• Jennifer Barnick

All Purity All Sex: Japanese Idol Culture

Idol group

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

I remember going to see The New Kids on the Block with my baby brother back in the 1980’s at the height of their fame, and I was floored by the volume and intensity of the screaming. Even after the concert, many of the girls were still trembling and crying. I remember thinking that this was what it must have been like to see the Beatles, as many journalists reported that you could not even hear the Beatles' music because the girls’ screaming was so loud. I also remember thinking that these little girls had crushes—these girls had perhaps innocent but nonetheless sexual, romantic feelings for the gentlemen in The New Kids on the Block. Personally, I have never felt that way about any kind of famous person. It’s not that I’ve never endured painful crushes—I have—but they were always on boys in my real world. I just never found myself worshiping a movie or rock star. So, it was very cool and fascinating to see Netflix’s new release Tokyo Idols (directed by Kyoko Miyake and initially released January 20, 2017).

Tokyo Idols is a subtitled, Japanese documentary about the Japanese Idol culture. Idol culture is an offshoot of Japanese Anime culture. There are special maid cafes where very young girls dress up in Anime-type cosplay. The costumes are usually school girl uniforms or lacy maid outfits. They serve coffee and cake and, in some of the maid cafes, will perform. The performers are called Idols. Idols are in many ways like the players in minor league baseball. It is the beginning of their climb to their ultimate goal of becoming a legitimate star in entertainment. The performers range from ten to twenty (twenty is considered pretty old in Idol culture). They all can sing and dance and play instruments and work tirelessly as they try to become a top Idol. Competitions play a big part in Idol culture—including competition amongst the fans, or the otakus. Otakus are at the heart of both this documentary and of the Idol culture. Otakus are primarily men—full grown men—who more or less dedicate their lives to usually one specific Idol girl or group. In the movie, there was a transportation worker somewhere in his fifties who had an enormous obsession with a seventeen-year-old Idol. He spent all of his money and time making fan art for her and buying her merchandise. We follow other men who are obsessed with the culture and the Idol that caught their eye.

The girls build and develop an online fandom along with public appearances. The pivotal public appearance is the handshake events. Handshake events are weird. If a fan or otaku buys a lot of merchandise, they receive tickets that allow them to spend one minute talking to and shaking hands with their favorite Idol. Most of the men are middle aged and most of the Idols are girls between 10 and 17. It was very unnerving to see forty or so middle-aged men judging a group of 10 to 14-year-old girls in a costume contest then enjoy their one-minute hand shake time with them. And while the girls giggle sweetly and call the men big brothers, uncles, grandfathers, etc. it is very clear that these are romantic sexual experiences for the men.

Part of Idol culture is for the girls to be purer than pure. They must exude innocence, gentleness, sweetness, and must above all be virginal. Idol girls are never to be seen as normal healthy sexual teens and young women. They are to be see as exaggerated symbols of purity and inexperience. One sociologist in the movie explained it as ‘Japanese virgin worship.’ One of the repeated remarks of the older male fans and why they were obsessed with their Idol was that the girl was not yet ‘fully developed.’ However, with all of that purity is a very, very clear sexual component. The costumes are shamelessly sexual and are perennial fetish favorites even in the west in both pornography and the ever-popular slutty Halloween costume. They are little milkmaids and school girls. Sometimes they are kittens. Their dancing is sexy (even the very young Idols), and it is clear by all of their blushing and giggling and deep squatting in tiny skirts that the room is packed with grown men for a reason.

I really loved the movie. It was very cool and fascinating to watch. I think the otakus (the super fans) were thrilling. I really could follow any one of them for days and days. They were living so outside of the normal and somehow, I found it both horrible and adorable. There were some moments where my personal boundaries found their limits in this movie. The two very young girls aged 10 and 14 were very difficult to watch without wanting to call the police. It was very clear what was going on in the dynamic (think Nabokov’s Lolita). For the older girls in their later teens and early twenties, it seemed like the girls were the cats and the love-sick men were the mice, and in the end, everyone was getting what they wanted: for the girls, a chance at fame, and for the men, an exhilarating romantic adventure.

Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.” You can follow Jennifer on her Instagram here.

Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.