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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.

    • blondein_tokyo

      And successfully navigate their own sexual awareness and coming of age. A girl who is taught that her sexuality is not for her own pleasure but for sale, for consumption of men, is a young girl who will grow up with no sense of her own autonomous sexuality or even self-worth outside of her youth and beauty.

  • 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.

    • blondein_tokyo

      I commented on the original article a few months ago that this smacked of exploitation. I stand by that point. Using women who are desperate to get out if debt in this way is disgusting, and the fact that some people are okay with this shows just exactly how society views women- as objects to be bought; their sexuality fir sale.

      • GBR48

        I’m guessing you have little experience of being in serious amounts of debt.

        The gender issue is irrelevant. If you were in severe debt, the opportunity to get out of it in this manner would be an early Christmas present. I’m sure there are plenty of guys in debt out there that would like to get out of debt via becoming members of a boy band. I would.

        Debt makes people vulnerable and this has to be one of the least unpleasant ways of getting out of it.

        They sing, they dance, they get paid. Sexuality for sale? They’re working in an idol group, not a brothel. Get real.

      • blondein_tokyo

        Actually, your guess is wrong. I have plenty of experience with debt. As the experience is different for everyone, you can’t reasonably say that everyone would jump at this kind of opportunity. That’s objectively wrong.

        The gender issue is quite relevant. Men and women experience the world in vastly different ways. Both men and women can be sexually objectified, but since men and women are socialized very differently, their experiences are vastly different. Being a boy in a boy band is a completely different experience than being in a female in an idol group, so the comparison is nonsensical.

        Sexuality for sale is a real thing, and it really does hurt women- as this article points out, it hurts young girls in particular. If you don’t understand how this works, then I suggest you read up on it. All you need to do is google “sexual objectification of women”. Come back and we can talk more after you’ve done a bit of reading and better understand the issue.

      • GBR48

        What really annoys me is when people find it acceptable to sermonise upon and criticise the life choices of those less fortunate than themselves on the back of what they learned in Gender Politics 101.

        The comparison is apt, debt is debt. I am well aware of the disparities faced by women in society. I still consider your comments to be arrogant, superficial and unrealistic. The women in The Margarines have made sensible choices from those available to them to escape their predicaments. Good for them. I wish them well.

        If you are lucky enough not to have to make such choices, be grateful. Not everyone has that luxury.

      • blondein_tokyo

        Arrogant, how? You wrote, “Sexuality for sale? They’re working in an idol group, not a brothel. Get real.” and compared boy idol groups and girl idol groups as though you weren’t aware how sexual objectification works. That’s why I gave you a “gender politics 101” sermon. You seemed, shall I say, as though you failed that particular class.

        Nowhere did I criticize these women. I respect that they are adults able to make their own life choices, and know what they can and cannot handle. To be clear, I’m pro sex work, and pro sex worker rights. I have nothing but respect for people struggling to pay off debt, because I do know how it feels. You can keep talking as though I don’t, but you really do not have any idea how I grew up, or how I am living now. Suffice it to say that I understand all too well.

        What I am criticizing is society, for putting these women in this position where they have to sell their sexuality to get out of debt. If Abe were for real on his promise to help women into the workforce and get women out of poverty, he’d offer debt relief, free childcare, raise the minimum wage, give women subsidies for education, and give the law against pay discrimination real teeth so that companies are afraid to break it. Right now companies run roughshod over it. That is what these women need – the ability to work, and for fair pay.

        Do you call that “unrealistic and superficial”?

      • GBR48

        I’m glad you are on the practical side of the feminist divide between those who condemn sex-workers for letting down the sisterhood, and those who wish to do everything possible to keep them safe in what they are doing.

        And I agree with your political stance regarding the government, although very little of that is going to happen under a right-wing government in the least gender-equal first world nation on earth.

        I just think you are undermining your sound arguments by condemning The Margarines. Those backing them are doing it to make money, legally. Those taking the opportunity to be part of it have found one of the least objectionable ways of paying off debts, legally. This doesn’t really merit criticism.

        My original post supported Yumeno Nito’s efforts, urging her to take her tours to YouTube and into all of Japan’s classrooms, to prevent young people from placing themselves in dangerous positions.

        The sexualisation of society, although more visible amongst women, works for both sexes. Good-looking men and women both use their looks to get on in life. Just like everyone else, Japan’s HSGs are well aware of that by the time they are teenagers. They also need to understand the dangers that come with that.

        All women (and men) play the game. Don’t tell me that every woman’s cosmetics budget is entirely there to make them feel good about themselves, because that’s self-deceiving. It isn’t fair, but it’s the way the world works, and sometimes you have to accept that the world isn’t perfect and that appearances count for more than they should. Doesn’t stop you fighting to make it better, of course.

        Sexual attraction and the use of it is built into our genes with all the other stuff we inherit from our cave-dwelling days. In a capitalist society it is commercialised. These things are inevitable.

        I attacked the original article because it was unfair, and one of the perennial bits of lazy journalistic Idol-bashing that turns up from time to time, usually undertaken by arrogant hipsters in the music section. I maybe just draw the line in a different place to you.

        I’m fine with idol groups but view beauty contests as superficial and faintly unpleasant. I don’t think they are good for society, but if women (or men) want to take part and people want to make money from staging them, then that’s their decision. They have largely vanished from the mainstream in many countries. The ones involving small, heavily made up kids, in America, I find downright creepy.

