An idol (アイドル aidoru, a Japanese rendering of the English word "idol") is a young starlet manufactured and marketed for image, attractiveness, and personality in Japanese pop culture. In entertainment, idols are primarily singers, but they are also trained in a wide range of roles, such as acting, modeling, and appearing in variety shows.
An idol's main objective is to entertain and offer an escapism from daily life. Talent agencies commercialize idols by recruiting boys and girls with little or no prior experience in the entertainment industry, often as aspiring starlets with the intent of creating a passionate following. Many fans of idols see them as siblings or girl/boy next door types and empathize with the idols and enthusiastically follow their growth from ordinary, inexperienced amateurs to famous, experienced artists.
The term "idol" is used to describe manufactured starlets and is commonly used to refer to singers, but it can also be used to refer colloquially to young celebrities in general. Agencies commercialize idols by recruiting pre-teens and teenagers with little or no prior experience in the entertainment industry and market them as aspiring starlets with the intent to cultivate a dedicated fan following.
Idols are predominantly singers, but they are often trained in other skill sets in entertainment, such as acting, dancing, and modeling. Some talent agencies in Japan do not offer rigorous training, and idols often debut with the impression that they will gain more experience during their career, with fans brought into the narrative of supporting them throughout their journey. Many idol singers find success as groups rather than individually. Most idol singers work across genres of Japanese pop music, usually in the genre that is most popular at the moment, but they also have their own subculture of music. Because of this, idols are often not considered "serious" musicians or actors, and young stars interested in directly pursuing those entertainment fields reject the idol label in their desire to be seen as professionals. Many idols are expected to change career paths eventually, with most women changing careers at age 25 and men at ages 30–45.
Unlike television personalities, idols are marketed for their image, attractiveness, and personalities. An idol's main objective is to "sell dreams", or, entertain, offering an escapism from the troubles of daily life. As such, they are seen as role models to the public, and both their personal lives and image are tightly controlled by their talent agencies. Common restrictions include not being allowed to smoke or drink in public as well as pursue romantic relationships. Most idols often spend time isolated from family and friends while enduring busy work schedules, with some agencies withholding job assignments from their talents and notifying them at the last minute to prevent them from taking time off.
Subcategories of idols include gravure idols, female models in "cheesecake" photographs intended for the male audience; junior idols, gravure models under the age of 15 years; AV idols, female adult stars; net idols, starlets who gained popularity through the Internet; idol voice actors, voice actors of anime and video games who also hold an idol singing career; and virtual idols, fictional starlets with real-time activities.
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1970-1980: Post-war era and idol beginningsEdit
In November 1964, the 1963 French film Cherchez l'idole was released in Japan under the title Aidoru o Sagase (アイドルを探せ). Many Japanese audiences took interest in Sylvie Vartan, whose song "La plus belle pour aller danser" from the film sold more than a million copies in Japan. Vartan was heralded for her youthful, adorable looks and musical talent, leading the Japanese entertainment industry to assign the word "idol" to singers who shared a similar aesthetic.
Television greatly impacted the popularity of the idol phenomenon, as beginning in the 1970s, many idols were recruited through audition programs. Momoe Yamaguchi, Junko Sakurada, Saori Minami, and Mari Amachi, some of the idols recruited through television, were iconic figures of this era, along with groups such as Candies and Pink Lady. Music was produced by a shared climate of songwriters and art directors seeking a step towards a depoliticized youth culture. Idols grew in popularity over the 1970s, as they offered audiences escapism from political violence and radical student movements.
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.
1980-1990: Golden Age of IdolsEdit
The rapid growth of idols appearing in the pop music scene led the 1980s to be known as the "Golden Age of Idols", defined by Seiko Matsuda, Akina Nakamori, Kyoko Koizumi, and Onyanko Club. Popularized through Onyanko Club, the visual component became important to the overall enjoyment of idol music, leading to the music to become closely associated with television. Dentsu also created the "CM idol" business model, where idols were able to gain fame by singing and appearing in commercials. In a single year, as many as 40 or 50 new idols could appear, only to disappear from the public spotlight shortly afterwards. At the same time, male idols began appearing, but soon became unpopular after 1985 after the public became disillusioned with the idol system.
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.
1990-2000: Waning popularity and Chidol BoomEdit
In the 1990s, public interest in idols began to wane, as audiences lost interest in singing and audition programs. As a result, more young people yielded aspirations to be defined as an artist instead of an idol. The music industry also 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. In spite of this, Namie Amuro, who gained fame as the lead singer of Super Monkey's, found popularity among young girls who emulated her appearance. Male idols such as SMAP and other acts from Johnny's Entertainment became notable in the 1990s and drew in fans from in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Because of the lack of publicity over idols on television, many turned to the Internet. In the mid-1990s, there was an increase in young idols in the elementary school age, which the media described as the "Chidol (child idol) Boom." Idol groups like Speed and Morning Musume became prominent.
