Arama They Didn't

11:53 pm - 05/05/2012

The mystique of the Japanese male idol

After a 22-year streak of sending pop fans into a frenzy, Japanese "boy" band SMAP debuted their newest single this past week, "Upside-down Sky," which rocketed to the top of the charts immediately. It's not the band's first time there, either - it's actually its 24th time hitting the No. 1 slot, and its second time this year.

Maybe SMAP sounds more to you like the sound of a bug hitting a windshield than the name of a band, but these guys have nailed the boy band formula in a way that few American bands ever have. With 19 studio albums and 45 singles, they are just as successful as a New Kids on the Block or Backstreet Boys, but they have something more: longevity.

"They're ubiquitous," says Eric Allerton, founder of the Japanese culture hub Gaijin Kanpai network. "They work like crazy hosting variety shows, charity events, and they star in dramas and commercials. They're famous because they were one of the first idol groups ever and they've grown up with their fans."

"And now, all the housewives drool over them because they're on TV 23.5 hours a day."

But it's not just SMAP. Its members are a golden example Japan's "male idol" - beautiful people who wear their hair longer, prefer fitted clothing and are even sometimes mistaken for women. SMAP member Takuya Kimura has often worn his hair in a style that is usually considered ladylike, and the fans love it.

While they might not resemble America's heartthrobs, they've got a following in the United States, too. Their fame is spread through magazines at Japanese grocery stores, videos on YouTube and online fan clubs and communities.

"The key to my fangirl heart is both an idol's ability to make me laugh and to laugh at himself, in addition to a quirky persona," said Yaiko Shimizu, who runs the culture enthusiast website Asian Pop Shock. "My all-time favorite Johnny's Entertainment group is Tokio because of the zany, warm, hilarious personalities the members present to the public. You never feel like they take themselves too seriously."

If you're a fan or even a casual observer of Japanese pop culture, you've probably noticed an appreciation for the pretty, somewhat feminine look, including in its boy bands. It's confusing to some Americans, whose boy bands and young stars typically project masculinity or at least boyish charm. But just like Japan's female pop idols, Japanese men are revered for their good looks.

"I think, for some Japanese fans who are attracted to the 'cuteness' of male idols, a lot of the appeal has to do with the implied openness and sensitivity that's presented as being a part of that kind of persona," Shimizu said. "While a cute idol can still be masculine - think Arashi's Sho Sakurai - he's not someone who's likely to be perceived as threatening. It makes these idols safe, comfortable love objects, particularly since they're generally considered out of reach."

Some idols are above reproach in Japanese society - always perfect, always smiling and beckoning. They're the trendsetters, appreciated for their perfection and ability to entertain.

"They're one of the few Japanese celebrity bands that can really get away with anything, because they set the mark for so many bands after them," Allerton said in regards to SMAP's popularity. "They're pretty much the Jackson 5, but they're all Michael."

But not every idol is untouchable forever. Unless they reach the heights of stardom to become treasured commodities, like SMAP, they're disposable - there will always be another product waiting in the wings to take over the spotlight. While their faces are beloved, they can also be replaced.

Ex-KAT-TUN member Akanishi Jin recently enraged a portion of his fanbase by marrying actress/model Kuroki Meisa after rumors she was pregnant. Despite Akanishi's popularity, his fans weren't afraid to stray when he didn't behave as they expected.

But there is also an awareness that idols are playing a role: the embodiment of a cute, marketable product. Japanese male idols take this concept of cuteness to their own unique level. Since audiences are responsive (concerts from Japan's megabands attract an estimated 48 million fans, according to the Guinness Book of World Records), Japan has recognized the profitability of pop idols.

This reverence for cuteness is foreign to most Americans, but deeply ingrained in the Japanese psyche. For instance, a girl might not be a good singer, but if she looks cute and sells records, her act will likely become popular anyway. SMAP have often been cited for publicly admitting they are not talented. However, they are professional about what they do, and Japan values their dedication. As Japan Times writer Phillip Brasor puts it, "Idols don't have to be capable, because they represent the hopes and dreams of people who will never be idols."

Idols publish photo albums, join bands, star in dramas and variety shows, and get as much exposure as they can while in their prime. SMAP was not initially successful, but once its members were marketed as personalities on variety shows, they soared to stardom. Since then, they have hosted a variety of celebrity guests on their own variety show "SMAPxSMAP," starred in a reality TV show about their work and even promoted their own soft drink.

