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."


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 8th-May-2012 08:05 pm (UTC)
I don't know where the fuck did my comment go, but well, I'll have to write it again ¬¬'

I know that most of us think that we are the best and that the one that's beside us is always inferior than us. That's just life. But you can't deny that (even if the people of the US won't admit to it) believing they are the best of the best and that whatever they do is better than what others do is a very common trait for US people.

With 'your problem' I wasn't referring to YOUR (uledy's) problem, but to your (as in you both, uledy and asth77's) problem. What I meant was that since you weren't talking from the same point of view, you were never going to agree on something. And I wasn't talking about every person's POV when I said that, I was talking about general PsOV as in grammatical POV or psychological POV, etc.
And I wasn't saying your POV was wrong, I was just stating the truth. What there is right might be wrong down here, and that doesn't make it right or wrong. Again, MY grammar says americano (American) is a person who belongs to the American continent that goes from Canada to Argentina/Chile. YOUR grammar says that America is the country and that the continents are North America and South America and that calling yourselves Americans is okay. What most latinamericans hate is when people say American (and even in our language where americano means from the continent) they talk about US citizens and not about the people from the whole continent.

(No prob, I'm not perfect myself. Even when I'm an English-Spanish translation student I make a lot of mistakes. As long as I can understand what you want to say it's okay for me.)

Edited at 2012-05-08 08:06 pm (UTC)
uledy 8th-May-2012 08:37 pm (UTC)
LJ does mess like that all the time so I feel you -_-

Lol, ok about generalizing an entire nation, but that's neither here nor there.

About our other thread (it gets too confusing to go back and forth, right?)

Don't worry about it. I came into the discussion with asth77 frustrated because she's attempt to tell me in the past about US American (how does that sound? good compromise) culture, life, and what the general population thinks about certain issues after having admitted that her only interaction with people from the US was via the internet and she didn't know much about US American history...So I came in frustrated because I knew the user makes a lot of inaccurate assumptions.
ttalktomesoftly 9th-May-2012 03:12 am (UTC)
I know US people who don't think they are the centre of the world, and that's why I didn't say that all of them think like that. But I know more US people that think that they are better than the others than people who think we're equal.


Well, I've studied both English and US history (because of what I'm studying) and I feel that at some point some ideologies that the pilgrims or even the guys from the first (real) colony had are still present in some US citizens, like some of the Spanish ideologies are present in my country even when we don't realize they are. But I know how you feel, I feel frustated when people make assumptions about my country without even knowing any Argentine person just because they know who Messi or Maradona are and that Tango is a very sexy dance.
Anyway, I do know Americans (and not only through the internet) and I still believe some of them have this ideology. Maybe all the US people I met were like that and I didn't have the luck to meet someone who doesn't think like that. I will never know until I meet someone with a different 'ideology' I suppose.
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