International Thinking: The Concepts Behind Japanese Idols

This is the first in a series of translated articles by international idol journalists from all around the world. The aim is to get more international points of view and input on the idol industry and expand our knowledge beyond the ways we perceive the world of idols from our own eyes.

This article is a combination of two different articles from Mexican idol producer, Carlos Peralta, who also writes many interesting articles about the idol world and it’s concepts for the site The original articles are written in Spanish language and can be found here and here, so the framework of the article is all from Carlos, and I’ve translated the article and made it a clear read for us English speakers around the world. The subjects are on the concepts and ideals behind what idols really are and where they came from. I have personally wanted to write an article exactly like this for some time, but since Carlos’ captured those ideas so well, I’m glad to translate his work for more people to see.

First article:

The Japanese concept of “purity”: How can an idol be “pure” when posing in bikini photobooks?

Defining the concept of Japanese idols is not an easy task, as the genre of idols has seemingly contradictory nuances according to the Western view, which often criticizes Japan upon observation. One of the main arguments against the concept of “Kiyoku, Tadashiku, Utsukushiku” (purity, honesty, beauty) as the main principles of Japanese idols is that, from the Western view, a teenaged girl who is supposed to be guided by the principle of “Kiyoku” (purity) should not be dressed in an “inappropriate” manner, let you see underwear during her performances, or be posing in a bikini for photobooks.

The Western concept:

A lot of concepts in our Western society have come from Eurocentrism being treated as a homogeneous view with which to interpret the world. Dominated by the ideals of the Roman Empire and the Crusades, Europe was subjected to centuries of strong, theocratic political confrontations because they sought to impose their dogmatic view exclusively, those being: Christianity, Islam and the precursor of both; Judaism. With time, Europe began to recognize the value of other cultures and today, has mostly banished the power of religion after the establishment of secular states, but the Jewish roots and prejudices still dominate most of our Western societies.

In the Judeo-Christian belief, nudity, or the human body, is “dirty” and being nude is associated with shame and disgrace, with the strong belief that it should be covered. The three Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) always associate the naked body with negative implications. In this view, the impurity comes from the act of birth, so you need to cover the “impurity,” or you will be shamed. Shame was a tool used to control people during the worst centuries of medieval obscurantism, and it carries into even modern times for most of the Western world. The roots of that legacy are such that even in modern countries from this origin, someone who decides to show their naked body, either partially or completely, is judged by others with violent connotations and degradation.

However, this thought process and association is learned, as there is no real reason to associate nudity with iniquity, promiscuity or any other negative connotation, besides from the inherited Jewish prejudice. The West suffers from these learned prejudices at every turn and usually judges the Japanese from a very ignorant point of view.

The Japanese concept:

Shinto , the Japanese tradition, which is far from being a religion, but more of a spirituality, represents the nation’s cultural origin, and expresses precisely the opposite view of Judeo-Christianity. At birth, a person is 清(洁,圣) (sei-kiyo) or “pure” from the moment of birth, and this view shows a deep reverence for nature, and associates the human body with nature and being natural. There is no notion of “saving” the soul from guilt and shame by covering the body, like in the Western view, but the nude in Shinto belief (which is usually often semi-naked) actually supports the concept of “purity” which characterizes an idol, and also supports the concept of “utsukushiku” (beauty) by showing the “natural beauty” of the human body.

For strengthening the concept of Kami (deity) and musubi (creativity in harmony,) a teenage idol metaphorically turns itself into a deity by striving to be “perfect” or constantly improving their performances in terms of what is expected of a person in the “perfect” or “peak” teen age. To further the imouto concept (younger sister,) the public associates the idols with sympathy, warmth, and above all, candor (meaning: simplicity, naivety, lack of malice.) Therefore, producers emphasize the concept of the non-dating idol, devoid of inappropriate behavior, and the musubi concept requires them to sometimes have displays of strong physical abilities (dancing, etc.) that display “perfection.”

According to author Kenneth G. Henshall, Japanese purity also integrates two other elements innately: perfection and normalcy. And this is perfection, not only in the ethical sense, but also in the aesthetic sense. Normal “beauty” standards for idols are usually not too high, as they are not trying to appear as supermodels, but they strive to maintain those “common” or “normal” features to be able to adequately connect with the audience.

