Japanese Idols, Celebrities and Fans During The Time of Disaster (Part Two)

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

by Rio Katayama

Celebrity Citizenship, Social Media, and Risk Management

The scholar Lynn Spiegel considers celebrities’ political involvement after 9/11 and describes “celebrity citizenship” as the “self-referential Hollywood public sphere of celebrities”[1] who spoke up for the deceased as “an ordinary citizen.” Spiegel describes the fifty-third Annual Emmy Awards held on November 4th, 2001, where celebrities in Hollywood fulfilled their public service by dropping their identity liberal politics and showcased themselves as one united group under the name of patriotism.[2] Similarly, in 9/11 Culture, Jeffrey Melnick analyzes how the telethon America: A Tribute to Heroes was aired on September 21st, 2011. Melnick argues that celebrities contributed to the mobilization of nation for the impending war, directing the audience about how they should feel as “we” (celebrities) feel.[3] There are similarities between the deployment of celebrity influence with 9/11 and idols’ charity involvement after 3.11 when there was a reaffirmation of social status as those who worked for/helped the victims. In fact, there was some criticisms that the idols or celebrities were participating in humanitarian works to increases the value of their image as a humanitarian activist.

 In the Japanese context, Jason Karlin provides an insightful example of the ways in which celebrities and idols reacted to disaster and reaffirmed their social standing. According to Karlin’s analysis, it was the suspension of regular TV programs and commercials and loss of public appearances after 3.11 that caused celebrities and idols to use the social media platforms to exercise their celebrity citizenship.[4] For instance, the celebrities’ reactions on Twitter varied from messages letting fans know that they are safe,  sending the victims prayers and encouragement, sharing their emotions of helplessness and despair, to sending messages to their fans/followers with advice to donate, save electricity, and refrain from over-buying.[5]

Lucy Benett highlights proximity and intimacy that social media creates, making fans feel as if the celebrity is talking to them in person. Benett further examines the sense of closeness that “even if a simple illusion, that (social media) enables artists who use this tool to mobilize their fans so effectively.”[6] Celebrities take advantage of social media as they often use the platform to spread their campaigns using hashtags and retweets on Twitter. As for the case of 3.11, celebrities who supported victims through donation or direct actions were regarded highly and their tweets were later archived online as “celebrities’ memorable tweets.”[7]

The information on the group of celebrities who moved away from their residence due to the radiation threat had also been gathered and archived in personal blogs and online-community bulletin boards. Some of those evacuees tweeted or wrote on their personal blogs that they were going further away from the nuclear plant, but information of other celebrities was either leaked or obtained from random sources. Those who self-evacuated from Tokyo were seen in a very negative light. These celebrities were often called “traitors” or “cowards” and described as having overreacted when people in the affected area were still stuck or decided to stay behind.[8]

While many celebrities and idols were active on social media engaging with the public even during the suspension of regular programing, mainstream media gradually returned to their regular schedule. As all the sponsors requested to pull out their commercials from their allocated slots, commercials were also temporarily replaced by PSAs (public service announcements) produced by AC Japan, a NPO specializing in producing PSAs.[9] This is due to push for “self-restraint”, and the advertisement sponsors became reluctant towards taking risks, or making challenging/controversial content. Even the temporal PSAs received criticisms for “being ‘inappropriate’ and ‘too repetitive,’”[10] which led AC Japan to create different versions of PSAs that specifically met the need of post-3.11 context. The newly released PSAs featured male and female idol groups, asking the public to persevere (Photo below top: titled “I believe in the strength of Japan” with SMAP) and refrain from excessive consumption (Below bottom: titled “What Can I Do Now [to help] with AKB48).[11]

SMAP p13.png
AKB p13.png

Idols not only provided familiar faces which helped the audience return to their normal daily lives but also became a safety net for the advertisement providers, as the providers were assured of the steady support of loyal fans through the appearance of idols. Galbraith and Karlin observe the inherently conservative nature of idols to appeal to the mass audience. “What is important is that idols can be political commodities in much the same way as they are economic commodities. They produce the issue and are produced by it; the audience consumes the issue with and through idols. […] They tend to avoid deep meanings and lasting associations, which are divisive (and bad for business). Maybe idols can only express moral truisms (e.g., killing is evil, life is beautiful) and sufficiently general principles (e.g., we should help others).”[12]

