Idols are viewed as purveyors of dreams. Teenagers look up to the musical stars as role models, while the adults fawn over them. But behind the glamour and fanfare is an exploitative industry worth billions of dollars.

AKB48

J-Pop has become a popular genre outside of Japan due to the cutesy stars, flashy costumes, and catchy songs. In recent years, the idol industry has grown close to the anime industry, bringing in a new generation of fans. Idols perform opening songs for popular works and voice leading characters.

However, underneath the manufactured purity is a dark and terrible truth. Sex and the yakuza are the foundations of the “dreams” that are being sold to naive children and their poverty-stricken parents.

1The Yakuza Connection

Momoe Yamaguchi was Japan’s first big idol. Her career lasted from 1972 to 1980 before she retired.

The idol phenomenon began in the early ’70s. French starlet Sylvie Vartan was a teenage international sensation and amassed a huge following in Japan due to her musical and acting skills. It didn’t take long for the Japanese entertainment industry to become inspired and search for homegrown talent.

Teenage girls and boys were recruited based on their level of cuteness. Most attempts at manufacturing a star fizzled until Momoe Yamaguchi left an impression on the Star Tanjo! talent show.

While talent shows were being held in earnest, the yakuza were quick to exploit the craze. They employed Zegen, which were middleaged pimps posing as entertainment producers. Poor families from the countryside came to Tokyo and eagerly gave their consent to have their daughter pursue an idol career.

According to a tell-all book written by Shohei Sakakura, the lucky young girls would make brief appearances on variety shows. Predictably, their popularity would fade overnight. Still under contract, the girls would have to work as cabaret dancers or bar hostesses and eventually forced into prostitution.

This predatory action is rumored to have happened up through the ’90s, largely because idols were viewed as a fade. But things would change after Yasushi Akimoto appeared on the scene.

2Akimoto and Onyanko Club

Akimoto is viewed as a visionary. Before Onyanko Club, any attempts to producing a nation star failed outside of Momoe Yamaguchi. Onyanko Club infamously debuted on April 1, 1985 on the Yuuyake Nyan Nyan variety show. Eleven innocent looking high school girls were paraded on stage and coyly sang “please don’t take my school uniform off! No, no, no!!” to an aroused audience.

Akimoto tapped into his own sexual frustrations and predicted that other young men would do the same after Japan’s first wave of feminism. It’s an open secret that Akimoto is less of a record producer and more of a Zegen. He had strong connections with brothels and strip clubs in the ’70s, where he observed many young male fantasies fester. The schoolgirl look was the popular kink, which influenced Onyanko Club’s costumes. Their costumes weren’t provocative, but the steamy lyrics and coy protests from the singers are what fans ate up.Onyanko Club would disband in 1987 – only two years after their sultry debut.

Idols began to decline in the ’90s as Japanese rock, metal, and visual kei bands began dominating the scene and serious pop stars were increasingly in demand. It seemed like the cutesy idol fad was dead, but Akimoto once again saved the industry.

3AKB48 and Otaku Idols

The idol industry was in disarray and producers responded by creating younger groups. Speed and Morning Musume debuted with members as young as 12 years old. These groups are still fixtures within the industry, but AKB48 took idols towards unseen heights.

Akimoto debuted AKB48 in 2005 and marketed the group as “idols you can meet.” It was a revolutionary idea since previous idols didn’t make public appearances outside of concerts and TV guest spots.

AKB48 was a daring project. Not only would fans be able to meet the singers, but the idols would require having manufactured lives. In the past, an idol’s personal life was kept private outside of the press. But an AKB48 member’s life had to be controlled, which meant no dating and always projecting a well-behaved image. Any violation of the restrictions could lead to expulsion.

The manufactured “private lives” of AKB48 was a resounding success, and other production agencies have mimicked the model. Now, becoming an idol was akin to being an actor in a living theatrical production. You have to always remain in character if you want to stay in the industry.

Akimoto catered to the sexual frustrations of otaku. The need for physical contact was the next exploitable step.

4Sexual Manipulation and Abuse

Sakakura’s book implies that sexual abuse of idols is an open secret. Makura eigyo (sleeping with people to get ahead) is an exploitation tactic used by some managers on young male and female idols.

For example, if you want to graduate from being a junior member of a group, you have to sleep with certain people in power. Refusing can seriously damage one’s career, and often times an idol can be too young to understand the situation.

5Slave Contracts

The contracts idols sign at a young age are unscrupulous. Not only are their personal lives closely controlled, but their schedules are intentionally packed to prevent free-time.

A group of industry executives shared some of their tactics with J Spa under the condition of anonymity. A common tactic was to never show an idol their work schedule too far in advance to prevent them from making out-of-work plans. Another popular tactic was to pack days with as much work as possible – sometimes up to 20 hours. Onsite breaks and nap times were scheduled to prevent idols from looking too haggard during public appearances.

Once again, emotional and sexual manipulation is regularly used as a tactic. According to the executives, they would hire handsome men to work as hairstylists and makeup artists for female idols. Their “hearts could flutter,” without fears of a sexual scandal since only gay men were hired.

Anime serves as an introduction for many new fans, and not many people are aware of the manipulation that goes on behind the scenes. The iDOLM@STER and Love Live! are idealized versions of this beloved industry. Sadly, the truth is far more ugly.

 

References:

J SPA!

AKB48と日本のブラック企業 by Shohei Sakakura

Japan Subculture Research Center

BBC

The Japan Times

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Majored in Music @Duke, but realized that being a Jazz singer wasn't a real job. Now I spend my days watching anime and writing about the music industry. Glad to be in the new round of GB hires. Look forward to my coverage.
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