The concept of purity and beauty melded together is generally regarded as the definition of a wholly shaped “Kami” or deity. A full deity has no problem posing in a bikini or showing their underwear, and doesn’t have the “guilt” from the Western mentality to worry about, but is, instead, a source of pride and sympathy, naturally displayed in line with the purity that characterizes the deity. The growth process of the idol as a deity is dictated by the tone of the image that the idol is set to portray, and, at a certain age, they can increase the level of their body being shown without it being associated with pornography or promiscuity or affecting their future career, since there is no cultural problem with this, especially as the idol becomes of a more mature age.

But there are limits…

The idol concept is most often characterized by a stylish teenager image, therefore, “perfection” must be consistent with what is expected to be “perfect” at that age in a human life. When that limit is matched or exceeded, the idol will often go on to being an “artist” and become a singer or tarento, and if they want to continue with an idol aesthetic style, they have to keep it in “good taste” and have an appearance that doesn’t betray the age of the artist or the target audience. Sometimes they’ll have a bit of a “rule-break” when trying to get commercial success and take some risqué pictures, but this kind of activity almost always keeps them labeled as an “idol” to some extent. An adult “artist” can often even pose nude if they want, and it doesn’t affect her past as a renowned idol with an exemplary record, and they can still garner respect and admiration. The main idea is that they have to behave accordingly to what the generally perceived notion of “perfection” is for whatever age and status the idol has.

The criteria when searching for the next idol is finding someone that fits the conceptual, philosophical and aesthetic concepts of being an idol, rather than how professional or talented they are. The Japanese are not always looking for the best singer or dancer, (unlike what most Western countries are looking for,) but instead they are looking for those previously mentioned elements to be fulfilled by a teenager who can also accurately convey the meaning of “amaeru,” which governs all human relationships in Japanese culture. Because of all this, the manufacturing of an idol as a “kami” (man-made god) is largely facilitated by the audience themselves. This is why Japan is often called “the island of the 8 million gods”.

(For reference, this article refers to the “idol jyosei kashu,” or Japanese female singing idols, not other kinds of idols or models in magazines.)

The next article is more of a foot-note of the first article that focuses more on the term “amaeru” and attempts to describe the concept behind that word and how it applies to idols. Next article:

What does “amaeru” mean and how does it apply to the idol world?

The term “amaeru” (甘える) is a Japanese term which, like many other Japanese words, does not exist in any other culture or language, and has no exact translation. It implies a sense of “happiness with dependence,” or, in a practical sense “a need to be protected and loved by another.” In this practical sense, the general idea of the term is something like “giving and receiving.” In the idol world, an idol establishes a bond of “a need to be carefully protected,” and the fans establish a strong dependence in response to this.

The role of an “idol” is not to be a perfect dancer or singer, but they must show the public the effort made to improve, and their development must be observed with each presentation of their skills. With each bit of improvement that fans notice, it endears them more to the idol and at the same time, makes the fans even more enamored and less critical of the idol by default. Therefore, they feel it is impossible to show any kind of malice towards the idol, and become extremely sensitive and protective towards the idol.

An idol aims to become a role model as well as a person always looking to captivate the hearts of others with their actions. When an idol is able to create that “magic” towards someone and call out to a new fan, that bond of sensitivity and desire to protect is created, and at that point, we can say that the idol is creating the “amaeru”.

Therefore, the term “idol” is based on the principles of “kiyoku, tadashiku, utsukushiku” (purity, honesty, beauty,) and “amaeru,” which is what makes idols unique and different from, say, a normal music artist or a normal cosplayer.

Does anyone have any thoughts on what idols should really be about, and if these kinds of concepts should be strictly upheld with all modern idol groups in today’s dynamic and ever-changing idol market? I’ll have an article going up shortly which further discusses these concepts and sharing some more international viewpoints, but maybe you have some opinions about the concepts presented here? Post some responses here or on Twitter if you’ve got something to discuss.

About Steve 88 Articles
Steve is a contributor and resident music nerd for Selective Hearing, specializing in Japanese idol industry commentary and coverage. A lifetime musician, film lover, journalist, video game fanatic, philosophy enthusiast, and idol aficionado. A dweller of the idol scene since the late 1990s, he loves to discuss industry trends and ideas, past or present.