Babymetal aren’t the latest chapter in the ‘wacky Japan’ story


Special To The Japan Times

The British are mad, aren’t they? That Kate Bush with her crazy gyrating around a cello in the video for “Babushka,” that daft loon Robbie Williams with his funky skeleton costume, those kerrr-azy Tellytubbies with their wacky dance routines — what is it about the British that makes them so totally off-the-wall bonkers?

Not the kind of report you see very often, and one that would probably seem a bit lazy, under-researched and perhaps just a touch racist, but replace the word “British” with “Japanese” and replace Kate, Robbie, Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Lala and Po with the likes of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and current BuzzFeed favorites Babymetal, and . . . well, you know, the Japanese are mad, aren’t they: What more is there to say?

When something seems mad, it may very well be the result of a unique and oddball talent like Bush, but when it seems to be happening institutionally and across the board, it’s more often a rational response to irrational circumstances. To a large degree that’s what’s happening in the idol scene in Japan’s dysfunctional pop industry.

In the 1970s, when mainstream Japanese pop was good, an abundance of ideas (albeit heavily mediated) from songwriters versed in a wide range of musical styles flowed into the mainstream. Those ideas came from the worlds of jazz, classical, psychedelia, folk and the avant-garde. Musicians grounded in these diverse scenes could thus work their voices into the mainstream, whether it was through their own work, as with stars such as Yumi Arai (now Matsutoya), or through writing for others, as with songwriters such as Koichi Morita and Yusuke Hoguchi or lyricist Yu Aku.

It was always a handy advantage for the singers who fronted pop acts to be young, pretty and female, but they still had to win auditions and perform live — talent was of equal or greater importance than looks.

In the ’80s, appearance and marketing really started to take over. Stars were produced and promoted through cross-media marketing, in particular through commercial appearances. Music and talent became secondary. The term to describe this new kind of star was “CM (commercial) idol.”

In the ’90s, J-pop initially acted as a backlash against the CM-idol system, putting more focus on bands and singers with a mature, modern image. However, when album sales started to show a decline in the late ’90s, access to the majors gradually closed to new players. The big labels took fewer chances on new bands, money for songwriters and producers atrophied and marketing reasserted its grasp.

Uber-producer Tetsuya Komuro used to sell as much with his own band, Globe, as his superstar producees (Namie Amuro, Ami Suzuki) did. His modern-day equivalent, Yasutaka Nakata and his group Capsule, barely sells a fraction of what he can get by producing commercially managed, image-oriented acts such as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Perfume.

With these circumstances in mind, the revival of idol pop, first with Morning Musume and then in a big way with AKB48, can in some ways be seen as a subversive element, because it’s the only corner of the mainstream pop industry that offers anything like a meritocracy.

For all its horrors and the undoubted misogyny that underscores everything it does, it’s important to note the effort AKB48 puts into maintaining the illusion of intimacy and contact between its fans and members, even if it’s heavily monetized at every step: There’s the small theater in Akihabara, the handshake greeting events, the localization of its sister groups and the regular “elections” that decide the most popular performer in the group.

Musically, AKB48 is stuck in the homogeneous blob of the mainstream, with the worst kind of bland, crassly produced, thin-sounding, supermarket-ready pop. Elsewhere in the idol scene, though, groups are able to tailor their music to speak to specific audiences and subcultures who have been left out by a mainstream that increasingly avoids saying anything specific to anyone for fear of alienating others (and as a result gradually alienates everyone). To do this, idol music has been far more willing to provide songwriters from the underground music scene with a path to professional participation in the music business.

This is where Babymetal comes in. Many of the trio’s songs are the work of Nobuki Narasaki (usually known by just his surname), the frontman of post-hardcore/shoegaze/metal/screamo band Coaltar of the Deepers — a band with a deep well of underground cred.

Narasaki has past form here, having written songs for idol superstars Momoiro Clover Z along with avant-pop musician and composer Kenichi “Hyadain” Maeyamada. Meanwhile, songwriters such as Etsuko Yakushimaru of new wave band Soutaisei Riron, Yasuharu Konishi of Pizzicato 5 and Nobuya Usui of technopop performance troupe (M) otocompo have also been able to get their music out via various idol groups. Even Yoshiyuki “Jojo” Hiroshige of noise legends Hijokaidan has made a mark on the scene, producing a collaboration album with self-described “anti-idols” BiS.

