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In-debt idols send wrong message to girls


Special To The Japan Times

Two weeks ago a female pop group called The Margarines debuted via a Tokyo news conference. Since Japanese show business has no shortage of young women who want to sing and dance in order to “fulfill their dreams,” the new ensemble needed a gimmick.

At first, the premise seemed clever enough: All the members are in debt, and will thus be singing and dancing to pay off those debts. The appeal for fans will supposedly be watching them become solvent, so the singing and dancing is beside the point, but then it usually is with idol groups.

As pointed out in an editorial in this newspaper, what The Margarines are really selling is an implication of sexual availability, which is also true of most idol groups and makes the gimmick all the more disturbing. Human traffickers for the prostitution trade often prey on girls and women who are destitute or in debt. Some people will say that’s reading way too much into The Margarines’ business model — that these girls just want to be entertainers and this gives them an opportunity to do that — but this argument ignores the selling point, which is that they willingly make themselves available to fans in order to sing and dance and, in turn, get out of debt.

By that token, the group not only fits an uncomfortable stereotype, but sends a message about the limited options of women who are in a similar position, a message that, despite the claims and efforts of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to help them attain better jobs and pay, seems to be as strong as ever, especially among adolescent girls.

A recent article in the Asahi Shimbun points out that the so-called JK business is thriving more than a decade after the term joshi kōsei was popularized by the media to describe casual sex-for-money deals involving adolescent girls. The piece is disturbing enough in the way it portrays this sort of commerce as being successful, but what makes it doubly queasy is that many girls enter it not because they’re poor and desperate, but because it’s something that gives them a certain measure of self-esteem. They’ve already become so used to the idea that young girls are sexual objects before they are anything else that they feel it’s normal.

The Asahi reporter joined a “study tour” of the Kabukicho and Akihabara districts of Tokyo, where the JK business has a strong presence. These tours are organized by 24-year-old Yumeno Nito, whose nonprofit group endeavors to help teenage girls “who have no place in society.” In many cases these girls are dropouts and runaways, but there is an increasing number who are from stable homes and who still attend school regularly and even get good grades.

Anyone can sign up for the tours, whose purpose is to help the public “understand these girls’ situations” and, by doing so, publicize the fact that those situations can become dangerous. First they walk around Kabukicho, and Nito points out young men who scout girls on the street for JK work. The tour group sees two high-school-aged girls handing out flyers for a fortune-telling establishment. Nito explains that JK businesses get around anti-prostitution laws by ostensibly offering noncontact services. The first euphemistically named trade was “refresh business,” where minors met customers in private rooms for undesignated reasons. The police cracked down on this type of business and then there arose so-called sanpō (strolling) services, in which a customer pays a girl to just walk around with and talk to him, but the police eventually figured out that these paid encounters sometimes ended up indoors. So now it’s fortune telling, where the girls divine their customers’ futures.

In Akihabara, the home of the superstar idol collective AKB48 and the birthplace of maid cafes, the tour finds one side street that is almost entirely lined with teenage girls waiting to be picked up by customers. Some of them hold leaflets advertising services as “tour guides”: 30 minutes for ¥5,000. The reporter comments that there’s nothing unusual about the girls’ appearance. Most don’t wear makeup, and look “like regular teenage girls you would find anywhere.” They are not shy and talk to anyone who strikes up a conversation with them, including members of the study tour.

One girl says she’s 15, another 17. When asked why she is “doing this,” a girl answers, “Because it’s easier than other part-time jobs and you can make a lot of money.” When the reporter asks another girl how many customers she gets a day, she answers that this is only her third day. Nito says it’s a lie, since she’s seen this particular girl here before. Their employers tell them to say that in order to make them seem less jaded.

Nito knows this situation from the inside because when she was a teenager herself she hated school and spent every day in Shibuya. She points out that at the time there were no established JK businesses in the area. What has helped these businesses grow in the meantime is the emergence of social-network services among teens and the way these businesses have learned to exploit a young girl’s need to be liked and complimented. The attention they receive from their handlers and customers is interpreted by them as an affirmation of their worth. They have learned from the media that cuteness is not just a physical attribute, but a coin that you can trade for something else you want. As Nito explains, the men who run these businesses provide a “sense of achievement” to their charges just by saying they are charming, even though they have achieved nothing.

