Embodying Japan: Cultures of Sport, Beauty, and Medicine 2017

Idol Beauty

           The beauty of idols in Japan is an ubiquitous phenomenon: from advertisements on the train to music videos projected onto the sides of Shibuya skyscrapers, aidoru or tarento, as they are known in Japanese, dominate the Japanese pop music industry. They educate us about Japanese prefectures (video unfortunately unavailable in the U.S.), dress up like hamburgers, and are even projected as holograms. But what do all of these different idol groups tell us about beauty in Japan? In this page, I explore what we can learn about beauty from two very popular idol groups with Japanese followings: the K-pop group AKiss and a group called X-21, the latter of which I saw perform live at a shopping mall during my study abroad in Chiba Prefecture, Japan last summer.  This page also identifies a group that fell out of popularity, and asserts that the likely reason for this fallout also involves beauty; in particular how Japanese record labels can control the ideal of beauty that they disseminate to fans, often to an unhealthy or insulting degree.
            To begin, Lund University scholar Dinara Kozhakmetova discusses the 21 member K-pop band AKiss in her Master’s Thesis “Soft Power of Korean Popular Culture in Japan: K-Pop Avid Fandom in Tokyo”. She notes that AKiss is “the largest band in the history of K-Pop”, and also that they perform regularly (twice a day) in Ebisu, Tokyo. To achieve this, they are divided into four subgroups identified by different English alphabet letters. In her exhaustive ethnographic study of AKiss and its fans, she determines that a leading factor in the large Japanese fanbase AKiss has that lots of other Korean pop groups struggle to attain is the number of AKiss members who have the image of a “beautiful man,” or kkonminam. “The Kkonminam syndrome refers to feminine-looking males in the entertainment industry who present the hybrid of male/female sexual identities rather than completely manly or feminized men… [the] image usually depicts a tall male with ‘long legs, slim feminine face, long hair, and sweet smiles.’ AKiss members perfectly suit this description” (Kozhakmetova 43). In fact, as she goes on to explain on the next page, Japanese fans admire this quality so much that they will even ignore lack of singing or dancing talent so long as a member has this kind of beauty.

            In what I would argue is very much a parallel situation, the female idol group X-21, which I saw perform live at the mall Lalaport in Minami-Funabashi, has at its focus not necessarily the singing and dance choreography, but rather the personality and charm of its members that their (mostly male) fans so passionately identify with. For example, in the photograph above, which I captured at the post-performance Q&A session (due to the fact that photography and filming were unfortunately prohibited during the show) the girls, all mostly teenagers, are wearing white dresses with a red cherry print, which one of the members points out were all specially made for their performance by a friend. The fact that the idol mentions this fact in an almost insistent way just before their performance and during the Q&A after shows, at least in my opinion, that it was a decision targeted towards the (primarily male) fans in the audience who would find this cute and endearing: by creating a story of (arguably well-rehearsed) innocence and inexperience with something like professional costume designs, instead relying on what sounds like a family friend for assistance, the idols can connect to their fans in a way that is beautiful. This is also reminiscent of some of the ideas of hijitsuryoku Duke scholar Patrick Galbraith writes about in his 2011 article on maid cafes.
            This brings us to a discussion of what happens when idols do not embody an accepted standard of beauty, like kkonminam or hijitsuryoku, and thus fail to attract enough fans to stay afloat. One of my favorite groups Especia fell into this trap: the group was originally comprised of 10 members, all from Osaka. However, the number of members began to drop as the girls graduated, and at around the time I heard about them, they had been reduced to only 5 members. The video below was recorded around this time at one of their live shows, performing the song “Umibe no Satie” (Seahorse’s Satie). Although they have many fans who are very vocal in the audience, some even attempting to sing along with them, it is interesting to note the stage presences of the women (or the unfortunate lack thereof) and to consider this when noting their eventual fate as a two-member only group, the rest having left “of their own accord” when the label chose to relocate them from Osaka to Tokyo.

Given the interesting and rapidly timed decision to move to Tokyo despite the presence of die-hard fans in the Kansai region and the sudden “graduation” of 3 members in quick succession, I find it hard to believe that the sole reason for the change is that the label wanted to reach a different audience in Tokyo. Instead, I would argue that the label chose the girls they thought had the most appeal and “idol beauty,” and then told the others to get lost in the most polite way possible. This way, the label likely feels that Especia could become a group more in the vein of one like the trio Perfume, which has experienced worldwide commercial success and even had all three members feature as lead actresses in a recent drama series. While I do not sense this kind of future in store for the duo Especia, I do believe that idol groups in Japan are one aspect of Japanese popular culture most sensitive to and intertwined with standards of beauty: they not only set them, but also are impacted by them directly, either for better or for worse.


2525machaki. “Especia – Umibe no Satie 2016.02.23.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 23 February 2016. Web. 26 April 2017.

Dinara Kozhakhmetova. "Soft Power of Korean Popular Culture in Japan: K-Pop Avid Fandom in Tokyo." Thesis. Lund University, 2012. 
LUP Student Papers. Lund University Libraries, Spring 2012. Web. 26 Apr. 2017. <http://lup.lub.lu.se/luur/download?func=downloadFile&recordOId=3460120&fileOId=3910984>.

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