What has happened is that by adopting the simplistic but effective marketing model of cute face + whatever = ¥¥¥, the idol scene has opened up a new route for alternative musical ideas to enter the fringes of the mainstream. And by catering to subcultural fan groups, they have, aided by the growth of the Internet, given voice to aspects of culture that the core mainstream’s drive for homogeneity has ignored — building strong, die-hard fanbases in the process.

The idol scene has now grown to such a level that it’s starting to show cracks and is splitting off into different directions. Parts of the indie scene have cottoned onto this and you can see the focus-on-the-girls model of promotion that has always been indie music’s shameful secret moving more out into the open as stores such as Tower Records increasingly start to push musically unrelated acts together as “girls bands,” and subculture events increasingly adopt idol-like presentation and marketing. The rabid misogyny of otaku-focused acts such as AKB48 sits poorly with the more egalitarian indie and subculture fans who have lately colonized the idol world, and they tend to prefer the less overtly sexualized and more musically out-there groups such as Momoiro Clover Z, and now Babymetal.

Increasingly as well, the gullibility of the Western media in its unquestioning acceptance and regurgitation of any “wacky/weird Japan” story has surely occurred to the people behind these newer groups. The long-tail overseas success of not-quite-idol Kyary Pamyu Pamyu has been followed by increasing nudges toward overseas markets, with and Babymetal explicitly presenting themselves in a sort of “From idol . . . to the world!” sort of manner. “What’s going on in Japan?” Babymetal asked in its video, “My First Heavy Metal in Tokyo 2012,” and the act’s career thus far has been in part a carefully crafted answer to that question, made in full awareness of an overseas audience looking in.

While the wackiness of idol acts such as Babymetal is obvious for all to see, it’s also the work of people who know exactly what they are doing, trying to craft fun out of a specific set of economic, creative and marketing circumstances. In that sense, is it really any more absurd than the theatrics that Western metal acts such as Dragonforce and Manowar have been delighting and dismaying fans with for decades?

  • phu

    This is a really interesting perspective on the girl band/idol phenomenon that would have never occurred to me, not having any knowledge of the writers behind some of it. If this is indeed what’s going on, it sounds like a good step in a good direction; hopefully the value introduced here doesn’t get ignored and stamped out by future industry movements.

  • Lorne McDermott

    Great Article!

  • blondein_tokyo

    Are you kidding me? It’s just more exploitation, and this time of even younger girls. Sexist, misogynistic, and yes- abusive. Soon we’ll be seeing meet-and-greets where all the middle aged male fans of this group can line up for their autographs, and then take home their autographed pictures to wank over. Sexualizing young women who aren’t even old enough yet to have sex themselves? Disgusting.

    • Speel

      Not to be an ass, but your an idiot if you think this is sexist, misogynistic or exploration. I don’t even know how you think this is abuse. The fact that these teen girls are doing this is their choice many don’t wear outfits nearly as sexual as western media. To go back to your section on this being sexist, I would like to ask how? And if it is then boy bands in Japan, Korea and even male groups such as the British One Direction and even Justin Beibler are sexist towards men. Anyone who puts themselves in the spotlight know what that entailes and know they will be seen as objects in one way or another, this applies to males and females. To state they are being taken advantage of and sexualized is stupid as they made the choice to be employed in that sector and are compensated better than most regular people.

      • blondein_tokyo

        It’s not their choice. The clothes they wear are chosen for them, as is the music they play and their dance moves. The talent agency is in full control, their image carefully crafted to be as sexy as possible without crossing a very thin line into full pornography. They stay juuuust inside the limits so that fans can pretend it’s all about the music and the dancing, and not about the sexy short skirts and fetisizing sweet young innocence. They’ve done the same thing with Morning Musume and AKB48. Those girls are under tremendous pressure and not even allowed to have actual relationships because the agency wants them to stay “pure”- they are essentially prostituting them to their fans. They aren’t allowed a normal life or to grow up normally.

        As to your point regarding boy bands, if you can show me that young male sexuality is fetishized for it’s innocence by predatory older women, and if you can show me a boy band whose members are not allowed to date or have girlfriends because it would upset the predatory female fans because said female fans are threatened by the idea that these boys have sexual autonomy, then I will agree with you.

        But generally speaking, it is a given that male sexuality is acting, while women are expected to be acted upon. Female sexual autonomy is feared and hated. Thus, I use the words sexist and misogynistic.

