Idol: the new Geishas

Català Castellano

The summer afternoons in the Mediterranean are simply suffocating. Despite this, this summer is being cool but at 5 pm in mid-June the pavement of Tarragona burns.

We are near to the bullring. Our hostess, Aina Gombau, collaborator of Cultius Culturals, is making coffee for us in a Hogwarts mug. Today we are interviewing Emika Kamieda, who was one of the former leader of one of the most famous music groups in Japan, NMB48, sister group of AKB48 and now is living in Tarragona. We will talk with her about the Idolphenomenon and the J-Pop. Let’s start!

The steps I followed to prepare this interview were: consulting Wikipedia, and reading this complete post about the Japanese Idol phenomenon focused on the male gender, which I really recommend you. I also watched, and recommend you too, the documentary Tokyo Idols (Kyoko Miyake, 2017) that you can find in Netflix.

There was a mishmash of ideas in my mind after all the information above, especially with the darkest and strangest part exhibited in the documentary. Now we are with Emika and with Josep G., who has lived in Japan for five years and will be helping us with the translation.


Emika Kamieda. Foto: Aina Gombau, 2018

The first thing surprising us was to see how the Idols are young girls singing and dancing in front of a majority of men, who sing, shout and observe them, sexually. At least this is what Miyake’s documentary suggested us. What types of Idol exist?

There are different types of Idols. This documentary shows the Chika Idol that I will talk about later. There are several groups, different levels… some are successful and are on the TOP, appear on TV or in the radio, concerts, etc. Others try without success such as the underground-like Chika Idols, less popular and self-funded.

At the beginning, Idols were Pop Stars, Pop music workers singing and dancing and a real entertainment. The first Idol style was a western-like diva, with a luxurious life and unreachable by the lots of fans, definitely a celebrity. Morning Musume and the male-group SMAP would be two of many examples, resembling the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys, respectively.

Emika Kamieda with NMB48 (2015)

A new type of Idol was born by the year 2004. This consisted of groups of girls selected in programs and voting, like American Idol or X Factor, aimed to strength the relationship between the star and the fans. This, the girls are not perfect as the former Idol-celebrities were but imperfect young girls, not being the best singers or dancers but giving all their very best. Thus, the key to success is their effort, implicit in the Japanese culture. In this way, you can follow and support a girl while she grows professionally.

In this sense, they are a modern geisha-like since they are women knowing the arts (a geisha is not a prostitute per se, as we are led to believe). In fact, they are considered as pets, collectible Pokemons; or they resemble football players with different degrees of popularity and some being the favorite ones.

 Where can we find them? 

TV shows, cinema, events, concerts, and fan meetings, where we know each other and we shake hands. Nonetheless, the promotion of the person her(him)self or the group is what provides a livelihood.

How are the groups?

The groups are divided into teams that prepare songs and dances, but they can also work together. AKB48 is the most famous and the one I belonged to. Akihabara quarter in Tokyo is a kind of Broadway where this type of spectacles are performed. In this place, both Idols and Chika Idols are dancing.

To form the groups, the girls are selected in specific events similar to X Factor, being the fans themselves the ones voting for each one of the components of the group.

Another Idol group is Nogiyaka46, that is the same and antagonistic at the same time. This group is more serious and inexpressive whereas the formers are more sensual. In fact, both of these groups come from the same producers and compete against each other as a marketing strategy.

Therefore, we have to think the importance of the merchandising sponsored by the big companies in here. The fame, the gala performances and events finally twist and relocate the popularity of the girls.

Grup de l’Emika Kamieda

Is this happening only in Tokyo?

No, the same groups are performing in other big cities in Japan. They work as branches. There are in Nagoya, in Osaka, where I took part in. They are top Idols,national Idols. They are certainly the original ones.

In this sense, Chika Idol have no sponsors, or at least only a few of them; therefore singing, dancing, the clamor, and the donations from the fans become their mainstay. However, they cannot live from this alone.

 What about you? How did you get in?

