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Idols Idealism And Identity Media Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 2452 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Idols are a class of celebrities that have served as an icon of idealism and have been waxing in popularity since the 1970s. Idols and idol culture had been occasionally well received and overwhelming popular during this time, and has permeated borders of many East Asian countries. Today, the idol industry in Japan is affiliated with nearly all areas of popular media, including music, movies, television shows, radio shows, and advertisements of all types. Idol culture, which includes not only the role model idols and their fans, but the producers, agencies, and staff involved with them as well, has been the focus and adoration of not only their adolescent audience, but the professional world as well. Idols have become an integral part of Japanese society as a role model of sorts, and with their widespread media presence and heavily engineered audience appeal, they have had an immense influence on the Japanese peoples' social goals and aspirations. As a result, the idol industry has developed cultures that all follow a similar set of values, beliefs, and preferences; people who largely share a homogenous identity. This identity borne from collective aspirations to reach an idealistic image, however, has allowed Japanese culture to remain stagnant and inhibit change.

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Before, "idols" were the celebrities who emerged from the general commercial genre of kayokyoku- pop music- during the late 1960s. These celebrities appealed to and represented the adult culture, and so their appearances, lyrics, and images were adult oriented. Admiration and envy of the celebrities' opulent lives served as a kind of "Japanese dream," the Japanese ideal, the lifestyles that your average person could only dream of. This admiration fueled a curiosity over the celebrities' private lives and something of an obsession over the mundane aspects of their livelihood. When "idols" first appeared, they were celebrities whose lives were heavily orchestrated to be as appealing as possible, to be sure that even in their "private" lives they were seen to be enjoying lavish wealth. However, despite their media appearances, they rarely ever actually enjoyed the lives that they displayed. In fact, regardless of their success idols were paid very little as most of the money went to their promoters and producers. Although the media focus was supposed to offer peeks into these celebrities' lives, the idols themselves almost never interacted with their audiences in a sincere nor direct manner. Interviews and even significant "life events" were carefully orchestrated by their producers.

Idols as they are didn't really appear on the scene until the 1980s, when the Japanese people became more interested in the "average" person as opposed to the lives of out-of-reach celebrity. The Japanese shifted their focus from opulent, grandeur lifestyles to the seemingly normal, average lives of idols. However dramatic this change, the importance is that this new age of idols had inherited the obsession, adoration, and following that the idols before them saw- their identities. With these new down to size idols, the Japanese people finally had an opportunity to apply the traits and characteristics that they saw in the favorite idols to their own lives, things that were before limited to only the ultra-wealthy; they could buy the same products, enjoy the same activities, and trust the same brands. The idols act as an ideal role model, and they span entire age groups- they represent a whole generation's ideal, beliefs, and values.

To understand the correlation between the identities of idols and that of their audience, one has to consider the source of idols' success and why their audiences are as widespread and numerous as they are. While it may be clear that celebrities have some influence on society, the extent to which idols influence their fans is much more significant and stems from the way that the idol industry appeals to their target audience. However, idols are not only influencing, but they're also being influenced- "[idol fans] may well be the objects of manipulation, but they are also the manipulators of consumption" (Yano 337). As much as people may look up to idols, idols would not have their fame if they did not reflect the views of their audience. Therefore, it would be pertinent to discuss the major ways in which the idol industry reaches toward their fans: wide spread media coverage, personality, and aesthetic appeal.

Firstly, idols permeate various genres and reach most facets of mass media. Idols are rarely particularly talented, and are not necessarily chosen nor praised for such qualities: "Idols are not necessarily good singers or actors ... [and] are not extremely beautiful or attractive. They are merely cute and popular" (Nakamori 15). Yet, despite low talent levels in the industry, idol groups garner much media attention and are continually offered work in concerts, television shows, and advertisements. In fact, about 50 to 70 percent of all Japanese commercials (television, print, and poster ads) feature an idol (Galbraith 74). Because of this, they are capable of reaching many audiences and gather a large following as a result. An example of the magnitude of the idol industry's media presence is the Japanese idol group AKB48, whose events and actions capture the interest of the entire nation. AKB48's General Election is an event that determines the next season of new idols, and acts as a massive promotion for AKB48. Within a week of this, 1,334,000 copies of their 21st single were sold, each copy promising fans a vote in the election. The live ceremony took place in the Nippon Budokan, and streamed live to 86 theaters throughout Japan, as well as in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea (Galbraith 1). The event was also covered by as many as 150 Japanese print and television outlets. The event was so well publicized that it took precedence over coverage of the national disasters that Japan was dealing with at the time; "news of nuclear contamination in earthquake-stricken Japan took a back seat to the AKB48 General Election in the mass media" (Galbraith 1). In a chapter on idols and media intimacy, author Patrick Galbraith describes the impact of the saturation of idols in media:

"...with no effort or intention, one might easily encounter countless images of AKB48 or Arashi in the course of a day. The frequency with which they and other idols and celebrities present themselves within Japan's media-saturated culture makes them not only identifiable but familiar. In the daily routine of life ... one might have more contact with a particular idol or celebrity than with one's own family" (Galbraith 9).

While AKB48 is certainly one of the largest groups, including 88 members today, it is certainly not the only one. With as much interest expressed for idols, the industry has become nearly central to mass media. This saturation of idol coverage in mass media has allowed an unprecedented level of consumer accessibility and awareness of the idol industry; if it isn't already a dinner table topic, you'll hear about it from someone or somewhere else.

