 and other various groups. Their concept is “idols you can meet”, so even if they are capable of filling up a hall with a big capacity like Tokyo Dome (which holds around 50,000 people), they always perform in a small halls for 250 to 300 audiences every day. And on weekends, they will have handshake events and (smartphone) photo events (which allow fans to take pictures of their idols). So, if you can go to these events, you can actually see your favorite Oshi or meet famous members of the group that you see frequently on TV. This is obviously a very special treat for the fans.
＜’AKB 48 group member air handshake event’ short ver. ＞
■Idols changed my life!!
I used to be happy just seeing them on TV, but when I went to see AKB48’s sister group, HKT48’s live performance and the members in person, I became hooked. I couldn’t stop thinking about HKT48 every day. The next thing I knew, I was a member of the second generation of HKT48 and was performing on the same team as my Oshi-mem, Sakura Miyawaki. For me, this meant that the “love” I felt as a fan evolved into “adoration” as I went through the process, but I can nevertheless say that “idols changed my life”. I stand here because the first generation of HKT existed.
–and like me, I am sure there are many people whose life was changed by an idol or idol group. From my experience, people who do not have an interest in idols are much more likely to get stuck in the so-called “idol swamp” and become unable get out. Maybe it is because they haven’t had experience building up immunity to idols. It can be dangerous to enter this world flippantly. Since 48G has a great number of members and more than 350 idols, there may be several idols who fit your needs and preferences. Even if you decide that you will only be a Tan-oshi, you might see another girl who captures your heart and if you get caught, there is no way to escape and you‘ll simply have to surrender. I myself cannot keep my eyes from wandering and I have seen a lot of fans who are the same, so I completely understand (laughs).
■Growing together with your Oshi-mem at AKB48.
There are many unique aspects of 48G, but the biggest aspect is that you can “grow together with your Oshi-mem” and “get the chance (to go to the top) together.” You can get an idea when you look at some of the special events they have, such as the ‘selective general election’, where the members who will sing in the next single (CD) are chosen through fans’ votes, and the ‘group draft meeting’, where instead of being auditioned, new members of the group are chosen by the fans. There is also an MVP system where fans can achieve MVP status by going to see their performances 100 times at their small theater, and handshake events where you can talk to the idols directly.
48G has built these interactive ways to support the idols and through the “Oshi-mem” concept, you can actually feel fulfilled in your role as a fan. I think these are the elements that make 48G so great.
Like I wrote earlier, Hello Pro and Momo Clo (Momoiro Clover Z) are idols with high-quality performance skills, but the fans cannot ”help (the idols) grow directly” and all they can do is appreciate the final product; that is to say, they ”enjoy the result of the growth”. Since these groups are known for their high-quality performances, they place heavy emphases on the singing and dancing ability of their members rather than their individual popularity or personalities. So in these idol groups, every time a new song is released, the members compete to be allotted singing parts. It is a tough world, but the first and foremost premise is to show a ”polished performance”. And this is something that must be achieved through the hard work put in by each member, so the fans, who are essentially amateurs, aren’t really in a place where they can voice their opinions on the matter.
On the other hand, 48G focuses on ”enjoying the process of growing”. So fans will go to handshake events or use social networks to advise the members, and sometimes these advice may even be quite critical. As there are many types of fans, from those who are very perceptive to those who are more light-hearted, this creates an environment where various fans can send their voices honestly and directly to the 48G. A typical girl who does not have perfect singing and dancing skills will, supported and watched over by the fans, and by performing over and over again, start to shine as an idol. There are also events you cannot avoid by being a member of the 48G: the general election, draft meeting, the handshake events and the sales figures generated there show clearly and numerically the actual popularity of the members. These numbers are open to both the members and the fans, which increases the heat of the competition in both good and bad ways.
I asked on Twitter to my followers once, “What makes you appreciate your own existence as a fan, or what was the most satisfying moment for you as a fan?” The answer that I received the most was: “When I see my Oshi-mem’s smile.” I was touched. I realized that the fans feel genuinely happy when they see an idol that they have supported accomplish their goals or dreams, because when they do, the idol and the fan accomplished it together. When you hear the idol say “Thank you”, you become aware that you were able to contribute to her strength. If that idol was someone you were supporting from her debut onwards, it makes the moment even more special. I guess what I’m trying to say is, you can feel that you helped the idol grow and made her happy in some way.
■The members feel the same too!
When I first joined HKT, nothing went as I had planned, and even though the experience was for me and about me, I lost sight of myself and it really was hard. It made it tough for me to stand on my own two feet. But the fans encouraged me at handshake events and on social network, and those fans still keep me motivated today. More than 2 years have passed since I graduated, and I felt anxious about writing an article like this using my old title since I am just a regular person who doesn’t even belong to an agency now. But I thought many fans who know that my goal is “to be a part of the idol business” might be happy to see this, and that is why I wrote this article.
■”Oshi-mem” helped the idol culture grow
Recently, I have been able to enjoy entertainment culture from a purer perspective. That is partly because I am no longer an idol myself, and because I have grown stronger mentally. I am now able to enjoy watching over the idols, these normal girls who dive in to a tough world, as they get trained and polished. Watching the growing process of these girls and supporting these girls has become a source of great joy, and I think idols have become an even more precious and noble existence to me. The brilliance and the potential of a girl with dreams are immeasurable.
I think 48G maybe the only idol group that can take you on an emotional roller coaster and betray your expectations in both good and bad ways. Of course there are great things about other idol groups such as ‘Morning Musume.’ but I think being able to fully experience what it means to be a fan, sharing the same feelings as your oshi-mem and fellow allies, and being able to get passionate for the sake of someone else are all wonderful things, even if you also experience a lot of frustration and regret from unrequited dreams. The development of 48G was driven by a new form of idol support, the “Oshi-mem” concept, and I think that is why 48G was able to become the big existence it is today, in modern idol culture.