For those of you who are idol fans or even a bit interested in Japanese pop culture, what goes through your mind when you see or hear the words “ren’ai kinshi” (恋愛禁止)? Loosely translated as “love prohibition” or “love ban”, it is an unwritten rule in the world of Japanese entertainment, most often referring to the world of idols and the expectation that they are not to be publicly involved in romantic relationships.
Perhaps the most famous example of this was in February of 2013 when Minami Minegishi uploaded a video apology onto AKB48’s official YouTube channel after cutting off all of her hair. She was reported by the tabloid Shukan Bunshun to have spent the night at the home of Alan Shirahama, a member of the EXILE subgroup GENERATIONS. The video racked up millions of views in just a few days and sent shockwaves which reverberated across the ocean as press outlets all over the world reported on her punishment for the offense as bizarre and inhumane. Even though Minegishi said that she did out of shock when she heard of the report (head-shaving is an act of repentance in Japanese culture), many were quick to pass judgement as the founding member of AKB48 was also demoted to a Kenkyuusei.
It seems like a paradox doesn’t it? Japan has hundreds of idol groups performing songs about love every day yet they are forbidden by an unwritten rule to actually experience it publicly. AKB48 even made a series of games where the player goes on dates with the members of their groups! Going back to even before songs such as Onyanko Club’s “Sailor Fuku wo Nugasanaide” back in the 1980’s and continuing into the present day, one of the defining traits of idols is how they balance cute youthful innocence with just a bit of adult flirtatiousness to drive fans wild and keep them coming back for more.
Instead of making generalizations about how the fans are wrong for unrealistically expecting idols to be pure while others fantasize about dating them or how other cultures are much more forgiving about such things, we decided that it would be best to take some time to examine why this practice exists in Japanese entertainment. In order to get a wide range of opinions on this issue, we sent out surveys to several of our contributors and media partners and we got back 20 sets of answers. Due to the mildly overwhelming response, it was decided that one article was not enough to cover everything we wanted to. In this installment, we will look at why it is important for idols to be so accessible and approachable to fans.
Here are the participants for our survey.
Academics researching Japanese pop culture: “Dr. Bishojo”, Dr. Jayson M. Chun
Idols are known to be close to fans, or at least present themselves as close, in staged interactions such as handshake events and on social media. Why do you think that they do this?
With over 200 idols (groups and soloists) active all over Japan, the market has grown immensely. The days of there being a soloist like Seiko Matsuda or Akina Nakamori are long gone. No longer are idols dependent on appearing on television or magazines to get their name out. Japan is one of the leading countries when it comes to Twitter adoption and it is unusual for someone who is famous in Japan to not be on it. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu ranks in at #2 with over 4 million followers and AKB48’s Haruna Kojima comes in at #5 with more than 2.5 million. Because constant contact is essential for idols to get and retain fans, using social media is a powerful tool that augments having handshake and cheki events.
Out of the responses, the theme of interaction between fans and idols creating connections and nurturing relationships, whether online or offline, came up the most often (16 out of 20 responses). By personalizing the experience of seeing idols with a handshake and a short talk or memorializing it with a cheki, idols are able to interact directly with their fans on a one-on-one basis. No matter how many times you may see an idol through your screen at home, the “main event” doesn’t start until you go and see them in person!
It’s not only the fans who receive a benefit from this relationship as Shinshi Okajima cites how certain idols with confidence issues are often empowered when they are complimented and encouraged through the interactions. It’s a reciprocal relationship. The idols perform for the fans who are there to support them. munekata even goes as far as to say there is no way he would cheer for an idol unless he is able to communicate with them!
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