Just Who Exactly Was Momoe Yamaguchi, the Popular Idol Who “Sang” Realistic Stories About Everyday People? —— The “Kawaii Theory 2.0” #7

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Just Who Exactly Was Momoe Yamaguchi, the Popular Idol Who “Sang” Realistic Stories About Everyday People? —— The “Kawaii Theory 2.0”  #7

We’ve finally reached the point in this series related to discussing idols. With the arrival of Japan’s consumerist society in the 70s came the first wave of the “kawaii” (“cute”) revolution. Following the explosive hit of character-themed items from Sanrio and the like during this time, girls everywhere had a desire for “cuteness”, which turned into a commodity to be consumed, with women’s magazine an・an at the forefront of “kawaii” culture. “Cute” became a symbol, and with it, the creation of “kawaii” culture followed.

Read the previous volume/

The Magazine “Olive” Made Japanese Girls Aware of The Rare Value of Girlhood and Maidenhood : The “Kawaii 2.0” Theory vol.6

Read older posts
vol.1 : Finding Where “Cuteness” Currently Lies
vol.2 : What is the Exact Origin of “Kawaii”?
vol.3 : Kawaii Culture Didn’t Exist at the Beginning of the Modern Age?!
vol.4 : Consumerist Society and the Birth of “Kawaii” Culture
vol.5 : The Word “Kawaii” Becomes Just for Girls, to Re-affirm Their Girliness

And then, as “kawaii” started appearing in television, it finally began to break out from the girls’ culture frame surrounding it, and became a dwelling place for idols. As a result, the nature of idols began to change. You can see this when comparing Momoe Yamaguchi from the 70s and Seiko Matsuda from the 80s, the stars of their decade.

Seiko Matsuda

Seiko Matsuda

In fact, comparing the two was one of the central issues of 80s idol theory, and one that appeared in countless works and articles. Critic Masaaki Hiraoka sought to elevate Momoe Yaguchi to a god-like status in his essay called “Bosatsu Irai – Idol wo Sagase” / “Finding Idols After Buddha (and book titled Yamaguchi Momoe wa Bosatsu de Aru / Momoe Yamaguchi is Buddha), and feminist Chikako Ogura, who positively affirmed the life of Seiko Matsuda, garnered major attention for her “Seiko Matsuda Theory”. Additionally, Tatsuo Inamasu, discussed why each one embodied their era by comparing them side-by-side in Idol Kogaku (Idol Engineering). According to Inamasu, “They both embodied the spirit of the 70s and 80s, respectively, highlighting each era’s differences, in addition to their extremely effective subject matter.” So why don’t we first take a look at Momoe Yamaguchi.


Momoe Yamaguchi

Momoe Yamaguchi’s presence was a greatly profound one in the 70s mainstream music scene. She was perhaps the first talent in Japan to give rise to the idol culture phenomenon. She made her debut in 1973 with the song “Toshigoro”. However, the emotional intensity and was absent from the music of her early years. Along with her formidable voice, she poetically and gracefully captured the feelings of a young woman. From “Yokosuka Story” (1976) onwards, the power of her music shook listeners. During the two years between this single and her image song “Playback Part 2” (1978) is a period where critic Masaaki Hiraoka records her during three types of growth, including “maturing from a girl into a woman”, “absorbing all the good qualities of newer music and introducing it into pop music, all the while dominating popular music”, and “winning over a man”.


Playback Part 2

Yamaguchi’s music deeply reflects her path in life. Growing up fatherless and with little money, she finally became an idol and star looked up to by everyone. In light of her upbringing, her voice contained a “strong will to live”, which resonated with many of her fans. It was this realness that elevated her to the top of pop music. Tatsuo Inamasu says from this, Yamaguchi “broke the stereotype that defined female idols as dress up dolls”, and that “among the diversification of values in the 70s, she perpetuated the image that the Momoe you saw was her actual self”.

Many were captivated by Momoe Yamaguchi’s narrative and the rawness of her reality as an idol. Then, finally, she marries and becomes a mother, completing the story created by those on the other side of the TV screen. The image of her at her retirement concert, bowing to her fans before gently setting her microphone down at the center of the stage and then walking away with her back turned, is one that would be broadcast for years to come, and one that this author, who was born in the 80s, vividly remembers.

Reflecting on this, you could say Momoe Yamaguchi was trying to protect her real, raw story and the image she exhibited (her real image). This is one reason why Yamaguchi’s talent was able to exceed beyond a social phenomenon and grow into a cultural one. It’s also the conclusion Inamasu draws in Idol Engineering.

Yet this begs one question. Momoe Yamaguchi was an idol. This is something a majority of spokespersons on the subject agree on. However, she was nothing like the image of idols selling “cuteness” we imagine nowadays. In fact, for all of Hiraoka’s exhausted talk about Yamaguchi’s charm and talent, and her influence on Japanese pop, nowhere can the word “kawaii” be found in “Momoe Yamaguchi is Buddha”. This might be because, in the 70s, idols and “cuteness” were not all that closely associated, or alternatively, people didn’t expect idols to be “cute” to such an extent.


Momoe Yamaguchi is Buddha

In the 70s, the “kawaii” revolution was born, or what I propose we call the first wave of the “kawaii” revolution. However, it hadn’t become strong enough force to impact the idols of the 70s. We’ll have to wait until we reach the 80s to see the current intimate relationship between idols and “cuteness” as we know it. So, you’ll have to wait until the appearance of Seiko Matsuda. Only then will mission for the first wave of the “kawaii” be complete.

Translated by Jamie Koide


Writer, Book Reviewer. Having the degree of MA. (Japanese Literature) I love Japanese Girl's Popular Music, such as YUKI, Chara, Makoto Kawamoto, and Seiko Oomori.

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