The members of Tokyo Girls’ Style have a lot to juggle in the next couple of months. This Saturday, the five-member pop group will perform a solo show at Japan’s storied Budokan arena — a huge milestone for any musical outfit here. About a month later, their third album “Yakusoku” (“Promise”) will hit stores. On top of all that, the teenage performers have to stay on top of their schoolwork.
“Sometimes I study or do my homework on the shinkansen after a show,” member Yuri Nakae tells The Japan Times at the offices of her label, Avex Group. She sits with the rest of her bandmates who are all wearing matching floral dresses.
Balancing life in the J-pop spotlight with the common demands of adolescence is an issue Tokyo Girls’ Style isn’t facing alone. The girls are part of a new wave of young female idol groups that have become the dominant face of mainstream Japanese music over the past few years. Tokyo Girls’ Style, created on the outset of this trend, is starting to gain steam. It has done so by being unafraid to blur stylistic boundaries and collaborate with some unlikely acts.
Idol pop — which refers to young performers billed as more than just singers and who often appear across all forms of media — has been a Japanese staple for decades. Groups from the late 1970s and the ’80s such as Pink Lady and Onyanko Club highlighted the first golden age of idols, while Morning Musume saw huge success in the late ’90s. Interest in idols overall decreased that same decade, though, as singer-songwriters such as Hikaru Utada and Ayumi Hamasaki rose to prominence. Idol music made a comeback in the 2000s thanks in large part to the marketing techniques of AKB48, who paved the way for groups like oddball Momoiro Clover Z and Morning Musume sister group C-ute.
Record label Avex assembled Tokyo Girls’ Style — which consists of Nakae, Ayano Konishi, Miyu Yamabe, Hitomi Arai and Mei Shyoji — in 2009 to capitalize on the growing popularity of idols. All the members of the group say they have worked with Avex before and were encouraged to audition for Tokyo Girls’ Style. They were all successful, and the group debuted in early 2010.
“Before joining the group, I had been mostly doing things by myself,” Konishi says. “I had never been in a group before, and it was hard blending in with the rest of the group. But now I’m having fun.”
Arai says she had different challenges at the beginning. “I had been practicing dance before, and at first I didn’t have much confidence in singing. When I joined, I had to sing and dance at the same time and it was very difficult. But I’ve improved a lot now.”
This narrative — young performers who start out nervous but gradually become more confident in their abilities — is one most Japanese idol groups lean on. Yet Tokyo Girls’ Style has found ways to stand apart from the current pack. “We have a lot of diversity in our music,” Shyoji says. “Like we have many rock songs, ballads and also funky ones.” This comes through on their two full-length albums: Cutesy pop numbers such as “Onnaji Kimochi” (“Similar Feelings”) are joined by disco-tinged numbers like “Rock You!” or the horn-heavy swing of “Liar.”
The group’s music also stands out because of who has remixed it, allowing access to audiences who might otherwise shun the idol-pop genre. Several songs have been given the 8-bit treatment courtesy of Avex labelmates YMCK, with some of those reworks appearing on subsequent singles. This year, Tokyo Girls’ Style teamed up with online electronic label Maltine Records to let young producers who have released music through that Web imprint, such as Tofubeats and Avec Avec, remix its songs.
These tie-ins, along with consistent efforts to develop their skills, have helped the group increase in popularity. They have opened for pop outfit AAA and have embarked on two solo tours of Japan. Their latest single, the guitar-centric “Bad Flower,” debuted at No. 4 on the Oricon music charts, the group’s best placement yet. Tokyo Girls’ Style has also been trying to make inroads internationally — both albums have been released in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the group even performed in Singapore this year, where the girls say they were surprised by how many people showed up to watch them.
Besides eyeing foreign markets, one thing Tokyo Girls’ Style has in common with many contemporary girl-group acts is youth. Pop groups have been getting younger in Japan recently — similarly aged groups such as Fairies and Sexy Zone are just some of the groups boasting just-adolescent members [see sidebar].
Age also affects how performances are done. Due to child labor laws, underage artists cannot perform past certain times of night — generally until 8 p.m. for 13-15 year olds, and until 10 p.m. for 15-18 year olds. However, any performer over 13 years old can start their working day at 5 a.m. Therefore at a Dec. 28 all-night gig coming up at Club Unit in Tokyo’s Daikanyama neighborhood, Tokyo Girls’ Style will play the early-bird slot after 5 a.m., much like a high school student would head into school for an early-morning volleyball practice.
“To be honest, (at morning shows) I’m still sleepy,” Shyoji says, laughing. “But I warm up by stretching and then the whole group does vocal exercises.”
You can’t help but wonder if, despite being sleepy, 5 a.m. concerts could become a trend in Japan, where the sun can rise as early as 4:30 a.m. in the summer.
“The band is too sleepy in the morning,” Nakae laughs. “I think that when we’re around 20 we’ll be better at waking up … so maybe we can make early-bird shows a trend when we grow up!”
The five members of the group, for all the music-industry talk, are still teenagers, though, and they get a little nervous at points during the interview; however they get really excited when I bring up topics children enjoy, such as their favorite Western performers (Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson) and cartoons (“The Powerpuff Girls”).
Their youth also explains why this upcoming gig at Budokan means so much to them. Tokyo Girls’ Style have performed at the famed venue once before, but that was as part of an idol festival featuring many other acts. “I felt like I was being watched from every side,” Arai says of the circular stage at Budokan. “Everything was huge.” This Saturday’s show will be theirs alone, and the girls say they’ve been practicing especially hard for it. That’s when the starry-eyed hopes comes into focus. “Playing at Budokan has always been our dream,” Konishi says.
Before they practice singing though, they say they still have to finish their homework.
Tokyo Girls’ Style plays Budokan in Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, on Dec. 22 (6 p.m. start; ¥5,800 in advance;  3405-9999). For more information, visit www.tokyogirlsstyle.jp.
Starting early in Japan’s idol world
Tokyo Girls’ Style isn’t the only music group in Japan made up of kids who haven’t graduated from high school yet. Here are three more youthful outfits to keep an eye on.
Babymetal: Is most idol music a little too cutesy for your taste? Babymetal’s heavier take might be a welcome change of pace then. This trio, a sub-unit of the more conventional idol group Sakura Gakuin, sing over the sort of frantic guitars and drums you’d expect from a 1980s hair-metal act, and the odd Cannibal Corpse-style growl.
Fairies: Probably the girl-centric idol group most similar to Tokyo Girls’ Style. The seven members of this crew are all in the same low-to-mid-teenager range, and they are signed to Avex Group label Sonic Groove. Fairies debuted a year after Tokyo Girls’ Style.
Sexy Zone: The newest boy band courtesy of J-pop oligarchy Johnny & Associates, Sexy Zone’s name comes from “the sexiness of Michael Jackson.” The group’s music is less head-scratching than their moniker, though, as they sound like every other Johnny’s group to debut in the last few years. Member Yo Marius is the youngest in the outfit at 12 years old.
S/mileage: One of the newest groups to emerge from the Morning Musume-related Hello! Project, S/mileage consist mainly of performers who split time between the stage and junior high school. This six-piece has been around since 2009, and all of their singles to this point have appeared in the Top 10 of the Oricon singles charts.
Tempura Kidz: Featuring former backup dancers for Harajuku’s great pop hope Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, the newly formed Tempura Kidz emphasize movement just as much as music. The video for their debut track “Cider Cider” highlights the five-kid-strong group’s energetic dancing. Sonically, Yasutaka Nakata disciple Ram Rider handles production, and puts the Kidz’ vocals through heavy digital manipulation. (P.S.M.)