In Japanese culture, female idols (アイドル aidoru ) are media personalities in their teens and twenties who are considered particularly attractive or cute and who will, for a period ranging from several months to a few years, regularly appear in the mass media, e.g. as singers for pop groups, bit-part actors, TV personalities (tarento), models in photo spreads published in magazines, advertisements, etc. But not every young celebrity is considered an idol. Young celebrities who wish to cultivate a rebellious image, such as many rock musicians, reject the "idol" label.
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The idol phenomenon began during the early 1970s, reflecting a boom in Japan for the musician Sylvie Vartan in the French film Cherchez l'idole in 1963, with Japanese title (アイドルを探せ Aidoru wo sagase ) in November 1964. The term came to be applied to any cute female actress or singer, or any cute male singer. Teenage girls, mostly between 14 and 16, and teenage males, mostly between 15 and 18, began rising to stardom. One in particular, Momoe Yamaguchi, was a huge star until her marriage and retirement in 1980. Idols dominated the pop music scene in the 1980s, and this period is known as the "Golden Age of Idols in Japan". In a single year, as many as 40 or 50 new idols could appear, only to disappear from the public spotlight shortly afterwards. A few idols from that era, such as Seiko Matsuda, are still popular. In the 1990s, the power of female Japanese idols began to wane, as the music industry shifted towards rock musicians and singers for whom music was a more important sales point than looks or wholesomeness, as well as towards genres such as rap that were harder to square with conventional prettiness. At the same time, the power of male Japanese idols, such as SMAP, Kinki Kids, Tokio, and V6, grew. The Japanese idol phenomenon has had a large impact on popular culture especially in Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and other Asian and non-Asian Countries.
Namie Amuro used to be an idol in the early 1990s, although marketed as sexier and more mature than other idols. She began her career in 1992 as a vocalist for the pop group Super Monkeys, but the group flopped very quickly. Producers liked Amuro and in 1995 she went solo as an artist rather than an idol, enjoying massive success. In 1997 she went on a one-year hiatus because of her pregnancy.
A diversification occurred in the 1990s and instead of few idols vying for popularity, a number of idols with specific characteristics divided the market. In the mid-1990s, idols became much younger than before, and groups of idols like Speed and Morning Musume became prominent. A new genre of idols called Net Idols became known in the late 1990s, only appearing on websites. In 1997 there appeared Kyoko Date, the first "cyber idol" or "virtual idol". Kyoko Date has a fabricated history and statistics and her own songs. Meanwhile, gurabia aidoru (グラビアアイドル, i.e. "[photo] gravure idols") such as Yoko Matsugane, Rio Natsume and Eiko Koike have largely appeared skimpily clad in "cheesecake" photographs.
The 2000s saw the rise in popularity of Arashi, a boy band formed in 1999 and produced by Johnny & Associates, Inc., the largest male idol talent agency. The year 2002 saw the addition of the Hello! Project Kids, who later formed Hello! Project idol groups Berryz Kobo and C-ute, sister groups to Morning Musume.
In 2007 NHK Kouhaku Utagassen, "Idol group from Akihabara" AKB48, "Otaku idol" Shoko Nakagawa, "Idol from the U.S." Leah Dizon performed a medley called "Special Medley: Latest Japan Proud Culture" together, introduced as "Akiba-kei idols", while Hello! Project groups, including Morning Musume, haven't participated in this program since 2008. In 2008, "Near Future Technopop Unit" Perfume, which got famous with their hit song of that year "Polyrhythm", sang on the stage for the first time.
In 2010, some new idol groups appear, such as Momoiro Clover, another Hello! Project group S/mileage, a sister group of AKB48 SKE48. From Avex, which held girls' groups like MAX, Folder5, Dream, a teenage idol group Tokyo Girls' Style made debut. A TV-based group Idoling!!! has its own program on Fuji TV, as the main stage of Onyanko Club was Fuji TV's Yuuyake Nyan Nyan before, and gets some popularity. In 2011, Momoiro Clover changed its name to Momoiro Clover Z and gained popularity more than before. Their energetic performances incorporate elements of ballet, gymnastics, and action movies. The current situation in the Japanese idol scene is called "Idol sengoku jidai" (アイドル戦国時代; lit. Idol war age).
Whereas in previous years an idol kept up her idol image until she chose to retire or was simply too old to continue being a credible idol, in recent years several ex-idols have successfully matured from being an idol to becoming full-fledged actresses, singers or musicians who are respected for their craft instead of (or in addition to) being admired for their looks and image.
Since 2007, a new category of idol, the "Virtual Idol", is growing popular in Japan. Thanks to the advent of Vocaloid 2 and its famous character Hatsune Miku, the "Virtual Idol" is enjoying great popularity, gaining a solid fan base. This new type of idols, in addition to the usual media, often receive adaptations in other dedicated media spanning anime, manga, novel, video games, etc.
Another example of this new category is The Idolmaster franchise.