        And oh, it should be “*you’re* an idiot”.

        Does Japan Times actually allow for insults like this? What is that saying? Oh yes- “insults are the last refuge of the intellectual coward”.

      • trickystick

        Just wanted to point out that Johnny & Associates, which has managed boy bands in Japan for almost half a century, has the same schtick with not allowing their idols to be in relationships (the few marriage stories are either due to having done their term – Kimura Takuya – or just doing whatever the hell they want and reaping the consequences – Akanishi Jin). That company has a similar ‘production line’ of training young boys and picking the most promising ones to push into the entertainment industry.

        Also, I think the band SEXY ZONE (under that label) is pretty damn creepy considering that a 12 year old (or something like that) is one of the main selling points.

        I think the not allowing relationships thing is so the companies can wring as much money from fans as possible, because understandably some fans would be turned off and be less willing to spend if the performer is in a relationship because then, they really stand no chance. (I hear 2 fans committed suicide when Kimura Takuya got married)

        I do agree that the idol market is dominated by female performers though.

      • blondein_tokyo

        Yes, when it’s done to young boys, it’s just as wrong. I absolutely agree there.

      • Guest

        How is this sexist? Um, does One Direction have to perform in micro shorts and shake their butt while under the age of consent?

        You do realize that the entire concept of “age of consent” is that children cannot legally consent. So your entire point about them “freely choosing” is, legally, irrelevant. They cannot legally choose anything.

        I would also argue that it’s morally wrong to ask a child to do something she does not understand. Japanese culture encourages children to unthinkingly follow their teachers – have you ever tried to tell a Japanese child that their school teacher is wrong? Their minds unravel. It is highly unlikely that these girls freely chose anything about their lives at this point, least of all their costumes. Do you think they fully understand what their costumes and dance moves communicate to their adult male fans? Really?

        Compensation is also irrelevant, as it is not a magical ethicalizer. You don’t magically become ethical once you give someone money.

        I mean, don’t get me wrong – we might be overreacting, me and Blonde. Sure. But your arguments are 100% meaningless and complete non sequiturs. If someone says, “That’s sexual exploitation!” and your argument is, “But they got paid!” Wow. No real words for that, y’know? That’s pretty sick.

    • Guest

      This is precisely why I can’t get on board with their schtick. Like, ok, it sounds like a neat idea, fun, really. But then you watch the video and you have these little girls waving their butts around in tiny micro skirts and knee socks. If it had been Kyary-Pamyu-Pamyu, I could deal with it. She’s an adult.

      Ugh. It IS disgusting. And not metal. So not metal. Honestly, the longer I live in Japan, the more and more this aspect of the culture disgusts me. It really just sickens me to my soul, the amount of child exploitation going on here.

      You know what was metal? That scene in Onmyoji 2 where he literally rocks his way to heaven with the power of ancient Japanese metal. Er, I mean, kabuki. Which, I mean, kabuki is metal as all hell. THAT is metal. This? Never.

      • chris

        you mean just like child pageants in the U.S. where they literally dress a 10 year old with heals, make up, and even dance in a seductive way? what about teen pageants all across the world? they’re highly sexualized and it takes place all over the WESTERN world.

        go ahead and think what’d you like about Japan but (assuming that youre from a Western country), you targeting Japan and its culture is completely HYPOCRITICAL

      • blondein_tokyo

        Yes! Just like child pageants and teen pageants, and for that matter, just like pageants like Ms. World or Miss American. They’re all sexist, and in the case of the underage girls, exploitative.

        It’s not hypocritical when I condemn the exact same thing in my own country.

        I’m not even sure why you would assume that I would change my stance when it comes to criticizing my own country? I call out sexism and the exploitation of young women and girls wherever I see it.

      • Daishi88

        Exactly this, Blonde. Who says we don’t condemn BOTH? Is there some magical reason we can’t condemn something we hate in our own country, too? I hate a LOT of things in my home country. A lot. But that’s 100% irrelevant to the question at hand.

      • Daishi88

        Um…I said literally nothing about child pageants in the US, so, uh, I’m not sure how I was being a hypocrite in any way shape or form. Please don’t make things up.

        But I’ll address your point honestly (despite the fact that you are not being honest yourself): child beauty pageants in America are a narrow niche subculture. The only reason they are in any way popular or known throughout the country are for two events: Honey Boo Boo’s TV show and the Benet-Ramsey case from the 90’s. Other than those two incidents, child beauty pageants are really just a little blip on the radar of US culture. I’ve never seen nor heard of one in my town, and they’ve never been shown on TV.

