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YumeTwins Kawaii Culture BlogJapanese Idol History: Idoling Through the Decades

Japanese Idol History: Idoling Through the Decades

By James Lau
April 27, 2022

Today, Japanese idols are all over the place. You can find them on the internet, on billboards, in the streets of Akihabara, and on the live performance stages of Shinjuku. The types of Japanese idols range from men looking dashing for the camera to women dressed stylishly for the runway. But what about Japanese idol history?

How did they get here? When did they start? Well, as it turns out… quite a while ago.

Where It All Started – The 1950 and 60s

As Japan was recovering from World War II, they needed something to lift their spirits. During the 1950s, Rockabilly music was slowly catching on in Japan, and before long, the first male idols emerged to adoring fans. Thus, Japanese idol history began.

The 1960s came, and Johnny Kitagawa founded his new company, Johnny & Associates. Along with that, the first idol group, “Johnnys,” emerged with Johnny as their manager. Kitagawa became well known for his successful male idol groups and the creation of the idol training system. This system trained aspiring young talents in his agency until they were ready to debut.   

However, in 1963, the concept of an idol was born when a French film called Cherchez l’idole, released in Japan as Aidoru wo Sagase (Find the Idol). The film starred Sylvie Vartan who captured the attention of the Japanese audience. Her aesthetic caught on in the Japanese entertainment industry and soon young singers who shared the look were called idols.

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The Rotating Door – The 1970s

The 1970s arrived with idols using television to grow their popularity, making them more accessible and allowing agencies to recruit fresh talent. Many idols were recruited through television and were used to mark a turning point in youth culture at the time.

Many popular idols of the sixties became solo acts or transitioned to acting. Looks also became more important as male idols used themes like a prince on a white horse for their record jackets. Meanwhile, female idols were marketed as someone who was out of reach. Idols recruited through television programs were seen and marketed similar to modern idols, with fans watching them grow and mature.

Much like today, idols were often seen as a way for their audience to escape their troubles since Japan was going through a rough period. The ‘70s saw an incredible number of idols that appeared and left the scene as quickly as they came.

Posters from the late 1970s decorate an old wall, advertising samurai films and romance films featuring prominent idols in Japanese idol history.
The 1970s was a great time for film in Japan, and many movies starred Japanese idols breaking into the film industry, like the movie on the left. Image via Shutterstock

The Golden Age of Idols – The 1980s

The 1980s were considered the first peak of idoldom, where idols dominated the entertainment business in Japan. This was the time when the idea of idols changed from professional entertainers to amateurs thanks to Onyanko Club. This ‘80s idol group introduced concepts like graduation and appearing more on television so fans could enjoy the visual aspect of their music.

Other popular female idols at this time include: Akina Nakamori, who sang mature songs and changed her image with each single; and Seiko Matsuda, who held the record for the most number-one hits (25) for a solo artist from 1988-2006, earning the title of “Eternal Idol.” 

But what about the men? “What about Johnny’s?” is the better question. In the ‘80s, Johnny’s & Associates became more popular. They debuted several small groups during this decade and dominated the male idol scene. However, a few other idols were able to break through.

Around this time, male actors were also promoted similarly to idols. This included Hiroyuki Sanada, who has appeared in several Hollywood movies.

The Ice Age and Rise of Johnny’s – The 1990s

Many omen and men line up outside of a venue space and wait for entrance into a concert for Arashi, one of the most successful male boy bands in Japanese idol history.
Johnny’s is one of those groups that seems unaffected by anything bad in the idol industry. Bands made in the ’90s and 2000s still have massive crowds, like this one for Arashi. Image via Shutterstock

While the ‘80s helped make female idols popular, the increased spotlight uncovered the idol world’s secrets, shattering their pure image. By the mid-eighties, female idols had become unpopular, so when the nineties came, they weren’t as in demand and stagnated. The media called this period, “Aidoru Fuyu no Jidai,” or Idol Winter Period. 

