Japanese Idols, Celebrities and Fans During the Time of Disaster (Part One)

Last spring, I offered a PhD seminar on Fandom, Participatory Culture, and Web 2.0. This year's crop of students was the most diverse to ever take the class, with a healthy crop of international students, primarily from Asia. As a consequence, issues of transnational and transcultural fandom loomed large in our discussions. I wanted to share with you one paper produced for the class, which spoke to my own current obsessions with fan activism and the civic imagination. In this case, the focus is on how Japanese Idols performed and built support in the wake of the 3/11 Earthquake. 

Rio Katayama is a PhD student in East Asian Languages and Cultures at USC. Her research interests include contemporary Japanese cinema and media studies, Japanese literature, and transnational cinema in East Asia. Her current research looks at the ways in which the Great East Japan Earthquake and Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster (collectively known as 3.11) have influenced Japanese cinema, especially through the depiction of trauma and memory, nationalism and regionalism, and individualism vis-à-vis collectivism. 


Idols, Celebrities, and Fans During the Time of Disaster

by Rio Katayama


The Great East Japan Earthquake that occurred on March 11th 2011 and the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster that followed (collectively known as 3.11) have left a significant impact not only on the victims and politics but also on the society as a whole. The disaster originated from a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, which preceded a huge tsunami, becoming the biggest national crisis since the Pacific War. The impact of the disaster quickly spread to the sphere of popular culture. Slogans that encourage endurance, perseverance, and national and community bonding, such as “Ganbarô Nippon!” (Persevere together, Japan!!) “Tsunagarô Nippon!” (Let’s get connected, Japan!) “Kizuna” (Bond, tie), were repeatedly used in the media surrounding Japan’s disaster recovery. Although entertainment was made secondary due to the self-restraint that media promoted right after 3.11, after a few days of endless news reports, entertainment, such as variety shows gradually resurfaced to the public through television and other media. What partially supported the return of entertainment was the news report that showed footage of celebrities’ involvement in humanitarian work. This trend moved the general public’s activism from volunteer work to political protest. Moreover, celebrity involvement impacted many citizens that had never taken an interest in activism before the disaster.

In this paper, I explore how activism is negotiated by both idols/celebrities and their fans at the time of national crisis. There are two modes of activism that emerged during 3.11, under the influence of popular culture: top-down idol/celebrity-driven activism and bottom-up fan-driven activism. Top-down idol/celebrity-driven activism was widely covered by the mainstream media, and as a result, idols and celebrities not only solidified their branding and expanded their fan base, but in some cases, they also influenced their fans to act “on their behalf.” At concert venues, TV programs, and on social media, idols and celebrities mentioned advocated charity works and encouraged fans to donate to the victims. Bottom-up fan-driven activism refers to grassroots activities that began among fans in which popular culture seemingly functioned as a catalyst for encouraging activism. Based on the examinations on the nature of idols/celebrities and fans as well as the circumstances surrounding politics and activism in Japan, I argue that both idol/celebrity-driven and fan-driven activisms stressed the standing characteristics of idols and fans, instead of allowing a new identity to surface. Performative aspects of their activism can be observed from the ways in which both celebrity-driven activism and fan-driven activism embrace the idea of “celebrity citizenship” proposed by Lynn Spiegel as well as affective intimacy shared among idols/celebrities and fans. Nevertheless, the fact that their activisms appears performative does not necessarily mean that they care less about the issue, nor that their activisms are superficial. For activism in general, performativity plays a crucial role in appealing to the mass audience. In fact, due to the extensive media coverage, this performativity reminds the general public of the current situations in the affected areas as well as the fact that the disaster is still not over for the victims. Although there are significant numbers of idol-related research and 3.11-related research, the research that bridges the two has been few. Through my project, I aim to examine the intersection of celebrity/idol fandom and activism, and how the activisms were performed under various social expectations and pressures during the disaster recovery process.




Idol Culture and Industry in Japan

            Idols have a long history of being prominently figured in the Japanese media industry. Although idol-like figures in entertainment (theaters and films) had existed long before the term “idol” was first introduced in Japan, Aoyagi Hiroshi states that the public was first familiarized with the term when a French film Cherchez l’idole was screened with the Japanese title of Aidoru wo Sagase (In Search of an Idol) in 1963, and the female stars of the movie became very popular among the Japanese audience.[1] Since then, the term “idol” is used to refer to both male and female performers who often start their career at a young age (often they are still in junior high or high schools) and may pursue their career across multiple different media and genres. Since the 1970s, idols have become familiar faces in households via television programs, such as Sutâ Tanjô! (A Star is Born!, 1971-83), which birthed many well-known idols through the broadcasting of auditions.


