Not only was I unaware there were black “idols” in Japan, or black women who wanted to be idols in Japan — turns out, I didn’t know what an idol actually was.
You’d think that after 13 years of hearing the word if not every day, then damn near, that I would get its meaning. But after speaking with Amina du Jean, aka Aminyan, who claims to be the first black American idol in Japan, I realized I’d made the same error people fresh from the outside world tend to make: that Japanized English words always reside in the same lexicon as their English counterparts. They don’t. In fact, according to Amina, it’s meaning is almost the opposite.
“In the States, idols are like people you might look up to who have excelled in some arena, but here in Japan an idol is a normal girl, or boy, early teens to mid-20s, who has appeal,” the 20-year old explains. “The girls are supposed to have a kinda girl-next-door image. I think that’s why girls get into idols. They can imagine having a friend like her, someone nice, and popular and fashionable. Whereas with the boys, they probably fantasize they could have a girlfriend like her. But basically it’s just a genre of entertainment.”
Amina’s been in Japan for only 2½ years, but in that time has become a bona fide idol, joined a J-idol group and even branched off into a bit of gravure (bikini glamour) modeling with a spread in Japan’s Weekly Playboy. But she began her climb a few rungs ahead of most.
“I started taking Japanese private lessons when I was 12,” the Detroit native says. “Michigan has a large Japanese population so it wasn’t difficult to find a teacher.”
I was curious about how she’d gotten introduced to Japanese idols and J-Pop, a black girl growing up in the heart of Motown.
“I’ve been interested in Japanese idols since I was a kid,” Amina says. “I loved groups like AKB48 and Morning Musume. At the time, Gwen Stefani was very popular and she had these background dancers she called her Harajuku Girls. I thought that was interesting, so I looked up Harajuku fashion. The fashion appealed to me because in Michigan I went to an academy where we too had to wear uniforms. So this fashion was like art to me.”
I recalled the firestorm that followed the release of Stefani’s first solo album. She used four backup dancers, the aforementioned Harajuku Girls, in all her performances, and even as an entourage when out in public. Four giggling, submissive Asian props, with clownish blush and tiny painted lips, that she referred to as “figments of her imagination.” She would soon find herself lambasted as the queen of cultural appropriation.
I asked Amina if she had any thoughts on cultural appropriation, and whether she’d ever been accused of it.
“I think that the term ‘cultural appropriation’ is overused and takes away from real appropriation,” Amina says. “I’m a naturally feminine person so me acting feminine or cutesy isn’t appropriation, in my opinion, but rather who I am. I think ironically, those who think a black woman cannot be naturally feminine-behaving are racist and limiting themselves. Personally, nonblack people having cornrows or dreads don’t look aesthetically good to me, but as long as they aren’t claiming them for their own, I won’t throw up my hands about it.
“Half of Detroit public schools are defunct and Flint, Michigan’s water is poisoned with lead,” she continues. “I’d rather concern myself with that than a nonissue such as appropriation. While I don’t approve of people taking on a Japanese name when they’re not Japanese or wearing a geisha costume, I personally don’t understand how someone can appropriate pop culture. Most aspects of pop culture are directly taken from other aspects of traditional culture. It’s an amalgamation. I don’t think the word ‘appropriate’ would be correct here by its definition’s sake. Even if so, to me it’s a nonissue.”
She’d clearly given this nonissue some thought.
I don’t recall much to-do among Japanese over Stefani’s Harajuku Girls. Most of the outrage came from the West, as do the accusations of cultural appropriation aimed at Amina.
“I’ve been accused of it almost exclusively by non-Japanese people,” she says. “It was mainly after I’d been in Japan that the ‘social justice’ boom has taken off. I really heard it once I started getting attention in Japan.”
But Amina doesn’t let such accusations trouble her. The way she sees it: “I’m from Detroit, home of the greatest idol group of all time, The Supremes. So in response I’d joke and say if anything, they appropriated my culture.”
Amina is a very impressive young woman. Not only has she, from a tender age, taken the reins of her life with a great deal of focus and determination, and achieved unprecedented success in a fairly exclusive field, in a foreign country, and in a foreign language to boot. But also, having listened to an endless stream of idle chat from Japanese pixie-ish young idols for over a decade now, on television and out in the streets, frankly, she exceeded my expectations.
I was prepared for a woman who has spent the last few years emulating caricatures of Japanese innocence and modesty to be a lot less authentic and candid. Besides, to look and listen to her in her idol persona, you wouldn’t think it was possible for her to be anything but a pixie through and through. She is as “girl next door” as any Japanese idol could aspire to be, just a few shades darker. And her voice has that same lilt and singsong quality I’ve come to expect of women of that cut. But, after a few minutes talking with her, I felt as if I’d been the victim of a grand deception, for there was nothing remotely cutesy about Amina’s mind. She was nimble, circumspect, with opinions galore — and wasn’t timid about broadcasting near one of them.
