Thursday, July 1, 2010

What is an Idol: The Ayaka Kikuchi Story

The word idol is obviously an english word, but the Japanese have also used it for a subclass of their entertainment industry. (They use the katakanized word aidoru, which I will sometimes use in this text for emphasis.) Not everyone in the Japanese industry is classifiable in the subclass idol, for example, my first love in Jpop, and perhaps Japan's most successful recording artist, Utada Hikaru, is said to have avoided the idol road and went her own way, achieving success without really taking part in the idol scene. You might be thinking that the Japanese definition for idol would be the same as the definition for other countries, but that does not seem to be the case. But what exactly is a Japanese aidoru?

Wikipedia tells about how Japan started using the word idol. Apparently, the word idol came from a 1963 French film, Cherchez I'idole. According to Wikipedia, the term was used on any cute female actress or singer. I suppose we will never get a definitive definition of what an aidoru is, even the AKB48 girls themselves, who are in the aidoru subclass, were caught off guard in the February 8, 2008 episode of AKB 1ji59fun (predecessor of AKBingo!) when Junji Takada asked the girls if they knew what the word idol meant, leading him to making up a definition that idol meant "I'm a doll", which almost everyone there thought was true, but he later admitted was a lie.

Some would say an idol is a person you dedicate your life to following, which would make sense to English speakers since that is what the English word means. Fans of these idols would know as much as they can about their idol, buy everything released or related with their idol, and would even try to follow them around as much as they can (physically, if it was possible, but anti-stalking laws would prohibit that). Because people like these invest so much in their idols, they have a sense of ownership over their idols, and they have certain expectations about their idols. Thus born also the “surrogate girlfriend” theory, that the idols are pretend girlfriends of their fans, which sometimes are pushed by the idol’s agencies as can be seen with the kinds of fanservice that is given through videos, TV shows, blogs, etc. Thus, certain expectations are demanded on them.

According to wikipedia, there was a time (after World War II), upon the rise of aidorus, when these aidorus would display a life on media that was far from their true lives. This was to project an image of a lifestyle most commonfolk would want to achieve, although in reality, it wasn’t uncommon that the seemingly lavish lifestyle these aidorus displayed was far from their plain life. Some bits and pieces about the personal lives of these aidorus would be released, but at times, even these were planned, what tidbits would be released, and where, for example, in official fanclub material or certain media. Aidorus were not free to be themselves, they had to live up to an image, they had to appear perfect. And as some fans today feel, especially those that would adhere to the surrogate girlfriend theory, aidorus had to put up a “virginal” image. Thus, the rule for aidorus: they cannot have boyfriends. From what I’ve read, apparently, many aidorus have been forced to leave (or fired) from their aidoru groups and careers because it was found out they had secret boyfriends, and such scandals have left a bitter taste in fans’ mouths, whether it was because they could not accept the “betrayal”, or they are angry at the rule and have to be left by their aidorus because of a rule they disagree with.

The aidoru scene has been around in Japan for decades now, and things have significantly changed since then. Aidorus don’t need to project certain images like before; they don’t need to act like affluent celebrities, and they can act like themselves. In fact, sometimes, the more they act like themselves, the cuter they are perceived. The limitations they now have are little different from other celebrities. However, one ruled stayed: aidorus cannot have boyfriends.

There could be a lot of takes on what the word aidoru means, but I’m not here to discuss all of them. I just wanted to discuss enough to show how this subclass, and the treatment of it, affected a girl named Ayaka Kikuchi.

Ayarin isn’t one of my favorites, at least not yet. She was already fired from Team B when I got to know AKB, so she hasn’t had the chance to warm up to me, although I do think she’s a very pretty girl. But her story is one of my favorite stories in AKB.

