Japanese Idols, The J-idol Culture, and Who You Should Know

Karin
2022/08/04

K-pop idols have become a global phenomenon, but how about Japanese idols who have been around for just as long if not longer? We take a look at J-idols, what the idol and fandom culture is like, as well as give you recommendations for groups you should definitely know as a J-idol fan. 


Table of Contents

  1. What are J-idols, or Japanese idols
    1. Japanese Idol Culture FAQ
  2. Types of Japanese Idols and Idol Groups
    1. Solo Idols
    2. Girl Groups
    3. Boy Bands
    4. Chika-Idols
    5. Seiyu Idols
    6. Anime Idols
    7. Virtual Idols
  3. Things to Know about Being a Japanese Idol Fan
  4. Famous Japanese Idol Groups You Should Know

What are J-idols, or Japanese idols?

Japanese idols are artists who sing and dance and have a very close relationship with their fans. They often have a “concept” or a “theme” and mostly belong to and perform in groups. J-idols are also known for their versatility, venturing in acting, appearances on tv shows as commentators or game contestants, hosting radio shows, etc.  

Japanese idols are not the only part of Japanese mainstream music, otherwise known as J-pop, but they are undeniably a big part of it. (If you’re interested in J-pop in general, check out our article J-pop: Defining Japanese Pop Music, its Genres, and Songs & Artists You Need to Know.)   

One of the charms of Japanese idols is that they are not deemed as perfect when they debut but rather supported by fans as they continue to grow and develop as artists. While they are still trainees, they work hard to learn from the debuted groups or members (if any). However, even as trainees, many have the chance to interact with and earn fans. And when they finally debut, they continue to improve their singing, dancing and other skills necessary to survive in the industry. For fans of Japanese idols, seeing their growth as performers and supporting them in the process is one of the best payoffs of becoming a fan. 

Japanese Idol Culture FAQ

Q. Have Japanese idols always been popular?

Yes, in Japan. The term “idol” is said to have started to be used in Japan in the 50s and 60s. However, back then and up to the 80s, solo idols were usually more popular (with some notable exceptions). It wasn't really until the late 80s and 90s that groups became more and more popular, with idol groups really solidifying their position in mainstream music in the mid-2000s on.

We discussed why they haven't become as popular overseas as Korean idols in our J-pop article, but they still manage to have many international fans!

Q. Is it true that Japanese idols can’t date?

It depends on the company. AKB48 in particular became notorious for this rule, as members are either fired from or demoted in the group if a dating scandal emerges. It also seems that girl groups have it stricter in regards to dating rules than boy groups.

However, public image is incredibly important to idols and their managing companies, so they often do their best to keep their romantic relationships a secret from the public eye and from fans, even after they get married. Some idols, especially women, “graduate” from being an idol when they get married.

Q. What’s the average age of idols? 

Japanese idols tend to be on the younger side, but this also depends on the idol and their management. For example, many idols start as trainees quite young, such as when they are in middle school or high school. However, the average age within girl groups tends to stay quite young, with many members “graduating” from the groups before they turn 30 for a variety of reasons. 

However, boy groups tend to be higher in average age and have an overall wider age range, with some idols in their 40s and 50s still going strong in their groups. Also solo idols, both men and women, tend to also work for a longer time. For example, Matsuda Seiko, a popular solo idol since the 80s, is 60 years old and still performing concerts in 2022. 

Q. Can idols quit being an idol? 

Yes, but not all do.

Girl group members call leaving the group「卒業 sotsugyo」or graduating. They often make the announcement directly to fans and hold a graduation concert. 

Common reasons to quit being an idol include wanting to pursue a solo career or a different kind of career (such as acting), wanting to retire from the entertainment industry altogether, marriage, management, disbandment of the group, etc. 

Types of Japanese Idols and Idol Groups

There is a vast number of idols and idol groups in Japan, especially since the resurgence of popularity since the 2000s. With the various themes and concepts an idol group can have, the number of groups battling for popularity and visibility are countless. Some idols even belong in several of these categories!

We will briefly discuss the main types here. 

Solo Idols

Solo idols were the pioneers of the Japanese idol industry in Japan in the 50s to 80s. Popular singers then included Yamaguchi Momoe, Matsuda Seiko, Go Hiromi, and Matchy.