        Here in Japan, though, idols are on TV EVERY DAY. Constantly. I bought a can of coffee the other day, it had pictures of the AKB girls on it. The thing about AKB48? MANY of them are underage, children. Idol culture PERMEATES Japan, and many young girls will tell you, “I want to be an idol when I grow up” starting as young as age five. No one says, “Honey, no, that’s not for you.”

        You have to remember that AKB48 fans are explicitly told to imagine themselves dating the AKB girls – that’s why they are forbidden to have boyfriends. Stop and THINK about that: you are literally telling fans to imagine DATING children. That’s AKB48, and they are on TV EVERY day.

        So, please. PLEASE do NOT turn this into a comparative critique of who is the worse offender of child exploitation. Japan will lose every time. Every. Single. Time. Child beauty pageants in the US are a tiny niche that almost NO ONE gives a damn about and is NOTHING like the idol industry in Japan. On top of that, as far as I know, there are NO child beauty pageants in America where the children are forced to avoid dating so that they will be “accessable” to their fans.

        Look, you can bleat about hypocrisy all you want, but Japan and America are apples and oranges here. Both countries have serious problems with sexism, but Japan’s are too different to even begin a comparison.

      • ayanami1988

        Firstly, AKB are teenagers, not children, secondly nobody gives a damn, they usually get married and live a comfortable life with enough money to never have to think about working again after they graduate.
        I don’t think we can say the same about many famous Disney teen actresses, am I wrong?

        The world is full of problems to be outraged about and certainly idols culture is NOT one of those.

        Gosh I can smell your puritan moralism from thousands of miles away.

      • blondein_tokyo

        Yes! It’s sacrilege to the art of metal to call this music “metal”. It’s as if Justin Beiber suddenly started screaming on stage and wearing leather. LOL

      • Daishi88

        No, that’s not what I meant. I think the music is awesome. It’s just that I’d prefer to have an adult fronting the group – or have a child in more appropriate clothing, &c.

        I think child exploitation is not metal. Flaming tongues and shit, that’s metal. But forcing someone to do something they don’t want to, putting people in danger is not. Metal is about hurting yourself if you want to, but not hurting others.

        So this is so not metal. Onmyoji – that shit is metal. I’m using “metal” as an adjective here.

      • chris

        “But forcing someone to do something they don’t want to, putting people in danger is not.”

        who’s forcing them? their income and popularity?

      • Daishi88

        Think about it. Take a child. Tell a child, “Dance like this.” You teach the kid a sexual dance move. The child, however, doesn’t know what that move is, nor does he know what that move communicates.

        All you do is tell the kid, “Do this.” And he does. Gladly. He’s happy. But there is a subtext that the child does not – cannot – understand – and you are forcing him to communicate that unknowingly. No matter how much the child says, “I want to do this,” if the child does not understand it, yes, you are forcing them to do something they don’t actually want to do. If you can’t understand something, you can’t want to do it.

        “Not wanting to do something” doesn’t necessarily mean you are resisting it.

        And, again – please, please, please think for ten seconds: giving them money DOES NOT MAKE IT RIGHT. That they are popular DOES NOT MAKE IT RIGHT. Not sure why that’s hard for you to get.

      • blondein_tokyo

        What Babymetal producers are doing is forcing adult sexuality onto those girls rather than letting them come into themselves at their own pace. It’s the same thing that happens to all young singers and other celebrities when they are put into the spotlight at too young of an age and forced to grow up at a much faster pace than is natural. I’d even argue that it’s particularly bad in the case of young girls who are being portrayed as sexual objects for older men. At 14 and 16, they cannot possibly understand the ramifications.

        And giving them money does not make it okay.

      • FifthDream

        “But then you watch the video and you have these little girls waving their butts around in tiny micro skirts and knee socks. ”

        Are you referring to BABYMETAL? Because i’ve seen nothing of the sort where they are involved. If you’re sure you’ve seen this, let me know, and i’ll be shocked and reevaluate my opinion of this group. But much of my enjoyment of BABYMETAL is that i don’t see any of that type of thing going on. I don’t enjoy most idol music for many of the reasons that have been brought up in these comments. As crafted and calculated as it may be, BABYMETAL is semi-silly fun, and doesn’t feel sexually exploitative and manipulative like many other groups. And i like that the music it’s so sickly sweet that i can’t digest it. Their whole image and sound are simply fun, and i don’t feel creepy listening to it, and i’m not scared someone might catch me watching their videos. In fact, i share them with everyone i know.

