Translation: The Rise of Local Idol Culture (Part 2)
2010's Idol Scene Vol.6
The Rise of Local Idol Culture (Part 2)
The identities found between hometown love and major label direction
Welcome to another installment of our series of articles digging into different sides of the idol scene of the 2010s. This is a continuation of the previous article in the series, focusing on idols that center their work in specific regions.
In Part 1, we went into the factors contributing to the rapid increase in local idols in the first half of the 2010s and the characteristics of the culture it produced, but as groups that had been working steadily provincially gradually moved to a national scale, many things were lost along the way. Back then and even still today, the idea of going major and moving to Tokyo is a difficult one to broach, but for this article, we started looking at groups like Negicco and 3776 for answers as the community-oriented idols that they are. This second part will delve into the rise and fall of local idol culture and the business opportunities brought about by the idol boom, as told by music writer Namba Kazumi mixed with statements given by idols and managers themselves.
Interview, Article/Onoda Mamoru
The ambiguous issue local idols have
You could say idols are fundamentally part of urban subculture. It's a culture that thrives in cities, and weakens in the country. Of course, there are groups that are nationally beloved by people of all ages like the AKB48 groups and the Sakamoto series, but core fans focus on idols that are small enough that they don't even appear on local TV. There are tons of live houses, and the rapid creation of groups has stopped, but every day there is an idol event or multi-act concert somewhere... This is a normal sight specific to cities, but this might be something very foreign to those who live in rural areas.
Japan is politically and economically centralized, but around 50% of the population lives in the three biggest cities. When you take that into account, it becomes clear that it isn't commonplace in most areas for there to always be idols around. Idol magazine sales also skew towards urban areas, which seems like a natural result.
It has been a long time since people identified the development of Japan's roads and transportation systems as the cause of a loss of local and indigenous culture. Once cars started driving down the main roads of every prefecture, the scenery across the country began to look the same. Aeon Mall represents national shopping malls, the likes of Uniqlo and Fashion Center Shimaura are the bargain clothing stores, plus the many fast food restaurants, convenience stores, big box electronics stores, gas stations, discount stores, consumer credit banks, pachinko parlors, and love hotels... Naturally, for children who all grew up in a similar environment such as this, interests and goals started to homogenize. For music, that meant that even though people would sing karaoke with songs by artists who hit the top of the charts, they would keep it at arm's length, not pursuing it as enthusiasts. People listened to music conservatively, citing reasons for their preferences with, "Because everyone is listening to it," or "Because it's played on TV."
That's why when idol groups started to form in these provincial towns and use that as an edge, it was practically unheard of. Individual cities separate from the London capital, like Liverpool and Manchester, nursed their own individual music cultures, but it seemed out of the question that it would ever happen in Japan. But, idol fans are a group of people who demand excitement. It's in their nature to jump at interesting groups, regardless of whether they're famous or not. Much like the Northern Soul movement in England, the fans' eager attention was pulled from the city to the provinces.
However, the spread in idol popularity came with some growing pains. Members naturally wanted to perform on bigger and bigger stages as entertainers. They all dreamed of more people listening to their music, of getting more popular. This was bound to moving to Tokyo and signing with a major. Takagi Yuumi of LinQ, continuing from the previous article, testifies to this.
Takagi Yuumi (LinQ)
"I can say this now, but when we moved to a major, there were a good number of fans who left us. There were a lot of people in Fukuoka who supported us from our debut that wanted to see us up to the point of this development. They were very clear on social media: 'You don't need me anymore if you're going major,' 'I'm going to follow a group that still needs to be built up'" (Takagi).
It might be the same thing as when fans stop following an indie band that turns major, in a way. But it's troubling for the girls who always hear voices telling them, "I followed you because you were local." Music writer Namba Kazumi frowned when speaking on the difficulties of local idols turning major: "It's such a complicated, ambiguous issue."
"I definitely think that girls who have roots in the prefectures shine differently somehow than Tokyo idols precisely because they're from the prefectures. But if they don't do shows in Tokyo or aim to release music under a major label, it's just a reality that it's much harder, business-wise. For both of these components to exist at once, I think that's extremely difficult. The group Especia, which had been local to Osaka, found that they had no choice but to change the lineup of the group with their timing to move to Tokyo. Of course, groups go to Tokyo because they're popular and talented and also have ambition, but with that move, there's a high likelihood of losing their appeal, and there are fans who are very sensitive to that. That's what I think happens" (Namba).
Especia in February 2016
With the name Especia coming up, we spoke to former member Wakita Monari. Especia was a group from the canals of Osaka that gained popularity through their music based heavily in disco, album-oriented rock, and new jack swing. Wakita herself graduated when the group made the move to Tokyo, but her words reveal mental anguish specific to being a local idol.
"My group originated in Osaka, but we did actually have a lot of shows in Tokyo. We were on tour most weekends. Our normal routine was to be on a Hiace wagon every Friday at midnight, change clothes in parking lots, and start shows as soon as we arrived at the venues. A lot of my sleep happened while we were riding in the van. When it came to having a major debut, we started staying places on tour. At first it was cots at the agency, then it was a Kinshi capsule hotel, and by the end it had progressed to a business hotel (laughs). But even as a teenager I could tell how much money it was taking for us to tour" (Wakita).