Even before Amina came to Japan, she was winning over fans around the world as an idol. She would do live broadcasts on the Japanese web channel Nico Nico Douga. This is what brought her to the attention of the Japanese idol agency that recruited her. Around the same time she’d gotten accepted to a university here in Japan. So when she touched down at Narita, an idol contract and a university scholarship in her pocket, with several years of Japanese study thrown into the bargain, she was well ahead of the game.
She would eventually join a J-Idol group called Chick Girls whose concept was “Hollywood style,” fashioned less on AKB48 and more on Girls Generation. I watched some of the group’s YouTube videos and they looked like they got along really well, so I asked her how that was going. For the most part it’s been working out really well for her, she told me, but there was one incident.
“The leader of the group hated me for some reason and tried to turn everyone in the group against me,” Amina says. “But I figured I’m new, so I would try to gaman, you know — to persevere. But it got ridiculous, so I told the management that I didn’t want to cause any problems but that girl is talking about me, and saying stuff like “Oh, I didn’t know you could speak Japanese” — just being rude, you know? And apparently they’d gotten complaints from other members of the group, so that girl got put out. Other than that it’s been pretty good.”
Being a black idol in Japan, unsurprisingly Amina finds herself faced with some complex questions. I could hear her throughout the interview wrestling with complicated feelings that often result from living in a society where her otherness is so overemphasized, yet working in a field where that otherness is sometimes rewarded with opportunities.
“I don’t get anyone being outwardly racist to my face,” she says. “In America we always say we’re in a postracial society. That’s debatable, but we act like it, at least.
“However, in Japan, race is the only thing they focus on. And even with non-Japanese it’s they only thing they focus on as well — black idol, black idol — but I don’t mind. I like breaking barriers, and we definitely need more diversity. Maybe this is just wishful thinking, but I wish people would see me for who I am as a person as well.
“It’s not altogether a bad thing, though. I mean, I am black and I’m proud of it. I just don’t think black defines me. But people who are the first at anything are bound to run into these kinds of problems, so I don’t mind it too much. Besides, I get attention that I wouldn’t necessarily get if I weren’t black.
“Sometimes I think it would be easier if I were white,” she adds. “Because I’ve seen it before: A white girl who can’t speak any Japanese will get a bigger part than I could get. In America that white girl wouldn’t be considered beautiful, but because in Japan white is automatically pretty or exotic, they’ll get the part. So I kinda have some — how should I say, um — resentment towards that. However, at the same time, if I weren’t black, I wouldn’t be as special. Nobody would mind, nobody would care. I don’t want it to be a niche, but that’s what draws people in. Then I can inspire them with my personality and perseverance, and I think that’s for the better.”
There’s a sizable community of foreign girls interested in becoming idols who would love to follow in her footsteps, and I was curious if Amina had any advice for them.
“First off, learn Japanese,” she says. “After that, it’s not that hard to get into an idol group. I think there are over 1,000 in Japan. I’m not the first foreigner to get into this, either, just the first black woman. Many opportunities exist if you look a certain way. There are some standards but you don’t have to be extraordinarily beautiful or talented. So, I would say just be serious about it, cause it’s a lot of work.
“And don’t expect to make a lot of money,” Amina says. “It’s mainly commission-based, so for example after a live show, the fans can pay to take pictures with you or buy your merchandise and you get 50 percent of that. So if you’re not a famous group, just an underground group like most idol groups in Japan, you’d make about the same as you would working at a McDonald’s. Almost everyone I know has a day job, or rich parents.
“And be smart! I think people let down their guard when they come to Japan. Don’t!” she insists. “Be careful of fans and management. There are a lot creeps. But everywhere you go there are people who try to prey on young people with dreams. It’s not just Japan. If you go to Hollywood there are predators there, too. So I would just say keep your guard up, but don’t be afraid to take a risk.”
I told her that a couple of weekends ago I’d gone to Lazona shopping mall in Kawasaki, and in the plaza there was an idol group dancing and singing in their traditional school girl get-ups — ages anywhere from 16 to 20 years old, at best — surrounded by a mass of full-grown male fans. They were all clapping and cheering, and knew all the tunes by rote.
“Yeah, when I first noticed that, it was so weird to me too, but I guess I’m desensitized to it now,” Amina says. “I’ve seen some things I really disagree with, though. Like there’s a sub-category of gravure with children, mainly girls, in bikinis, and it’s completely legal. It’s not considered child pornography at all in Japan. The U.N. has tried to crack down on it, but they don’t show genitalia, and there’s supposedly no explicit content, though it’s very suggestive. I think that’s very wrong! But other things I guess I’ve been desensitized to. It’s just girls dancing on stage.”
Amina is currently on hiatus from Chick Girls, having chosen to focus more on her studies. She majors in media and journalism at a university in Tokyo, and intends to channel what she’s learned in college into producing documentaries on subcultures in Japan, beginning with one on her life as an idol.
Amina’s English blog: www.aminyan.com. On YouTube: www.youtube.com/user/AmiTwinkleMagic. Black Eye usually appears in print on the third Monday Community Page of every month. Baye McNeil is the author of two books on life in Japan. See www.bayemcneil.com. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org.