Part of AKB48’s Team B when they started, Ayarin received some success with the group. After not being chosen as Senbatsu for Bingo!, the first single released after Team B’s debut, and after a two-single streak when only their team’s topstar Mayu Watanabe was chosen Senbatsu, Ayarin would get the chance to become Senbatsu on the next single, Romance Irane, where only she would join Mayuyu for the recording of the single. She would stay Senbatsu for the next two singles, Sakura no Hanabiratachi 2008 and Baby! Baby! Baby!, and would be the center of her own stage subunit in Team B’s first original stage, 3rd overall, Kagami no Naka no Joan da Arc. Ayarin was receiving push from AKB Management, something many girls from AKB were not getting.

Then tragedy struck. A picture, posted by what has been said was her boyfriend, was posted on said boyfriend’s blog. How damaging could this picture be such that she would get fired from the group? How scandalous could it be? Here’s that picture:

That’s it. No nudity. No sex. Nothing suggestive. Just her with a boyfriend. The text on the purikura says it’s for their third month together. So it’s clear that she was only fired for having a boyfriend.

I don’t think there was an official admission that this was her boyfriend, but there is little reason to not believe it was since she never denied it. Personally, I admired Ayarin because of this. She could have denied it to death, but she didn’t. She suck it up and took what came. Granted, it would have been difficult to deny, since her intimate friends would have probably known the truth and those that knew could confirm it, then again, who’s to say none of the girls in the aidoru genre today have friends who keep this very same secret.

At first, when the picture and the word spread through the internet, she wasn’t fired immediately, they just didn’t let her perform. This was the first time an AKB girl was found out publicly that she had a boyfriend. Inevitably, AKB Management did fire her, with the official statement that she was “lacking in self-awareness”, a politically correct term (as Japanese culture would tend to use), implying she did things she wasn’t supposed to do, and she was not self-conscious enough to avoid them. Ayarin’s fans petitioned AKB Management for her to stay, but that didn’t work.

A lot of fans would agree with AKB Management’s decision. Some would say a rule is a rule, and it must be followed, no matter how absurd it is, since they knew about it when they signed up for it. Those who agree with the surrogate girlfriend theory would be very much for this, again, fans spend a lot of money on them, so they should live up to certain expectations. I am not going to argue with what fans expect out of the aidorus they spend money on; fans will spend as they want, and if they expect something out of it, it’s their right to expect it, and if their expectations are not met, they have the right to withhold their money and their support from them from then on. I, however, do not adhere to the surrogate girlfriend theory. (I know this is hard to believe, so bear with me for a moment, but I can get a girlfriend. Maybe not someone I really, really want, but I can get one, but I’d rather hold out for something better.) Personally, I treat my number one favorite AKB girl like the little sister I sort of never had. I don’t seriously imagine her to marry me someday as I would want her to have a better life! (Note I am only talking about my number one girl.) For a few of the others, maybe they are more like friends. So I have no qualms about them having boyfriends. So if an AKB girl gets fired because she has a boyfriend, I’m like “What the F?!”

Many fans doubt that such beautiful, young, endearing girls wouldn’t have boyfriends. Many of them probably don’t, but I would guess at least a few are just hiding them very well. And fans realize that and they are fine with it, as long as the illusion is kept. The difference with Ayarin is that she was found out.

Eventually, though, months after, Ayarin would audition again as a Kenkyuusei for AKB, and would pass the auditions. I admired Ayarin for that as it shows the determination she had, and was willing to start at the bottom again, and at the same time, was willing to take in every negative reaction that expectedly would come her way for wanting to return from the group that fired her because of her “scandal.” She had guts.

She would often Kenkyuusei for Team K, though, to disassociate her from her original team, Team B. In the great Budokan shuffle of 2009 (August), she would be one of many Kenkyuuseis promoted to a main team, Team K, finally reinstating her in the main roster as a member of AKB48.