Nowadays, it’s hard to say who is an “artist” and who is an “idol” or if a distinction is really necessary, but as the definition for idol is a person or group with very passionate fans, people like Fukuyama Masaharu, Hoshino Gen, Suda Masaki, Aimyon and Lisa are all definitely idols of the current music scene.

Girl Groups

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by AKB48 (@akb48)

Girl groups are often seen as having many members, having auditions, and “graduating” when leaving the group. This concept started with Morning Musume in the 90s and early 2000s, when the group had 16 members at its largest. This was added to by the popularity of AKB48 in the mid to late 2000s, when they emerged with the concept of “idols you can meet”. They popularized handshake events, where buying the singles would get you tickets to meet your favorite member(s).

Popular groups and companies include

  • Hello Project with the group Morning Musume being their most famous, formed by Tsunku.

  • AKB48 and its sister groups, including overseas ones such as JKT48 (Jakarta), produced by Akimoto Yasushi

  • The Sakamichi groups, including their most popular Nogizaka46, also produced by Akimoto Yasushi to be rivals of the AKB48 groups

and many more including Momoiro Clover Z, Babymetal, NiziU, and countless others. Popular electropop group Perfume may or may not be considered an idol group, depending on who you ask.

Boy Bands

It’s no secret that the company Johnny’s and Associates has a strong hold on the boy band industry in Japan, ever since forming their first group in the 60s. Popular groups include/included

  • Hikaru Genji
  • SMAP
  • Kinki Kids
  • V6
  • Arashi
  • KAT-TUN
  • Hey Say JUMP
  • King & Prince
  • Snow Man

and one of the more newly debuted groups, Naniwa Danshi.   

The other major company producing boy bands is LDH, with their concept of having 2 vocalists and several dancers in one group. LDH groups include

  • EXILE
  • Sandaime J-soul Brothers
  • Generations

and more, including the recently popular FANTASTICS

Another notable one is EBiDAN under Stardust Promotions, which includes many boy bands including DISH// and M!lk. They often become more famous when the members of the bands venture into acting and become popular. 

Other notable groups include Da-ice, JO1, and the newer groups INI, BE:FIRST, etc. 

Chika Idols

地下アイドル chika idol] or what are also called “live idols” are idols that perform at live-houses in Japan. They are called “underground” idols (chika means underground) because they don’t appear on TV but rather gain fans through their live performances and meeting their fans. The boy groups are called “men-chika”. AKB48 and Momoiro Clover Z are famous “chika idol” groups that made it big. 

Other former but now known in mainstream chika idol groups include Denpagumi.inc and BiSH.

Current chika idols include #ババババンビ (babababambi)、神宿 (kamiyado)、and 虹のコンキスタドール (Niji no Conquistador). Groups yet to be discovered by the mainstream are those that fans discover by having flyers handed out to them on the street and by word of mouth and now social media, so if you're interested, keep an eye and ear out for those!

There used to be a lot more of these groups, but the COVID-19 pandemic shut down a lot of live events, and without being able to perform in front of fans, many groups disbanded. However, some survived by doing more things online through streaming. 

Seiyu Idols or Idol Seiyu

アイドル声優 idol seiyu」, sometimes also called 「声優アイドル seiyu idol」depending on the situation,  or “voice actor idols” has a couple of possible meanings, although the distinction is sometimes blurred. 

One definition is a voice actor who is also very active as an idol/artist. This either happens when they’re already an idol/artist, and they begin voice acting work as well, or the opposite, when they are a voice actor who releases music.

The other is that the character(s) they play are idols, and due to the popularity of the work and characters, the voice actor focuses their career to personify that character in additional work, such as live events including concerts. This means that the voice actor themself has to be able to sing and dance as well. 

Others who don’t want to appear themselves in public use the anime characters as avatars.

=LOVE (read "equal love") is a popular seiyu idol unit, produced by a former member of AKB48, Sashihara Rino. 

Anime Idols

Which brings us to anime idols! 

There have been many anime works over the years that feature idols, including

  • Love Live! (and its many sequels and spinoffs)
  • IDOLiSH7
  • Uta No Prince-Sama
  • If My Favorite Pop Idol Made It to the Budokan, I Would Die
  • The Idolmaster, etc.