When they were in Osaka, all the members lived at home. They did part-time jobs while continuing their careers as entertainers, and so they didn't pay particular attention to their salaries. When they moved to Tokyo, however, they couldn't continue this way. The specifics of figuring out rent and living expenses became a much bigger concern. The problem wasn't just cash; while they got a massive boost in advertising and exposure, incomparable to what they had before moving to a major, they then had to face more severe consequences related to sales and fan mobilization. The amount of mental pressures the members were put under was not what they were used to.
"It's definitely interesting seeing something underground move to a major. As you get bigger, there becomes an even greater dependence on the majors. It's something so difficult, not just limited to local idols. It's a question of what the best way to handle that relationship is. Looking back on the last ten years, it doesn't seem like anyone has been able to make it work, have they? Dempagumi.inc and WACK (the managers of BiSH, etc.) are rather the exceptions. Even if you have this brilliant major debut, you get bigger, and the bigger you get, the less likely it is that you'll keep that position. I don't think it's the norm for groups to maintain" (Namba).
From the beginning, there were groups among local idols that were attached to big entertainment agencies or major labels. SKE48, HKT48, and NMB48 were all derivations of AKB48. TEAM SHACHI (formerly Team Syachihoko), Tacoyaki Rainbow, Batten Showjo Tai and Iginari Tohoku San are regional units developed by Stardust Promotions. The trouble starts when you have a group of local idol supporters who cheer for them because they are independent. "You can't call yourself a local idol once you sign to a big agency," "NGT48 says they're lifting up their local area of Niigata, but aren't all the members from Saitama or other Kanto areas?" These opinions are not unlikely to be cold splash of water to the rising heat of a local group. The most narrow viewpoints are in the minority, though, when you look at fans as a whole, and the aforementioned big-name local idols have gathered a faithful following from the prefectural populations.
The inevitably of community-based idols 3776
Because these groups are so closely linked to their hometowns, it is possible for unforeseen calamity to befall them. Providing their story now is 3776 producer Ishida Akira. 3776 started as predecessor group TEAM MII, "a one-year limited time unit formed in Fujinomiyashi to commemorate its 70th anniversary." Because of this, the initial iteration worked closely with the municipal government.
"We were told by the local government that we couldn't earn any money. So we don't sell anything. We were also told to keep the contents of our songs very soft so that there would be no complaints. And then you had both the residents and government officials demanding to know why tax money was being spent on an idol group, so all of that together put the group at a disadvantage. Then, people who supported the group started arguing that different monuments cost more money and were more useless, so I head to hear a lot of things I didn't want to hear..." (Ishida).
Once they changed their name from TEAM MII to 3776, they cut their government ties, releasing them from limitations on sales and lyrics. Nevertheless, troublesome conversations still followed them all the same.
"When we would use a public area in the local area, we'd hear these weird things, like, "Oh, 3776 gets special treatment," or "I thought only state employees could use that," so we had to change some rules. Personally, I thought we would get a little bit of a contribution from locals that would pull fans in from Tokyo, but contrary to expectations, people just said awful things about us. It made me realize, whether I wanted to or not, that not all locals find these groups to be fun. Looking at it long-term, it was a good thing to understand this reality. It certainly made me grow as a person" (Ishida).
3776's music is creative. Ishida took initial inspiration from U2, even though he adored AKB48, but suddenly the music became unbelievably avant-garde. It's a complicated sound with traces of new wave, prog rock, and modern music that even non-idol fans have come to support them, and with member Ide Chiyono's charisma, the group has struck a unique brilliance.
Ishida casually says about 3776, "It's fun so I keep doing it." He explains, "Ide Chiyono provides me with ample material, and I catch onto that. I'm happy with how the project looks in this form so we stay in Fujinomiyashi." Indeed, it seems that for 3776, it's necessary to remain a community-based idol group.
The frustrating feelings Negicco also experienced
So, when we speak of groups to represent the innumerable local idols, there should be no objection to naming Negicco. Formed in 2003, the lineup hasn't had any major shakeups and is still beloved by fans to this day. All three members are married, unique among female idol groups, and they make you feel how determined they are to maintain their hometown roots. Kumakura Yoshihito, who represents Negicco's agency EH Creators, lists 3 reasons why the group has lasted.
1. The emotional backbone of the members came from living together with their families in Niigata.
2. They were on TV almost every day to promote the project "Team ECO" for UX Niigata TV 21, which led to a high degree of recognition amongst the people of Niigata.
3. Because of this, there were increasing offers from governments and local businesses to be part of events and festivals, which led to more promotion for Negicco and revenue.
Because so few local idols can afford showy promotional tactics, most are forced monetarily to work constantly. This means that it ends up taking a lot of time for the group's presence to be established. The Negicco members reflect on this, saying, "Even though we've done it this long, we have had so few times where we felt defeated."
