Japan, the Ambiguous, and Idol Suffering

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Japan, the Ambiguous, and Idol Suffering

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1. The seriousness and lightheartedness of “suffering” and “mental health”

If you were to go to an idol’s handshake event, and you saw a wrist-cutting scar on that idol’s wrist, what would you do? There’s only one answer. No matter how much surprise you may feel, it’s not an area of conversation you should ever approach. The longer you’re an idol otaku, the more likely you are to encounter a situation similar to this someday.

In Japan there’s a mental health term that idols and idol otaku are very familiar with. It’s called “being ill”, or yamu. Originally this word meant “getting sick”, but when younger Japanese use this term, often mean mental suffering and not physical illness. As a verb it’s “to suffer”/yamu and as a noun it’s “suffering”/yami. Both “suffering” and “darkness” are pronounced the same in Japanese as yami.

Idols suffer, like when few people who turn up to their concerts, handshake events, or polaroid events, or when they don’t receive heartfelt responses from idol otaku on Twitter. Idol otaku also suffer, like when they feel there is too much distance between them or their favorite idol doesn’t acknowledge them at concerts or respond to their tweets. Or additionally, it happens because idol work has a high level of exposure.

These are reasons why idols and idol otaku suffer on a daily basis. Twitter is a place full of those who are sick, where idols or idol fans tweet about their “suffering”. But no one can constantly be on it all day long.

However, those who usually use the word “suffering” do so lightheartedly. “Suffering” refers to something not as serious as “getting sick”, and only goes as far as “being worried”. Personally, I often feel these topics are just silly.

But there is another word used just as frequently as “suffer” or “suffering”, which is “mental health”, or menhera. This Japanese-English word is used to refer to people who are actually suffering. (Not mental health as a mental state, like its actual meaning in English) However currently there are instances where people mistakenly use this word to describe slight changes to their emotional state. If it were really an issue of mental health, like they would have sought out a psychologist or a mental health professional, but there are people who claim to be “mental health” or are called “mental health” even when it’s not that serious of an issue. In this instance where “mental health” doesn’t equal someone experiencing real mental suffering, this is one situation where “subculture” and “sabukaru” are not necessarily one in the same.

2. The image of “mental health”, which hasn’t changed in almost 20 years

From the 90s until the present, there have been all kinds of content on the internet about “mental health”. Motifs like sailor outfits, wrist-cutting, gore, drugs, Japanese-style, and nudity have remained unchanged for almost 20 years. Although it’s a wonder that it hasn’t changed, it makes one wonder if these mental images are something that all “mental health” have in common. In daily life gloomy girls are common photographic subjects, and continue to be photographed by anyone calling themself a photographer. There is also the issue of low-life photographers taking nude photographs. (I would also like to caution that types of photographers constantly change their names and are always on the internet.)

One problem that “mental health” face is their proclivity to co-dependency on others. If an idol and idol otaku relationship becomes one of co-dependency, what are they waiting for? It’s not difficult to imagine.

Additionally, it’s also a problem when a person’s identity becomes “mental health”. When that happens it can take a great deal of time to escape this identity, or perhaps they may never be able to escape from it.

Aya Nanjo, who was an active internet personality, passed away after repeated wrist-cutting episodes in 1999. As someone who knew her, even now I wonder if it is okay to recklessly defile her spirit like this. The longer you remain in a particular community, the more likely it is to lead to bad results.

3. Japan, the ambiguous, and “suffering”

Although the rate has now decreased, at one point in time there were 30,000 suicides committed annually in Japan. You could say depression is just one epidemic in Japanese society. In Japan, depression is often described as “a cold your heart gets”. This expression makes it vague whether depression is a serious or light illness. Its meaning is vague precisely because the suffering behind this mental disease is vague itself.

Therefore, the definition of “mental health” has expanded to the vagueness of the word “suffering”, or yami. There’s a sense that it’s becoming more and more casual in use. If the word “suffering” were to become too widespread, there’s the dangerous possibility that those who are really suffering mentally and those using it in a throwaway adolescent fashion could be lumped one in the same.

This is one reason why using phrases like “cute suffering” can be complicated. It makes one wonder if connecting the words “suffering” and “cute” is really something positive.

4. The fundamental reason behind Japanese idol “suffering”

I’ve heard from idols that there are many “mental health” among underground idols. Because I haven’t checked each person’s wrists myself, I can’t confirm whether this is a fact or not. But if you read Tama Himeno’s Senko~ Chika Idol no Hito ni Ienai Seikatsu (Underground Investigation~ The Unspoken Lifestyles of Underground Idols), published in September, it doesn’t seem to be a lie.

"Senkou" /Himeno Tama

“Senkou” /Himeno Tama

For Japanese idols, one aspect of the market is that it is most profitable when idols give their all. But forcing this work ethic on idols inevitably causes them to suffer. And if the idol herself is caught up in the desire to please, it likely causes her to suffer even more. This is the fundamental reason behind Japanese idol “suffering”.

There is a personality gap between the idol that sends out “suffering tweets” in the middle of the night and the “appropriate idol image”, giving her character more depth. They also cause a commotion on otaku fan LINE groups. So tweets like these are usually deleted before morning.

Nonetheless, if an idol with a weak heart was to reach out to idol otaku, it would be grounds for dismissal. The news of Sakura Shiraishi from Enta no Jikan being dismissed on grounds of her wrist-cutting is still fresh in our minds. (That she is still currently tweeting on Twitter is a relief.)

When “Zenbu Kimi no Sei da“, a group embodying the “visual concept of cute suffering” came out, I went to see them live despite my complicated feelings on the issue, and they were surprising energetic, which made me feel honestly relieved that their “cute suffering” was strictly a visual concept.


Zenbu Kimi no Sei da

On Yandoll’s official site, where “suffering” was listed as a requirement for member recruitment, it was written that former-member Maron Asahina would “cease activity as part of the group on September 30, 2015 due to doctor’s orders”. It makes me wonder if she is all right…



5. The prescription for “suffering”

I first heard the song “my cut” by Maison book girl at their concert on January 9, 2015. When Megumi Koshoji sang lyrics reminiscing about wrist cutting while staring at her wrist, I felt her appeal for the first time since finding out about her when she was in BiS. When it’s sublimed with music as an art form, it can produce a shining quality. Ideally, I would like to completely separate “mental health” or “suffering” with the art of idol. It’s difficult.

Maison book girl

Maison book girl

There is a member of POP, which has become a part of the current main scene, named Yua Yumeno. In POP she is the “lamb in distress” leader. Her self-introduction begins with the words “Don’t suffer!” which she shouts with otaku fans together. During that moment, there are otaku fans who gulp down medicine. It comes off as careless. However, sometimes I think humor can be something used to neutralize “suffering”. But even if you make it your own joke, “suffering” is like walking a tightrope in darkness, and if you let your guard down, you can also be swallowed inside of it.


POP. Yua Yumeno (upper left)

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Related Artists : BiS

Born in 1972, Akimasa Munekata is a music critic who has written for MUSIC MAGAZINE and Record Collectors for rock in Japan after HAPPY END, pop, the flow of western rock and pop after Beach Boys, world music, and folk music. Recently, he has hopped on the bandwagon and begun writing about idols as well.

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