Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Girl Beneath the Mask

Disclaimer: this post discusses extremely sensitive topics including suicide and contains an image that may not be suitable for all readers. I very strongly recommend approaching this post with caution, especially if you have been personally affected by suicide. 

Look at that idol. Isn't she pretty? What could possibly be wrong with her life?

That idol is Okada Yukiko and you idol history buffs might recognize her as an idol from the 80s and the rest of you might even know a little bit about her history thanks to Ray's post on Idolminded! But for those of you who don't know who I'm talking about, here's a little history on this 80s idol! Okada Yukiko was first discovered in 1983 on a Japanese talent show (think American Idol only from the 80s and in Japan) called Star Tanjo! and even went on to win the show. And so her idol career began. Okada gained the affectionate fan nickname "Yukko" after mispronouncing her name due to nervousness when introducing herself on The Best Ten, an old TBS Show. Yukko's first single, titled First Date, which debuted at #20 on the Oricon Charts. Now that might be the most stellar position to debut with but as the year progressed, Yukko started getting more and more attention as an idol. She released two more singles that year and both were received well by both her growing amount of fans and critics alike. In 1984, Yukko won Best New Artist for her song -Dreaming Girl- Koi, Hajimemashite at the 26th Japan Record Awards. At the rate she was going, Yukko had a promising career ahead of her. 1985 only brought more good fortune for the blossoming idol and she released three more singles that year and snagged a leading role on a TV Drama. Her songs were used for a variety of commercials including Glico and Toshiba U30. 1986 started off great for the idol as well; her 8th single, Kuchibiru Network, hit #1 on the charts! Fans loved her for her sweet personality, her simple but sweet voice, her cute and innocent looks, and most of all, that beautiful smile she always seemed to wear. Yukko was the quintessential idol and she had the potential to reach the level of idol stardom that Matsuda Seiko possessed.

So why am I writing about her anyways? What stands out so much about Yukko to me? I mean, I know about other classic idols like Matsuda Seiko, Nakamori Akina, Moritaka Chisato, Pink Lady, Onyanko Club and so on but generally the older idols from the 70s and 80s don't really interest me. Okay, Nakamori Akina's music is pretty cool but other than her I don't look much into the older idol boom. I know it's a huge part of what led to the modern-day idol industry and I appreciate it for that but I still don't have a lot of interest for the idols or music from back then. What is it that separates Yukko from all those other idols? I've listened to some of her songs and they're okay, nothing special but very pleasant to listen to. She has a beautiful smile, but she's not the most striking idol I've ever seen. From what I've seen of her TV appearances she has a sweet personality but not one that really distinguishes itself. That doesn't really seem like enough material to generate an entire article, does it? Well, I'm afraid to say that a more tragic element of Yukko's life is what compelled me to write about her. On April 8, 1986 around 10:00 at night, the manager of Sun Music entered Yukko's apartment to find it filled with gas (a common method of suicide in Japan is gassing). And in the closet lay Okada Yukiko, her wrist slashed and crying her eyes out. Why? No one knows but the manager took her back to the Sun Music building. Roughly two hours later, Yukko jumped from the seven-story building.

On April 8, 1986 Okada Yukiko the smiling idol was dead on the sidewalk at age 18.

I got chills when I was reading about Yukko's suicide. I'm not exaggerating; I looked down and my arms were covered in goosebumps. It was shocking and sad... but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't fascinating either. I've always had a knack for mysteries, and the suicide of Okada Yukiko was one of the most mysterious things I've encountered during all my time as an idol blogger. I read on and found out that Yukko's suicide triggered a small amount of other suicides mirroring her own, including one fan who jumped off the same building she did. The small phenomenon was coined the Yukko Syndrome and that was yet another element to this strange, disturbing piece of idol history. But honestly, as someone who blogs about idols, that little tidbit wasn't what interested me the most about this whole thing. What simultaneously interested and disturbed was the more of the fact that an idol took her own life. It's very rare that you read about dead idols and the way Yukko died is not only sad but a mystery.

I'm aware that the life of an idol isn't all rainbows and flowers but why on earth did this idol feel like her life wasn't worth living anymore? Isn't that always the question when someone takes their own life? Why did they do it? Why did Yukko, this beautiful idol with the start of a such promising career ahead of her, do it? I honestly don't know; there's too little concrete evidence to really back up any of the theories I've developed. All I can ever really do is speculate. I don't know if Yukko had any skeletons in her closet or any emotional problems; on the surface she seemed like a normal, happy girl to everyone, including her fans. Relatives and friends reported that she seemed like a perfectly happy person during the time of her suicide. My personal theory is that stress had an element in the idol's suicide; I think the weight of being an idol just... got to her. Or I guess I should say one specific element of being an idols: The Mask.