Japanese talent agencies continue to train and shape the commodities of pop idols. The best-known producer of boy bands and male idol celebrities is talent agency Johnny and Associates, which formed in 1962. Its stable of idol bands includes more than 40 successful acts, including SMAP, KAT-TUN, Arashi, NEWS and KinKi Kids.

"The Asian idol system actually has a very 'old Hollywood' vibe - think along the lines of the young 1930s stars groomed by MGM," Shimizu says. "Celebrities had tightly controlled private lives (unless romances suited PR purposes) that generally left them to at least appear available to female fans, and scandals were swiftly punished. If that old school approach doesn't sound like Johnny and Associates, I don't know what does."

In her book "The Worlds of Japanese Popular Culture: Gender, Shifting Boundaries and Global Cultures," author Dolores Martinez examines the heart of idol culture and writes that television and Japan's postwar press were the major agents for the cultural production of popular idols for mass consumption.

"In the corpus of dramas that are continuously being diffused through the mass media of modern Japanese society, these idols - somewhat like gods in polytheistic mythologies - while transcending ordinary existence, also grow out of it and sustain that existence. While production of these idols by the mass media mirrors a distorted version of social reality, it also plays a key role in creating new social realities," she writes.

These pretty men serve an essential purpose in Japanese culture: They fulfill dreams. But they also push fans, Japanese and American alike, to aspire to the dedication they show to their media personae.

"Idols are beautiful, unattainable people we get to 'know' through an almost constant barrage of public appearances, " Shimizu said. "Since they enter the industry at such a young age, we get to watch them grow into adults. And consequently, we end up invested in their careers."


itskimbitches 6th-May-2012 06:56 am (UTC)
Anywhere in the world it is understood that when you label someone as an American you mean US citizen. South/central america goes by their country and Canadians don't attach themselves with "America ".
asth77 6th-May-2012 08:31 am (UTC)
lol actually it's not because it's something natural. Everyone should say "North America" and not "America". "America" is an egocentric/ethnocentric/imperialist way to talk about North America because of some North Americans' themselves when the economy started to settle as the most important in this world. My teacher used to say no wonder why Marilyn Monroe asid "America to americans" ("America to North Americans"...) or something like that, which showed the mindset of her time....
But we'll discuss about this whenever there is an actual article about this.
uledy 6th-May-2012 03:46 pm (UTC)
But what should we call ourselves then? I mean, the country is named The United States of America...The official demonym is "American". Demonyms come from the name of the country (often from the last word, like ppl from UAE are called Emeriti) so should be called Unitediens? Statens? Unitstatians?
asth77 6th-May-2012 04:37 pm (UTC)

yes something like that
in my language we are able to call you like that, such a word can be used although Idk if it's official.
uledy 6th-May-2012 05:09 pm (UTC)
Haha, well, honestly that sounds like the name of an alien race to me. Maybe is just language differences, but in English, "American" is technically correct.

But it really is complicated for some words, like the state of Illinois in US, I have no idea what to call people from there. Anyway, I'm just happy to have been born an ATLien
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taciturndream 6th-May-2012 08:28 pm (UTC)
I'm sure for habit it's correct for you to say it, but at least here it annoys as hell for the reasons asth77 mentioned. We speak different type of Spanish and obviously other languages down here, but you are known as "Estadounidenses" here (the translation of USA is EEUU which only includes the US of USA, leaving America out of this...), but if I have to refer to someone from North America in English I go by North Americans...
uledy 6th-May-2012 08:43 pm (UTC)
I guess a couple of things, the author specifically refers to the United States, so when he's talking about "Americans" he's not even referring to North America as a whole. It'd be inappropriate to call Americans (referring to a country) "North Americans" (referring to an entire continent) when talking specifically about the about the country. I don't understand why y'all are assuming the author is equating American with North American...because he's not...

I understand that different languages have different names for different things. But this is an article written in English and in English , "American" is grammatically and technically correct. Additionally, you could expand it further by saying not only is this an article written in English, via an American news source, but it's about Japan and they've completely abandoned the Japanese word and Kanji for the US in favor of "Amerika" so...take from that what you will.