Considering that the idols need to maintain their “clean” image, their activism is constantly negotiated with the social expectation of the celebrities/idols remaining unpolitical. Although their activism had been criticized as boosting their own public image, meeting their favorite idols is likely to bring comfort to the fans who went through the horrifying disaster. Also, the relationship may be more mutual than it may seem at first, as the victims (either their fans or not a fans) are hopeful that the experience may educate the idols about the disaster and the situations in the affected areas or the media would feature the affected area with the presence of celebrities which prevents victims from being forgotten. Many celebrities and idols who supported 3.11 victims used their knowledge and experience and continued their humanitarian works. For the more recent earthquake that struck Kumamoto on April 14th, 2016, celebrities were back at work, proving hope to the victims while heightening their moral images.

 

Going political: Celebrity-driven Fan Activism

Although most celebrities and idols themselves never spoke up about political issues, the rock singer Nagabuchi Tsuyoshi was among the few celebrities who vocalized his frustrations towards the government and electric company Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), who was responsible for the nuclear disaster. Nagabuchi has been known for his patriotic messages, and 3.11 contributed to consolidating this image as he held free concerts not only for the victims, but also to the self-defense forces praising their efforts in rescue missions. The Ministry of Defense awarded him for his contribution of the self-defense forces.[13] His political views resounded with some fans and led to an anti-nuclear protest. In October 2014, about forty Nagabuchi fans marched around Tokyo protesting the resuming operation of the Sendai nuclear plant in Nagabuchi’s home prefecture, Kagoshima. One fan even said “Mr. Nagabuchi has already been active enough. As a fan, shouldn’t we be active too?”[14] Nagabuchi’s fans used a truck with mounted speakers to air Nagabuchi’s songs while they chanted his lyrics and anti-nuclear messages.

Nagabuchi p15.png

 

Top: Nagabuchi being awarded at Ministry of Defense   Bottom: Fans’ anti-nuclear protest

Anti-nuclear protest p15.png

 

At the march, the fans waved Japanese flags and used Nagabuchi’s lyrics as slogans for their signs and banners. This resonates what Louisa Ellen Stein argues in her article on Rosewell fans and their reactions after 9/11. She stated that although some fans resisted Rosewell’s online communities from becoming a political place, some participants saw “a smooth transition from her ‘rosewell family’ (what we might call Rosewell citizenship) to her national citizenship.”[15] Similarly, with Nagabuchi’s case, fans used Nagabuchi’s image and song, and took the form of “speaking on behalf of their icon” to demonstrate the fans’ own anti-nuclear message and nationalism.

 Stephen Duncombe claims that fans’ fascination towards celebrities drive political responses; however, it is not a personal political stance developed independently, but merely a response to celebrities.[16] Duncombe also states that generally engagement with a celebrity is an indication of fantasy for leisure, wealth, and an escape, which can be understood as an activity without responsibilities and consequences.[17]

In the Japanese context, Tominaga Kyoko points out that because younger generations tend to make friends within their age group, it is no surprise that they bond over common interests, such as their hobby or preference for subculture, which could lead to participation in the same social movements.[18] It is difficult to assess how “serious” these fans are when they participate in political movements inspired by their favorite celebrity. Despite the increasing numbers of demonstrations after 3.11, especially against the use of nuclear energy, the social stigma and anxiety associated with political activism remains common in Japan. In April 2017, the Huffington Post published an article highlighting how young people do not even want to follow political figures on social media, because they are too afraid that the corporates would judge them for their political standpoint during the time of job hunting.[19]  Also, whether it is true or not, there are many online rumors that former members ofpolitical groups struggled to get a steady employment. In particular, Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALs) members, the most renowned college students’ political group that voiced anti-Abe sentiment and resisted his push towards constitutional change, were subjected to online criticism and bashing for not thinking towards their own future.[20]

