Japanese Pop Idols: Sexuality as Subversion (my Mass Media and Pop Culture paper)

Hey guys!
So if you read my blog, you know I’m busy. Way too busy. And one thing I’ve been busy with is school. For the class I took this past semester, “Mass Media and Popular Culture,” we had to write a reflection paper based off of course readings. And as such, I chose to write about JPop idols. And so, I thought I’d share the paper with the internet/wotasphere.

Couple of things you need to know:
1. It’s in response to an article, “Women, Pop Music and Pornography” by Meredith Levande. It connects the female pop music industry to pornography, and essentially says that all female pop stars are sexually objectified and as such it’s an inherently bad thing. She also links these to pornography. I can’t show you the article, as I read it for class, but it focuses a lot more on Western pop music. So my paper was written from the “let’s show a different side” perspective.

2. Obviously the idol industry in Japan is really fascinating when thinking about it in terms of gender, and so nothing is cut and dry. I do think there are a LOT of really problematic issues with gender in the idol industry. However, since this was meant to be a short response paper, I sought to show a different side of the issue. The article by Levande is SO extreme that I wanted this to be almost a counter-balance to that.

And so, here’s my paper! If you have any questions, feel free to ask me. If you disagree with any of my main points, keep what I wrote above in mind, but I welcome it.


While American music is popular throughout the rest of the world, Japan also has a booming pop music scene. Most notably, girl groups have become extremely popular in the recent years, with popular group AKB48 leading the stride. Even though there is still some subordination involved with female acts in Japan, some of the most popular groups perform in ways to subvert the traditional Japanese image of femininity and female subjugation as a whole, in contrast to Meredith Levande’s theories of women in pop music.

In her article “Women, Pop Music, and Pornography,” Meredith Levande (2008) writes many bold statements in regards to women in pop music and how that in turn is using pornographic imagery. One of the most notable theories raised in this article is the idea that women in pop music are “under pressure to conform to the porn standard” (p. 307). According to Levande, women are ultimately forced to be hypersexualized and demeaned to sell well, which leads to the business of popular female artists being a business of sexism and women being portrayed in a sexist light. Furthermore, Levande is somewhat extreme in never bringing up any examples of sexuality actually being empowering, instead seeing any example of someone saying that they’re using sexuality as empowerment as compliance into the systematic sexism of popular culture.

Female artists have often been popular in Japan, but recently the popularity of female pop idols has been on the rise. While to a Western audience there might seem to be no difference between the terms ‘pop star’ and ‘pop idol,’ there is a sizable difference. Pop idols are young, usually female celebrities, working usually in their teens and early twenties, appearing in mass media. Though idols can be actresses, TV personalities or models, recently the pop idol has had a resurgence of popularity. Here, traditional male dominance does not occur in Levande’s description of sexuality or in the concept of the male gaze, but in a purer image, in which any sexuality lies hidden. As Brian Ashcraft (2010) describes in his book Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential, with many early idols “The thrill for male fans was in the power of suggestion and her coquettish schoolgirl image.” (p. 37). Sexuality existed, but hidden under a veneer of purity that corresponds with one of Levande’s point, that “There is an unnerving preoccupation with extremely young female pop stars who are simultaneously “innocent” and “slutty.’”(p. 308), though it was much more subtle here. Female idols in Japan have largely kept with this concept of the innocent idol, appealing to the male audience with this image. However, recent groups like the current idol powerhouse AKB48 and its sister group SDN48 have made waves in breaking from this, at least somewhat, allowing for more empowerment for Japanese pop idols.

AKB48 is undoubtedly the most popular idol group in Japan right now and the most popular one in years. In 2010, their singles “Beginner” and “Heavy Rotation” were the number one and number two best selling singles in Japan for the year, and their most recent single “Kaze wa Fuiteiru” sold over one million physical copies in one day (ORICON). As such, it would be expected that they follow the image that has made idols popular in the past. Traditionally, for example, idols haven’t been allowed to do adult activities such as smoking and even dating, in order to maintain this pure image. This is a practice that still continued with most girl groups today, though with more of a “don’t ask don’t tell” system, keeping any and all dating discrete in favor of keeping up that pure image. This is a practice that has been continued with AKB48 as well, though it is more lenient than groups of the past. However, despite this pressure to maintain the status quo of female innocence and subordination that has sold idol groups to fans in the past, many aspects of the group subvert these traditional ideals.

One important way that AKB48 subverts the ideals of innocence is the concept of the schoolgirl and the school uniform. As Katsuhiko Sano of the Tombow Uniform Museum explains, in the 1960s “uniforms came to represent the oppression of freedom” (Ashcraft, 2010, p.18). This isn’t the only case, and traditional school uniforms have come in and out of style depending on the time, but as Sano also mentions “Uniforms will always make the schoolgirl aware of what she is” (Ashcraft, 2010, p.24), thus emphasizing their cultural significance to the teenage schoolgirl, and to society. As mentioned earlier, the idol has a notable schoolgirl image, and AKB48 takes that further with wearing school uniforms as part of their costume. However, while wearing this image that can be seen as oppressive and conformity, the uniforms are rarely conforming. They wear instead interesting patterns, glitz, and glamour, taking this uniform and making it almost unrecognizable as being based off a uniform. AKB48 member Nito Moeno even said in an interview “The uniform I wear to school isn’t very flashy and somewhat dull, but he uniforms we get to wear on stage are very colorful. I feel much happier when I’m wearing one of them.” (Ashcraft, 2010, 48)