With the emergence of shin-eitai (親衛隊, literally meaning bodyguards), fans formulated the synchronized use of paper streamers and call-and-response to cheer on their favorite idols’ performances.[2] The idol boom reached its peak in the 1980s in alignment with the start of CD production in 1982. The 80s was called aidoru no ôgon jidai (idol’s golden age) with 40-50 new idols emerging every year.[3] Due to severe competition in the industry, idols tended to identify with certain traits (acting-out type, pure innocent type, cute-type, etc.) to differentiate themselves among others. Also, in the mid-80s, onyanko kurabu, the large-scaled girls’ group with more than fifty members was produced by Akimoto Yasushi and set the trend for the large group idols and their business schemas.[4]


With the development of bubble economy and entertainment industry, idols’ exposure across various genres became more apparent as the idols frequently appeared on advertisements, fashion magazines, films, and diverse television programs such as music programs, TV drama, and variety shows.[5] Although the idol boom went through ups and downs, this business model has been passed down through the 90s and 2000s, and the large-scaled groups – such as AKB48 and Morning Musume (Morning girls) – became the mainstream model for female groups. The popularity does not only apply to female idols as male idols are just as popular. Male idols’ business models are very similar to the female idol model as they tend to construct images through various media contents and genres. Since the 1970s, the talent agency Johnny & Associates has been the primary source of producing male idols, mostly marketed in groups.

AKB group photo p4.png

Arashi p4.png

Top: AKB48 produced by Akimoto Yasushi         Bottom: Arashi from Johnny & Associates

According to data released on December 2016, the profit of the idol industry has expanded two fold since 2015 and now marks about 380 million to one billion American dollars.[6]  Idol fans showed a tendency to spend the most money amongst all the different kinds of otaku (nerds).[7] When observing as to why the idols consistently gain huge popularity and have a concrete fan base in Japan, Patrick W. Galbraith and Jason G. Karlin point out the commodified nature of idol in the capitalist society, stating “They are not expected to be greatly talented at any one thing, for example singing, dancing, or acting […] idols are produced and packaged to maximize consumption.”[8]

This “idol of what” question seems to have become more prevalent now than the past when idols generally referred to those who were skilled at singing and/or dancing. If their popularity does not depend on their talents, then what attracts so many fans to the idols? Galbraith and Karlin mention the frequent exposures of idols across different platforms (not only the “normal” TV programs but also celebrity-gossip light-news program called wide shows that are also broadcasted every weekday) allows idols to develop intertextuality within their image and build their “real life” persona.[9] Furthermore, many idols retire (or they often use the word “graduate”) in their early or late 20s for various reasons and either focus their career on acting, become a solo singer, or retire from the entertainment industry completely. This temporal characteristic seems more prevalent among female idols than male idols, partly due to the general expectation by fans that the female idols are not supposed to openly date while they have the title as an “idol” since they are supported by fans’ affection. Nishi Kenji finds this nature comparable to reality TV as idols presents a fiction-self through their self-constructed image in media through embodying fans’ fantasy of a loyal and ever-growing character.[10] Matthew Wm. Richardson describes that the audience’s reception of the idol’s persona creates “affective closeness,”[11] claiming “coming across as not untouchable stars but average flawed humans, they [idols] position themselves ideally for fans to feel affectively close to them.”[12] Whether it is intentional or unintentional, because the idols are so integrated into Japanese popular culture, watching idols becomes a part of daily routine for the general public audience, and that contributes to construct familiarity as well as affective intimacy.[13] Because of high familiarity with the public, idols have become an effective party of activism as they provide a point of intersection for otaku and the general public, where the idol functions as liaison.


Idols and Affective Intimacy During 3.11

After 3.11, news and wide shows (celebrity-gossip light-news programs) would frequently broadcast idols and celebrities visiting the affected areas as they delivered crucial supplies, participated in volunteer activities, and performed for the victims who were still in the evacuation centers or temporary houses. For instance, female idol group AKB48 visited different locations of affected areas more than sixty times as of November 2016.[14] Although they were already popular before 3.11, their dedication towards charity solidified their image as “national idols.” The project by AKB48 and their sister groups are named “Dareka no Tameni Project” (“What can I do for someone? Project”), and they donated more than eleven million dollars of their profits from CDs and DVDs in two years to disaster recovery efforts.[15] This includes all the profits of the digitally released song Dareka no Tameni – What can I do for someone? as well as the money donated by fans at charity events and handshaking events.

