From Morning Musume to New School Leaders,The Era of Idolism Spawned by Familiarity and Psychological Support | FRIDAY DIGITAL

From Morning Musume to New School Leaders,The Era of Idolism Spawned by Familiarity and Psychological Support

50 Years of Japanese Idols #4: The Idol Warring Era

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The never-ending winter does not exist

During the late 1980s to the 1990s, an era known as the Idol Winter or Idol Ice Age persisted for a long time. Amidst this, a group called Morning Musume was formed from the five members who failed the final audition held within the variety program “ASAYAN” on TV Tokyo.

Formed in a manner akin to a program-led project, the group was given missions such as “disband if the debut song doesn’t sell 50,000 copies,” a pattern occasionally seen in today’s live idol scene. Viewers watched and supported their efforts, gradually gaining popularity and recognition. Indeed, idol culture involves watching and supporting the growth of one’s favorite, or “oshi,” which has remained unchanged since the era of “Star Tanjo” (fans giving birth to idols).

Morning Musume. Front row from left to right: Sayaka Ichii, Natsumi Abe, Mari Yaguchi. Back row from left to right: Kei Yasuda, Kei Iida, Yuko Nakazawa, Ayaka Ishiguro. (Photo taken in July 1999 / PHOTO: Kyodo News)

The addition of the second generation and hits like “Hold Me, Hold On” gave Morning Musume a boost, but they began to plateau gradually. Then came a major turning point with the addition of Goto Maki as the third generation and the release of “LOVE Machine”.

Produced by Tsunku♂ and crafted into a catchy disco sound by Dance☆Man, this song, along with its choreography and the karaoke boom at the time, exploded into a massive hit, eventually reaching million-seller status. Following this success, spin-off units and groups like Mini Moni, Petitmoni, Country Musume, and Smileage emerged one after another, all under the collective name “Hello! Project,” maintaining consistent popularity to this day.

Meanwhile, in the male idol world, SMAP, who had been steadily gaining popularity through variety show appearances, clinched their first Oricon No.1 with the 1994 single “Hey Hey Ooki ni Maido Ari” and continued to release hit songs like “Ganbarimashou” and “Kansha Shite”. In 1996, they also started their own variety show “SMAP×SMAP”, preceding Morning Musume in reaching the status of national idols. SMAP stood out among male idols for their relatable, down-to-earth personas, resonating with audiences as approachable young men rather than princely figures.


The Birth of Idols You Can Meet – The Formation of AKB48

In 2005, an idol group that fully utilized the power of television was born in Akihabara. Yes, it was the debut of AKB48, the idols you can meet.

The name “AKB” refers to Akihabara, where they are based, and it also had a local idol aspect linked to the attention to Akihabara-centered otaku culture. In December 2005, they held their first theater performance and repeated regular performances at their dedicated theater in Akihabara. As their catchphrase suggests, fans could meet their favorite idols by going to the theater. Rather than through television or magazines, not even in large concert halls like arenas, they thoroughly emphasized their proximity, evolving the intimacy of idols in a new way.

Based on this idea of meeting in person, a certain invention was also born.

Event tickets are enclosed in AKB48 Group single CDs. Using these tickets, fans and purchasers can participate in “handshake events” where they can directly shake hands and talk with the members, shake hands with the member they are interested in, and talk with the member alone for a specified amount of time, depending on the number of tickets purchased. Of course, handshake events and other promotions have existed since the Showa period, but the system of being able to spend as much time together as one purchases tickles the fancy of fans, and this has directly led to increased CD sales.

In addition, the selection system of AKB48 Group included severe competition, with the center and front members being replaced each time, making the members of the same group visible as rivals. This created a level of fan enthusiasm for each member, and along with the spread of the term “XX-suji,” it greatly amplified the “I have to root for them” mentality.


The ultimate culmination of this trend is the general election introduced by the AKB group. Voting tickets are obtained by joining a fan club or purchasing a single CD released during the same period. The ranking based on the number of votes cast determines not only the center of the next song, but also the ranking of the members of the group as a whole. This is all left up to the fans. The vote count was broadcast live in prime time on terrestrial television and became a social phenomenon.

The cheki photo shoots held in conjunction with live performances and events, as a way to preserve a sense of closeness, have exploded in popularity. Indie idols based in small-scale live houses also appeared one after another, and the scene expanded greatly under the name of underground idols or live idols. The scene expanded dramatically, and the idol warring states era began, a sharp turnaround from the wintertime.

From Boom to Everyday: Entering the Idol Warring States Period

In the revitalized idol industry, popular figures emerged one after another.

Momoiro Clover Z, who proclaimed themselves as Weekend Heroines, succeeded in balancing their talent as entertainers, gradually penetrating television programs, and conducting live activities in large-scale venues. BABYMETAL, with their theme of “fusion of idols and metal,” featured cute-looking female idols performing authentic heavy metal sounds. They garnered attention not only from domestic rock fans who previously showed little interest in idols but also from metal enthusiasts in Europe and America, achieving the remarkable feat of entering the top 40 of the Billboard charts for the first time since Kyu Sakamoto.

The presence of BiS and BiSH, who incorporated punk rock sounds into idol songs and generated enthusiasm akin to rock band performances at their live shows, also had a significant influence on the live idol scene. Like BABYMETAL and BiSH, some idols fuse idol songs with various music genres, drawing attention to the quality of their compositions. Some of these idols are categorized as “music-focused” due to their emphasis on musical completeness.

And now, the Reiwa era. Due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, events involving physical contact, such as handshake events, were temporarily suspended. However, idol culture adapted swiftly, with the implementation of individual video call events through smartphones and face-to-face interactions separated by acrylic partitions. Idols seamlessly transitioned from being a boom created by the times to becoming a part of everyday life without experiencing another winter.

The definition of “idol” has evolved significantly with the times. While there used to be a definite age barrier for idols, particularly female idols, leading to retirement, graduation, or disbandment at a certain age, groups like Hello! Project and AKB48 have maintained their popularity by rotating members and continuing to sing their songs.

On the other hand, it’s not uncommon for idols to continue their careers even at the age of 30, with examples of idols like those from Momoiro Clover Z and Negicco continuing their activities after marriage. Fans who continue to support idols like Seiko Matsuda and Ito Ran may represent this trend. The enjoyment of idols has evolved to include watching them grow and mature, empathizing with their journey, and even supporting their lives beyond the stage.

The first overseas tour “THE SEISHUN TOUR,” which started with a performance in Los Angeles, United States, and was held in various parts of the world. The photo shows the performance scene at “Corona Capital 2023” held in Mexico City (PHOTO: Kyodo News).

The Emergence of New Leaders in the Idol World and the Borderless Nature of the Idol Phenomenon

Alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, the culture of video streaming experienced rapid growth, with phenomena like TikTok selling emerging, where hits on platforms such as YouTube, streaming apps, and TikTok drove popularity. This trend, characterized by sudden viral sensations, is not an exception in the idol world. For instance, three years ago, the song “Otona Blue” suddenly went viral on TikTok with a head-shaking dance choreography, suggesting that new leaders like those who performed in the Kohaku Uta Gassen will continue to emerge.

The borderless nature of the termidol continues to expand, encompassing K-pop, voice actors, and even the world of 2D characters. Alongside the widespread use of the term “oshi-katsu” (supporting activity), supporting something has become commonplace in this era.

The existence of idols continues to evolve in line with the times. How will the next generation of idols emerge?

  • Text Satoru Ota

    Writer, editor, interviewer. He has been a writer since he was a student, and currently writes mainly entertainment articles and interviews for websites and magazines.

  • PHOTO Kyodo News

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