Edited at 2012-05-06 09:09 pm (UTC)
asth77 6th-May-2012 09:15 pm (UTC)
It's not a problem of language.
It's a problem of the ideology there is behind "Americans" referring to citizens of the US.
The US citizens are americans, as well as the brazilians.
The US is part of America, not America. It's no wonder the person who answered you, told me that South Americans are bothered by the way ppl talk about Americans while ignoring there are other americans than the US citizens. As if the US citizens were the only americans that matter in America.
And yes, there is definitely an ideology behind it, although looks like some US citizens forgot/didn't know/didn't learn.
uledy 6th-May-2012 09:23 pm (UTC)
What are you talking about??? Honestly.

I've told you already, based on the rules of GRAMMAR outside of any prejudices and ideology, "American" is proper way to refer to people from the US... If you want to get particular, I suppose you could call them United States of Americans, but it is grammatically improper to say "North Americans". I don't know how to make that any clearer...

asth77 6th-May-2012 10:12 pm (UTC)
what are you talking about?
I don't know what grammar has to do with anything here.
It wasn't my point, I was probably unclear because I used the term "North American" for the US citizens. But replace North America with US citizens in my statements if you want. My point was about the ideology there is behind the term Americans, when it is reffered to US citizens only. It is not a problem of grammar or language, I just didn't know how to call US citizens without saying "Americans" in english. It is not a problem of me calling US citizens in a way or another either, the problem is that the official way to call US citizens is "Americans".
If you don't get it, i can't do anything for you, hopefully you will get more acknowledge on the matter once you'll talk other ppl who share the same views as me.
uledy 6th-May-2012 10:34 pm (UTC)
Honestly, I'm done with you. Every interaction we've had has been based off your ignorant assumptions of history and culture (self-admittidly so). I've no idea how to talk with other people who share your beliefs because you haven't actually defined what you believe. You're alluding to this "ideology" yet you never define it...How can anyone hope to understand you when you don't explain yourself...?

Grammar is relevant because you made it relevant. You started discussing language and how Americans are defined in French, not me...

I'm explaining to you that regardless of this "ideology" that the terminology is still technically correct (because you insist on discussing what's appropriate in French, so I'm discussing what's appropriate in English- the language in which this article was written T_T). The way "American" has been used to define people from the US is commonly seen in countries with "United_of" or "Republic of___" pre-cursors*, it just so happens that US also has two continents part of its official name. And if you don't get that then I can't do anything for you

* Examples: Republic of China= Chinese, Democratic Republic of the Congo= Congolese, The Republic of Korea= Korean...
asth77 6th-May-2012 10:59 pm (UTC)
Be done with me indeed, looks like we can't understand each other and no I don't always have ignorant assuptions of history and culture, TYVM I know what I'm talking about, bye.
ttalktomesoftly 7th-May-2012 09:19 pm (UTC)
The ideology she refers to is the fact that US people think they are the centre of the universe. That's why they say America instead of United States. I think asth77 didn't talk about this 'ideology' because it could sound hurtful if you are from the US, while for the rest of the world is the truth.

because you insist on discussing what's appropriate in French, so I'm discussing what's appropriate in English- the language in which this article was written T_T My problem (and I think most of the world's problem) isn't about this article's language and if the denonym used it's coherent with the grammar of the language and the context in which it was written. It's about life in general and how even if your grammar says it's correct to call yourselves Americans, we think otherwise.

Anyway, I think your whole problem is that you are talking from a US grammatical POV while asth77 is talking from a more general POV.
uledy 7th-May-2012 09:33 pm (UTC)
US people think they are the centre of the universe.
I hate to break it to you, but having lived in multiple countries, I can safely say this is not characteristic exclusive to people from the US. Man is extremely self-absorbed and it always makes me laugh when people presume to exclusively associate this trait with Americans.

Anyway, I think your whole problem is that you are talking from a US grammatical POV while asth77 is talking from a more general POV.

How is this exclusively my problem? We're all speaking from unique point of views. There is no right one...

