In Japanese pop culture "idol" (アイドル aidoru, a Japanese rendering of the English word "idol") is a term typically used to refer to young manufactured stars/starlets marketed to be admired for their cuteness. Idols are intended to be role models. They are supposed to maintain a good public image and be good examples for young people. Idols aim to play a wide range of roles as media personalities (tarento): e.g. pop singers, panelists of variety programs, bit-part actors, models for magazines and advertisements.
The term is commercialized by Japanese talent agencies, that hold auditions for boys and girls with little or no prior experience in the entertainment industry, often as aspiring stars/starlets to be adored for their sweetness and innocence with the intent of creating a passionate following. Most idol singers work across genres of Japanese pop music, usually in the genre that is most popular at the moment, but since many idols sing cute sentimental songs, one can say that those kind of idols form a sort of music genre of their own. Their songs typically do not require great singing skills; their popular appeal comes largely from the attractiveness of their public image. Idols are often not considered "serious" musicians or "serious" actors. Consequently, many young stars now reject the idol label in their desire to be seen as professionals rather than as objects of fanatical devotion.
Many Japanese people who are fans of female idols see them as akin to sisters or girl next door types; they empathise with the idols and love the way in which they are presented as ordinary kids who happened to become popular, enthusiastically following their growth from inexperienced amateurs to famous experienced artists.
The biggest annual idol concert festival is the Tokyo Idol Festival (TIF) held since 2010. More than 200 idol groups and about 1500 idols performed, attracting more than 80,000 spectators in 2017.
Ambiguity of the term
There is some debate about what an idol is, in part because they are so ubiquitous in Japanese media. They are seen everywhere, and with such a broad range of abilities such as singing, acting, and dance, that they overlap with other forms of celebrity. They are similar to tarento in that they perform in various roles in various forms of media. But tarento are more well known simply for being famous rather than any sort of ability.Tarento serve as a view of the ordinary Japanese person and often provide commentary such as celebrity panels that help viewers interpret and absorb information. Idols, on the other hand, are the focus of the entertainment. Details about their personal lives are revealed in interviews, and they are the celebrity that fan bases and thus market bases are built upon.
Although idols are often defined as something like "young manufactured stars/starlets", there are idols who transgress the boundaries of such a definition, like members of the group Arashi, who are in their mid thirties (34 ~ 37), or idols who use the Internet to produce themselves.
The term is commercialized by Japanese talent agencies, that hold auditions for boys and girls with little or no prior experience in the entertainment industry and market them as idols, often as a sort of aspiring stars/starlets to be adored for their sweetness and innocence and to have a frenzied following. Whether a person is categorized as an idol depends on how he or she got into the entertainment business and whether he or she is promoted as being an idol. Some entertainment (mostly music production) companies and music projects specialize in idols, and they automatically market everyone they sign as an idol. Such idol music projects have their own steady following, i.e., idol fans who prefer the style of one particular project they support. But bigger companies can choose, for example, not to refer to a new pop group they create as an idol group. As a result, there are some girl groups and boy bands with practically the same kind of fan following that are not idols according to their official profiles.
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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 Aidoru wo sagase (アイドルを探せ) in November 1964. The term came to be applied to any cute actress or female 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 popularity of female Japanese idols began to wane. The music industry shifted towards rock musicians and singers for whom music was a more important sales point than looks or wholesomeness, and towards genres such as rap that were harder to match with conventional prettiness. At the same time, the popularity of male Japanese idols, such as SMAP, Kinki Kids, Tokio, and V6, grew. They gained high popularity in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Initially the term "idol" arose to describe very young newly emerging female singers who were noted for their innocence and freshness and sang cute songs. A diversification occurred in the 1990s and instead of few idols vying for popularity, a number of idols with specific characteristics divided the market. There is, however, an opinion that it is incorrect to use the word in this broader meaning and that an idol by definition should have some kind of fanatical overexcited following, something that a minor magazine model can't achieve. In the mid-1990s, idols became much younger than before, and groups of idols like Speed and Morning Musume became prominent. 
