The Rule Against Love – Part 1: Why it’s Important to Be the Girl Next Door
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!
The business aspect of such interactions was the second most common theme, because when you go see idols, even if the performance is free, as they are for many release events held in public places or music stores, the privilege of interacting with the idols is usually tied to the price of a CD, DVD, or other such product. “Dr. Bishojo” saw it as a two-part process as a fan first buys into the relationship with the idol and then they buy whatever product is necessary to shake their hand or take a picture with them (sometimes more than once). tinyredman compared the offstage interactions to how in the corporate world many big deals will be finalized over dinners or golfing. It adds another dimension to the relationship between idol and fan, not available to those who simply go to see the performance. While it may be the music that draws many to idols, the personalities are a strong factor in creating loyalty leading to repeat purchases which is one of the driving forces keeping sales of physical media strong in a world that has largely made the switch to digital.
Even though the majority of respondents identified as fans or followers of idols and/or Japanese pop culture, they all realized that even at a handshake event or online, the idols are still performing, pointing out that it was a good marketing strategy. It’s completely possible to be a fan of someone or something even if there is an obvious element of fiction to it. Look at professional wrestling or reality television for example, a lot of the storylines have been scripted out or have been created through editing. You don’t honestly believe that everyone who’s famous is showing their true selves when they are in public do you?
itaru9Z points out that even though Morning Musume. sold 5,000 copies of their first single “Ai no Tane” directly to their fans back in the late 1990’s, it was not until AKB48 that the business of meeting idols began to evolve into the way things are now. Because fans want to meet the idols and are willing to pay to do so, even small agencies with limited means can put together an idol group and make money. With the various types of ways that fans can meet idols, it’s not even necessary to have a CD ready to sell during the event! It has become common practice for idols to have reservation events months before a CD is released, which not only lets the fans interact with them, but also helps boost first day sales. Groups like AKB48 have massive handshake events in venues like Makuhari Messe, Tokyo Big Sight, and Yokohama Pacifico where fans spend the entire day lining up and waiting to see their favorite members for a few precious moments.
Unlike artists, who are generally evaluated on their performance ability and the product that they are representing is their music, Toshiro Arai posits that the experience with the idol is the product, not the music itself. If you have ever seen the room of any decently hardcore idol otaku, you will definitely find stacks of the same CD. Each CD represents an experience with an idol. He adds that, as the fan base grows stronger and larger, it is possible to sell the experiences to them more directly in the form of bus tours or other fan club exclusive events. If you have ever seen crowdfunding campaigns put on by idols, the higher the amount of funding goes, the more access a fan is granted. If you truly consider yourself to be a true fan, why would you settle for the lowest tier when you could end up in the MV or film that your favorite idol is in and be invited to a special screening event? Here are just a few MVs with fans as extras.
Using fan interaction as a means to gain support was the third most common theme, particularly as being an idol is generally an intermediate step that young women go through on their way to becoming models, actresses, or artists. Jeffrey T. likened them to interns who try to “Be a ‘jack of all trades’ and see(ing) what opportunities present themselves” with one of the deciding factors being successful cultivation of a fanbase, adding an element of gamification to the process. Because an idol is not expected to have any outstanding talents, this makes them versatile enough to appear in just about any context. They can appear on a variety show, shoot a photo book or gravure DVD, star in a commercial, model for a brand or magazine, act in a TV drama or stage play, DJ at a club, and host a radio show, in addition to performing on stage, which opens up the avenues for winning them new fans. Ayaya felt that even idols who were not so cute could gain the support of fans by showing them that she was earnestly trying to communicate with them. Isn’t this sort of the path that HKT48’s Rino Sashihara and SKE48’s Kaori Matsumura took as they rose up the ranks of the AKB48 Senbatsu Sousenkyo?
tinyredman and Melody stressed the importance of using such contact to increase their popularity, with Melody adds that with “such a wide range of idols, you get a wide range of interactions”. If you have ever witnessed idols talking about what their “character” is, they are trying to refine or develop a persona that will help attract more fans to them. 76do_ took things even further by citing the short attention spans of idol fans due to the internet making access to just about everything easier and the increased potential of becoming distracted by new groups. Serrina commented, “interacting with fans is one of the best ways to appeal and prove to fans that they are great idols and would love to receive support”.
One aspect of gaining a base of support may also depend on the relationships that the members form with each other and put on display for their fans, usually in the form of social media content or even in MVs, television appearance, or TV and film roles. These performances of “girls’ love” made for public consumption, are a form of fan service, which serves to excite as well as helps generate support for other members through affiliation. As popular as former AKB48 member Yuko Oshima was when she was in the group, it is hard to deny that her frequent pairings with Mayu Watanabe and Haruna Kojima (or anyone else) didn’t add another dynamic to her character and the group. The same can be said for other pairings such as Sayaka Akimoto and Sae Miyazawa, Tomomi Itano and Tomomi Kasai, Atsuko Maeda and Minami Takahashi, Yuka Tano and Tomu Muto, just to name a few.
While there is definitely a lot more than can be said about the reasons and ways that idols present themselves as being accessible, idealized images of youthful femininity, we hope that we were at least able to explain the key points. The special characteristic of idols is that they are a temporary existence in Japanese entertainment and as fans watch them grow and develop, a sense of connection or community forms around them, cheering for them as they work hard and improve their skills, whether it be dancing, singing, communicating, or something else. An idol must always be “on” and ready to face the public in order to give fans an experience that will keep them coming back again and again. This performance continues even after they have physically left the stage or venue as fans wait to see what they will post on social media as well. By developing a character that fans can rally around and support, idols can improve their status and open up new opportunities for themselves, some of which continue even after they have graduated.
In the next installment, we will look at why the rule prohibiting (or at least strongly discouraging) idols from having public romantic relationships exists as well as the issues of privacy in regards to being famous as social media continues to make everyone’s personal lives more and more public.
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