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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 secondsWith the spread of televisions in households, “idols” became popular in Japanese entertainment industry in the 1970s. There were singing auditions sponsored by TV shows and magazines and many “idols” made their debut from those competitions. 1980s was the golden era of “idols.” Some of the “idols” became really successful; usually they would release a song every three months, sing regularly in TV programs, and occasionally appear in movies. They were the stars of the shows and the whole entertainment industry. And there were earnest fans, or group of supporters for each “idol” called Shin-eitai, which literally translates as “bodyguards” in Japanese.

Skip to 0 minutes and 57 secondsMembers of the Shin-eitai would systematically cheer the “idol” during concerts; they would shout the singers’ names, have a call and response for each song, throw paper tapes on stage at certain timings, and so forth. Shin-eitais were highly controlled organization, and some of the members ended up being hired by talent agencies. To make sure, “idols” are not limited to female performers in Japan. There is a long history of boy bands or boy groups in Japanese entertainment industry going back to the 1960s, and each boy band has a devoted fan club. Since the beginning of the 21st century, we can safely say that the “idol” culture has gone into new phase.

Skip to 1 minute and 47 secondsAKB48, produced by the entertainment mogul Yasushi Akimoto consists of more than 100 girls, has set a completely new standard of relationship between “idols” and their fans. With its concept of “idols you can go and meet,” Akimoto built a private theater in Akihabara so that fans can go and see their “idols” whenever they want. Fans even have their say on who will be the lead singer, on their next song through the election system. This “election” has a “voter” turnout of more than 3 million and is broadcast live on Japanese TV with high ratings.

Skip to 2 minutes and 31 secondsA ballot paper is included in a CD, so a person who bought a CD will have a right to vote, but this also leads to fanatic fans buying hundreds of CDs to vote for a certain member of the group. Producer Akimoto also introduced the Akushukai, or the shaking hands event for fans where they could actually talk with their “idol” for a short time. For each CD purchased, a fan can interact with their idol for around 10-15 seconds. One of the characteristics of Japanese “idols” compared to those of the US and the western world is that “idols” in Japan are not necessarily skilled in singing and dancing.

Skip to 3 minutes and 15 secondsInexperience is not always a flaw; in fact, their immaturity might make the fans feel close to their “idols.” They observe, or watch affectionately as the “idols” grow rather than enjoying the perfect and professional skill of the performer, Japanese fans tend to appreciate the process of growth, and like to stand close to their “idols.”

History of Japanese 'Idols' and Fan Culture

Watch Prof. Ohwada introduce the brief history of the ‘idol’ phenomenom in Japan, from 1960’s to the new phase after 21th centry, and the relationship between fans and idols.

Aspects of fan culture introduced in this video

  • Shin-eitai (literally translates as “bodyguards”) - fan group for female idols
  • Highly devoted fan club for boy bands
  • AKB48 (Japanese idol group) and its election system
  • Akushukai, or the shaking hands event for fans

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This video is from the free online course:

An Introduction to Japanese Subcultures

Keio University

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