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, by gaining popularity. Some are still involved with the video game industry, though they are not always entirely successful.
The 2000s saw the rise in popularity of idol groups such as Arashi, a boy band formed in 1999 and produced by Johnny & Associates, and Hey! Say! JUMP, a band formed in 2007 and the largest group to debut in Johnny's history with ten members. 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".
In the following years several new idol groups appeared: Momoiro Clover, S/mileage (another Hello! Project group), SKE48 (a sister group of AKB48), Tokyo Girls' Style and many other groups debuted. A TV-based group Idoling!!! has its own program on Fuji TV and gets some popularity. The fiercely competitive situation in the Japanese idol scene is called "Idol sengoku jidai" (アイドル戦国時代; lit. Idol war age). In 2011, Momoiro Clover changed its name to Momoiro Clover Z and gained popularity more than before. During 2014, about 486,000 people attended their live concerts, which was the highest record of all female musicians in Japan. Momoiro Clover Z has been ranked as the most popular female idol group from 2013 to 2017. The group is known for its energetic dance performances. They are heavily choreographed and feature acrobatic stunts, also incorporating elements of ballet, gymnastics and action movies. Momoiro Clover Z, as many other Japanese idol groups, use color(ja) to facilitate the identification of the members and to make an individual character more clear.
| Cute - Cutie Circuit 2011|
Fans are swaying glow sticks in the color of their favorite band member and cheering their idols with chants. When a Cute member sings a solo line, everyone shouts her name. (For example, from 2:11: "Maimi!", "Airi!, "Maimi!", "Airi!")
| Momoiro Clover - "Z Densetsu".|
The audience is filled with fans dressed in the color or their favorite Momoiro Clover Z member.
| Babymetal - "Gimme Chocolate!!"|
Trio Babymetal combines idol music with heavy metal.
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The culture of Japanese idols has changed over the decades 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.
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 is considered to have been 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 little opportunity 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 release 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.
Besides being cute, idols present an image of purity, as defined by Japanese culture. Among other things, this means that idols should not have boyfriends or girlfriends and should 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. 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 as opposed to merely being admired for their looks and image.
The idol singer fandom has particular features like supporting and cheering favorite artists on stage by performing so called wotagei (chanting and glowstick swaying reminiscent of cheerleading). One can say that the idol fandom is a subculture, like heavy metal or such.
Media and economic influence
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The influence of idols in Japanese culture is complex due to various factors. Idols are seen everywhere in Japan from television advertising, dramas, films, variety shows, to magazine ads, posters in shopping malls, and train stations, not to mention concerts and fan events. The image of what an idol is affects every aspect of their career, and the idol's contracting office or jimusho are responsible for crafting this image and marketing the idol. The image of an individual idol is crafted based upon fluctuations in the market and is crafted to generate as much revenue as possible, and their image is what is presented to the public.
The proliferation of idols in Japanese media today reveals how tightly tied media such as television and idols are to the economy in Japan. Idols are used to advertise products much like other celebrities around the world. Idols are a key part of advertising in Japan with 50-70% of commercials featuring an idol. The commercials themselves are promoting a product, but are also promoting the idol. Pitches for commercials are often made with a specific idol in mind, one that matches with the image of the company, and the product being advertised. Idols sign contracts with strict agreements not to do things that could damage the image of the company, or to work for a competitor. They are even prohibited from appearing in television dramas sponsored by the competition and will often be required to appear in dramas sponsored by their contract company. However, they do not endorse products like celebrities in other countries, they simply lend their image to the product being advertised. These advertisements serve to promote both the idol and the product by keeping both at the forefront of consumers’ minds. These contracts are for a brand with cross-platform advertising, meaning that idols are involved in more than television commercials for a product. Magazine ads, online videos, and appearances in dramas, and other advertising all constitute part of this agreement.