In the 1990s, instead of being marketed as people who lived better and were better than average, idols were viewed as everyday people. 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.
2000-present: Media crossovers and Idol Warring PeriodEdit
The 2000s saw the rise in popularity of idol groups again, with groups such as Arashi; Morning Musume's sister groups Berryz Kobo, Cute, and S/mileage; and AKB48. At the same time, there was also an increase in gravure idols, as well as crossovers with voice acting in anime. To celebrate the diversity of idols, AKB48, Shoko Nakagawa, and Leah Dizon performed a medley called "Special Medley: Latest Japan Proud Culture" at the 58th Kohaku Uta Gassen in 2007, introduced as "Akiba-style idols" with each act described as a different sub-genre of idols.
In the following years, a large number of idol groups debuted, beginning what media nicknamed the "Idol Warring Period" (アイドル戦国時代 Aidoru Sengoku Jidai). During 2014, about 486,000 people attended AKB48 and Momoiro Clover Z's 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 according to surveys by The Nikkei, while male idol group Arashi that was ranked as the most popular artist overall in Japan according to Oricon polls of 20,000 people.
Since 2010, the biggest idol concert festival, Tokyo Idol Festival, has taken place. More than 200 idol groups and about 1500 idols performed, attracting more than 80,000 spectators in 2017. There are more than 10,000 teenage girls who perform as idols in Japan in 2017. In 2019, there were over 3,000 female idol groups.
| 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.
Fans are built as active supporters into the narrative of the idol's journey to become a professional entertainer, viewing them as siblings, daughters/sons, or girl/boy next door types due to how easily they can relate to the public. The idol fan culture idealizes the idea of "moe", where vulnerability is seen as an attractive trait. Fans spend money on merchandise and endorsed products to directly support their favorites, comparing it to spending money on "loved ones"; some express feeling happy that they were able to make someone they admired happy. Dedicated fans may give up their careers and devote their life savings to supporting and following their favorite members. To foster a closeness between idols and fans, some talent agencies offer meet-and-greets in the form of handshake events, where fans have the opportunity to shake hands, take a photograph, and speak briefly with the idols. Because idols share an intimate relationship with their fans, fans may feel "betrayed" if idols reveal unfavorable parts of their personal lives contrary to their image or shatter the illusion that they are there exclusively for fans.
Male fans of idols who regularly participate in organized fan chants with accompanied movements are colloquially referred to as "wota" (ヲタ), derived from the word "otaku." Beginning in the 1980s, they formed "shineitai" cheering groups to support idols at concerts and public appearances. The fan chants and accompanied movements are known as wotagei. Along with fan chants, the idol fandom also cheers with glowsticks in the members' official colors to show solidarity.
Idols are a key part of media and advertising in Japan, with 50-70% of commercials in Japan featuring an idol. The "CM idol" business model, conceptualized by advertising agency Dentsu in the 1980s, uses idols' public image as a marketing asset. As the career of idols are dependent on their image, contracting offices create their image based upon trends in the market and with the intent of generating as much revenue as possible. Along with promoting products, commercials are also a cross-platform to promote idols at the same time by keeping both brand and idol product in the forefront of the consumers' minds. Pitches for commercials are often made with a specific idol who matches the company's image in mind. Idols contracted to particular brands are expected to uphold the brand's image and may not work for competiting brands or networks; the agreement extends to magazine advertisements, online videos, and appearances in dramas. Idols may also provide the music or jingle for commercials. The idol industry makes approximately $1 billion a year.
Beginning in the 1980s, companies would compete to secure contracts for idols in dramas, which led to the current four-season television cour in Japan. Variety, talk, and music shows also became popular, in part for featuring idols as guests or the stars of the show.
Anime and video gamesEdit
The idol industry has crossed over to voice acting in anime and video games. Early examples of voice actors who had an idol-like presence were Mobile Suit Gundam voice actors Toshio Furukawa and Toru Furuya in the 1970s, who gained a sizeable female following after forming their band, Slapstick. In the 1980s, idol singer Noriko Hidaka eventually became a voice actress after gaining recognition for playing lead in Touch. Beginning in the 1990s, several voice actors held successful concurrent singing careers alongside of voice acting, such as Hekiru Shiina, Mariko Kouda, and Megumi Hayashibara.