In AKB48’s music video to their single “Seifuku ga Jama wo Suru,” the group subverts the traditional ideal of Japanese femininity while simultaneously criticizing the male gaze and the objectification of women. First, most notably, the song and video are charged with sexuality and is theorized to be directly related to the concept of Enjo Kosai, which is a somewhat controversial subject to seriously relate to pop stars. Enjo Kosai is a term for women dating a man for money, a practice that doesn’t necessarily involve sex but can, and is such somewhat taboo. Having a girl group refer to this kind of a taboo issue is rare, something that continues in AKB48’s later single “Keibetsu Shiteita Aijou,” which is about teen suicide. The title of “Seifuku ga Jama wo Suru” is even referring to sexuality, literally meaning “My School Uniform is Getting in the Way” So while sexuality with idols is masked under a veil of innocence, here it’s fully on display, even referring to the mask these idols wore before.

Most notable in this is the full video. Throughout the video is a loosely linked story of Enjo Kosai, with dancing and close up shots of the idols on an entirely separate set. In the story sections of the music video, there are many uncomfortable scenes featuring what seems to be complete objectification of the idols without their knowledge or consent; shots of legs, of a backside, of lips, all without showing the face. In fact, throughout this part of the music video, any time there’s a face it’s pointed away from the camera, head usually down and eyes averted, as a clear sign of submission. However, after the shots of clear objectification there are clear medium shots of the idols staring at the camera. They aren’t singing with the song, or showing suggestive body parts, just looking at the camera. This is almost the opposite of objectification, and it forces the audience to acknowledge the humanity of the girl that had been previously objectified. The music video forces the audience to acknowledge their objectification. As Levande (2008) says, “the male pop star is physically absent from the video, but the male gaze isn’t. He is still ultimately the subject,” (p. 306), though here the male gaze and voyeurism presented is clearly shown as being negative.

Another girl group SDN48 uses sexuality and adult themes to directly subvert the idea of a traditional Japanese pop idol and thus uses sexuality as a form of female empowerment, a direct contrast to Levande’s statements. As mentioned before, the ideal Japanese pop star image is one of purity, or at the very least a surface of purity. Though notable artists in Japan have had sexuality as a major part of their act, such as the pop singer Koda Kumi, this hasn’t extended as far to the idol. However, SDN48 subverts a lot of this. First, the members of the group must be over the age of 20, thus past the age of schoolgirls. They are free from rules that govern other idols, such as dating (one member is married), and are free to talk about their dating (and thus sex) life at concerts and live events freely and without shame. Their music videos are even much sexier, with some almost nudity in “Ai, Chuseyo,” as well as posing nearly nude (covering themselves) in magazines. Levande (2008) asserts that “This is what I call compliance masked in defiance: taking your clothes off to be heard” (p.305); however, in this culture, it’s easier to be heard with clothes on, so these women chose to pose nearly nude for a reason, and simply the fact that such an idol group exists only goes to show how far these groups have come. They can now be fully adults and peers to their adult audiences, with less of the submission that comes with being a teenage pop idol.

Therefore, in a context separate from American culture, sexuality can sometimes be a tool for feminism and empowerment. Representations of male dominance and female submission are found in different ways, but different cultures can find different ways to subvert and thus eventually overcome the female suppression.

6 thoughts on “Japanese Pop Idols: Sexuality as Subversion (my Mass Media and Pop Culture paper)

  1. Pingback: Recommended Reading – December 29th, 2011 | International Wota

  2. Really really good paper, very thought provoking indeed. One thing you may want to do is mention that enjo kousai (subsidised dating) usually happens with girls between the ages of 11-15 due to restrictions on part time jobs while at school (or so is my understanding). Hope you get an awesome grade. Hope you write more things like this ^^

    • Glad you liked, and thanks for the extra info! I knew it was a teenage phenomenon, but I didn’t know HOW young. Got a very good grade on it, so I was very pleased.

      And I’m definitely up to writing more about this! Thinking critically about idols is what I love to do!

  3. Awesome article! There’s so many different topics you can cover looking objectively at the industry. I had considered covering part of it myself in my dissertation this year, especially concerning their usage of media to maintain a fan base, however my hatred for sloppy journalism got the better of me, so that is my topic.

    • Thank you! It really is an interesting industry to think about, it’s kind of incredible. I think that’s a large part of why I follow idols, really, is because I find it all so fascinating.
      Haha, I hear you about sloppy jounalism; we’ve seen plenty of that as idol fans (that CNN AKB thing, ugh…), but it happens way too often. Are you focusing on print journalism, TV journalism or anything in between? Because last semester we talked a lot about TV news and it’s a really interesting subject.
      But yeah, I’m sort of considering figuring idols into my honors thesis in school, but it’s looking more like I’ll be writing about social issues within science fiction, just because that’s something I know I can go on and on about. 🙂

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