Due to the negativity, people wanted to become artists rather than idols, and the concept of idols shifted back to strong professionals. However, in the late nineties, Morning Musume debuted along with the creation of their group, Hello! Project, which later became home to several female groups in the 2000s.

For the men (mostly Johnny’s), they grew their popularity during this time. Groups like SMAP, TOKIO, and V6 created public personas, allowing them to sell well and perform other roles like hosting or acting. 

Seeing Johnny’s success, other entertainment agencies started debuting male idols. One notable success is the group “DA PUMP.” Many of the popular male idols remain in the entertainment business today.

Revival – The 2000s

Arashi? Tackey & Tsubasa? NEWS? KAT-TUN? Hey! Say! JUMP? All Johnny’s. 

You have to admit, Johnny’s made long-lasting Japanese idol groups that survived more than the usual five years in the industry. EXILE and other male entertainers also debuted at this time. 

But the 2000s wasn’t about the male groups. It was about AKB48.

In 2005, AKB48 debuted after months of auditioning and training to an audience of… seven. There were more girls on stage than the audience members. Not the best start, but back then AKB48 was new, and idols were just coming out of the ice age. 

The storefront of the AKB48 Cafe & Shop, a space that sells and promotes AKB48 and their goods in Akihabara, a massive girl group that is probably the most successful in Japanese idol history.
Who knew that AKB would be so popular that they’d have their own cafe, performance space, and over a dozen spinoff groups? Image via Shutterstock

However, attendance quickly increased, and AKB was popular enough to hold a second audition in early 2006. AKB48’s idea of “idols you could meet,” introduced handshake events where fans could meet their favorites and feel closer to their idols. AKB48 eventually became so popular that they debuted a sister group, SKE48, in Nagoya.

Morning Musume also grew in popularity, and their Hello! Project collective grew in size, debuting two groups that would become Junior Idol groups. In 2007, Hello! Project tried to expand overseas by recruiting members from Taiwan and Korea. However, these efforts failed, leading Hello! Project to focus on Japan.

Voice actor idols also grew more popular.

Idol Warring Period – The 2010s

Yeah, the media actually called this period of Japanese idol history “Aidoru Sengoku Jidai” (the Idol Warring Period) because of the chaos of the time.

Thanks to the popularity of AKB48 and Hello! Project, this era of Japanese idol history saw a huge boom. Thousands of girls became idols, and by 2017, over 3000 female groups were active in Japan with 10,000 performers. Local idols and mainstream idols alike started to appear everywhere.

However, during the Idol Unit Summer Festival of 2010, the Idol Warring Period started. Several groups were invited to perform, but of them all, Momoiro Clover Z stood victorious. This was a surprising success due to the group’s inexperience compared to other groups at the festival.

It was a major fight for popularity at the time with set rules being broken and many groups trying to see what they could get away with. However, behind the scenes, many of the idols still talked with members of other groups while their management tried to think of the next crazy thing to do.

The Current Era – The 2020s

The members of NiziU, a popular and recent Japanese girl group, stand in front of a white background and pose together in many cute streetwear outfits.
Bands like NiziU (above) and JO1 combine J-pop with current K-pop trends for a whole new era of Japanese idol history. Image via Instagram

While the 2020s just started, one of the major trends that separates this generation’s idols from previous generations is the crossover between K-Pop. Some believe that this is due to the three Japanese members of the popular K-pop group, Twice.

However, groups like JO1 and NiziU actually marked the trend and the subtle return of idols working as professionals. They’ve gained plenty of popularity in Japan, gracing the covers of magazines, TV and phone screens, and ads for foreign and Japanese cosmetic brands

Of course, Johnny’s remains as popular as ever, with several groups still promoting today. Meanwhile, the 48Group and the “rival” 46Group, maintain their hold over Japanese idol-dom.

Did you learn anything new? Surprised to hear about the Idol Warring Period? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!

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