        But as i said, if you’ve seen something i haven’t in regard to “microskirt butt-shaking” BABYMETAL… maybe i haven’t been paying attention (though i have; i’ve been a fan and babbling about them on social media for years.)

      • Daishi88

        I forget which video it was in (a live cut of “Give me Chocolate,” I think?) and the dance moves started out innocent, but quickly degraded into the girls bending over, thrusting their butts out and shaking vigorously.

        Now, I may be exaggerating slightly. I admit. But that was the moment they lost me. Because it is just. so. common in this industry to have little children dancing like this, and I can’t handle it.

        I really should emphasize that I WANT to like them, but if they can’t avoid falling into sexual tropes with these girls, then I can’t count them as unique or interesting.

      • AnonChan

        I have watched these videos and saw nothing sexual, i believe you and Blonde are purposely distorting the truth to further your own viewpoints, that are you have dirty minds that are sexualizing something that isn’t.

      • AnonChan

        Furthermore your claim of being a “fan” is questionable since the girls are pretty much using the same dance moves(which aren’t sexual) that they used in “doki doki morning” which was 2 years ago .If you didn’t have a problem with it then you shouldn’t have one now.

      • Daishi88

        Or maybe – just maybe – I’ve lived in Japan long enough and spoken to actual Japanese women enough to know what the patterns are, and I can see things you can’t.

      • AnonChan

        oh of course that’s what it is you’re just so much smarter and more observant than everyone else, how dare i question you.

      • AnonChan

        “Or maybe – just maybe – I’ve lived in Japan long enough and spoken to
        actual Japanese women enough to know what the patterns are, and I can
        see things you can’t.”

        THIS anecdote.

    • greenlight

      > Sexualizing young women who aren’t even old enough yet to have sex themselves

      Sounds like you’re pretty naive about the age people have their sexual debut these days. 1/5 14-year-olds have already had sex…

      • blondein_tokyo

        Yes (she said patiently) girls CAN have sex at 12, 13 or 14. But you are missing the point: at that age, they are not old enough to understand the physical and emotional repercussions, nor can they handle them.

        These girls are too young and too inexperienced to be bale to give informed consent to be sexualized in this manner.

    • 谷口賢也

      What the hell is this “sexualizing” people keep talking about? Straight men can feel attraction to 15 year old girls, its always been that way. Society can really only stop men from acting on those urges.
      You’re clearly confusing your irrational, but common, aversion to seeing older men with younger women. Which is the same thing men do when they call their discomfort with seeing women in revealing clothing “feminist.” Neither of those things can objectively be wrong, unless they involve harm to another human via a non-consensual relationship etc. “Sexual morality” has no business in discussions of human rights.

      • Trish

        Morality of any form is the basis of human rights. For example, the right of one human to not be harmed by another, or to put it another way: having equal rights, is based on the moral idea that the value of every human life is equal regardless of wealth or power – one might be able to subjugate another, but their sense of morality forbids it. It’s this kind of morality that put a stop to slavery in many places, in a time when slaves were not afforded legal human rights.

        Apply this logic to the topic at hand… some men might be sexually attracted to children, but it is not morally right (no matter how long it’s been going on for). You say that society stops those men from acting on their urges – this is true because that society has collective morals which form the basis of their laws. But what if such a man finds opportunity to act upon his urges without being caught out by society? This is why there are so many cases of child abuse. Law and society are only able to do so much, inevitably it comes down to the morality of each individual.

        If a man struggles with such urges he should then seek help or counsel from someone he can trust who has the morals that he lacks, instead of feeding those perverse desires by continuing to fantasise until one day that fantasy might meet opportunity.

        Before someone misunderstands my comments, I will say that this is indeed a global issue among all cultures (East, West and everywhere in between).

        I will also say that I have absolutely no aversion to seeing a younger woman with an older man, so long as that woman is an adult.

