Sep 15 2011
Something pretty interesting has occurred to me lately. It’s kind of an expansion of a theory that I’ve discussed recently on the Hello! Online forums, but what it basically boils down to is this:
I think I know how overwhelmingly popular groups such as Arashi and AKB48 (currently) can exist in Japan.
Keep in mind that every word I’m typing here is a generalization, and I am well aware that it does not apply to everyone. I’m just looking at general trends.
It comes down to what I think is a very important difference between American (possibly European too, but I can’t really speak for Europe) and Japanese fans. It all started with a debate about 10th gen and Sayashi Riho. People were complaining that everyone loved the talented little Riho at first, but then, once she rose to the top of the 9th gen heap, many turned on her.
“I used to love Riho, but now she’s “hogging the solo lines” (or “being pushed in our faces”) and so I don’t like her anymore.”
Logically, this doesn’t really make sense. Why should we dislike a girl for becoming popular? Whether her push to the front is a response to her popularity (and I think it is. She’s been rapidly gaining attention from the moment she appeared in auditions) or her popularity is a result of her push to the front, it can’t be denied that she is the most popular of the 9th gen with the Japanese fans, and that she has earned herself haters among the American fans as a result.
We can see this same pattern happening with the “front” members of any group really. Maeda Atsuko is another good example of a “pushed” girl the American fans love to hate. Just being in the front seems to immediately cause haters. In the mean time, members like my own favorite Niigaki Risa, who never seem to have quite enough spotlight, are often extremely popular with the foreign fans. That’s not to say that every “popular” girl will be hated by foreign fans and every “unpopular” girl will be loved, but if you look at the general trends, the girls who are the most popular in Japan are often relatively less popular in America, and the girls who are least popular in Japan are often very popular in America.
Now, one could argue that this comes down to different personality types being attractive in Japan as compared to America, and there is probably some truth to that, but it’s far from the whole picture. Riho’s personality has not changed dramatically, but American fans turned on her just the same once she started becoming a front girl, while Japanese fans embraced her with open arms. The key difference is this:
Americans have an almost pathological need to root for the underdog, while Japanese have a need to be part of the larger group.
These are deeply embedded cultural values I’m talking about here. Ameicans love the girl who has to fight her way up from the bottom, despite all the obstacles that seem to be in her way. We like to find that girl who’s not appreciated and cheer for her when “no one else” will. (I would say this is true whether or not she “deserves” it). One reason we don’t like the front girl is that she’s “stealing” the spotlight from our poor, unappreciated, underdog. We also don’t want to pick the girl who “everyone else” likes as our favorite because that’s so… cliche or conformist. Japanese believe that if everyone else loves the girl, there’s a good reason. The group knows better than the individual, and if she’s so popular, she must be pretty special and worthy of consideration. Conversely, if she’s not very popular, she’s probably not so great. Conformist? That’s a compliment!
And THAT is how last year in Japan two groups swept the entire top 10 Oricon singles. How Arashi and AKB probably have over 10 TV shows and dozens of advertising campaigns between them this year (i’ve lost count). In America, if a group or singer reaches a certain degree of popularity, people automatically begin to dislike them because “they’re so mainstream”. It becomes uncool to like that particular group. A natural leveling off and even decline of popularity occurs. In Japan, popularity can continue to increase exponentially. More people liking a group makes more people become fans of that group, no matter how “mainstream” they become. Mainstream is a good thing in Japan. It’s a positive feedback loop! Popularity can just keep going up and up, until they essentially run out of people to become fans or something better comes along. When I was in Japan I could hardly find a person who didn’t at least casually like Arashi. You would never find that in America with a band or singer that is still in the media forefront. (we’re not talking nostalgia here, because that’s another issue)
Eventually, the people will move on to the next big thing and AKB and Arashi will suffer a gradual decline in popularity, most likely still holding on to a sizable contingent of fans for a good long time. This will happen not because they got too popular, but because casual fans are fickle. Something else will start rising in popularity and they will happily jump aboard the bandwagon. Meanwhile, the American fans will continue to bemoan the fact that our favorite groups and members will always be pushed away in the corner, and they deserve to be in the front, totally unaware that if they were to become very popular for any extended period of time, we would probably like those groups and group members less for it.
Dang… I want to write a thesis on this or something,