AKB donation p7.png
AKB handshake p7.png

Top: AKB48 asking for donation at AKB theater    Bottom: AKB48 visiting the affected area

It should be noted that AKB48 was one of the most successful idol case studies where the idols used “proximity and connection between fans and group members”[16] as a marketing scheme to achieve more CD and DVD sales.

AKB48 is known for their concept of “ai ni ikeru aidoru” (idol that you can meet) as they have the home theater in Akihabara, Tokyo, where selected members perform daily. Also, their CDs include tickets for events where fans have a chance to meet their favorite idol in person and shake hands. For special occasions, such as the AKB Election, fans buy CDs that have ballets inside where fans can vote for their favorite idol, and the idols with the most votes get to sing and release an upcoming song. By adapting this more participatory, interactive fandom, AKB48’s business scheme makes fans feel as though they are rearing the idol-in-makings to becoming top idols.AKB48’s humanitarian works aligned perfectly with their image of “idol that you can meet” and that image accelerated media to even claim idols as “saviors” after 3.11.[17] Due to their popularity, the huge scale of the donation, the frequency of their visits, and media coverage, AKB48 was the most well-known idols for their humanitarian works; despite this, many other idols also visited the affected areas and held charity events.

 The presence of idols not only generated affective intimacy between idols and the victims in the affected area, but also gave the general public and fans a sense of escape and hope. Also, as aforementioned in the last chapter, idol fans are known to be more financially dedicated than other areas of otaku. It makes sense that idol fans can be dedicated to support the charity in exchange for their favorite idol’s favor. During the time of self-restraint right after 3.11, entertainment was perceived as something unnecessary for living and not appropriate to enjoy when considering the victims’ sufferings. In the book 3.11 to aidoru (3.11 and Idol), being both a loyal idol fan/writer and a family member of disaster victims, Kojima Kazuhiro states that he felt guilty consuming idol culture while everyone was encouraged to moderate their consumption due to the energy shortage. However, because idols started their humanitarian works, Kojima claims that it justified the idol’s existence as a source of entertainment.[18]

In relation to science fiction examples, Stephen Duncombe explains how fans are well-aware of how the fantasy of the world is presented, yet “most propositions insist upon their possibility: positing an imagined future or alternative as the future or the alternative.”[19] His observation can be applied to the case in which fans create a “real” image of an idol from something unreal, but this notion was particularly important during the time of nuclear disaster when Japanese people lost faith in the government and media for their inability to provide the “right” information and felt uncertain about what is real or unreal.

Although idols do not say anything that is politically controversial, Kojima states that fans felt encouraged by the “realness” of the effort that they pour into their performance and raw emotions that they express on stage.[20] Kojima also mentions that compared to politicians who rarely visit affected areas, the victims appreciated that idols “remember” the victims, and victims believed that the idols saw the reality of the affected areas and perhaps learned from the experience.[21] Because idols are relatively young, older fans tend to feel as though they are care-takers for the idols. According to Ôta Shôichi, since the audition reality TV show Sutâ Tanjô! (A Star is Born) in the early 70s, what attracts fans to the idol has always been the concept of “in process” that reflects in-betweenness of youth and adult.[22] AKB48 directly embodies the idea Nishi Kenji describes as being the incomplete “project” rather than the complete “product,” which emphasizes room for idols’ growth.[23]

AKB’s humanitarian project showcases to fans how idols mature as a person through learning about the disaster and interacting with victims. Nishi points out that fans could also learn from the reactions of idols through the ways in which the idols cope with unexpected or unconvincing circumstances.[24] Kojima also states in his book that even though idols might have come to the affected area to comfort the victims, some victims were glad not only because they could meet the idols, but for the fact that visiting the site would be a valuable experience for the younger generations and the idols might be able to influence their young fans.[25]

For instance, at the concert held on the March 11th 2017 in the AKB Theater of Tokyo, the AKB48 led a prayer at 2:46 PM, the exact time when the earthquake occurred, sold charity T-shirts, sung songs related to 3.11, and stood behind donation boxes to collect contributions from fans.[26] This is a common example of the top-down approaches that the idols employ. It is undeniable that activism among idols is somewhat performative: their activism was reported by media in a way that the reactions of fans and idols were beautified.