Although Nagabuchi’s core fan base is in the thirty to fifty-year-old age group,[21] regardless of the age-group, the public reaction towards political activities and protesters seems to be negative. In the online newspaper Shirabee, 55.6% of the interviewee answered that they find demonstrations annoying and only 10% of the 1,400 interviewees answered that they have participated in a demonstration in the past.[22] The survey also showed that the number of salary men who found the demonstration annoying was one and a half times more than that of students.[23] The reason for this negative light was reported to be “disturbance caused by limited traffic or traffic jam.”[24] This result may be the reflection of the tendency of the Japanese general public prioritizing social order as a whole. In the case of Nagabuchi’s fans’ demonstration, the organizer stated in the interview that he had been involved in a right-wing anti-nuclear movement before this occasion.[25]

 Unfortunately, since there have not been official interviews of other participants, it is unclear whether the group protesting used Nagabuchi’s name for their own cause to mobilize other fans or was acting on behalf of their idol. In either case, the protest group relied on the political influence that Nagabuchi held over his fans. In the past, there have been multiple cases where celebrities were “dried out” (“hosareru” in Japanese meaning being deprived of one’s role) from media or were terminated from the commercial contracts because of their political statements. Unlike Nagabuchi who heightens his value as a rock star by vocalizing political opinions, silenced celebrities present a reverse example as they (or their agent) take precautions not to spread any political views in order that their image remains politically neutral.

Taking the collective social fear and the negative image towards political activism into consideration, fans take risks participating in political activism. On that note, however small the minority may be, fandom not only shapes the characteristics of political activism, but it could also operate as an impetus to mobilize fans. Moreover, fan-led activisms share the same performative aspect with idol/celebrity-led activism. As well as being aware of media attention when they use the idol’s name for their activism, fans construct their identity through celebrity citizenship (the idea of “I am acting on behalf of my idol and the victims”) and affective intimacy shared with the idol and his/her fans (“as a loyal fan, I understand how he/she [the idol] feels” “we [fans] need to unite for the sake of our idol”) to appeal to a larger audience. Thus, the nature of idol/celebrity-led activism and fan-led activism is in fact very similar in that they stress the performativity of being an idol/celebrity, fan, and activist.

 

Conclusion

Having caused an enormous shock on Japanese society, the political and social impact of 3.11 reflected on popular culture. Both the top-down idol/celebrity-driven activism and the bottom-up fan-driven activism were united and strengthened by empathy and affective intimacy. The disaster did not necessarily trigger an alternative identity to emerge. It is, rather, that both types of activism highlighted the existing social tendencies of idols, celebrities, and fans through the emphasis on mutual affective intimacy.

Fan-driven activism indicated that fandom plays a crucial role in shaping the identity of the group, but here one needs to clarify the social implications and reactions of political activism and humanitarian activism in Japan. Because humanitarian works do not carry the social stigma of that of political stances, it tends to be easier for fans to mobilize and actualize their goal. Due to the high social hurdle for political activism in Japan, fans are more cautious of initiating their actions.

There was a significant increase in the population that participated in political and humanitarian activism after 3.11, and yet there were few cases directly related to fandom. Even though this paper only examines a limited number of examples, they offer a glimpse of the complex relationship between fandom and activism. The examples reveal how activism was negotiated through performance when political opinions were intentionally muted or self-restrained in the show business (geinôkai in Japanese) during the post-disaster period. Although the public interest surrounding 3.11 has been declining over the years, the issues with the decontamination and the excessive amount of nuclear waste in Fukushima as well as the future use of nuclear energy in Japan are still far from being resolved. This ambivalent situation is reflected in media as there is a general tendency to avoid controversial statements and taking a political stance. As a country with frequent natural disasters, one can anticipate the emergence of similar activism in the future, but whether we will reach the day where the celebrity-driven activism addresses political issues and is no longer restricted to a minority, especially among the younger generations, remains questionable.

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. 

 

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. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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[1] Spigel, Lynn. "Entertainment Wars: Television Culture After 9/11." American Quarterly, vol. 56, no. 2, 2004. 251.

[2] Spigel, Lynn. "Entertainment Wars.” 251-253.

