How Girl Groups Make it Big in Japan

Girl groups in Japan largely exemplify the genius of Japanese marketing. In fact, becoming an idol or “tarento” (“talent”) in Japan is less about actually having talent than it is about having a “presence.” The late 1990’s saw the beginning of girl groups with a huge number of performers. People liked seeing the cutesy girls bounce around on TV shows and sing and dance in their music videos. With these mega-groups, hopefuls are now required to do competitive rehearsals in order to become a new member. The youngest in such a group (℃-ute) joined at age 11. To make it big in the East-Asian pop scene, it seems like the main thing is not just to be young and cute, though that is certainly a big part of their appeal. No, it is more about the marketing of “talented mediocrity,” wrapped in a pretty pink package.

The Idol World of East Asia

The pop world in Asia evolved gradually in many countries after the post-WWII period, but eventually the Japanese mold held as the gold standard for East Asian countries to emulate. Even today, most idols look and act (and sound) quite similar to their Japanese counterparts. Korea has probably been the most influenced by Japanese idol culture. However, sometimes I feel that there is a noticeable distinction between Korean and Japanese pop idols (at least insofar as the popularity they have outside Korea).

Japanese stars can be characterized as “cute” – childish behavior, innocently adorable dancing, and preppy demeanors. Most Korean stars are marketed like this as well, but now there are more who would best be characterized as “sexy” – often wearing short shorts or mini-skirts, accentuating long legs and slimness, and dancing in a sexier and more mature manner than their Japanese counterparts. Compare the examples below. I’m sure you can figure out which is which if you watch even a minute of these two videos.

It’s possible that we could look at America influence to provide some limited explanation, but I hesitate to “blame America,” considering they essentially found a formula that works, despite its moral relativity. MTV is notorious for its “sex sells” philosophy, which is why there’s a growing competition in the music industry to push the limits. An excellent piece from LiveKpop.com puts it nicely.

“With girl groups taking the spotlight, sexually suggestive controversies have also been on the rise. Girl groups in the teens wear mini-skirts and hot pants like they’ve become staples of their generation, and wearing revealing see-through garments that give peaks of their underwear have become much too common. What’s unfortunate is that TV programs are actually encouraging such behavior. […] Is the excessive market competition the issue? […] [Most] groups these days tend to focus on how to appear the sexiest.
Music, naturally, has taken the back seat.”

From the LiveKPop article, it sounds like Korean idols have the same aesthetic controversies as Japanese idols. And if you couldn’t tell, the first video above was of a Japanese group, and the second was of a Korean group. But honestly, there doesn’t seem to be any backlash about performances that some people find inappropriate. Scandals are usually regarding a gaffe that someone says, which is pretty rare anyways.

So while girl groups’ music performances are the means to which these stars get their money, viewers aren’t really paying for their music, they’re paying for their personalities. These bubbly young girls make daily appearances on TV shows, participate in game shows and variety shows, and talking on talk shows. That’s really what sells the albums. Without a grandiose marketing campaign, unknown bands get swallowed up without anyone having ever heard of them.

Be cute, be successful

Talented Mediocrity

Unlike the occasional girl bands – such as the Sapporo-based “ZONE” or the Osaka-based “Scandal” – which involve young girls who actually play their own instruments and have a great deal of talent, the appeal of most girl bands is quite different. In Japan, a mob of cutesy, innocent, naively hopeful youngsters is the perfect zest for a person’s day (if you’re into that, and not everyone in Japan is). They generally appeal to people of all ages, which is surprising considering the “sexiness” that these girls are often pushed to embody. Clearly, if they were only “sexy” and not “cute,” their appeal would be geared more towards the adult market, but they manage to keep themselves appealing for virtually everyone. In fact, if they were to be considered only “sexy,” then that may limit their market audience. So it’s beneficial to be in that sweet spot between inappropriate and too old-fashioned.

However, whereas sex sells in America, cuteness sells in Japan. Cuteness is a popular feature of practically any popular girl group in East Asia. In fact, to be a popular singer here, it isn’t so important that you can sing, as long as you put in the extremely long hours (seriously, it’s rough being an idol) to learn the songs and dances, keep smiling, and make TV appearances and promotional tours. Such mediocrity is a talent in and of itself.

Japanese idols have to be talented at being… a Japanese idol. This is not the same as being a singer, a dancer, an actor, or an interesting guest on TV shows. It’s a bit of all of those things, and more. But you can lack one or two of these if you make up for it in the other ways. In the pop world, that’s “the whole package.” No one cares if you’re the best. Just smile and look pretty, girls.

So if one cutesy girl is good, then more should be better, right? Meet “Morning Musume.”

Morning Musume

Morning Musume from 2000

“Mo Musu” (short for “Morning Musume”) has had 29 members in total, currently with 9 remaining. Every year is a new line-up, and the girls are constantly “graduating” to continue other aspects of their careers, which conveniently keeps the remaining girls young. They’re not currently the most popular girl group in Japan (that would easily be AKB48) but they are probably the most famous. This is the type of group that gives Japanese pop its bubbly stereotype – a stereotype I find so false that it’s like saying “American music is all sexualized rap.” Of course it’s not. But if you look for that, you’re going to find it.

“Mo Musu” was so popular that there were groups starting within it, such as “Mini Moni” (“mini-Morning Musume”). It had the standard “cuteness,” with less of the numbers. Morning Musume is still going strong, and doesn’t seem to be stopping. They are Japan’s second most popular girl group ever, though the Spice Girls hold the worldwide record for most popular. Spice Girls have sold around 70 million albums, almost 5 times more than Mo Musu, but the Japanese group is still going, so you never know.

How cute is too cute?

I like seeing cute girls singing, dancing, and having a good time as much as the next person. But despite the multitudes of Asian and Western music videos I’ve seen, I still get an awkward feeling when I watch certain videos. How about you? How do you feel when you see this?

I’m sure the first thing you noticed was her English pronunciation, right? Yeah, me too… Well the song has a catchy tune, and the pretty young girl dances happily among a some professional dancers, fine. But I can’t help but feel like a pedophile whenever I see this video. Is it just me? The facial close-ups, the all-too-adult outfit, the slightly sexual dancing, and the somewhat suggestive lyrics just make me sit here cringing. It’s not the worst music video out there, but it makes me wonder, is this really about the music? Sure, it’s nice to know that she’s 20 years old now… but do you know how old she was when she made that video?

If you’re like me, you won’t want to. …All though it’s easy to find out.

But hey, at least many of these young stars are not forced into what many have called “slave contracts” in the Korean pop scene.

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2 Responses to How Girl Groups Make it Big in Japan

  1. Andrew says:

    I’m curious, how big is English in Japan. My experience of Japanese culture is limited to Total War: Shogun 2, MarioKart, Haruhi Suzumiya and your blog. Excluding the games, English seems to be commonly understood, is this true?

  2. lmao says:

    lots of these girls are forced to be ~virginal~ for their ugly old fans. aint nothing clean about japanese idol groups, delusional fanboy.

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