Japan’s Idol Industry

Idols Who Can’t Quit

Culture Society Entertainment

On March 21, 2018, Ōmoto Honoka, member of a regional idol and agriculture-promotion group called the Enoha Girls, took her own life. What would drive a 16-year-old girl to take such an extreme step? Her family has filed suit against her talent agency, its president, and other staff in a bid to uncover the truth. We interviewed the family’s attorney—Kasai Kunitaka, who is also a director of a Japanese entertainers’ rights association and an idol group producer himself—about the circumstances surrounding minor starlets or chika aidoru (underground idols) in Japan.

Anyone Can Be a Star . . . or a Manager

With extensive experience handling lawsuits involving performers and chika aidoru, attorney Kasai Kunitaka gives his perspective on the modern-day idol.

“Idols used to be performers who got into magazines and on TV. That started to change around ten years ago, when the hugely popular idol group AKB48 came on the scene. Small-capacity venues holding a few hundred people mushroomed in places like Tokyo’s Akihabara, giving birth to the minor or ‘underground’ idol scene. As the internet enabled the free distribution of music and dance content on video sharing services like YouTube, the live streaming service Showroom, and so on, it expanded the field of play for idols, leading to greater diversity in their management beyond the regular talent agencies.”

Kasai notes, though, that this is today causing a range of problems. “Girls who want to become idols first register with an online audition service. The ones who are in demand will pass multiple auditions and have their choice of agency to join. The remainder will keep flunking out, and can end up signing with an agency on unfavorable terms that include things like registration fees and penalty clauses. They will get to work as idols, but their agency will usually have no expertise in promoting them, and little motivation to do so. Then the idols realize things aren’t right and decide they want to leave. But their agency won’t let them. They can also be subject to bullying tactics and sexual harassment as well.”

Attorney Kasai Kunitaka is also involved in the idol management business. (© Imamura Takuma)
Attorney Kasai Kunitaka is also involved in the idol management business. (© Imamura Takuma)

Fines and Penalties in the Fine Print

So why won’t agencies allow uninterested idols to quit? “Agencies make their money from ticket, merchandise, and instant snapshot sales,” explains Kasai. “They charge anything from 500 to 1,000 yen for a Polaroid-style snapshot , so that’s a big money-spinner. The agencies lose revenue if an idol quits, so idol contracts will stipulate things like a minimum term of one to three years, say, or a prohibition on the idol working in the entertainment industry for six months after she leaves. Some include penalties of 1 or 2 million yen for terminating early. Ōmoto Honoka’s contract included fines for being late to work.”

It is unusual to have fines stipulated in a contract, notes the lawyer, but some agencies that manage underground idols are involved in the adult entertainment industry as well, and they treat the idols the same way they treat bar hostesses. It’s common for bars to fine so-called kyabakura, or “cabaret club,” hostesses for being late or missing work. Similarly, there are agencies that forbid idol group members from exchanging contact details among themselves, to stop them from forming a united front. The agency makes them compete against each other like hostesses, increasing profit in the process.

But Kasai notes that too much competition can also give rise to problems.

“If management encourages too much competition, the most popular girl, or the highest revenue generator, will come to be seen as the standout star. But underground idols are not meant to operate as independent individuals. They must always be part of the group, fulfilling their own role within it. The group won’t function without the lesser-known, behind-the-scenes members, or those in low-key leadership roles who rally everyone together.” If there is too much pressure to compete, there will be too much rivalry and hierarchy, leading to a loss of trust. Then the group no longer functions and it may not last.

Winning in Court Is Not Enough

Kasai represented the four members of idol group, Nijiiro Fanfarre, in a suit against their former agency in 2017. The case settled satisfactorily for the group after they had sought cancellation of their contract, payment of unpaid wages, and other redress. Since the settlement, Kasai has become a producer of the new idol group Revival:I, which includes two former Nijiiro Fanfarre members, leader Kotobano Aya and deputy Ogi Natsumi.

Why would an attorney become producer of an idol group? “Just winning in court doesn’t make everything okay,” notes Kasai. “The reality is that after they sued their former agency, it became difficult for the Nijiiro Fanfarre members to get into another one. I thought they were pioneers, as idols who took their agency on in court, and we ended up deciding to present their experience on stage to help spread the word to their peers. Together, we created a musical called Jailbreak Girls based on a real idol court case.” Both women have years of experience in the industry, he enthuses, noting also that the performers participate in managing Revival:I, which maintains transparency about profit and losses, too.

Pop group Revival:I, managed by Kasai. (© Kasai Kunitaka)
Pop group Revival:I, managed by Kasai. (© Kasai Kunitaka)

The main focus in the idol industry is by far on the women, but Kasai says that male idols can face troubles as well. “I get far more inquiries from female idols than males, but my sense is that a lot of male requests for advice relate to violence. They say that they’ve been punched and kicked by the boss, and that sort of thing. I do think it will become a bigger issue at some point.”

That Magic Word, “Idol”

It is clear that would-be idols need to read their contracts carefully before signing up with an agency, but that’s a lot to expect when most of them are still in their teens. Their parents could do it on their behalf, but Kasai says that has its own issues.

“When parents are told that ‘This is standard in the industry,’ they tend to believe it. When their daughter wants to quit, and the agency demands 200,000 yen to compensate for its expenditures on website development, songs, and costumes, they end up paying it because they’re afraid and want to avoid trouble. I think there are dishonest operators out there who are making their money from this model itself. I hope parents will at least start to realize that this is not standard practice.”

Kasai offers a further suggestion. “Previously, an ‘idol’ was a special, almost godlike being. But now it’s turned into a kind of magic catch-all term. What if instead we called it a person who sings and dances publicly, and shakes hands, and has snapshots taken with fans? And then we added that their workplace serves alcohol and it’s okay to hug and hold them? Now there’s hardly any difference between the idol and a kyabakura hostess. But as soon as you call them ‘idols,’ people somehow think the way they’re treated is normal and okay. We shouldn’t be deceived by the ‘idol’ word; we’ve got to look at what it really is now.”

If an idol seeks advice from the Labor Standards Inspection Office, says Kasai, she is told it cannot assist because it is unclear whether her performer’s contract is a labor contract, and therefore within the Office’s jurisdiction.

“They get that response because the status of a performer’s contract is not definite until a court confirms it as a labor contract,” Kasai explains. “In fact, almost all performer contracts are confirmed by the courts as labor contracts, not contracts with individual contractors, but the confirmation process takes too much time and effort. We now have an idol who has committed suicide, though, and it’s time for the law to be revised to enable a group like the Japanese Entertainers’ Rights Association where I am a director, to handle this instead of the courts or the Labor Standards Inspection Office.”

On February 18, the first hearing was held in the case brought by the family of Ōmoto Honoka against her agency, its president, and others, claiming damages on the basis that her suicide was the result of harassment and the excessive workload they imposed. The defendants indicated that they would be defending themselves in all aspects of the case.

(Originally published in Japanese on April 18, 2019. Reporting and text by Kuwahara Rika of Power News. Banner photo: The four members of pop group Revival:I. © Kasai Kunitaka.)

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