The Mask is a personal term that I use for idols and the definition is somewhat self-explanatory. The Mask is simply the public persona an idol takes on, the personality she projects to her fans, regardless of what she's really like. The Mask could be very similar to her own personality or it could be a completely different persona that she feels compelled to keep up because the fans like it or because management shoehorns her into it. But the key element of The Mask is that it is not what an idol's true personality is like. Very rarely do we see that girl beneath her mask because that's not an idol's job. She's not supposed to wear her heart on her sleeve; she's supposed to smile and be happy and get wotas to buy her songs and photobooks. I think something that I tend to forget is just how meticulously and how much an idol has to wear that mask. It's true that we all have our own personal masks and that we all act different ways around different people and that it can be very mentally exhausting to constantly keep up an act. But usually there comes a time when we can stop and take off that mask.

An idol doesn't have that same luxury, especially a popular idol. A popular idol constantly has to keep up this personality that may or may not reflect who she really is as a person, constantly balancing herself on this emotional tightrope. If she lets the wrong emotion break free, she could very well slip off that tightrope, losing fans and maybe even popularity. For that reason, being an idol is not just a job; it's a lifestyle and if a girl isn't prepared to take on that lifestyle, then it could really be stressful. The idea of having to consistently keep up an act and behave a certain way with the risk of losing fans is a strenuous thought. I know I could only keep it up for so long. My personal theory is that Okada Yukiko couldn't take being a smiling idol anymore; perhaps it was stress or perhaps she realized that she couldn't bear the strain of being an idol. So feeling like there was no escape from the life she had ahead of her, she ended it.

Mind you, it's just one of the many theories floating around but thinking about Okada Yukiko and her suicide made me realize something: of all the idols I follow, all the groups I'm a fan of, I know nothing about these girls. Sure, I have favorites, I praise certain girls' personalities and criticize others but at the end of the day, I know nothing about them. All I know is the image they've carefully constructed to please their fanbase and I've made judgement on which ones I like based on that. But then again, that is the purpose of an idol. Idols aren't supposed to be these multi-faceted people we can observe with both positive and negative traits. Idols exist to be that shining illusion that we can admire, idealism all wrapped up in a shiny pink bow. We're not supposed to identify with these girls' problems; we're supposed to identify with their perpetual happiness and smiles and any other image created by The Mask an idol wears. The only group I feel like I know more about beyond just The Mask is Perfume but even then that's not much. For all the years I've been following them, I only know so much about Perfume. Granted, it's more than some of the other idols I follow but still. It isn't like the teen celebrities in the US, where it feels like you know every aspect of their life and personality because the tabloids and gossip magazines cover it so much.

You only see what management wants you to see out of an idol and if an idol does something that management didn't want the public to see, such as dating in public, the idol gets punished. Then the affair is quickly swept under the rug before anyone can realize what happened and fans move on to another shiny new idol that won't make mistakes like that other tarnished, no good idol. Very rarely do you see traces of an idol's true personality because they spend so much time looking and acting in a certain way to appeal to a certain demographic. It doesn't matter how sad they feel, how angry they feel, or anything else because the moment she steps out in public, an idol puts on a mask. Is it stressful? Probably, but it's their job and they know that they could risk their entire career if they act in a way that isn't the norm of how idols are supposed to act.

And when an idol does show signs of an emotion that isn't acceptable for idols? Don't expect the fans to be happy because god forbid an idol display any signs of how she truly feels about something. I'm not saying that's a bad thing; it's only natural. We latch onto an image we carefully construct of an idol. And when that idol does something that doesn't fit with that image we have of her, we get angry. We get hurt. We don't know what to think. We wonder why did they do it and question our loyalty to them. And that brings me to Kusumi Koharu. I'm sure a majority of you know who and what I'm talking about (since I'm fairly certain most of my readers are Momusu fans) but for those of you who don't, here's a brief history on this idol. Koharu was the sole 7th Generation member of Morning Musume, dubbed the "Miracle Idol" of MM. She spent four years in the group with a pretty decent amount of popularity thanks to her job as a voice actress on popular kids' show, Kirarin Revolution, with her brief solo career as an anime singer and a nice amount of vocals and spotlight in Momusu.

In December 2009, she graduated and went on to become a highly photogenic model. Now obviously Koharu was before my time as an Momusu fan and I honestly don't really pay attention to her. She'll never be one of my favorites but I've never disliked her; I simply never had the chance to grow attached to her and become a fan because she wasn't in Morning Musume anymore. The reason I bring her up was because very recently, Koharu had a scandal. Not a dating scandal but something a little more potent to her fans. On a radio show with Sayumi, Koharu was discussing her past in Momusu, saying how she'd only joined the group to get a stepping stone into the entertainment industry and become a model. She expressed displeasure with the (mostly) male fanbase she catered to as an MM member so she claimed that she left the group while she was still young enough to pursue other career choices. Naturally, it rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, including her fans. Left and right people accused her of being ungrateful toward both Momusu and all the opportunities presented because of that.