A few months after her promotion, she would cause a few more waves when she was added to the popular AKB subunit Watarirouka Hashiritai, making the foursome composed of Mayu Watanabe, Natsumi Hirajima, Haruka Nakagawa and Aika Oota a fivesome. Successful on their own, releasing three popular singles, Hatsukoi Dash, Yaruki Hanabi, and Kanpeki Gu-no ne, Ayarin would be added to Watarirouka on their fourth single, Akkanbe Bashi. Interestingly enough, though criticized by even their fans as a children’s song, Akkanbe Bashi would debut in the Weekly Oricon chart at #1, making Watarirouka the first AKB subunit to get a #1 single from Oricon. Arguably, there were many factors why Akkanbe Bashi hit #1, such as the competition for that week, riding the success of AKB itself, among others, but at least, it also showed that Ayarin’s addition to the group was not very ill-received and the sales of Warota did not suffer. The bonus videos in the Akkane Bashi DVD also documented the reactions of the original Warota foursome upon being told Ayarin would be joining them. Ayarin was openly welcomed, most especially by Harugon, who are actually close friends in real life. The five girls belong to the same agency, and it is rumored that Watariouka was originally supposed to have Ayarin as a five girl group, that was, until she was fired because of the scandal. So if that rumor was true, she was merely brought back to Warota. In Warota’s first photobook, Akkanbe, I was glad that most pictures did not include Ayarin, as I love the original Watarirouka Hashiritai foursome and I felt that their first photobook should be about the original foursome, but at the same time glad that Ayarin was in a few of them as I really didn’t want Ayarin left out either. Ayarin is now a permanent member of Watarirouka Hashiritai (as some fans were wondering if she’d be there only for Akkanbe Bashi), as she is part of the fifth single, Seishun no Flag. Seishun no Flag is also released on Ayarin’s 17th birthday, and so although I was hoping to celebrate the second #1 single of Watarirouka, consider this post an Ayarin birthday post anyway. I was also thinking Ayarin would make Undergirl in the second Senbatsu elections, and although she didn’t make it in the end, it’s nice to point out that she had received 641 votes during the time the second partial results were released, so she still has fans who support her well, not counting those that like her but just didn’t vote for her as their number one favorite.

Oh, and if you ever hear about the “Onigiri” rumor, it’s not true. It started right after the pic with her and her boyfriend spread. A website in Japanese posted an article about it, but since it was in Japanese, the only thing us gaijins (non-Japanese) could read was the word sex, written in romaji. Over at Nihongogo, one of the two biggest pro-AKB, English-speaking, online communities, which places humor above just about everything else, members were looking for a translation of the post, and when one member pointed out that the article implied that in the boyfriend’s original blog (which apparently has been taken down since) where the picture was posted, the boyfriend also implied, using a secret language, that the two had sex, members wanted to know what the exact words were.

Before I continue, I want to point out a few things first. I don’t doubt at all the translations given so far, but even if it was true that the boyfriend implied, or even directly said that they have had sex, my first question is, why should we believe any of it is true. Let’s analyze the boyfriend first, why did the boyfriend post the picture in the first place. I can only think of two feasible reasons. First, the boyfriend is stupid. Why would you, having an aidoru as a girlfriend, post a picture of you and her together in your blog, knowing its taboo in your culture, and it could destroy her career, and even worse, imply that the two of you are having sex? You think you’d be a rockstar to all your friends? But what would your girlfriend think? She’d break up with you, that’s what! What kind of love and stupidity is that? My second possibility makes more sense. The two had a fight, maybe Ayarin had already broken up with him, and posting the picture was a way to get back at her, knowing very well that she’ll get fired for it. In this state of revenge, he could have implied that they had sex, but again, why should we believe an idiot or a guy seeking revenge?

Back over at Nihongogo, Happosai, the first of two handsome official summary writers for AKBingo, posted that the words used was, “Ayarin loves to munch on my big fat onigiri while I eat up her sushi!!!” (See actual posts here: Even more so than Gogo members, summary writers are supposed to be funny (in my case, emphasis on “supposed to”), but there are reasons why we are summary writers, not translators. Personally, I don’t think Happo ever intended to lead people to think this was what was actually written in the post, like I said, he wasn’t one of the krew’s translators, so as he usually does, I think he was joking when he made the post. The problem was people believed him. So when it seemed people didn’t figure out he was just kidding, he clarified that he was only joking (actual post here: But the Onigiri nickname has stuck and became as popular as the Aki-p BLT’s. Don’t think people at Nihongogo are a bunch of creeps for the Onigiri fiasco, I would also like to point out that it was Happosai himself that brought to Nihongogo’s attention the picture below, which was met with disgust from the same people who jest about Ayarin.

