Innumerable idols and idol groups in Japan vie fiercely with each other in a free-for-all today. They range from ever-so popular and much-talked-about AKB48 and its sister groups, Momoiro Clover Z who give furious live performances unlike the ones presented by idols and Morning Musume who still have many fixed fans to SUPER GiRLS and Tokyo Girls' Style from the Avex Group that swept the J-Pop world in the 90's and underground idol groups who perform many small-scale live concerts in Tokyo's Akihabara.
A brief look at the history of Japanese idols may lead you to notice one prominent trend. Idols who were once called stars gave a push to Japan's postwar recovery, reached their climax amid the country's high economic growth in the 70's and 80s and began to decline in 1988 just before the bubble economy burst. No popular idols emerged during the recession in the 90s. One may say that the popularity of idols can be swayed by the boom-and-bust cycle of the economy. There were idols in the 90s. But both their work and genre got so much segmented that they ate each other to fall into subsidence. In other words, idols tend to flourish in an economic boom. Does today's turbulent age for idols point to an economic recovery?
The word "idol" essentially means an icon, a person or a thing that is revered, adored or highly loved. It has become a synonym for a "young popular person".
The first Japanese idol was Hibari Misora who helped to brighten the gloomy days across Japan immediately after the war. But in those days, she was called a star, not an idol. Saori Minami who debuted in the 70s was called "a favorite of teens". Later when pop songwriter Yu Aku started promoting Momoe Yamaguchi, Jyunko Sakurada and Masako Mori as "hana no chu 3 trio (trio of 9th-grade flowers)", he used the word idol hoping that they would be familiar and closer to the fans than a star. Pink Lady and Candies were already idols when they came on stage.
The word idol had perfectly settled by the time Seiko Matsuda, Akina Nakamori and Kyoko Koizumi made their appearances in the 80's as talents specializing in pop tunes for younger generations.
Idols began to change in terms of features in 1980 as every person came to possess a TV set in each household. More people began to see idols as talents in their salad days rather than hot tickets hard to get closer to. Yasushi Akimoto, the producer for AKB48, capitalized on this new trend when he sent out Onyanko Club. He highlighted their approachability commonly seen in classmates by overturning the traditional image of idols being an existence far beyond the reach of people at large.
Today, there are more idols and idol groups who sell their familiarity and accessibility, with AKB48 leading the way. Many of them are far more familiar than Onyanko Club. They frequently appear in events like handshake sessions and make a fuller use of SNSs like blogs and Twitter in a bid to bring themselves closer their fans. Meanwhile, underground idol groups have forged a system where they count on their fixed fans by getting in close and frequent contact with them.
Japanese were made to realize the reality upon the collapse of the bubble economy. Maybe they are going after dreams easier to reach rather than chasing ones beyond their reach. Today's idols and those in their heyday may look alike in appearance but are quite different from each other in substance.
Written by: Yudai Kodera