The Nature of Idols: Exploitative Commodity or Cultural Expression?

I’ve been having some discussions lately online with some idol friends from around the world and came upon a very extensive subject when discussing a recent article written by a great Mexican idol fan, writer, and producer, Carlos Peralta, on the website, and my English-translated version of the article can be found here. The article discusses the very nature and concept behind what an “idol” is and why idols are a very exclusively Japanese concept that is based on some very non-Western sets of values and ideals, mostly based around the concept of “purity.” This isn’t to say that idols cannot exist in any other culture, but the base values that idols were created on were originated in Japan using innately Japanese values and mentalities.

After the article was posted, many friends from around the world started commenting to start a discussion about the very nature of idols and what “makes” an idol including the nature of where idols come from and what they stand for. This discussion presented many different points of view from many different countries and ended up being an eye-opening experience to how some people view idols and why some people enjoy idols. I will summarize some of the responses and post my own as well. I’d be interested to see where some other people weigh in on their views of idols.

I started the heart of the discussion by mentioning that I study the effects of being an idol and how it affects the girls and the fan culture itself, but it ends up being a really touchy subject with most idol fans, since they don’t like to think about the reality of the situation behind the face of what we generally see as fans. I added that while I often find it very exploitative in nature, not only of the performers, but of the fans as well, the girls technically do volunteer for the work themselves usually, though I also think there’s a lot of corruption and greed from the very core of the business.

I was repeatedly criticized for using words like “exploitative” and “corruption,” being told that they’re “too negative” and “do not reflect the relation of dependence between idols and fans, and the pure nature of idols.” I was told these words are normally written from a Western point-of-view of the idol industry.

I feel that using the “you’re too Western-thinking” excuse is very invalid, since the viewpoints that tend to clash with the idol industry at its core are those who have the Western view on sex, sexuality, and the human body, which are some of the concepts from Western thinking that I actually dismiss more than any others. My main issues are with the nature of the business behind idols and the deceptive nature of it’s happenings, which only arguably clashes with the Western vs. Japanese concept of infallible honesty, and I’ll describe that later in more detail.

Some people stated that there’s a very complex, dependent relationship between idols and their fans as a defense, and while I can agree there is definitely a dependent relationship between idols and their fans, the “pure” nature of idols actually presents a very deceptive kind of problem. While it is very fun and entertaining to take in this industry as entertainment, too many people become dependent on idols and lose sight of reality and common sense, and the management companies basically rely on this exploitation of fans as their means of business.


There is also a lot of what I would call “corruption” in an even more malicious form, which lies even further behind the management of the idols itself, since a lot of the bigger management agencies have had suspected and sometimes even known ties to Yakuza and organized crime when it comes to the owners of the businesses. Yakuza involvement is an underlying problem in basically all businesses of Japan, regardless of their industry, so it isn’t as if this is unique to idols, but it seems to exist nonetheless.

Assuming that I was saying that the idol industry is unique in it’s involvement of corruption and greed, some people brought up the argument that Western pop culture and almost all modern music culture is exploitative in the same way.  Young performers in the West also get hovered up, saddled with debt, over-exposed to fame, alcohol and, drugs, etc., then, once they’re not popular anymore, they’re dropped like a stone and forgotten.

Since I was not saying the idol industry is unique in this regard, I did agree that most modern entertainment is indeed exploitative to a degree, but that the idol industry seems to take exploitation to extremes on both the sides of the performers and the fans, and more-so with the fans. In the West, we have things like One Direction and Justin Bieber or multiple other past fads from the West, but these kinds of things truly do end up as fads in the West, where idol organizations continue to exploit their fans with the same tactics well into multiple decades, even long after the original performers or artists have left the industry.

I was met with a contest saying again that all modern media (music, movies, TV, video games) is exploitative in a sense, but the fans are the ones who choose to buy the products. I was told that the word “exploitative” should be reserved for something like prostitutes, drug addicts, or other negative connotations or situations where you “don’t get what you paid for.” It was also argued that luxury goods are all innately “exploitative” as you do not need them and their price is generally set at a price where a vendor believes you as a consumer are willing to pay, as opposed to the actual price of production.

The way the idol industry differs from some of those things mentioned is that they steadfastly encourage the fans to consume literally everything they put out and make them feel obligated by using the avatars (the idols themselves) to guilt-trip the fans in an indirect way into buying the product.

