Hashimoto Kanna and the 40-Plus Consumers of Idol Culture

Society Culture

Symbol of the “Local Idol” Boom

I have been asked by Nippon.com to write about Hashimoto Kanna, a 15-year-old sensation who has been described as a “once-in-a-millennium idol,” and the somewhat surprising phenomenon of older fans—primarily those in their forties—who are supporting Japan’s idol culture today. To be quite honest, I found the choice of topic rather peculiar. Why Hashimoto Kanna? And why 40-plus devotees?

As an enthusiastic follower of the idol scene, I would hardly consider Hashimoto Kanna to be one of its leading lights. If anything, she is symbolic of the “local idol boom,” a recent manifestation of the phenomenon of “live idols,” whose fans come to see the stars live (at concerts and handshake events) and follow their activities on the web, rather than through the mass media. These live idols became popular from the latter half of the 2000s, spawning the megahit AKB48 and its various sister groups.

Many such groups are based in regional cities outside of Tokyo, giving rise to the phenomenon of local idols. A photo of one such local idol went viral after it was posted online by a fan in November 2013, and Hashimoto Kanna—a member of Fukuoka-based Rev. from DVL—has gone on to take the country by storm, being featured on the cover of leading women’s magazines and other periodicals.

Direct Access to Idols’ Personal Growth

That said, Hashimoto still cannot be said to symbolize the live idol boom as a whole. This is only natural, for the boom is centered not on individuals but on idol groups, such as AKB48 and Momoiro Clover Z, which range from a handful to several hundred members. Fans of these groups follow them collectively and enjoy watching the relationships between individual members evolve over time. In a sense, the chief appeal of today’s idols is that their personal development and growth can be observed directly, either in person or via online comments, rather than through the filter of television and magazines.

In this regard, Hashimoto is the only member of her group who has attracted any attention, so she can hardly be said to represent the live idol scene. Hashimoto has only around 70,000 Twitter followers, for example, while even many of the “unelected” AKB48 members (those ranking eightieth or lower in the “general elections” to determine the lineup for the group’s next single) have over 100,000 followers. The “miracle photo” of Hashimoto in concert that went viral last year has not, therefore, earned her as many fans as one might expect.

Generational Differences

Which brings me to the second proposition I have been asked to address: the phenomenon of fans in their forties who are playing a substantial role in sustaining the live idol boom in Japan, as they—unlike their financially strapped counterparts in their twenties—can afford to attend the many concerts and purchase the assortment of goods of their favorite idols. I cannot be certain whether this hypothesis is correct, since statistics on consumers’ age are not available, but my personal experience as a fan tells me that it is not far off the mark. The boom, in other words, is supported by different age groups in different ways.

The younger fans might watch streamed videos of their favorite group, follow the activities of members on social media, and occasionally catch the group live in concert or at handshake events. This would not require more than a few thousand yen a month and would still be more than adequate to follow the group as a fan. Those falling into this category are commonly called “stay at home” followers, in contrast to the more active and avid—and older— devotees who might go see concerts held out of town or make a hefty investment to obtain many tickets to a single handshake event, allowing them to line up a number of times.

AKB48 fans, for example, are of two general types. The first will attend handshake events (which, in itself, makes one an “intermediate” level devotee) with 1 to 3 tickets. The second will have 10 or more, making the rounds in a well-planned and efficient manner to avoid long waits. (Incidentally, I fall in between these two groups.) The latter type are, like me, 30 or over, with higher disposable income. Quite noticeable among them are veterans—those over 40, who were active during the idol boom of the 1980s—from whom I continue to learn a great deal.

A Shrewd Marketing Strategy?

I am not sure whether the presence of so many older fans says something about contemporary Japanese society. But as a specialist in Japan’s subculture, I can say that this is a phenomenon that is not unique to the idol scene. In the light of the general social drift toward smaller families and the diversification and overload of information, other genres, too, are turning to the children of the postwar baby boomers (that is, those in their early forties) as the last sizable demographic group that can sustain a consumption trend.

The markets for anime, gaming, and other low-cost entertainment, which traditionally catered to teenagers, are now targeting the 40-plus segment. The Mobile Suit Gundam series is a case in point. For over a decade, this age set, responsible for triggering the original Gundam boom, has provided the prime consumers of merchandise and new anime productions.

Another genre sustained by this “dual structure” is the online community of restaurant reviewers, notably Tabelog. The main users of the posted information tend to be Net-savvy 20 somethings, but the ones who actually visit the restaurants and write the reviews are more often than not middle-aged, male gastronomes. This was the unanimous impression of the site’s heavy users interviewed for an article in the magazine I edit.

Paying for Freeloaders

As the cost of content in the post-Internet era approaches zero, businesses seeking to make use of various online media and to tap highly compartmentalized markets are probably more likely to succeed by targeting those older than the “Net generation”—namely, the over-40 age group—who are not averse to spending money on content. In a nutshell, there are many genres that younger consumers use for free but which remain commercially viable because they are sustained by the buying power of older users.

This can be interpreted either as a politically desirable redistribution of income across generations or a somewhat woeful graying of subculture. I would embrace the former view, and at the same time consider approaches to better promoting the further development and diversification of various subcultural genres.

(Originally published in Japanese on July 23, 2014. Title photo: Hashimoto Kanna, a member of the idol group Rev. from DVL. Photo by Jiji Press.)

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