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Besides being cute, idols present an image of purity, as defined by Japanese culture. Among other things, this means that idols must not have boyfriends or girlfriends and must appear to be entirely inexperienced romantically and sexually. Occasionally, a Japanese publication will publish an exposé in which an idol is revealed to have a romantic partner, usually accompanied by grainy pictures of the idol kissing or holding hands with the partner. If the idol's agency cannot plausibly deny the allegation or explain away the evidence, the idol's career is badly damaged and sometimes comes to a quick end.
The culture of Japanese idols has changed over the years and it is questionable whether past idols would have the same amount of success if given the same opportunity today. Most of those called idols have sung songs that would fit J-pop and they are generally considered to be pretty, cute, or fresh-faced, if not beautiful. However, there are exceptions to the norm.
In the 1970s, idols had an aura of mystique that left much of their lifestyles secret. Their public and "private" lives were carefully orchestrated—they always appeared perfect in all situations and seemed to enjoy a lavish lifestyle that most Japanese could only dream about. In reality, however, they were placed under continuous surveillance by their promoters and were unable to enjoy the private lives invented for them. Their pay was surprisingly low. They were often overworked and even if their songs sold well most of the money went to the musicians and writers. Fans had few opportunities to see them beyond a few minutes on TV or radio and it was difficult to share their interests. Magazines were the best source for information and many idols had an official fan club that periodically mailed what little information would be released.
In the 1980s, idols became much closer to average Japanese people; this is likely because the average lifestyle of the Japanese improved. While still tightly controlled, idols were allowed to show more of their actual personalities and were permitted to let out some carefully scripted outbursts. The media often fabricated "competitions" between two or more idols, based on things like the number of records sold, the number of fans in the official fan club, etc. In the late 1980s, instead of relying on magazines and TV, some started experimenting with new media and technologies like video games, with mixed results. The working conditions of idols improved and even those with limited success could live modestly and more of the money made was paid to idols themselves, though they still only received a small portion.
In the 1990s, instead of being marketed as people who lived better and were better than average, idols became people who just happened to have a little something to become popular. Where the tastes of past idols had to be saccharine, it was now acceptable for an idol to simply love eating ramen or to display something other than a smile, to lament having got a little out of shape or to admit to shopping around for lower prices. Idols also became a fixture in countless anime by singing opening or ending songs that have little relevance to the anime itself. Some experimented with being voice actors, and so voice actors themselves became somewhat like idols, becoming increasingly popular. Even today, some are still involved with the video game industry, though they are not always entirely successful.
Some female idols are symbols of female sexuality and are often dressed erotically. For this reason they are often idolized by both males and females. Male audiences' infatuations with an idol's good looks are fed with detailed information about the idol's measurements, favorite colors, food, hobbies, blood type, etc. Female audiences are interested in imitating their style, hair color, fashion, etc. However, in what most Europeans would see to be a contradictory stance, this interest in the detail is accompanied by a simultaneous apparent disinterest in the truth of this detail as it is presented. This is most starkly shown in terms of age. For example, it is widely acknowledged that many idols are older than the u19 or u15 categories that they are placed within. There is also an accompanying playfulness with age that one might not ordinarily associate with the stereotypical rigidity of Japanese culture. The popular idol magazine 'Beppin', for example, is happy to associate a widely different age to the same model on consecutive pages of the same edition. This seems not to bother Japanese fans who understand that the model's details are a role. It can also be associated with ideas that lie deeper within Japanese culture: Firstly, the idealization of youth which is reflected in such things as 'cutesie' adult fashions and the portrayal by women of themselves (in terms of dress and manner) as younger than they are. Secondly, it can be seen as part of a Japanese tradition of developing roles within roles; this can be seen in the behaviour of the masked Geisha and in Kabuki theater.
Notable idols and idol groups
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- Seiko Matsuda (24 Consecutive Oricon number 1 singles, Record holder for 22 years, Oricon poll Number 1 Idol of all time. Coined the 'Forever Idol')
- Pink Lady (Had a streak of nine number one hits from 1976 to 1978, with five being multi million selling)
- Onyanko Club (First idol group to rotate members and have sub-groups)
- Candies (group) (Candies succeeded as a trio group in Japan for the first time. Candies final concert in 1978 was presented on television and got 32% high audience rating.)
- Active idols and idol groups
- Hello! Project
- Morning Musume (Longest running female idol group, holds record for most consecutive top 10 singles (54) for any Japanese artist.)
- Berryz Kobo (Youngest solo concert at Saitama Super Arena, 20 top 10 hits to date)
- Cute (Japan Record Award for Best New Artist winner, having a streak of 22 top 10 singles)
- S/mileage (Japan Record Award for Best New Artist winner)
- AKB48 (Guinness World Record holder for being the "largest pop group", two-times Japan Record Grand Prix winner)
- Stardust Promotion
- Avex management
- List of Japanese idols
- List of Japanese gravure idols
- Gravure idol
- Junior idol
- Teen idol
- AV idol
- South Korean idol
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