[3] Melnick, Jeffrey Paul. 9/11 Culture: America Under Construction. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K. ;Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 63.

[4] Karlin, Jason G. “Precarious Consumption after 3.11: Television Advertising in Risk Society,” Media Convergence in Japan, Kinema Club, 2016. 33.

[5] Karlin, Jason G. “Precarious Consumption after 3.11.” Media Convergence. 34. and Kokoro ni nokoru yûmeijin no tsubuyaki [Higashi nihon daishinsai] (“Memorable tweets of celebrities [Great East Japan Earthquake]”) Naver.co.jp. https://matome.naver.jp/odai/2130100471557939601?&page=16

[6] Bennett, Lucy. "Fan Activism for Social Mobilization: A Critical Review of the Literature." Transformative Works and Cultures 10, (2012).

[7] “Kokoro ni nokoru yûmeijin no tsubuyaki.” (“Memorable tweets of celebrities”) Naver.co.jp.

[8] “Shinsai de hyoka o agata hito sageta hito.” (“People Whose Reputation Went Up and Down Due to the Disaster.”) dot.Asahi.com. Last modified April 13th, 2011. https://dot.asahi.com/wa/2012092600500.html

[9] Karlin, Jason G. “Precarious Consumption after 3.11.” Media Convergence. 38-40.

[10] Karlin, Jason G. “Precarious Consumption after 3.11.” Media Convergence. 42.

[11] Karlin, Jason G. “Precarious Consumption after 3.11.” Media Convergence. 43-44.

[12] Galbraith and Karlin. Idols and Celebrity. 26.

[13] “Bôeishô, Nagabuchi Tsuyoshi ni tokubetsu kansha-jô o zoutei” (“Ministry of Defense gives special thanks award to Nagabuchi Tsuyoshi”) BARKS Japan Music Network. Last modified December 21st, 2011. https://www.barks.jp/news/?id=1000075752

[14] “Nagabuchi fan tachi ga demo! Sendai genpatsu saikadou hantai o uttaeta.” (“Demonstration by Nagabuchi fans! Appealed against resuming operation of Sendai Nuclear Plant.”) Nikkan Spa, 19 October. 2014, https://nikkan-spa.jp/733811

[15] Stein, Louisa Ellen. "Subject: `Off Topic: Oh My God, US Terrorism!: Roswell Fans Respond to 11 September." European Journal of Cultural Studies 5, no. 4 (2002): 471-491. 477.

[16] Duncombe, Stephen. “Recognize Everyone: The Allure of Celebrity.” Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. New York: New Press, 2007. 105.

[17] Duncombe, Stephen. “Recognize Everyone.” Dream. 121.

[18] Tominaga, Kyoko. Shakai Undô to Wakamono: Nichijô to Dekigoto wo Ôkan-suru Seiji. (Social Movements and Youth in Japan: Young Radicals of the 21st Century) Tokyo: Nakanishiya Publishing, 2017. 67.

[19] Izumiya, Yuriko. “Seiji aka no follow wa shukatsu ni furi. Togizen kôhosha ga wakamono no kaisetsuni ‘sorya seiji banare suruyo’” (“It is unfavorable to follow political Twitter accounts. A Tokyo assembly election candidate hear the young person and says ‘No wonder why they don't assosociate with politics’”) The Huffinton Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.jp/2017/04/20/story_n_16124188.html

[20] “‘SEALs’ kokkai demo no keireki wa shukatsu ni furi ka yûri ka?” (“‘SEALDs’ Is personal history of demonstrations at the Diet beneficial or unbeneficial for job hunting?”) Daily Shinchô. Last modified April 26th, 2017. https://www.dailyshincho.jp/article/2015/09230830/

[21] Josei fan mo miryo suru Nagabuchi Tsuyoshi, Kashi no Chikara. Oricon News. Last modified June 25th, 2014. http://www.oricon.co.jp/news/2039004/full/

[22] https://sirabee.com/2015/11/09/60150/

[23] Ditto.

[24] Ditto.

[25] “Nagabuchi fan tachi ga demo!” Nikkan Spa, 19 October. 2014