        A marketing trend by which innocence and purity is made to seem sexually desirable outside of the intention of marriage (which would have then preserved that purity) is a singularly sick idea, because the desire is then to corrupt what is pure and destroy that innocence – isn’t that what the fantasy is: to be the one that ruins her? This is a breeding ground for paedophiles. Even though most men don’t go that far, it still affects the way that they view and treat women; and girls that grow up as sex symbols (or idolising them) have a hard time developing a healthy self respect. there is harm being done then, it’s just less obvious, especially if people much rather ignore it so that they can go on indulging themselves.

      • blondein_tokyo

        Double thumbs up. :)

      • blondein_tokyo

        Let’s get one thing straight. Two of these girls are 14, and the other is 16 – too young for sex, too young to even understand their own sexuality, and thus too young to consent to being sexualized.

        Now, while it is perfectly normal and natural for a man to find young girls attractive, it is an entirely different thing to dress young girls up in sexy clothes and then market them to much older men as sex objects. You do know that Japan has a child porn problem? You do know that Japan has a problem with teen prostitution? And you do know that Japan has a problem with chikan who target barely-teen girls in school uniforms? Well, normalizing young teen girls as sex objects for consumption by older men ISN’T HELPING, and in fact it can be said to be HURTING, so there goes your assertion that it’s not harmful.

        And you have no idea what my stance on younger female/older male ADULT sexual relationships is, so please refrain from making assumptions.

    • sl

      i think you have issues you’re projecting onto this. babymetal just act cute. it’s not sexual at all. you probably think a little girl wearing a dress showing her legs is being sexualized and advertised for pedophiles by her parents. you should see a therapist.

  • Great article, and totally accurate from what I know and have seen in Japan’s music scene. And yeah, this country is home to some of the most brilliant, calculated, almost deviantly clever marketing I’ve ever seen. Sometimes.

    Like Ian said, it’s not “weird for weird’s sake” by any means. It’s clever and always just ridiculous enough to be effective. There was obviously an untapped metal otaku market, that will also attract metal-curious otaku who are tired of the saccharine sweet keyboard techno pop we’ve had to tolerate until now.

    Yet after seeing a video of DEMPAGUMI,inc. live… If this is a sign of good things to come, pop-wise, things don’t look good to me.

    Seems there will always be more emphasis on theatrics and selling hyper-synthetic, selfsame cliched soundtracks for otaku than on actual musicality (depending on the definition of music)…unless..

    Hopefully Babymetal inspire more unique-ness, some change, and not just a wave of unoriginal Babymetal clones…I predict the latter, but hold out hope that J-pop becomes a battleground for innovation, genre-bending and *maybe* even really well-written songs.

    I like the pastiche of Babymetal just because it’s Japanese pop idols (by which I mean teenage girls) not trying to be typecast girls -they are doing something other than appearing innocent and cute and with a vibe like they were forced to undress for money in front of a camera (like AKB48, et al).

    The best case scenario in a possible battle for monopoly on pockets of taste / untapped markets would be a scenario where in search of the next new sound, a bunch of non-crotchety producers and songwriters to step in and blow the world’s minds… People in touch with the cutting edge of music, someone like Seiho from Osaka, for instance…

  • Niiru Neko

    Great article from someone who knows the history of Idol music.Also good to see Momoclo Z mentioned.I hope to see BABYMETAL perform to the same size audiences as Momoclo’s 100k 2 nighter.Seeing BABYMETAL’s Budokan show at such a young age,and charting overseas shows they are on the right track.

    Do you remember Nocchi,A-chan and Kashiyuka handing out leaflets for concerts at that age.The potential young Su,Yui and Moa is limited only by those who guide them.

    Finally and maybe off topic but one important factor is the release of full official videos on You Tube.They want to reach the outside market and see this as a powerful form of promotion.A nice change from every other JPop act that has only one form of action,delete delete delete!

  • Ian Martin

    OK, a few things here. I didn’t talk in the article about the idol production process, and I think there remain big ethical questions about the way girls are taken often at extremely young ages and fed through these stage school boot camps, basically having a whole formative period of their lives given over to a world that’s far removed from ordinary kids’ experience, and then where the schools themselves package the kids out into groups that are sold to talent agencies and record companies. Babymetal came out of “Sakura Gakuin”, Perfume came from the Hiroshima Actors’ School, and members of Momoiro Clover Z were scouted by Stardust Productions when they were still in primary school. Personally, I find the whole thing a bit icky and cult-like.