What makes the idol model insidious is that it comes with a misleadingly happy ending. The young women in The Margarines will sing their way out of debt. The women in AKB48 “graduate” from the group, thus suggesting future lives of adult responsibility. But initiative and accomplishment have little to do with these happy endings. It’s all about being chosen, doing what you’re told and hoping for the best.

  • zer0_0zor0

    Incisive commentary on the more than simply vacuous nature of “idol” culture. The whole scenario is a vicious cycle, preying on the young. The term decadent doesn’t seem to quite encompass the phenomena, but is applicable.

    The idol industry churns out successive ‘archetypes’ going through the motions–sexually suggestive motions. There is a “something for nothing” subterfuge in the message conflating sex and success. It debases any sense of a goal-oriented purposefulness and work ethic, and cannot be said to present a psychologically beneficial contextualization of sexuality.

    And the idols are foisted as role models by the so-called entertainment industry, role models to be emulated by young people who are confronted with a sea of mass media flotsam and jetsam.

    That further burdens already overworked parents and educators trying to rear young people so they can successfully navigate the future.

  • GBR48

    Well, many Victorians regarded female stage performers as being little more than prostitutes and Elvis outraged a generation with his pelvic thrusts. There’s me thinking that things might actually have changed by the 21st century, but no. Anyone, particularly anyone female, who dares to climb on a stage, seems to be advocating immorality in their dress, their dance and the lyrics of the songs they sing. And should they actually accept cash for their performance, making a career out of it, then they are promoting prostitution with every ounce of their being.

    This is all rather pathetic. Maybe it was a quiet day, so the JT decided to stick some idol-bashing in as a filler.

    The Margarines are simply in the business to make some cash and you seem angry that they are being honest about it. Who isn’t in the entertainment business to make some cash? Shakespeare certainly was. Welcome to free market capitalism. If you don’t like it, the Islamic State are offering an alternative.

    The advertising and entertainment industries both, globally, use sex to sell at every turn. Surprisingly, Japanese idol bands often promote innocence and virginity (the fans demanding it, sometimes to a quite scary extent). It’s a heck of a lot less sexualised than the Korean equivalent or the Western music industry.

    Whilst it is true that women have fewer opportunities to make a career for themselves in Japan, attacking one of them is hardly a great response.

    Enjo kōsai and its variants are nothing new, but the Wikipedia article on it is more enlightening (and enlightened) than this one.

    By all means regulate the methods of operation of Japan’s adult entertainment industry, so that those who are above a socially acceptable age and who choose to work in it, are safer. Or try. We all know who runs it, and we all know that neither the police nor the government are going to interfere to regulate it any time soon. Now there’s an abrogation of responsibility for a journalist to get their teeth into.

    Attacking idol groups as promoters of enjo kōsai is a cheap shot that avoids annoying those who are really responsible for the entrapment of vulnerable young people into the sex trade. They sing, they dance, they work very hard at all the stuff that comes with being in an idol group-it’s no easy ride. Yes, they are vulnerable, and you would hope that there are protections in place for them.

    Yumeno Nito is doing the right thing, but maybe on too small a scale. Make a video. Put it on YouTube and get it shown in every class in Japanese schools, explaining in simple, plain terms the dangers of being led into situations that may take young women and HSGs further than they want to go.

    But scapegoating idol bands? That’s a cheap shot.

    Being an idol is hard work-much harder work than being a journalist. It is not just ‘all about being chosen, doing what you’re told and hoping for the best’, but that phrase pretty much sums up life for many people. I’m sure most salarymen would recognise their working lives in that description.

  • J.P. Bunny

    As for The Margarines, I would consider them rather good role models. Here is a collection of young people honestly working to pay off their debts, not asking their parents for money, nor declaring bankruptcy. Many young people today have no real concept of what money or actual ownership is. Clicking an icon on a screen or swiping a cell phone/credit card does not mean what you bought is yours, a fact that finally hits home when the sellers demand their money.
    The Kabukicho tour is a great idea as most young people have no idea of what is involved, they just see the money. Maybe it is “easier” than a part-time job, but the consequences are a lot more serious. The life of an idol group member may not be the best, but at least these girls are not breaking the law. They are honestly working to pay off their debts, which is a good example for anyone.

  • 谷口賢也

    Wait, what? Is this article saying that teens selling their bodies for their own enjoyment is worse than selling themselves out of desperation?

  • Earl Kinmonth

    I wonder what Miley Cyrus would think of this group?