The pic (at the middle) was taken in the Shashinkai 2-shot event held in March 2010, where fans could get their picture taken with AKB members. One idiot fan decided it would be funny if he would bring a sign containing the text on the picture that got Ayarin fired, with the bottle-like thing in his mouth. I assume the cameraman didn’t know what it was about, while Ayarin bravely put on a smile, not wanting to cause a ruckus. If I was there, I would have been outraged with this guy and would have informed security about what he was trying to do and would ask them to not take the pic with the paraphernalia. See how much the Nihongogo people wanted to kill that guy here:

Some fans have commented that the song Renai Kinshi Jourei (Rules Against Love), the title song to Team A’s fifth stage, could have been written by Akimoto Yasushi, AKB’s producer and excellent lyricist, with Ayarin specifically in mind. If there’s one producer who could understand Ayarin’s predicament, it would be Aki-P, afterall, he ended up marrying one of the girls from his 80’s aidoru group, Onyanko Club. Even besides Renai Kinshi Jourei, Wakage no Italian (Italian Curiosity), an accompanying track to Watarirouka Hashiritai’s Akkanbe Bashi, the lyrics about making mistakes and moving forward seems to be again for her, and fans have commented about this especially considering it is Ayarin which delivers the last lines, “konna watashi na no ni, hontou ni arigatou” (it let me grow despite what I am now, I am truly grateful).

A lot of people criticized AKB for taking Ayarin back in. But personally, even more so than my admiration for Ayarin, I admired AKB48 for this. I already admire the girls, but I also admired Management for taking her back. It shows that they are willing to overlook old and unreasonable “rules” if fans want it. AKB is nonconformist! Who cares about the rest of the industry, we’re trailblazing and doing things others haven’t done nor weren’t willing to do! It’s one of the traits about AKB I love the most. They really are not stereotypical, not just in this one instance, an instance that as far as I know was unheard of in their industry, but in many other instances as well. AKB48 rocks!

Early episodes of AKBingo (AKB 1ji59fun and AKB 0ji59fun) have had many funny tongue-in-cheek episodes of teaching the AKB girls how to be idols. They were taught how to act, and proper responses to questions like “what are your measurements,” “what is your favorite food,” “what made you interested in being an aidoru,” and that idols never defecate, nor have ever held hands with a boy. When somebody from the audience (if I remember correctly, in a press conference outside Japan) asked the girls if any of them had a boyfriend, someone from AKB staff responded for them, something like, “I hope not.” AKB ain’t your grandpappy’s idol group.

I don’t know when Ayarin had that guy as a boyfriend, maybe they were already together even before Ayarin auditioned for AKB, and that pic is old, or maybe they got together when she was already a member, but as far as I’m concerned, Ayarin’s only fault was having an idiot for a boyfriend. The guy is also ugly.

Ayarin is an entertainer, and as long as she entertains me, with her personality, performance, and whatnot, I don’t really care if she has a boyfriend; idol genre, my foot. My favorite girls could have boyfriends and it’s fine with me. As long as the guys aren’t idiots.

If you want to read English translations of Ayarin’s blog, which is a part of the blog of the rest of the members of Watariouka Hashiritai, indigoskies translates them here: (or for the whole of Watarirouka Hashiritai:

At the bottom are a few pics of Ayarin, but here are English translations of the two songs I mentioned, Renai Kinshi Jourei and Wakage no Italian, from Studio48:

Renai Kinshi Jourei
(Translation: Rules Against Love)
(Originally performed by Minami Takahashi, Minami Minegishi and Miho Miyazaki)

It’s been just over a year since we started dating…
None of our friends know since everyone’s always together

“Inside this circle, we have rules against love”
They make too much of a deal about this joke of a rule

I love somebody somewhere
Even if I can’t do so at my own convenience
If it has to be let go,
It’s not real love
This is so against the rules

Isn’t it lonely being single? I wanted to make it a secret
If I send out a mail on my cell phone, soon nothing but love comes back

Unconsciously I’ve been charmed, and he’s become such an important person to me
I only have myself to blame – feel the strings of fate!

