They say that Japan is suffering from a major shōshika (少子化, plummeting birth rate) syndrome, but a cursory glance at the entertainment industry reveals a singular fact: The young people of this country are well and thriving, and huddled together in mass aidoru gurūpu (アイドルグループ, idol groups).

To be an “aidoru” in Japan may look easy as pie, several notches below, say, nabbing the position of prom queen in an American high school. For the record, it’s grueling, often demeaning and requires sheer determination and blind discipline. Former AKB48 sentā (センター, having center position on stage) Atsuko Maeda reputedly got by on 2 hours of sleep and an average total dietary intake of just 800 calories per day. She had zero freedom or down time. Worst of all was that the notorious jimusho (事務所, agency) producing AKB and a dozen other aidoru projects scraped off more than 60 percent of her earnings before her salary ever reached her bank account. That’s the official rumor. The kageno uwasa (陰の噂, unofficial rumor) is that the 60 percent is more like 85 percent.

The Japanese aidoru is a sad, complex concept and traces its roots back to the postwar years, when homeless orphans crowded around the GIs, clamoring for gum and chocolate. Having lost their parents to firebombs or on the front lines, the sensaikoji (戦災孤児, war orphans) had to learn survival skills double quick, and anyone with a knack for dancing or singing tried to get a foot in the door of a cabaret. The biggest child star of the post-war period was Hibari Misora, whose youthful kashōryoku (歌唱力, singing power) was legendary. Misora wasn’t an orphan (her mother forced open doors to launch her career) but she could sing about their plight and open audience tear ducts like no other. Misora became the gold standard of the postwar entertainment industry; she was made to work like crazy and didn’t get a whole lot of money for it — but she did inspire millions of young Japanese to dream of a better and brighter life.

Fast forward some four decades from the ash and rubble years. The 1980s spawned the aidoru būmu (アイドルブーム, idol boom) supported by an industry that held countless kōkai ōdishon (公開オーディション, public auditions) and employed legions of scautoman (スカウトマン, talent scouts) to comb the streets and look for that genseki (原石, unpolished gem) of looks and talent. Rumors abounded as to where exactly these scouts did their combing — some of my friends walked up and down in front of the Laforet Building in Harajuku, while others took the train to hang out on the platform of Tamagawa Gakuen-mae station — the school known for accepting the prettiest, most well-bred girls in the Kanto region. Hiroko Yakushimaru (the princess aidoru of the decade), was a Tamagawa Gakuen graduate, and back then my oldest brother’s biggest boast was that he had dated a Tamagawa girl.

In those days the stars were pin — meaning “solo” — and they had bakku dansā (バックダンサー, back dancers) to brighten up the stage and make them look great. The biggest names of the period were people like Seiko Matsuda (who by the way, is currently over 50 but has retained her elfin, 22-year-old looks) and Masahiko Kondo and Kyoko Koizumi — all so much in demand that for years they couldn’t eat or sleep or take a 10-minute break without permission from the jimusho shacho (事務所社長, agency boss). But we all knew that these shacho were a ruthless lot, often having ties to the yakuza. And they were prepared to suck the blood right from the aidoru‘s bodies if it meant selling more CDs and concert tickets at the holy temple of aidoru events: the Budokan (武道館, a famous concert hall in Tokyo).

Now, not much has changed in terms of aidoru rights — if anything, the market equilibrium has been blown apart by the jinkaisenjutsu (人海戦術, infiltration tactics) deployed by kami (神, deity) aidoru producers Yasushi Akimoto and Tsunku (the man behind Morning Musume). Akimoto’s brainchild, AKB48, has spawned similar groups all over Japan and like a virus they’ve spread internationally, too.

The aidoru are no longer uniquely precious individuals put up on a pedestal for worship. Now, they’re gathered in droves, trained en masse in gasshukujo (合宿所, boot camp) and herded into ogata basu (大型バス, big buses) as they’re shunted back and forth from stages all over the archipelago. Some of these girls had worked as rojō aidoru (路上アイドル, street idols) — singing on the street and building up a cult following. Others had worked as kyabakurajō (キャバクラ嬢, cabaret club hostesses) or made a career shift from the world of guradoru (グラドル, girlie magazine idol). The competition is fiercer than it ever was, and the earnings per aidoru have shrunk to a fraction of what big-name stars used to make on their own. Another notable difference between then and now: Apparently it’s become okay to put down moto-idoru (元アイドル, former idol) on a resume. At least now, it’s acknowledged as a respectable job.

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