For comparison, you don’t have William Shatner or Patrick Stewart constantly sending out video messages to the public to continue to buy Star Trek merchandise and lightly threatening that their careers will be over if you don’t; Western media just doesn’t work that way. Idols operate under the subconscious guise that by buying the product and collect the pieces of merchandise, you are, in essence, indirectly purchasing pieces of the girl themselves for your enjoyment, and they call it “supporting them” in fan terminology. The “we won’t succeed without your support” message is strongly conveyed to fans on a regular basis through the idols with a variety of verbage and methods.


This is the indirect message that idols send out to their fans, by using the youthful, desirable, “pure” image of the girls to cover up the underlying message of capitalism and monetary gain, and creating a symbiotic relationship with and adversely affecting the consumer psychologically, based on their perceived “relationship” with the idols. Even beyond the management’s encouragement, the fans seem to use over-bearing amounts of peer pressure on other fans to “out-support” each other, by being even more crazily obsessed with the idols or spending more money on their merchandise.

I feel that, more often than not, video games, TV and movies in the West are marketed more directly for what they are; as entertainment to be consumed and purchased, they usually don’t try to cover up the nature of what you’re buying or the fact that it is a product to be purchased.

As far as consumerism goes, another point I mentioned is that the idols have no say in what is charged for the goods or services they produce, they’re merely puppets and avatars for what management wants to make off of them or thinks they can get for them. So, while I won’t say its an entirely valid criticism, I at least lend some validity to the comparison of the idol business to indirect and possibly non-sexual form of prostitution, which would more vaguely be referred to as something like “human trafficking” or maybe labor exploitation.

I was criticized for again using too many “Western perspectives” to analyze the idol industry and told that idols were not just used as vehicles for capitalism in the early days of idols (1960s-1980s) and that idols used to be more focused on portraying an image, concept, and philosophy and as a musical and cultural expression, not just as a business.

Another person compared the idol industry to things like Apple Computer company, pro American football, or Michael Jackson at the height of his popularity, saying that the idol industry has managed to create a system that allows a niche to survive by creating products that people want. But do they really want these products or are they just being told or even coerced into thinking that they want or need these products? Should we really feel obligated to buy a consumer product? Difficult questions, for sure.


It was argued that the amount of people who are positively affected by idols is far more than those who are adversely affected, which is a claim that really cannot be supported with facts, only circumstantial evidence or experience from both ends, since my personal experience actually suggests that there is at least an equal amount of both negative and positive effects, if not leaning a little harder towards the negative side, taking into consideration fan interactions I’ve had of all different demographics.

I believe part of the obsessive, psychologically harmful type of fandom mentality that some people develop is partially due to the person’s psyche and personality to some degree, but I again argue that, with idols especially, the producers are encouraging this kind of obsessive, harmful behavior in the name of capitalism.

I do know that a lot of the concepts behind idols comes from Japanese society and values, but I think there are a lot of underlying problems in Japanese society as a whole, so people using that in response to me isn’t so much a defense of idols as it is a bolster of my points to the contrary. Even with all the great things I love about Japan, there’s a lot that I think is wrong and should be changed, and that’ll be discussed further later in this writing.

A friend interjected an attempt at further explanation of why they thought the definition of “idol” has changed so drastically over time and why they don’t think most modern idols are “true” idols in the classic sense of the word. They stated that culture is a crucial factor in the discussion since “idol” is a movement and expression that only exists in Japan. They’re not just a business or just pop performers, and not normal “artists,” the likes of B’z, Mr Children or Southern All Stars, for example.

They went further to say that nowadays we have all different kinds of idols, from singing idols to gravure or AV idols, heavy metal idols, TV idols, etc., so idols are largely just marketing strategies in an age where the term “idol” has become mainstream and profitable in a different way than it used to be.

They claimed that they view “idol” as more of a movement and culture, and expression not only of the producers, but also of real-life, everyday Japanese people. They believe that idols represent traditional Japanese values and traditions that were not created artificially by the industry, unlike most Western “idols” or stars’ projected values. Therefore, they didn’t think that “abusive”, “exploitative” or such adjectives matched with idol philosophy, since its philosophy is against abusive and negative behavior of that kind.

I think that’s a bit too naive, quite honestly, to say that idol philosophy is against the abusive and negative behavior, since that would only be considering the face value of what we see, not thinking about the very potential possibilities of what truly goes on and what we don’t see. I’ll delve more into this idea later.