Do I think all the flack she's getting for this little scandal is reasonable? Well... yes and no. I say yes because I do agree that she sounded ungrateful for the opportunities presented thanks to her position as a Morning Musume member. I also think it was foolish of Koharu to say such things with a Morning Musume member on the same radio show. But on the other hand... okay, have you guys ever done something that you really, truly hated? Something you thought you were going to enjoy and that everyone else enjoyed? I think most of us can say yes we have. Back in fifth grade, I joined a dance team because I thought it would be fun to dance to something besides ballet and being on a team would be a fun way to meet new friends. It turned out to ruin fifth grade for me. On the team, I was ostracized for being a bad dancer, constantly told what I was doing wrong, and generally left out. It was awful. And do you know something else? I could vent for hours about how much I hated that fucking dance team. The hatred I have for it seems to have built up as I've gotten older and I only look back on the experience with bad memories and an overall bitter outlook.

Now who's to say that Koharu doesn't feel the same way about Morning Musume? From what I've gathered, Koharu wasn't exactly the most welcome member of the group. Sayumi's stated that she was a pain to mentor, she was never really close to anyone in the group, and at her graduation, her fellow members seemed rather distant to her leaving. Koharu said that she wanted a cool image like Yossie and what mask did she get? The cutesy and smiling Kirari-type character. I don't know what went on behind the doors of UFA between Morning Musume and Koharu but if she had a bad experience in MM, wouldn't it be hard to project an illusion of it being the greatest time of her life and all that sparkle? I think on the radio show, she just got mad that yet again, she had to talk about a time in her life that she was more than ready to leave behind even if it had given her so many opportunities. So she vented and put her foot in her mouth, regardless of the consequences.

As much as I hate to admit it, learning how Koharu felt about Morning Musume is kind of a relief. It's refreshing to see an idol speak with such genuine negativity, even though I know her fans didn't like that. I don't know why but it's strangely fascinating to catch a glimpse of the girl beneath the mask. Like I said, seeing an idol express any emotions that aren't happy, lighthearted, jovial, etc. is extremely rare and I never expected Koharu of all idols to do so. I know there are a lot of people who are going to dislike her for her statements about Morning Musume but I can't help but admire the nerve (or foolishness) Koharu has. Because hearing her say something so harsh is strangely relatable; it's relatable to me to know that Koharu had an experience that she felt jaded about and even more relatable that Koharu spoke about it in public. It's a nice reminder to me that idols are people too and people hate things, even when they're supposed to like them. So I guess what I'm trying to say about this entire post is... there's more to an idol that what meets the eye and that may be an uglier and nastier side that she has to hide but nevertheless it's there. Beyond the sparkles and the frilly dresses and microphones are real teenage girls with a range of different problems that we will never see thanks to those carefully constructed masks that these idols wear. I just hope that no idol feels compelled to go in the same direction that Okada Yukiko left.


  1. Thanks for posting this up, it was an interesting read. My acquaintance with idol culture begins and would end with, more likely than not, with Morning Musume so this is the first time I've heard of Okada Yukiko

    The Kusumi situation is already well discussed elsewhere and someone already did a translation of the recording in question so there's not much left to be said but ... I'll circle back to this later, bear with me pls

    This subject of the masks Idols wear interested me more. That they wear one is a fact, no sane, self aware individual can dispute that and I also agree that it's not a bad thing, some would even say that's the point of the entire concept of Idols. The frequencies they wore said masks and the thoroughness (for lack of better term) of those masks though.... I have a hard time believing that these girls, mostly in their teenage years or just a young adult, are such master actresses that they can keep up such an act for a prolonged period of time. The coaching from their agencies and strict controls from their manages plays a huge part here of course, but it seems more reasonable to me that some part at the very least (depending on the girl) of what we saw from these Idols are also part of their real personalities.

    Besides, speaking personally as a Morning Musume fan, and mainly a Michishige wota who's now been in MM for more than 10 years, the sheer volume of the materials tracking her growth and character development over the years from various DVDs, live MCs, magazine interviews, TV appearances, radio recordings, blog posts etc are straight up impossible to just be dismissed as a mere "mask" imho

    So now going back to Kusumi's case, her "revelations" comes as a bit of a relief for me too but in a different way. It was tactless and comes of as somewhat rude, true. But it just seems so consistent with what I've seen of her during her time in MM that I can't help but smile, albeit bitterly. To me she always seems like a very carefree, uncooperative, spoiled and immature in the context of the group. I don't see her Kirarin persona as wholly a mask because see in her solo Kirarin and Ohasta projects she can be as happy go lucky as she likes and she seems to enjoy it more. Michishige's stories about plucking her eyebrows in frustration due to stress of having to take care of Kusumi, and those snide and almost cold graduation messages to her (particularly from Niigaki and Junjun) all makes more sense now somehow.