As the anime industry began producing more late-night series in the 2000s, the term "idol voice actor" was popularized when more voice actors with a cultivated fan following began appearing on television. While previous examples involved voice actors who incidentally drew in fans through their singing careers or former idol singers who turned to voice acting, Yui Horie, Yukari Tamura, and Nana Mizuki were intentionally produced and marketed as idol voice actors by their record labels. Around the time when the Idol Warring Period was occurring during the mid-to-late 2000s, there was a significant boom in idols voice acting in anime, with Oricon naming Aya Hirano and Koharu Kusumi as prominent examples, as both of them were established actresses and singers in mainstream Japanese entertainment before entering voice acting. While character song tie-ins were already common in the film industry by then, some voice actors also began making crossover television, stage, and concert appearances as their characters as well, leading them to be closely associated with one another.
In the late 2000s to the early 2010s, idol-themed multimedia projects, such as Love Live!, The Idolmaster, and Uta no Prince-sama, became popular and brought focus to both voice actors and the characters they portrayed. Fictional idols with financial marketing and real-life musical success that also popularized idols in mainstream anime included Hatsune Miku and Ranka Lee from Macross Frontier. The term "2.5D", which picked up frequent usage in the mid-2010s, was used to describe voice actors who would portray their characters in real life, such as television or stage plays. Music produced by voice actor idols and fictional idols have crossed over to mainstream music charts, while fictional idols have been treated like real-life celebrities. Idol-themed anime and video game series have been compared to the sports genre in anime due to a similar competitive nature and team-building the characters face, as well as being linked to the Odagiri effect for featuring attractive people of the same gender interacting with each other.
The idol fan culture is heavily tied to anime and manga, and most fans of anime are also fans of idols. The idea of "moe", which was popularized by anime, can be projected onto both idols and fictional characters, linking the two. Some may prefer fictional idols due to them never disbanding, leaving groups, or getting into scandals. A 2004 and 2005 study by the Nomura Research Institute revealed that idol fans were the second largest group of otaku interests, with anime being first.
The idol system has been criticized for its strict rules, intense work schedules, and offering idols little control over their personal lives. The system has been likened to salarymen in Japan who are unable to disobey their employers. In addition to this, Rob Schwartz from Billboard addressed that Japanese mainstream media outlets rarely bring attention to controversies and allegations of power harassment due to self-censorship on what they are allowed to write. Sasetsu Takeda of GQ Japan wrote that talent agencies dismiss idols regardless of their popularity, sometimes intentionally blocking job offers in order to pressure them to leave, all while declaring that they are "resting from illness" to the public. Independently-managed idol groups offer even little protection, with idols given ambiguously-worded contracts that keep them in their companies for years, while offering almost no pay and compensation for transportation and costuming fees.
Work schedules for idols have been criticized for being excessive, as idols are expected to work even when sick. Miki Gonobe from Nikkan Sports noted that idols generally do not have a labor union and agencies see no need for one, as they view idol activities akin to extracurricular activities at school. She voiced concerns about young girls becoming idols at an early age, especially elementary school students. In addition, Sasetsu Takeda of GQ Japan criticized some idol managements for intentionally preventing their talents from taking time off, mentioning it "strange" that idols are only notified of their assignments the night before. He also condemned the idol industry for not providing talents access to better mental health resources, as idols are often suspended or dismissed for publicly showing they are stressed out of concern that they may cause fans to feel worried or upset.
In order to sell a fantasy of being accessible to their fans, most idols are not allowed to form romantic relationships and must obtain permission from their agencies to get married, which has been criticized for being inhumane. The Japan Times noted that aside from talent agencies, idol fan culture has contributed to this, especially with male fans of female idols; male fans buy into the idea of "moe", which fetishizes weakness and submissiveness while asserting "complete control" over the girls' sexual independence. Since handshake and other related events allow fans to be in close proximity with idols, critics also believe that marketing the idols' accessibility may cause fans to be unable to distinguish between fantasy and real-life. Talent agencies have also been criticized over offering inadequate protection towards idols after several incidents of violent attacks on female idols such as the saw attack on Anna Iriyama and Rina Kawaei (AKB48), the stabbing of Mayu Tomita and the Maho Yamaguchi (NGT48) assault.
Selective list of notable idols and idol groupsEdit
Idols with total record sales of more than 10 million
|Name||Years active||Genre||Studio albums||Sales|
|Seiko Matsuda||1980–present (39 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 (47 years)||Kayōkyoku / J-pop / R&B||40||15 million|
|Kenji Sawada||1967–present (52 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 (37 years)||Kayōkyoku / J-pop||26||14 million|
|Hideki Saijo||1972–2009 (37 years)||J-pop||24||13 million|
|Toshihiko Tahara||1979–present (40 years)||J-pop||24||12 million|
|Masahiko Kondō||1980–present (38 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 (13 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 (26 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|
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