I showed up for an audition and I passed it.

 And why did you want to become an Idol?

When I was a child, 4 or 5 years old, I watched them on TV and I wanted to be famous, be a singer. In the school graduation book I wrote down that I wanted to become famous on TV. I liked it quite a lot and I found it was really a nice world, where they were dancing and singing.

When I was 9 years old, I showed up for a children musical audition where I got in. Moreover, I participated in a theater group in the secondary school. I wanted to become an actress.


Did your classmates want to become, like you, Idols? Is it a spread phenomenon among the Japanese young people?

In general, it is. Hehehe. My friends wanted to be Idols too, just speaking idly, just kidding. In my case, I genuinely wanted it until I achieved it.

The first thing that the parents often do, as actual fans of this movement, is to enroll their kids considering them the most beautiful. Nevertheless, it is obviously a hard world.

About the harshness, have you ever been assaulted or forced by a fan?

(Josep explains us) In Japan, this concept has a different meaning. It doesn´t include psychological but only physical violence.

It is not harassment itself, but sometimes you feel observed in the train, by the fans or by people who recognize you. Even fans come close to you or want you to touch each other, for example touching the sweating head. Hehehe. Sometimes, when recording live videos to upload in internet people ask about the color of my underwear and thinks like this. There are cultural differences that make us interpret things as violence or maybe not. Nevertheless, the majority of the fans are good people who help you, support you and rejoice in your success.






 Now you are retired from the Idols, aren’t you?

Exactly, since last year when I was 23.

At what age do you retire? I have read that some Idols do at 40 years old.

In Chika Idol there are older, in the underground one. They retire later trying to be finally successful. Regarding the rest of the groups, they are usually very young. (Josep adds) In the case of male Idols it is different since they can be older, since the men have more privileges in Japan, even more in the spectacle world.

 What after retirement?

In general, girls resume normal life, they get married, and have children; otherwise they become either models, actresses or solo singers.

And studies?

It depends on the age. If you start younger it is easier, but it is more difficult to be focused on both things during the school. I had to change to a different school because I couldn´t face it.

 What studies do you have?

English philology, in college. However, I stopped the Idol career for 6 months to finish it.

Have your professional career and public life affected your private life, and vice versa?

For instance, it is so complicated to get a partner; you cannot get it indeed, even boyfriends, because you betray the concept of virginal girl, and the fantasy of being accessible for the fans. In the end, what you have is a secret life because internet can provide your past, where do you live and the school where you studied.

At the beginning, it is more difficult to realize this since you are a newbie and you want to give your best and be a hard worker. You have neither friends nor family and your life is only work that absorbs you and you cannot realize when it starts.

In here, private life doesn’t exist. My work is the performance and making people laugh, so they forget their problems. I cannot show any of my problems or even suggest them.

What do older people tink about this? There has been a major shift from the legendary, traditional and serious Japan, with kimonos, compared to the current Idol world, trivial, drivolous…. 

Most of the people that came to see us were lovely grandparent couples, or families with children, like a familiar spectacle.




The last question is for the translator. As a wester man, foreigner in Japan, what does the Idol movement mean for you? Where you surprised? Even more knowing one Idol girl indeed.

I didn’t know it before going to Japan, despite I had already heard some songs in video games but I didn’t know they were sung by Idols. When I arrived in Japan and I could see it, the first thing I thought was that it was very crazy stuff. I thought that they were not persons but products, like Pokemon, and that there was a social problem, a big cultural and macho problem. At the same time, although, these “new geisha”, as we said before, represent an important part of the Japanese cultural world. They change the society’s day-to-day and fight for their dreams as well as they work so hard investing many hours of work. Like the singers, actors or football players we know, they are idealized. However, it is really a cultural shock at the beginning.

For many Japanese people they are inspiration.


Thank you very much Josep for the help, the translation and the patience. Thank you Aina for the initiative, and thank you Emika to share your time with us!

Guiomar Sánchez Pallarès

Aina Gombau Maixé

Translated by Paola López


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