I love somebody all the time
I can’t stop the affection
If a boy and a girl are together,
There’s definitely something going on
A chemical reaction

I love somebody somewhere
Even if I can’t do so at my own convenience
If it has to be let go,
It’s not real love
This is so against the rules
Romance’s fuse
Because I have to hide it,
Passion only builds up
It’s so likely to go off

Wakage no Italian
(Translation: Italian Curiosity)
(Performed by Watarirouka Hashiritai: Mayu Watanabe, Natsumi Hirajima, Haruka Nakagawa, Aika Oota and Ayaka Kikuchi)

To live
Is a very difficult thing
I can't go forward
On a straight line

Got lost in the streets
Fell in the manhole
Crashed on the walls
On a detour

I made mistakes in life
Many times
I tried to remake my life
Many times
With an eraser of tears

Italian curiosity
Those days of errors
Are embarrassing until now
I was young
Italian curiosity
With repentance and reflection
It let me grow
To the full course meal of success
A smorgasbord of failures

To live
Is expending nuisance
I can't grow into an adult
By myself

Have been worried about
Have been scolded
Have been lost interest at
Burned with care

There were friends who cried with me
People who cheered me on
Somehow I can stand firm

It is carelessness
I did not see
Such important future
Those days were mistakes
It is carelessness
From various experiences
With these
I was able to learn

It is a start from now on
Italian curiosity
Those days of errors
Are embarrassing until now
I was young
Italian curiosity
With repentance and reflection
It let me grow despite what I am now
I am truly grateful

Appropriately, Ayarin was first Senbatsu in the single Romance, Irane

Sakura no Hanabiratachi 2008 (rightmost)

Baby! Baby! Baby! (left, in green)

Ayarin in the third episode of AKB 1ji 59 fun (predecessor of AKBingo!), aired Feb. 8, 2008

Ayarin, on the 1st episode of the Team B show AKB48+10!, October 2007

A video featuring Team B front girls: Ayaka Kikuchi, Mayu Watanabe, Aika Oota, Yuki Kashiwagi, circa April 2008

Ayarin, upon her return, from the Akkanbe Bashi Type B video, on a Team B stage

Ayarin brought back on the main roster at the Budokan August 2009 concert

Ayarin joins Watarirouka Hashiritai, from the Akkanbe Bashi Type A video, Harugon playing with Ayarin's hair

Version 2 of Watarirouka Hashiritai: Haruka Nakagawa, Aika Oota, Ayaka Kikuchi, Mayu Watanabe, Natsumi Hirajima, from the Akkanbe Bashi Type A video

Here's an interesting AKBingo episode. On the May 26, 2010 episode, where Ayarin gets to play again on AKBingo, for dodgeball, Sasshi targets Ayarin. Ayarin catches the ball instead and eliminates Sasshi's close friend Moeno instead. It was Rino Sashihara who replaced Ayarin at Team B when Ayarin was fired, and Sasshi was promoted to Team B almost at the same time with close friend Moeno Nito. Although Sasshi had nothing to do with Ayarin's firing, she did possibly benefit from it, but Sasshi could not eliminate Ayarin, as Ayarin can catch the ball, in this dodgeball episode, I mean.

Ayarin with the rest of Watarirouka Hashiritai in their first photobook, Akkanbe

Ayarin with the rest of Warota on the cover of the normal version of Watarirouka Hashiritai's fifth single, Seishun no Flag

Ayarin on the Akkanbe Bashi PV. I’m glad Ayarin is back. I don’t mind she’s in Watarirouka either, and I love Watarirouka. Anyone Harugon loves that much is good in my book. I hope Ayarin continues to earn success.