Idols have also shaped the development of television programs in Japan. Beginning in the 1980s there was a shift in Japanese television production. Companies would compete to secure contracts for dramas which lead to the current four-season system of television in Japan. Variety, talk, and music shows also became popular, in part for featuring idols as guests or the stars of the show. Idols also began providing the image music for commercials. These different forms of media served to promote and further strengthen the ties between idols, advertising, and media.
Selective list of notable idols and idol groups
Idols with total record sales of more than 10 million
|Name||Years active||Genre||Studio albums||Sales|
|Seiko Matsuda||1980–present (38 years)||Kayōkyoku / J-pop / Jazz||51||29 million|
|Akina Nakamori||1982–1989, 1990–2010,
2014–present (32 years)
|Kayōkyoku / J-pop||25||25 million|
|Momoe Yamaguchi||1973–1980 (8 years)||Kayōkyoku||22||16 million|
|Hiromi Go||1972–present (46 years)||Kayōkyoku / J-pop / R&B||40||15 million|
|Kenji Sawada||1967–present (51 years)||J-pop / Kayōkyoku / Glam rock||45||15 million|
|Shizuka Kudo||1987–present (31 years)||Kayōkyoku / J-pop||17||14 million|
|Kyōko Koizumi||1982–present (36 years)||Kayōkyoku / J-pop||26||14 million|
|Hideki Saijo||1972–2009 (37 years)||J-pop||24||13 million|
|Toshihiko Tahara||1979–present (39 years)||J-pop||24||12 million|
|Masahiko Kondō||1980–present (37 years)||J-pop / Kayōkyoku||20||12 million|
|Tomomi Kahara||1995–2006, 2013–present (17 years)||J-pop||6||12 million|
Idol groups with total record sales of more than 10 million
|Name||Number of members||Years active||Genre||Studio albums||Sales|
|AKB48||Rotational||2005–present (12 years)||J-pop||9||53 million|
|SMAP||6 → 5||1988–2016 (27 years)||J-pop / R&B||21||37 million|
|Arashi||5||1999–present (19 years)||J-pop / R&B / Hip hop||16||30 million|
|KinKi Kids||2||1993–present (25 years)||J-pop||15||26 million|
|Morning Musume||Rotational||1997–present (21 years)||J-pop / EDM / Dance-pop||15||22 million|
|Speed||4||1996–2000, 2008–2012 (10 years)||J-pop / Dance / R&B / Hip hop||5||19 million|
|Pink Lady||2||1976–1981, 1984, 1989, 1996–1997,
2003–2005, 2010–2017 (20 years)
|Kayōkyoku / Disco / J-pop||8||17 million|
|The Checkers||7||1980–1992 (12 years)||Rockabilly / Doo-wop||10||15 million|
|Nogizaka46||Rotational||2011–present (7 years)||J-pop||4||13 million|
|Hikaru Genji||8 → 7||1987–1995 (9 years)||J-pop||20||12 million|
|V6||6||1995–present (23 years)||J-pop||13||12 million|
Selective list by project or talent agency
- NOGIZAKA46 LLC
- Stardust Promotion
- Up Front Promotion (Hello! Project)
- Avex Management
- Johnny & Associates
- DD Corporation
Some idol groups (e.g. Morning Musume, AKB48 and its sister groups, Sakura Gakuin, and Super Girls) have a rotating member system, with members leaving when they get older (or when they want to start a career, or many of them leave to simply concentrate on their school activities and return to the life of an ordinary teen). Such idol groups and idol projects are usually created as a result of an audition and regularly hold new auditions for members to take the place of the ones who left.
Net and virtual idols
A new genre of idols called net idols became known in the late 1990s, only appearing on websites. Even today, net idol groups are being created[example needed] with the hopes of gaining popularity and fame outside Japan in the same way that professional idol groups do. Many have received widespread attention[example needed] due to a recent spike in popularity for the last few years.
In 1997 Kyoko Date appeared as the first "cyber idol" or "virtual idol". Kyoko Date has a fabricated history and statistics and her own songs. 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. Other examples of this new category are Love Live! and The Idolmaster franchises.
- AV idol
- Gravure idol
- Junior idol
- Korean idol
- Net idol
- Teen idol
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