The iconic idol characters became fan favorites, with fans buying merchandise with their favorite idol.

This is also what gave rise to the seiyu idols mentioned above. Some of the voice actors for the characters form temporary units to become the idol groups depicted in these works and release music, sometimes performing them live. 

A good example would be μ’s (pronounced “muse”) from Love Live! The 9 members are characters in the anime who form a school idol group. However, the voice actors themselves released 47 singles during their time together as μ’s, performed concerts and collabed with the other idol units from the work and spinoff works. They even won a Japan Gold Disc Award for Animation Album of the Year and other awards! 

Virtual Idols

Last but not least are virtual idols. 

Virtual idols are singers that use animated characters as avatars to represent themselves when performing and chatting. They may be voiced by real people, or even computers such as vocaloid programs.   

Hatsune Miku made waves as a popular vocaloid singer and virtual idol. She remains iconic to this day, holding concerts and releasing music.

Kizuna AI is another popular virtual figure, mainly as a virtual YouTuber of Vtuber. She is voiced by a voice actress, and not a program.

Yet another example is Hololive, a Vtuber group and agency for virtual character livestreamers. They even hold concerts as well! All three mentioned are popular not only in Japan but also overseas!  

Things to Know about Being a Japanese Idol Fan

Each company and group has different practices when it comes to fan-idol interactions, but here are the common ones!

Buying CDs and their perks

When you buy their music, the copies often come with perks for fans, such as special goods or a ticket to a handshake meet-and-greet event, or more recently, a code to special livestreams. Sometimes you have to buy multiple copies to qualify, or for more popular groups, the ticket means you will be entered into a lottery for such events. 

Handshake Events

Fans can sometimes meet their favorite idols at 「握手会 akushu kai」or handshake events. There are a few moments to chat with your idol, or perhaps to get something signed. Not all groups do this, as this practice is more popular with chika-idols.  

Specific Idol Terms

There are many fandom specific terminologies, especially in recent years. 

For example 「推し oshi」refers to your favorite group or your favorite idol that you are supporting as a fan. Thus, anything you do as a fan is called 「推し活 oshikatsu」or 「推し事 oshigoto」, such as buying music and merch, going to concerts, drawing fanart, etc. 

Member Color, Penlights and Uchiwa

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by WeXpats🌏 (@wexpats_japan)

メンバーカラー member color」or 「メンカラ menkara」for short is the color that the idol or group is assigned. Thus fans collect merch and other things in those colors to show their support. Some companies have even started advertising their products as being available in many member colors. 

These colors are important when it comes to concerts, as they often sell penlights as concert goods. You can change the color of the penlight to your favorite member’s color, or change colors depending on who is performing at the moment. 

Fans often wave uchiwa with their favorite member’s face on it, or a message to the idols so they can receive fanservice, such as “wink at me” or “blow me a kiss”. 

Groups may sell other goods such as mascot characters, stickers, towels, jackets and t-shirts, etc. 

Famous Japanese Idol Groups You Should Know

And to close off, here are 10 of the most famous idol groups, many of which almost all Japanese people will know or have at least heard of and 6 you should know in 2022.

  1. Nogizaka46

  2. AKB48

  3. Momoiro Clover Z

  4. Morning Musume

  5. Babymetal

  6. SMAP (disbanded but still famous)

  7. Arashi (on indefinite hiatus but individual members still active)

  8. Kinki Kids

  9. EXILE

  10. AAA (on hiatus but individual members still active)

And 8 you should know in 2022

  1. Naniwa Danshi

  2. FANTASTICS from EXILE TRIBE

  3. INI

  4. BE:FIRST

  5. Travis Japan

  6. BEYOOOOONDS

  7. Sakurazaka46

  8. BiSH (disbanding in 2023)

We hope this article was a comprehensive introduction to Japanese idols! Please find an oshi group!! 

Writer

Karin
Born in Japan, grew up in Los Angeles, living in Tokyo. Love: Movies, (mostly pop) music, hunting for good Mexican food. My kryptonite: 漢字&期間限定 (kanji & limited time offers)

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