(Also please excuse the spelling mistakes I'm sure I've made)

Edited at 2012-05-07 09:38 pm (UTC)
ttalktomesoftly 7th-May-2012 09:08 pm (UTC)
What she's trying to say is that you consider America as your country, we consider America as the continent, so we don't like when you call yourselves Americans because for us it's like ignoring that America has like thirty something countries and it's not always about you.
But, at the same time, it's true that YOUR grammar accepts the term American as de denonym for the people of the US, while OUR grammar says that Americans are the people of the continent America.
uledy 7th-May-2012 09:10 pm (UTC)
This is old. Look at the other comments. The point is moot.

ttalktomesoftly 7th-May-2012 09:28 pm (UTC)
Just because this thread is one day old I can't post my opinion about it?
Sorry, I didn't know about this rule.

Edited at 2012-05-07 09:28 pm (UTC)
uledy 7th-May-2012 09:31 pm (UTC)
Certainly you can, but if you'd read the entire thread, you'd see that all the points and assumptions you've made have been pointed out, corrected, and conceeded to. So unless you're ready to discuss something new, discussing the same points further is like beating a dead horse.
taciturndream 7th-May-2012 03:10 am (UTC)
I understand what you mean, but I feel you need to get the hip of what I'm trying to get to. I know grammatically it might be okay in the USA, and that this is in English, I just noted how I feel about it and how most of Latin American feels about it, since we can also read English, and the world is just one -and something being grammatically correct doesn't mean it's right in other ways, that's when change happens-. It's kinda like when Asians are refer to only Japanese, Chinese and Koreans when there is much more in Asia.

I suppose you won't get it since you don't feel it's a big deal, and it's really about the ideology and how USA is generally looked upon by many (and I'm even considering England with this), but as an advice, never call yourself American here, because you'll probably get funny looks and a "I'm from America too".

I'm sorry for making a thing out of this OP, never thought I'd actually get answers for the sentence.
uledy 7th-May-2012 03:18 am (UTC)
I never said it wasn't a big deal and I completely understand where you're coming from. I'm just trying to point out the technical side to it name and also the historical (to a different user) context. Please don't presume to know what I can get and what I can't get, because when asked where I'm from, I rarely say that I'm "American". Identity is a complex thing and everyone has the right to identify themselves however they want. *shrug*
taciturndream 9th-May-2012 02:24 am (UTC)
Suure, as long as it doesn't bother others, but that's just my opinion of course. It's like when yankee or argies are used -in a degradatory way, mostly-, they have the right to say it as well but that doesn't mean it's okay -not taking into account grammar since words can get into the dictionary at any time-.

I presumed since you talked more about the grammar aspect of the thing and not that much about the feeling it can generate. My bad.
calzonazos 7th-May-2012 02:06 am (UTC)
There's the term "USasians". I've seen a lot of people using it, mostly in the internet. Besides estadounidenses that's the one I use when speaking english anyways.

And yeah, as others pointed out, using "americans" with the intent to refer to and identify only one country erases our identity as inhabitants of this same continent and also reminds us of the way the US has oppresed us with their militia and economical interests (Panama anyone? the war on drugs, etc). I sometimes feel the US government sees us Latinamericans as nothing else as their backyard :/
uledy 7th-May-2012 02:52 am (UTC)
I understand your point, but not everyone above was actually saying that, at least not in an intelligible manner. I understand how you feel, but I also think that it's important to consider history behind the name, not simply as we see it today. Realistically, the term is nothing but a result of British imperialism. "The Americas" was a name given to that entire region by the British centuries ago and was used to refer to that entire region. Different countries colonized and otherwise controlled various countries in the the Americas, forcing them to changed both language and national identity (name). As the US stayed in British control, it would only follow that these name would stay. People in the US were called Americans centuries ago, and at that time is was not used by Americans to demonstrate any form domination over other countries (as the colony was looked at as uncivilized, barbaric, and place to send people if they'd fallen from gentile status ). Also, as I said above, calling people from the US "Americans" does follow the rules of the English language. That cannot be denied.

But sometimes origin and technicalities cannot erase colloquial meanings and subtle forms of imperialism and cultural chauvinism, that much is very true.
taciturndream 6th-May-2012 08:22 pm (UTC)
This, thanks, exactly what we South Americans think when we read "Americans".
taciturndream 6th-May-2012 08:21 pm (UTC)
Lol not in the South or the Central AMERICA. Plus it's an English way to say it which is obviously wrong, if you go by Spanish you will never hear "Americanos" by referring to the "Estadounidenses" aka North Americans, as they should call themselves.

Basically what asth77 said though. Peace.
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