A Beginner's Guide to Japanese Idols (2024)

A Beginner's Guide to Japanese Idols

A Fish Market Creation

Welcome to the Japanese side. We have Momoclo.

Have you fallen in love with K-pop and are looking to explore other Asian music? Are you interested in Japanese idols but have no idea where to start? Maybe you just saw an idol you really like and want to know more about their world? Here is the guide for you! Fish Market, Hallyu+'s Japanese idol circle, has put together a general introductory guide to the Japanese idols to help you understand the quirks and charms of the scene. This thread will be open for any questions or additions that you might have, and we're always around in Fish Market to help you out, too!

Not all J-pop is J-idol.
These days, K-pop is largely synonymous with Korean idols, but J-pop is a much larger collection of genres and artists, and idols are only one part of J-pop. In fact, there are many disputes and discussions in Japan as to what constitutes an idol versus an artist, and some performers are very particular about which label is used to define them. Just because you have an interest in some J-pop, doesn't mean you've necessarily explored idols.

J-idol has existed as a popular genre of music and entertainment since the 1970s, but their popularity exploded in the 2010s.
Idols have been a part of the Japanese music industry as both solo acts and groups since the 1970s, with their popularity growing and waning over the decades. However, the 2010s saw a massive increase in interest from the general public as well as entertainment companies, with hundreds of different idol groups forming over the last decade during what is now known as the Warring Idols Period.

There are fully idol fans who only care about idols from decades past, so it's completely fine to love them more than modern acts.

Female idols rule the scene.
While male idols are definitely still successful in Japan, their success has historically been limited to individual groups at a time, in no small part due to the monopolies that some companies developed over male idols. Female idols, on the other hand, were always more varied when it came to the companies that produced them, and when the Warring Idols Period began, new girl groups began popping up left and right. There are entire multi-day festivals dedicated to female idols in Japan, and in general, most idol fans in the international fandom are also mainly female idol fans.

Male idols are popular, too, but are not nearly as numerous

J-idols are about growth, not perfection.
In Korea, idols show off their years of hard work behind the scenes by trying to be as sharp a performer as possible. In Japan, you get to see that hard work firsthand, because J-idols are about watching a performer grow and develop, even if they don't have much natural talent or experience to start. J-idols are popular for their cute, "healing" qualities as performers, not their skills. Think of K-idols as working dogs: well-trained, highly skilled, fun to watch for their talent; and J-idols as emotional support animals: they may not be trained as well or be as skilled as working dogs, but they provide a lot of joy and support when you need it.

This is what you watch idols for. The emotions.

Idols will retire.
Idols in Japan often have a career length of about 5 years on average, before leaving or "graduating" from their idol activities and groups to move on to other things. This can be because they have health issues, because they want to focus on school, because they have a different career dream, or any number of reasons. More and more idols these days are staying idols well into adulthood, but generally speaking, most idols will graduate between ages 18-24. Sometimes they stay in the public eye, sometimes they don't, but graduation is often a celebratory occasion with a big send-off for the idol in question, so there's no need to shy away from idols just because someone you like might leave the group.

There are always tears at graduations, but it's a very cathartic experience to watch them get a great send-off.

But new idols are always coming in.
Many idol groups operate with an ever-changing, dynamic line-up, a grad-and-add system, as I like to call it. New members are frequently being brought into the group to replace the old ones, so that the group name can go on and on even if all the original members leave. Not every group uses this system: some groups will have a fixed line-up for the entire life of the group, and some will have graduations but never replace those members. The appeal of a group with a changing line-up, though, is knowing that you're following a group with a legacy and get to hear the same music done in new ways by different members.

Sometimes auditions are put up for viewing so the fans can see the journey of their favorites from the very beginning.

J-idols start young.
While plenty of K-idols start working for their debut at a young age to debut later, because J-idols are about watching the development of their skills over time, they often debut very young. Major groups have debuted members as young as 10, with some indies groups going even younger. However, there are plenty of idols who have continued working into adulthood, and many groups exist exclusively with members over the age of 18, so there is some variance, depending on who you're looking to support.

You didn't forget that Nako debuted as an idol when she was 12, right? She's the baby up front.

J-idol does not believe in genres.
It can sometimes be a little jarring to go through an idol group's discography for the first time and realize just how varied the genres are. While some idols do have certain genres at the core of their music, most of the time, there are no real boundaries when it comes to the kinds of music they make. A group can release a techno song as a single, with a tango song and a metal song as b-sides, all in the same package. Idols even jump between genres in the same song, or use wildly different components at once. While there is definitely a kind of style that could be considered quintessential idol, listening to idol music is a great way to expand your musical outlook.

Genre? We don't know her.

Songwriters are key.
In K-pop, idols and producers tend to not get much attention, but with J-idols, there is a lot of discussion around the people involved in creating songs. It's common to see discussions about wanting Tsunku to write for Morning Musume again, or questions about which idol groups Hyadain has started writing for now. At first it can be hard to keep up with who everyone is and what their style is, but soon enough you'll have your own opinions on whether or not Matsukuma Kenta is the best rock songwriter in the scene or just does the same thing over and over. At the end of the day, songwriters get plenty of credit for their contributions in the J-idol fandom for bringing so much to the experience.

Kiyoshi Ryujin writes some weird stuff, like this song about getting attacked by a grizzly bear, and I think he's a genius.

Gravure is a thing.
Gravure is a type of modeling where the focal point is the model, not clothes or another product. It is very common for idols at all levels to participate in gravure. Gravure varies from the highly risqué to the tamest dress-up, but idols of all ages can do gravure for various magazines (most magazines in Japan feature a gravure spread as a selling point; think the Swimsuit Issue of Sports Illustrated, except for it's every magazine a lot of the time) and individual photobooks and DVDs. The term idol is also used to describe women and girls who work exclusively in gravure, known specifically as gravure-idols or gravu-dols. Some idols genuinely enjoy doing gravure, some idols see it as a necessary part of gaining popularity even if they don't love doing it, some idols refuse to do it. Just be prepared to see it if you move around in idol circles.

This is SFW gravure. Not a bikini in sight. Just cute.

Fans and idols have a close relationship, but they keep their lives separate.
Idols in Japan give their fans ample opportunity to get up close with their faves, having things like handshake events (go and shake idols' hands for 3 seconds and tell them how much you love them--keep coming back and they'll remember you!), polaroid events (take a photo with idols, but no touching, usually), portrait events (have an idol draw you, but they are very bad at drawing most of the time), etc. Past that, however, fan culture in Japan respects the privacy of idols when they're not working. Many idols don't even have individual social media accounts, much less fansites that track their activities. The Japanese term for an entertainer when not working is even "private." With J-idols, you can build a much more individual relationship with them as a fan, but only on these socially acceptable terms.

This is an extreme example of a handshake event, but you understand: it's Shiraishi Mai, after all.

(continued in the next post below)​

A Beginner's Guide to Japanese Idols (2024)
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