    When you have kids that young separated out from society to varying degrees and trained for the specific purpose of being idols, I think there’s inevitably some exploitation involved. Within that world, there are also clearly differences from one company to another in how they treat the girls under their care. Also in terms of sexual exploitation, I agree there’s sometimes a thin line between something like Babymetal or Momoiro Clover Z where the selling point is innocent youthful exuberance and AKB48 where it really goes all out to push these sexual buttons. Pretty much all idol groups encourage a sort of paternalistic relationship between fans and group members who “serve” them, which can have problematic implications especially when the girls are so young.

    However, I’ve touched on some of these points in previous columns and this wasn’t what I wanted to get into here. I don’t think it does us any good to blankly dismiss idol music as a whole because it obviously provides something both for people working in or aiming to work in music, as well as for audiences to whom mainstream J-Pop doesn’t speak. There’s perhaps an interesting article to be written on whether a different marketing culture might be able to find a way to use these songwriting and production talents to connect with these underserved audience sectors without having to resort to the “pretty-faces and dance routines” model to front up the songs, but I don’t really know enough about marketing at this point.

    • phu

      Thanks for the added info, for the article itself, and for taking the time to read and respond here. I think this is the first time I’ve seen an author follow up on JT. Kudos!

    • Serenyty

      Sakura Gakuin kind of skeeves me out because of the forced graduation; as soon as a girl leaves middle school she’s automatically booted from the group. It’s a group that capitalizes on youth beyond what other idol groups tend to do.

  • Fantastic article. I’ve written a few very similar pieces recently, though not as directly related to the recent Babymetal fad. A great read all-around, you know your stuff.

    • Damn-Deal-Done

      Not sure how it’s a fad in your book. They released a damn good record. Fads generally don’t. I’m a real music fan and musician and I don’t go in for fads and even avoid them, but I like BabyMetal. They are a real band.

  • Nic Woodward

    First of all most you are just flat out wrong second anyone NOT from Japan has no business even judging or criticizing simply because you lack basic understanding of a culture thats not your own (Yeah you two Otaku in the back sit down to)
    Second us in the US have our own idols and young dance groups that do the same thing just not on a grand scale…What you silly Americans put on your horse blinders again…Jr High and High School Cheerleaders and dance troupes? These ring any bells? and if you don’t think those are catering to a certain demographic your being an idiot. And thats just two example’s
    Not only do Japans idols know what there doing when they take the stage and start dancing cos its the same thing our cheer squads are doing.
    These girls are not blind they are not stupid they know exactly what there doing and why there doing it.
    So relax destick your selfs enjoy the music or clear the arena
    Because being judgmental is not helping. Your just being baka

    • Daishi88

      Culture isn’t a mystical thing that can’t be understood by outsiders. Japan is not unique or special in this regard. If you spent time with Japanese people, you’d know full well that they often know LESS than foreigners do about Japan for a variety of reasons.

      (Just to give you one small example, no one at my office knows the name of the Emperor of Japan. No, seriously.)

      Also, I don’t know if you listened to your mother as a child, but “two wrongs don’t make a right,” and what you’re doing is called a “tu quoque” fallacy. America doing something wrong has no magical effect on Japan – what Japan does is still wrong.

      Your point is so simplistic and childish it shouldn’t be worth responding to, but let me be clear: your points are repeated on every comment thread about Japan on every news site and blog out there. There is always, always someone like you who pops up and says, “But no one can understand Japan, so just stop criticizing it.”

      This is always, and will always, be a completely irrelevant response.

      • Nic Woodward

        I never said no one could understand Japan I said they have no right to judge

        And yes a majority of commentators on something like this do have a basic lack of understanding and there for come off closed minded and judgmental

        Two wrongs don’t make a right? First you have have something wrong theres really nothing wrong here I simply pointed out that other cultures have similar things and we should not be hasty in judging

        Lastly yes a lot of times what I said does get repeated on other sites about the going ons in Japan or any other place, because it bears repeating…Be tolerant

      • Daishi88

        Be tolerant of what? I live in Japan. This is my home. I pay taxes. I send my kids to school. I’m a member of Japanese society – it is MY society.

        I think the only hasty person here is you – how do you know how long I’ve spent thinking about this? I work with children, I raise children in my home.

        Be tolerant? Of people that prey on MY children? Um…no?

      • AnonChan

        The way you talk there’s a pedophile around every corner in Japan waiting to attack your children, if you beleive that why live there?

      • Daishi88

        AnonChan, please. You need to read what people write before commenting.