"I still don't think that every single person in Niigata knows who we are, and that makes me think we still have more work to do... That said, I do get stopped on the street by people thanking me for lifting up Niigata. Back in the day, though, when we'd be at a festival, there were always some strange old men who'd yell at us in the middle of our MCs, 'I don't want to hear your damn songs!' (smiles wryly)
What was complicated for me was when we started getting calls to be on national TV programs. They'd ask if we could speak in dialect, and we'd tell them we didn't use local dialect normally so we might have a hard time using it. When we said that, suddenly all conversation ceased. I wondered if that's all people really wanted from prefectural idols" (Kaede).
Kaede's lamentation is understandable. The truth is likely that the media doesn't know how to handle local idols. The average person isn't very knowledgeable on idols, and they had no way of knowing about these girls coming from the provinces trying to be entertainers. Nao☆ continues.
"When we first started, I could count on one hand the number of regional idols there were. It felt like people looked and us and sneered, like, 'Who the hell are you? What are you? I guess you're Negicco.' Even when we'd perform at idol events in Tokyo, we were the only ones coming from out of town and didn't have a green room prepared, they were blatantly looking down on us.
Still, things changed once we won the 'U.M.U. AWARD 2010' which decided the number one prefectural idol group. Elderly people would be moved to tears, saying how happy they are they get to meet us, and little girls would tell us, 'Negicco always cheers everyone up, and I want to cheer everyone up in this world, too...' I feel deeply that these past 17 years of hard work haven't been for nothing" (Nao☆).
The potential of the local idol boom
As Negicco was working energetically and steadily, Megu recalls a memorable personal crossroads.
"We got offers to do some big events in Tokyo, but we were already booked for events in Niigata. In situations like this, we gave preference to whoever we spoke with first, so it would have been expected for us to do the work in Niigata. But a Tokyo event could be the chance Negicco needs for our big break, so I was extremely conflicted. In the end, we stayed and performed in Niigata. I also won a pear peeling contest at that event, as it were (laughs). But even now, I don't feel like we made a mistake.
If you're someone who wants to work in entertainment, of course, Tokyo is where you want to be. You get more chances and I'm simply jealous of that, but if Negicco had been in Tokyo from the onset, I don't think we could have kept it going this long. I'd end up comparing myself to other people, which would break our hearts and our onion [negi] (laughs)" (Megu).
They understand the merits of taking the group to Tokyo, but there is certainly something to be lost there. Groups struggle to find their identity, swinging between hometown love and major label direction. What is their aim? Why did they become an idol in the first place? For Negicco, the answers to these questions were to continue on as a group beloved by the people of Niigata.
Negicco in concert
"Working in our hometown means that things feel more relaxed, in a good way. It matches Negicco's pace. I love my hometown more because I'm part of Negicco, and the more I learn about Niigata, the more I can't stop loving it" (Megu).
Many girls who were original local idols move on to work with big agencies. While Namba was hosting "Local Idol Field Guide" (BS Sukapa!), he personally covered future Hello!Project members Morito Chisaki (currently in Morning Musume. '21) of Gunma prefecture's CoCoRo Gakuen and Kawamura Ayano (currently in ANGERME) of Kochi prefecture's Hachikin Girls. They had potential in their regional groups and launched their careers on large Tokyo stages. It's the makings of the Japanese Dream, to put it simply.
"They surely have reached their potential. It's not limited to Hello!Pro, because there are so many regional idol alums out there now. This happened because of the local idol boom. If we didn't have that, I don't think we'd have uncovered all of the talent we have out here now" (Namba).
Opposing those who use their hometown as a stepping stone to get to Tokyo, there is also a strong trend of people returning to their roots. Currently working in variety TV is Ourin, is the leader of Aomori group RINGOMUSUME, but for a time she was also part of the unit Good Tears from "Last Idol" (TV Asahi). She might have thought that this large-scale project alone would be a step up, but it's also possible she wanted to use it to rejuvenate RINGOMUSUME. However, she ultimately had too many irons in the fire and Ourin withdrew from Good Tears after about 6 months. She decided once again after returning home to show the world the charms of Aomori. Like Negicco before her, she didn't "give up" on the move to Tokyo, she "returned back" to her original goal of revitalizing her hometown.
"A lot of people over the past few years have said we are past the peak of the idol boom, but it's hard to believe what has permeated the culture all over will completely disappear. In reality, there are still new groups being created today, and there are the arts education systems forming units to represent acting schools. It has kept going ever since the start of the 2010s idol boom, and I think regardless of any ups or downs with that, it will likely keep going still. Because those arts schools I mentioned aren't strictly for idol education, rather places to develop singing and dancing, it's possible that the future shape of this movement won't be idols, but rather singer-songwriters or K-Pop-style groups" (Namba)
Does this mean, in any event, that the trend of discovering new talent outside of Tokyo will continue? If you think about it, the origins of Perfume or Hashimoto Kanna were as local idols. There are many groups halting activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but if society can return to where it was before, it seems likely that regional idols will once again rise up in earnest. At live houses across the country, at shopping malls, at festivals, at parking garages, at bathhouses, at retirement homes, at dance studios... Idols have infinite possibilities. We will never, ever forget how idols have painted the world in rich colors, by way of the unique work done by local people.