However, even if their activism is a response to certain social expectations, it does not mean that their effort holds less value as an indication of disaster recovery process. As the memory of 3.11 has gradually faded particularly in the capital, their continuous efforts remind fans of the event and prevent 3.11 from being forgotten. In a way, their humanitarian project works both ways for idols and fans as the project allows fans to observe and experience idols’ emotional journey and growth and idols to solidify their image.



[1] Aoyagi, Hiroshi. 2005. Islands of Eight Million Smiles: Idol Performance and Symbolic Production in Contemporary Japan. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center. 4.

[2] “Aidoru Tokushû – aidoru no rekishi- (Idol Special Issue – History of Idols-). Asian Beat.com. Last modified June17, 2011. http://asianbeat.com/ja/feature/issue_idoll/history.html.

[3] Galbraith, Patrick, Jason G. Karlin, and Ebooks Corporation. Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. doi:10.1057/9781137283788. 5.

[4] “Aidoru Tokushû – aidoru no rekishi-” (Idol Special Issue – History of Idols-). Asian Beat.com.

[5] Galbraith and Karlin. Idols and Celebrity. 5.

[6] “Aidoru Shijô ga Ôkiku Kakudai Kôrei ‘Otaku Shijô’ Cyôsa” (“Idol Market Showed Significant Growth, Customary ‘Otaku Market’ Research”) IT Media Business Online. Last modified December 7th, 2016.


[7] Ditto.

[8] Galbraith and Karlin. Idols and Celebrity. 2.

[9] Galbraith and Karlin. Idols and Celebrity. 11.

[10] Nishi Kenji. Aidoru/Media ron kôgi. (Idol Culture Through the Prism of Media Theory) Tokyo: Tokyo University Publishing, 2017. 139.

[11] Richardson, Matthew Wm. "Marketing Affect in Japanese Idol Music." ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2016. 9.

[12] Richardson. "Marketing Affect.” 8.

[13] Galbraith and Karlin. Idols and Celebrity. 9.

[14] Maki, Izumi. November 22nd, 2016. “AKB 48, Ôfunato-shi de ’10 nen zakura’ shokuju 3.11 ikô no kanyu membâ mo” (AKB 48 including members who joined AKB after 3.11 planted 10-year Cherry Blossom Trees), Excite Newshttp://www.excite.co.jp/News/entertainment_g/20161122/Techinsight_20161122_321321.html.

[15] “‘Dareka no Tameni’ Project.” (“‘What can I do for someone?’ Project”) AKB48 Official Website. https://www.akb48.co.jp/darekanotameni/.

[16] Galbraith and Karlin. Idols and Celebrity. 21

[17] Kojima, Kazuhiro. 3.11 to Aidoru. (3.11 and idol) Tokyo: Core Magazine, 2014. 12.

[18] Kojima. 3.11 to Aidoru. 73,79.

[19] Duncombe, Stephen. "Imagining no-Place." Transformative Works and Cultures 10, (2012): 13.

[20] Kojima. 3.11 to Aidoru. 91

[21] Kojima. 3.11 to Aidoru. 95-97.

[22] Ôta, Shôichi. Aidoru shinka ron: Minami Saori kara Hatsune Miku, AKB48 made. (Idol’s Evolution Theory: From Minami Saori to Hatsune Miku and AKB48) Tokyo: Tsukuba Shobô, 2011. 44, 273.

[23] Nishi. Aidoru/Media ron kôgi. 108.

[24] Nishi. Aidoru/Media ron kôgi. 111.

[25] Kojima. 3.11 to Aidoru. 97-99.

[26] “AKB48 Group ga kakuchi no gekijo de shinsai hisaichi fukkô shien ‘dareka no tameni’” (“AKB48 supported the affected areas of the earthquake at their concert venues through ‘What Can I Do for Someone’ project”) natalie. Last Modified March 12th, 2017. http://natalie.mu/music/news/224268

Rio Katayama is a PhD student in East Asian Languages and Cultures at USC. Her research interests include contemporary Japanese cinema and media studies, Japanese literature, and transnational cinema in East Asia. Her current research looks at the ways in which the Great East Japan Earthquake and Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster (collectively known as 3.11) have influenced Japanese cinema, especially through the depiction of trauma and memory, nationalism and regionalism, and individualism vis-à-vis collectivism.