Someone else claimed they believe that the Japanese themselves have been adopting more and more Western-like mentalities/prejudices in their society in recent years, which they thought is changing the way the Japanese view and produce their own cultural expressions, which introduces many of the problems in society that I mentioned earlier.


Getting back to the subject, I very much agree that idols are an odd mix of marketing and culture wrapped together, but I think this combination just makes idols an even more effective marketing strategy because of how they infuse the things that most Japanese people take for granted or are traditionally told to believe by society into an image for promotion.

I also think idols present a metaphorical mirror to reflect modern Japanese culture back at itself, and since idols are increasingly mainstream all the time lately, it forces them to look back at themselves as a society, which is an uncomfortable thing to do that poses a lot of questions and forces introspection about your culture and way of life. I think this is why even some Japanese people look down upon idols, because they feel uncomfortable with looking back at their society.

A friend then mentioned that a lot of this conversation was centered around the discussion of buying and goods consumption, when they think idol culture centers much more around live performances, idol contact/relationship and organized fanbase/community admiration. They argued that idols were created to be cute and pure girls who move hearts of the society, not just idol otaku. They said that idol otaku are just a natural result of this product being available and being created well.

I responded by pointing out that buying and goods consumption is really the only contact that overseas fans can have with idols with any amount of regularity, and this is why a lot of the discussion centers around these things. We can’t all just travel to Japan on a whim to see a live show every week. As overseas fans, we get to see maybe one live idol performance a year, if we’re lucky enough that a group we want to see is performing at an overseas venue or convention, so lots of overseas fans feel they need to over-compensate for not being able to go to the live shows and meet & greet events that the idols are constantly promoting and encouraging fans to go to by buying absurd amounts of impractical goods and collectible merchandise.

Even further than that, the idol contact/relationship mentioned above is exactly what I mean when referring to the underhanded, deceptive kinds of marketing they use to make people feel obligated to buy a product. It may not look or seem like you’re buying a product when you go to idol handshake events or concerts, but you don’t get in for free, do you?

This is where one of the biggest exploitative elements of idols comes from, in my opinion. The management is basically encouraging you to “befriend” or even “fall in love with” a product that they have manufactured which was built for monetary consumption and is really just a fantasy that was created. Yes, idols are living, breathing people, and yes, we may see some little fragments of their true personality come out here and there, but the majority of their actions, behaviors, appearance, and most other aspects of what we see of them are fabricated or fictionalized for the purpose of selling.

I’ve found a lot more idol groups nowadays are focusing less on being the generic idol stereotype and being a little more honest with the fans and the public. Groups like or Idoling!!! actually sometimes focus on the aspects that make them blunt and honest instead of just trying to be exactly what idol fans expect, and this is more of what I’d like to see from the industry; honesty.

A friend contended that one of the basic foundations of idol philosophy is honesty and again that I was judging and analyzing idols using Western prejudices and mentalities, and that many current idol groups don’t follow the idol “moral code” or “principles” in this respect.

They claimed that girls who want to become idols are supposed to devote themselves to the idol code and principles, which are to improve themselves, both in their performances and personality. They further said that idols are also portrayed as very human and sometimes make mistakes, and this is why they must apologize if they commit those mistakes, and they must resign from being an idol if necessary.  They further claimed that idols are girls who choose a path, and that their work is neither a fantasy nor artificial, and that a problem arises when Westerners analyze idols since we don’t have such a fundamental concept in our cultures. This led to them presenting the idea that any idols who don’t really follow the idol “principles” in their hearts may be judged as “fake idols.”

I responded to the claim of idol philosophy being based on honesty by stating that I believe the “honesty” they are referring to is what I’d call “Japanese honesty” which is mostly based on the honne/tatemae concept and is not what I consider to be true honesty. Take from that what you will, as “Western” as it may be, that’s my point of view. This is one part of Japanese culture (which yes, is a part of idols) that I really don’t agree with, just from a personal, moral standpoint.


I further clarified that I enjoy some of more modern idol groups like because they have a more of what I consider “true” honesty to them, where they often talk about their troubles and feelings in a way that’s not vague and unimportant, just for attention, like most idols do, and even insult themselves from time to time in their songs or interviews.