    All in all, in my mind she's still the same old Kusumi... though I don't see her tactlessness as something worth applauding really. She's no longer a kid so she shouldn't act like one and it would really be a miracle if she can stay in the business for long after this if she doesn't start choosing her words more carefully and grows up soon.

    1. Thank you! The Okada Yukiko story is highly interesting!

      You bring up a really good point! I definitely don't think the personalities crafted by idols are 100% fake; I just think they're... polished. Like an idol takes all the positive elements of her personality and hides the more negative aspects of herself because an idol is about being a positive role model and character. And over time, these idol can even "become the mask" adapting to the character they've developed for themselves, which is what I think happened to Sayu. She grew comfortable with her public persona until she pretty much didn't have to wear a mask.

      I'm not too familiar on pre-2011 Momusu so it's nice to read about Koha from someone whose more aware of that history! From I have seen, I did kind of get the vibe that she wasn't liked by a lot of the members. The words she said on the radio show were tactless but if I were her, I probably would have done the same thing. Still, I can't help but wonder how this is going to affect her career, if it's even going to affect it at all...

  2. Great post, and I'm so glad to see someone who sympathizes with Koha. I've seen so many people say things like "I'm so disappointed in her," and "Doesn't she know what MM did for her? She should be grateful!" I think I'm actually a bigger Koha fan now.

    1. Thank you! I also think the criticism she's been getting is a tad unreasonable, especially when I try to put myself in her shoes. I'd rather her have told the truth than BS some lie about how Momusu was her dream and greatest thing to ever happen to her. And honestly, my interest in Koha shot up too when I read about the scandal. She's definitely a very interesting character...

  3. You make a pretty good point about this but still with the Koharu issue, I didn't like her in Morning Musume but if it really was for her to get a stepping stone to be a model I don’t really think that’s bad.

    1. This whole Koharu issue has just been a very sticky situation. While there are some elements of it I disapprove of (like her saying it in front of Sayu, questioning Sayu's love for Momusu) there are other parts that I can understand. I think it's completely okay if Koha wanted to used Morning Musume as a stepping stone to become a model.

  4. I realize that this is an old post but had some details I felt would add to this story...

    Some people feel that Yukko's second and final method of suicide (the building jump) was sparked by the suicide one month earlier of Sukeban Deka actress and planned future idol singer Yasuko Endoh, who jumped from her own rooftop presumably due to mounting pressures from the industry. I read on a Japanese site at some point that the night it happened, Yasuko had just left a meeting between her mother and an industry professional that included a discussion about Yasuko not being allowed to have any romantic relationships. Not to say that Yukko was copying Yasuko for any special reason, but that she may have remembered it in the moment and thus attempted it.

    80s idols Chiemi Kai and Yuri Matsumoto both committed suicide later in life, both by hanging.

    Chiemi Kai was quite popular in the early 80s, more for her shape (i.e. boobs) than her voice, and died in 2006 at 43-years old. She was found by her son, who tried to save her life but she had a heart attack shortly after being unbound.

    Yuri was a minor idol with only one single, who turned to acting in small roles. She married Ken "Matsuken Samba" Matsudaira in 2005 and then took her life in 2010 after caring for an ailing parent while raising a 5-year old child alone, and then suffering tremendous grief and depression after that parent died. Ken was so upset that he was away working on tour during this time that he went into retirement immediately afterwards.

    There have been a couple more that I cannot remember right now. Also, quite a few suicides have happened in the non-idol music industry in Japan. That is not really surprising I guess, considering the reputation Japan has for suicide rates.

  5. Thank you for publishing this post. Even though I come here for KyaryPamyuPamyu video reviews, I'm glad I read this post. There is a dark side to the idol culture, with the problems of celebrity, the unrealistic expectations, and the fact that these are human beings who are trapped in a glitter prison. By exploring this topic, I think you've crossed the line from "review hobby" into "industry-specific journalism with product reviews". This is an important topic, and I'm proud of you for writing it, and I'm depressed, but glad to have read it. Thank you.

    As a side note, in Kyary Pamyu Pamyu's biography from the Pamyu Pamyu Pamyu Revolution era, she talks about her suicide attempt when she was younger. While these two events aren't related, I think it shows that even the most joyful people can experience grief.

    I like your posts where you look at other aspects of the industry, such as the Berryz breakup or this post. Perhaps you could do a post about Minami Minegishi.