      • Damn-Deal-Done

        True. I tried talking about Anime to a Japanese person once and they didn’t have a clue about any of it. I met a girl from Hong kong who knew nothing about Jacky Chan films too.

  • blondein_tokyo

    What I’m “standing in the way of” is child exploitation. These young girls are being sexually exploited under the *guise* of making music more diverse. This is a band created for the sole purpose of making a buck off the sexual appeal of little girls in short skirts. If these girls were 18 years old, writing their own music and formed the band on their own, I would be behind it 150% because I LOVE it when women make music. I just want them to do it for *themselves*, in their *own style*, and not for some perverted producer whose only motivation is to make a buck off the naivete of young girls.

    Gwar is entertaining. BabyMetal is not. RIP Oderus Urungus!

    • CrankyK

      Yeah, that’s where I’m not agreeing with you. My first reaction upon seeing this band sure as hell wasn’t “sexy!” and it still isn’t. What about this act is sexual exploitation to you? The dresses aren’t revealing, the dancing is not lascivious and the lyrics are nothing to talk about really. Also I’d like to think that the rest of the band wouldn’t attach themselves to a project like that if it were as bad as you think, at least for the better known artists like Takayoshi Ohmura. But I can see where you’re coming from, and I’m certain that they have more than enough creepy middle-aged male fans, sadly. It’s surely a very thin line they are walking on.

      No I really don’t like Gwar, but that’s subjective
      right? So don’t tell me what’s entertaining and what isn’t.

      • blondein_tokyo

        I’d hope your reaction wouldn’t be “how sexy” because yeah…they’re 14. To point out that you yourself don’t find this sexy is just cherry picking. You know that this band wasn’t built for you in particular, right? It was built for the fans who do like looking at very young girls in mini-skirts. That is the target audience, and that is who they will make the most money from with this image they are carefully crafting.

        As I said: if this band was formed by those girls acting on their own, writing their own music themselves, choosing their own clothes, promoting themselves by themselves, doing their own thing by their own power, then I would be behind them 100%. But when a record company comes in throwing money around it becomes exploitative. A person who is older, who has power, who has money, using a person who is young and has no power is the very epitome of exploitation. How can it be anything else? Can a 14 year old *really* understand the consequences of their actions or comprehend the concept of targeted marketing?

        I’m not telling you what you should find to be entertaining. I’m only hoping you’ll become aware that what you find to be entertaining has a price fixed to it that might not be worth it.

      • cobinizer

        I saw nothing inappropriate about the costumes. While I admit that Idol culture is very questionable, Babymetal avoids a lot of that unpleasantness in its presentation. I don’t know much about who they work for, however. But I like it. I listen to the music all the time. Without a video, is it still badwrongfun?

  • Serenyty

    This is the big reason why I have stuck with being an idol music fan, despite everything. There’s a lot of musical talent in these groups and the music picked for them. By basically having guaranteed sales from fans (hardcore Momoiro Clover Z fans are going to buy everything that group does), idol music can get creative. I’m personally a big Maeyamada Kenichi fan, and his connections to the idol world have allowed him to write extremely varied music for all sorts of artists (he wrote AKB’s saccharine Tonari no Banana AND the Koda Kumi x Misono hit It’s All Love pretty early in his career).

    The thing that I think is kind of amazing is that idol fans aren’t all ignorant of the music and the musicians behind these songs; speak to any MomoClo fan or Babymetal fan and they’ll know who Narasaki is. Hyadain has gotten remarkably popular as well as a composer, and Takoyaki Rainbow really advertised that he wrote their second single.

    AKB.. I still like AKB, and there was a point when they were more of an edgy group with things to say. Keibetsu Shiteita Aijou is the easiest to name, but for good reason; the music video directly addresses teenage suicide. I feel like AKB (and their sister groups) has one interesting or quality single every year and the rest are just filler. But it’s at the point where no AKB fan is an AKB fan for the music, while there are plenty of those fans for Dempagumi, Babymetal and MomoClo.

  • Zeto

    Some people complains about idols being too young. What’s the problem? Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson has his first number one at 13. Alanis Morrisette shoot her first videoclip at 14. Billie Piper has her first number 1 at 15. Britney Spears signed with her company at 15. And the list goes on and on.

  • Damn-Deal-Done

    Fusion is rock and Jazz, That is a specific genre. Learn about music. This is Metal with a sprinkling of J-pop vocals and melody over the top.