In February I traveled to Japan, to create my first photojournalistic project. In Tokyo, more specifically Akihabara (the mecca of anime and manga), a group of young girls are participating in a phenomenon, very far from Western ethics. I got the invite to observe and document this phenomenon called ‘idols’. The experience was very surreal to me, and I felt very far from my home and far from the moral codes I am raised with. Very young girls (around teenage) entertain an audience primarily existing of mid-aged men, yelling, dancing and jumping around in a childish way. I was horrified about this acceptance towards something that, in my eyes, seemed so wrong. But on the other hand, I have never felt more welcome and safe in an unfamiliar environment. With my project Idols I am opening a door to a universe very far from Western ethics and showing a culture that seeks to escape the conventional way of living in Japan.
An idol is a young type of entertainer (teenage or early twenties) manufactured and marketed for image, attractiveness, and personality in Japanese pop culture. Idols are primarily singers, but they are also trained in other roles, such as acting, dancing, and modeling. An idol's main objective is to "sell dreams", offering fans a form of escapism from the troubles of daily life. They are seen as role models to the public, and their personal lives and image are often controlled by their talent agencies. Idols are commercialized through merchandise and endorsements by their talent agencies, while maintaining an emotional connection with a passionate consumer fan base called ‘otaku’.
Otakus are built as active supporters into the narrative of the idol's journey to become a professional entertainer, viewing them as friends, daughters, or girl next door types due to how easily they can relate to the public. Fans of idols regularly participate in organized fan chants accompanied by carefully choreographed dancing while carrying glow sticks in the idol’s official colors to show solidarity. These kinds of dancing and cheering gestures are called otagei. Most otakus of female idols are men from 30-50 years of age. These men seek interactions with the girls and see the relation as an alternative to a long-term relationship - without the prospect of supporting a family or dealing with awkwardness outside of a controlled environment. Otakus often stop dating after selecting their favorite idol, which makes them having little or no sort of interaction with the opposite sex.
Otakus spend money on merchandise and endorse products to directly support their favorites, comparing it to spending money on "loved ones". Dedicated fans may even give up their careers and devote their life savings to supporting and following their favorite members. To establish and maintain close relations between idols and otakus, talent agencies offer meet-and-greets in the form of handshake events or hakushukai, where fans have the opportunity to shake hands, take a photograph, and speak briefly with the idols for the purchase of some sort of merchandise, creating this growing billion dollar industry.
Handshake events have very strict rules regarding the fans’ interaction with idols, having crew members orchestrate flow by timer and making sure that they comply with the rules of contact. These tight measurements make the idols feel safe and the set up seem innocent. Handshake events allow otakus to be in close proximity with the idols, questioning whether the accessibility may cause fans to be unable to distinguish between fantasy and real-life. Historically, physical contact between male and female has never been ‘normal’ in Japan, and touching each other has until recently not been tolerated by common society.
From a young age, Japanese men are taught the importance of professional success, higher education, honoring the family name, and providing for the family. These expectations create a deep need for a no-restrictions environment and allowance of feeling free. This is what the idol universe offers.