However, media coverage alone is not enough to please the masses- to do that, idols have very particular media personalities that are designed to appeal to a generation. An idol is supposed to represent and reflect the ideal values, beliefs, attitudes, and outlooks of people while maintaining an image of being average, amiable, and above all, tangible. The idol industry's target audience is various age groups of adolescents and young adults, and in order to appeal to them, they choose idols based strictly on several traits, and model them even further throughout their careers. The major characteristics that make up the Japanese idols are, as Hiroshi Ogawa of Oregon State University calls it, being "life-sized" and "friend-like."

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In order to appeal to youth, the idol industry has aimed at producing idols that could be seen as just average or above average people, "life-sized" people. Being "life-sized" gives the idols an image of a real person that the youth can identify with, confirming to the audience that idols aren't living in their own world of celebrity. Idols are portrayed as sharing the same struggles as their fans and going through growth and maturity just the same. As Patrick Galbraith of University of Tokyo puts it, idols are "to be accepted in the living room as one of the family, warts and all" (Galbraith 8). Idols go to great lengths to show that their stardom is a product of the support from their audience, as well as their staff, producers, promoters, and adults and children alike. Overt gratefulness is aimed at reinforcing the image of community and the importance of support from peers. Mistakes, evident lack of talent, and timidity are often valued characteristics of idols because it further convinces people that the idols are human, offering the fans the feeling that they are personally supporting the idol. Many are portrayed as typical teens that just happen to be "chosen to become 'lucky stars'" (Craig 311). Ogawa calls them (the idols) "quasi-companions," providing a reliable and unthreatening sense of intimacy to their viewers that can sometimes be deeper than real friendships. "This is due to the fact that, unlike real-life companions, with whom there is always the potential for conflict and loss of friendship, pop idols smile and appear to be friendly all the time" (Craig 312). Of course, this feeling companionship tends to extend into feelings of infatuation; to teenage girls, male idols are often a safe target for romantic fantasies that lack the possibility of complication, "[saving] the adolescent from disillusion" (Raviv 633). This pseudo-desire is incredibly common among female fans of male idols; for example, women's fasion magazine Anan had Japanese idol Kimura Takuya voted as "the guy we'd most like to have sex with" for ten consecutive years (Galbraith 106). Curiously enough, this sentiment is expressed less strongly among male fans. Matsumoto Mika, a self identified idol fan and famous comedian, asserts that idols are only perceived as imaginative images: "Fans ... never desire to 'date on the [idols]' or 'marry one of them.' My desire to see [idols] is like people's desire to appreciate artistically marvelous paintings" (Matsumoto 11).

In addition, the idol industry owes much of its success and favor from their audience to the application of the uniquely Japanese aesthetic of kawaii. While kawaii is an intricate topic in itself, the major importance here is that the Japanese people are largely obsessed with it, and that the criterion for kawaii has not changed in a century. Cuteness is often emphasized in idols, not only in their appearances but in their mannerisms, speech, and choice of interests. "Cute style" is applied to female idols more directly through fashion, but to male idols through "coolness." Whereas female idols might strike coy poses, bright smiles and wear frilly clothes, male idols would adopt a "stylish" aloof appearance, often donning stoic expressions and sharp clothes. "Female fans generally agree that the act of trying to look cool is what makes male idols cute" (Craig 312).

The widespread influence of idols on the lifestyles of adolescents as role models appears to come with the best intentions. However, understanding how idols are pressured by the industry and the fans themselves creates a worrying possibility for the developing Japanese identity. When you have large groups of adolescents doting on the idols' values and beliefs, there exist the risk of being ostracized for having an identity that varies from the 'norm' as now defined by the idols. Rather than many individuals developing their own sense of identity, there exists another's identity which is considered ideal, and is overwhelming present throughout society and is therefore compelling to follow. This discourages straying from the status quo, and is not limited to the adolescents who follow the idols; it also applies to the idols themselves. The idols work under much pressure from their fans and their peers in the industry to maintain a standard. If it isn't social pressure, there also exists legal pressure from the idol's producers whom with they have a contract to appear a certain way. An example of this is Minami Minegishi's "scandal" in January 2013 involving her being seen with a man. While this was a violation of her contract with AKB48, it is also a convention of all idols to maintain the image of being innocent and virginal. This "scandal" was met with outrage from her supporters, and leads her to make a humiliating public apology to her fans as well as her fellow group members and plea to keep her place in AKB48. Minami Minegishi's shaving of her head, a traditional act in apology for disgrace, as well as her fan's reaction, is indicative of the level of scorn for acting differently- and furthers people's fear of being ostracized for doing so. As a result, the identities of each generation of Japanese remain largely unchanged in terms of the ideal that the Japanese people strive to achieve. Devotion toward single ideal is not dissimilar to Japan's efforts to establish a uniquely Japanese identity post WWII. This is especially evident in Japanese obsession with kawaii, which has hardly changed since even before the war. The same attributes of youth and cuteness that were valued as kawaii can still be seen in the aesthetic and mannerisms of idols today.

In conclusion, the ultra saturation of idol culture in Japanese mass media has embedded the idol industry as an integral part of Japanese society, particularly amongst the Japanese youth. The massive media presence of idols and the industry's approach toward appealing to their audience has garnered the attention and adoration of adolescents, offering sentiments of companionship in people's otherwise busy lives. This has given idols an immense level of influence over the values and aspirations of Japanese youth, but this attraction to idols continues well into adulthood. This influence causes much of Japanese society to take up similar values and beliefs of the idols being marketed to them. Idols, however, portray largely artificial media personalities that are highly orchestrated by the industry to best appeal to the youth, imposing idols as "life-like", friendly companions. As a result, an increasingly similar identity and ideal is formed among the youth of Japan that in many ways condemns varying from that ideal; a stagnant, homogenous identity.


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