Another example would be members of Idoling!!! often admitting that they are just playing a character for the purpose of entertainment, and some of them flat-out refusing to play a character, stating that they’d rather be themselves, regardless of what management wants. Because of this, they aren’t just pandering to fans and trying to embellish the fantasy of their idol persona as their real persona; there is more honesty.

Besides not having as intensely over-zealous merchandising campaigns as many other idols, Idoling!!! management sometimes also releases this more truthful information to the public or does certain activities that cause the more obsessive fans to do a bit of a reality check and take a few steps back from being so dependent on or symbiotic with the idols, and this is what I would like to see more of. It gives the feeling that they make their money from being legitimate entertainers, not just exploitative products to their hardcore fans, and I think many of their Japanese fans appreciate that as well.

Since the previous post about idol philosophy showed an example of Japanese cultural expression in being un-accepting of human mistakes, it clearly displays why this is one of the downfalls of idol philosophy to me. Why can’t they accept that the idol really did make a mistake and move on with it, and let them make up for their mistakes instead of just being eternally punished for it? Is that too much of a Western mindset? If it is, then I’m glad I have a more Western way of thinking.

I feel like this aspect may be starting to change for idols recently, with the Minegishi Minami and Sashihara Rino scandals being mostly overlooked by management, and that’s a very good thing, but I don’t know that it’ll become a precedent for the industry as a whole.


I was replied to with a friend stating that they think Idoling!!! are not traditional idols, that they’re more “talento” than idols, and that they think “idols” and “talento” are two separate concepts that should not be mixed, and used this as reasoning why they don’t “count” when it comes to their un-idol behaviors.

They again stated that when they personally refer to “idols,” that they’re only talking about female idols that sing, who are the “original” idols, not a modern off-shoot of the concept. They stated that the AKB48 scandals that I mentioned previously are a disgrace and that by management ignoring the scandals, they’re just taking advantage of “idol” image and earning money through it.

They also stated that the “idol” concept is a very specific and solitary thing and that Western fans sometimes prefer to avoid the traditional idols that follow the “moral code” and prefer to follow some of the more “relaxed” concepts of idol because they don’t feel comfortable with the traditional way.

They worried that “real” appreciation of traditional idols would soon disappear since new Japanese producers and agencies are more easily mass-producing superficial “idols” for superficial fans, and because it doesn’t seem to matter anymore if they don’t respect any kind of code, since people will still vote for Sashihara and buy her post-scandal released material by the millions.

I finally closed the discussion by observing that my friend and I are drastically different kinds of idol fans and that they seem to have far more appreciation for and importance placed on the overbearing, Japanese cultural aspects of what idols used to be like and is very rejecting of a newer, more dynamic type “idol” and even go as far as to argue that many modern idol groups are not “true” idols.

I definitely can’t stand by these ideas, since, as I’ve said before, as much as I love idols from all eras of the idol industry, I appreciate them more as performers and entertainers, not as some sort of godly cultural figure to look up to and uphold values for a society.

I think this mentality is one of the negative parts of Japanese culture that could be changed for the better. I’m all about people bettering themselves, but with the very closed-minded, strict methodologies that the Japanese attach to it, it isn’t acceptable to me. These kinds of strict methodologies on life often cause bad health (mental and physical,) suicide, and cut-throat, competitive animosity that I really just don’t think needs to exist in any society or culture.

The newer, more dynamic idols are taking the music and performance aspects of idols to new territories and new heights as far as I’m concerned, and that is what I would like to see more of, is the focus on something other than merely the traditional “idol” image and philosophy, and more on becoming a stronger entertainer.

So, to go back to the question that the title poses, I do think that idols and the performance entertainment behind them is a very enlightening, enjoyable, and strong cultural expression, the business behind it borders on, if not trudges into being a fairly exploitative commodity. However, since every idol project is handled a little differently and there are still some unknowns about what really goes on beneath the surface of what we see, it really is up to you how you personally view where the industry is headed.


What do you readers think about some of these concepts and ideas here? If you’re honest with yourself, do you prefer that idols adhere to the more strict rules and regulations of traditional idol-dom, or do you prefer the more diverse, dynamic kinds of idols that either take the rules very lightly or even disregard them completely?

Furthermore, are my problems with how the idol industry is ran mostly because I grew up in a Western society, or do you think a lot of Japanese people would also agree with me?

Thanks for sticking with this for the long read, but I’d hope to get some feedback about how various people perceive and digest the current idol industry and what kinds of idols you prefer. Please discuss if you have anything to add!

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.