        Idol stars work hard for the opportunities that being in such a group offers them. In a nation where it’s particularly tough to forge a career when you are female, they manage it, often when they don’t have many other options. The members of The Margarines have fewer options than most due to their debt and are being honest about it. They aren’t being used any more than they are using the system to square their debts. They don’t deserve the criticism that has been directed towards them by some JT readers, many of whom have far more comfortable lives, and may earn a lot more money, despite doing much less work than a typical idol star.

        There is an awful lot of questionable goings-on in the entertainment industry, in Japan and globally, and yes, there is far too much sexualisation of young women, but attacks on The Margarines are unwarranted.

      • The exploitation is not by the band, its evident in the wider community, insofar as intrusive and ineffectual govt can cause Japan to stagnate in this way, prompting the latest ‘increase’ in fiscal stimulus. These girls might be construed as positively responding to their marginalisation, but in reality, they are being used by promoters engaging in their own form of ‘economic stimulus’ or ‘pump n dump’.

  • 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.

    • blondein_tokyo

      Is that your argument? That any work, no matter if it involves the sale of your sexuality and sexual objectification, is admirable?

      By this logic, a girl selling sex would also be admirable.

      There’s a fine line between this and full on exploitation, and this pop group is straddling it. Barely.

      It’s a terrible influence on young women and girls to portray the sale of their sexuality for the consumption of male admirers as “admirable”.

      The article hits exactly the right note. We already have a problem with teenage prostifution. Do you really want to encourage them to think what they’re doing is admirable?

      • J.P. Bunny

        Please to read what was written once more. The idol group is made up of performers that are of legal age. They may be selling sexuality, but not selling sex. Go to any auto show where you will find scantily clad women draped over cars, selling sexuality, not sex. The entire advertizing industry employs this using both men and women. The girls in this group could have gone the “easier” route and sold their bodies, but they didn’t. They are performing on stage, honestly (and legally) earning a living, so yes, what they are doing is admirable.

      • blondein_tokyo

        Please re-read what I wrote. The point of this article is not to slut-shame adult women for making the choice to use their bodies to make money. To be clear, I am pro-sex work and pro-sex worker rights; and I fully acknowledge that adult women have the right to make their own decisions about what to do with their bodies. If this is what they chose to do, whether it be to sell sex, sell cars, or sell records, far be it from me to judge their choices. They are adults with the maturity to think things though, and the experience to know whether they can or cannot handle the potential consequences. I trust *grown women* to make their own decisions.

        What I am speaking to here is the problem in *society*, wherein women are seen as objects for consumption, and nothing more. This is how they are being sold by the producer, who thought nothing of forthrightly stating, “Look girls! You can sell your sexuality to get money! And you will be famous! And admired!” And yes, the advertising industry is guilty of this as well, as we know all too well.

        But it is actually much, much more complicated than these advertisers and producers lead people to think. The idea that women are nothing more than sexual objects for sale is *damaging* , most especially to young women like the girls who are walking the streets of Akihabara and Kabukicho. The article did a good job of explaining the causal link, or so I thought. I wonder if you missed the part where the author stated,

        “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.”

        It is exploitation of the naivete of young women who suffer from low self-esteem and think the way to get love and attention is to use their bodies. Not intelligence; not their personalities; not their talent; they are being told that the thing that will get them the most attention is how attractive they are.

        The pop idol industry does the exact same thing, only it pretends to be about talent, when we all know that it is not. It is about serving up a heaping helping of cute young girl to a drooling male audience. AKB47 is a perfect example – they “retire” at age 24 (or whatever) and aren’t allowed to date so that they can seem available and virginal at the same time.

  • 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?

    • blondein_tokyo

      That’s the whole point. They’re selling themselves because, in their words, it’s easier to do than other jobs. Not because this is what they enjoy, not because they genuinely like the job or because they like NSA sex with strangers. They do it for attention, to feel beautiful and complimented; because their worth is tied to how many men want them. This job may seem easy now, but do you think that after a few months of being treated like a party favor and being utterly disrespected and used they’ll still feel this way? Then there’s the argument that young girls this age (15-18) honestly don’t know what they’re doing. They haven’t even begun the journey to sexual self-awareness and understanding, but are being lead by people who really are just predators looking to use youth and beauty to make a buck.

      Now, if these were girls from a well-off family, over 18, in good psychological shape with strong self-esteem and the maturity to understand the possible outcome if their actions, you could make the argument that they’re doing this for themselves because they enjoy it.

      But that’s very obviously not the case here.

      As fir the grown women who make up this idol group, it’s still sexual exploration of a kind, which in and of itself is morally reprehensible on the part of the producers. But they’re adults, allowed to make their own mistakes. Even so. It’s still not right to portray women as sexual objects to be bought and sold. That gives a big clue as to how “idols” are viewed.

      • 谷口賢也

        Yeah, but I’d still say being prostituting yourself due to poverty is alot worse.

      • blondein_tokyo

        Just because it’s not “worse” doesn’t make it okay.

      • 谷口賢也

        They’re both bad, but its concerning that he said that JK was worse specifically because the girls were (relatively) willing.

      • Morally worse, but clearly in a better disposition to cope with their predicament.

      • 谷口賢也

        How is it morally worse?

      • Well if you are compelled by destitution, that’s a level of self-evident appraisal that should escape no one. But there is a degree of intellectual appraisal if you have some scope for a ‘higher’ level of choice – prostitution vs working at 7-11.

  • Earl Kinmonth

    I wonder what Miley Cyrus would think of this group?