What is Japanese Idol Culture?

Published May 27th, 2022

Idol culture in Japan is a topic to discuss. In Season 3 Episode 12 of the Nihongo Master Podcast, we dove into that. So what are Japanese idols? They’re like celebrities but on a whole other spectrum.

There's no denying that Japan’s music scene has been dominated by the likes of J-pop, Japanese popular music. Everywhere you go in the country, you’ll see a banner promoting a girl group’s latest album or a boy group advert for a brand’s newest product. There’s literally no escaping Japanese idol culture.

But what exactly is Japanese idol culture and how is it different from the rest of the world? Is it similar to K-pop and their synchronized dancing groups or is it more like the West where the musical and vocal aspects are put forth? And why are there some disagreements about this celebrity culture in Japan?

History of Japanese Idol Groups

First and foremost, what are idols? The word aidoru (アイドル) is written in katakana and is a gairaigo (外来語, foreign loan word). You can already guess what language it borrowed the word from: the English word “idol." In English, the word has been used since the 1920s to refer to popular people. In Japan, the word only came into popularity in the 1960s. Initially, the term was used to refer to female performers manufactured into groups, but has now expanded to include male performers.

For comparison, the western parallel of Japanese idols are like Backstreet Boys or Spice Girls, but even then, it doesn’t fully comprehend the essence.

The most popular type of idol group consists of girls, but don’t underestimate the boy groups. In fact, the first ever idol group recruitment agency, Johnny & Associates, which opened in 1962, is known for pumping out boy band after boy band, every single one of them extremely successful.

It was only in the 70s that idol culture took off; variety TV shows as well as magazines began advertising singing competitions — kind of like American Idol or X Factor. Tons of Japanese idols started their careers this way, although those signed with recruitment agencies like Johnny’s had an edge over the rest — even till today.

And in the 80s, known as the Golden Age of Idols, numerous idol groups made their debut. Baradoru (バラドル, variety show idols) were increasing rapidly as these singing competitions became a mainstay on prime time TV. Idol groups rose and fell, but the whole industry gradually built up — in the 90s, 2000s, and up till now as we speak.

So to say that the idol concept is popular is quite the understatement — you won’t believe the number of Japanese idol groups there are in total. Even though Johnny’s Kinki Kids and Arashi debuted in the 90’s, they are still two of the most popular ones in the industry to this day. And if you don’t already know the most famous girl group in Japan just from the unlimited ads and posters on local streets, it’s AKB48.

The concept of manufactured celebrity groups has been around for decades now, and it has taken quite a chunk of the Japanese music scene.

The Job of Japanese Idols

If you’ve seen videos of these Japanese idols, you’ll know that their basic job is to sing and dance on stage. Technically, you’re right — that’s the general idea, but there’s more to it than just that. If they’re a chika aidoru (地下アイドル, underground idol), they’re going to have to put in way more work than the mainstream ones.

Basically, once they’re signed with an idol recruitment company, they don’t start singing and dancing straight away. They're technically not even an idol yet. There’s a lot of training to do before debuting — like classes on how to behave and ways of replying, as well as lessons for singing and dancing. A couple of these newly signed talents get grouped together, which can be a hit or a miss. If you’ve ever had a group project with people you don’t like, you just suck it up for the next couple of weeks or so till the project’s over, right? Imagine having to suck it up for the rest of your career if there’s someone that you absolutely despise.

When they debut, not only do they have to sing and dance during performances, but there’s also the job of marketing their new content. This can come in a few ways — the most common ones are making an appearance on reality TV shows and akushukai (握手会, handshake events).

During the event, no pictures, no hanging out, just a handshake. It’s like a meet- and-greet, only with about 10 to 15 seconds of greeting and then out you go. This kind of event pulls in the sales — usually buying one CD will give you a chance at a ticket for the event. Otaku, (オタク, which translates to geek or nerd but in this case refers to a particular level of devoted fans) would go all out just to raise their chances at meeting their favorite idols.

I’d say those are the easier aspects of the job — the hardest one is obeying dozens and dozens of rules. I think the exact rules vary for different recruitment companies, but one that’s mutual throughout is their strict policy on privacy. An idol’s image is the perfectly imperfect person — because they’re not prince charming or cinderella, the concept of normality makes them much more desirable for their fans. To protect this image, idols aren’t allowed to be seen publicly with a significant other or any similar types of scandals.

Problems & Future of Japanese Idol Groups

Even though the idol culture is continuously rising, there have been recurring problems in the idol culture. The biggest one is the case of assault and harassment — especially when it comes to female idols. It seems like it’s every other weekend that there’s a news report about a female idol being stalked by their obsessed fans.

And that’s not even the worst part — because of this culture of manufacturing female talents and putting them into the public eye, there has been a worrying pattern of fan bases consisting largely of older men. Japan’s already having a tough time with this issue in general, and in my opinion, the idol culture’s not doing any good to resolve that.

Before we get too deep into that topic, the other problem the idol culture has created is that the younger generation is given this idea that they can get out of school early to pursue an idol career. Apparently, this is a legitimate reason to be granted leave from schools. It’s quite surprising to hear that, especially when Japan’s quite known to value education pretty highly.

So, we’re here wondering, what is the future of idol groups? Will they be the same going forward, or will there be a change in the system to combat these rising problems? I hope for the sake and safety of the idols, something’s going to be done.

Vocab Recap

In the episode, we used some new Japanese words. Here’s a list for reference:

Aidoru (アイドル) — idol

Gairaigo (外来語) — foreign loan word

Baraeti (バラエティ) — variety

Baradoru (バラドル) — variety idol

Chika aidoru (地下アイドル) — underground idol. Chika (地下) means under or below, so subway is “chikatetsu” (地下鉄)

Otaku (オタク) — geek or nerd

Akushukai (握手会) — handshake event

Gakkou (学校) — school

Mirai (未来) — Future

What do you think of Japanese idol culture?

So there’s a brief glimpse into the Japanese idol culture — from flashy stage outfits and extensive training to unique marketing events, this part of the media culture in Japan is pretty far from dying out.

What are your thoughts of this idol culture, and how can it be improved or should it remain the same? Let us know on our social media platforms. Also, tune in to the full episode on the Nihongo Master Podcast!