Idol singers exist in an extremely specialized, and often contradictory, corner of the already specialized Japanese pop music industry. Successful idols are expected to walk the fine line between having a polished, attractive appearance and an approachable, unassuming aura. Even more ironic is that while their songs’ lyrics are often focused on love and devotion, it’s practically unheard of for an active idol to openly be in a romantic relationship.
Every now and again, though, word gets out that an idol secretly has a boyfriend, or had an illicit liaison with a guy. The revelation is usually followed by a solemn apology to fans, and often the offending member being removed from the group. But this time the story of an idol’s amorous activities coming to light has something we’ve never heard about before: a court-ordered fine equivalent to several thousand dollars for breach of contract.
On September 18, Tokyo District Court Judge Akimoto Kojima handed down his verdict in a case involving a 17-year-old former idol singer, whose name has been withheld from public reports. The lawsuit stemmed from incidents that occurred two years ago.
In March of 2013, the girl signed a contract with a talent management company, becoming a member of a six-person idol unit (also unnamed in reports). After its formation, the management company organized concerts and sold merchandise. The unit’s first public performance being held in July, but it was disbanded in October.
Included in the contract the girl had agreed to was a clause prohibiting relationships with the opposite sex. At some point after joining the group, however, the girl accompanied a male fan to a hotel after receiving an invitation from the man, and her actions later became known to the management company.
In response, the company filed a lawsuit seeking damages for breach of contract. The defendant, however, argued that “Refraining from such relationships is not an absolutely essential part of being an idol.” However, Judge Kojima ruled that:
“In order to secure the financial support of male fans, a clause prohibiting relationships was necessary”
Indicating his judicial opinion that the defendant’s “Being discovered to be in a relationship worsened her image as an idol,” and that she should bear a portion of the responsibility for the group’s breakup, he ordered her to pay damages of 650,000 yen (US$5,280) to partially compensate the management company for expenses it incurred in providing her with costumes and music/dance lessons.
Trying to legally suppress teen hormones might seem like a laughable exercise in futility. It’s quite likely, though, that openly being in a relationship does indeed hamper the marketability of idol singers in Japan, particularly among the coveted and lucrative hard-core idol otaku demographic buys multiple copies of physical media releases and official merchandise. While statistics may say it’s extremely unlikely that any given fan will ever go on a date with his adored vocalist (barring certain unusual sales promotions), the idea that she’s single lets him go on believing that his chances are just a hair above zero percent, which is extremely valuable from a marketing standpoint.
The romantic delusion angle isn’t the only psychological force at work, either. Japan takes its professional life very seriously, and being a newcomer to your industry (which almost all idols are, by virtue of debuting in their teens) means you’re expected to dedicate yourself to learning the ropes and perfecting your craft. Having an active social life outside the work unit is often frowned upon, and even in many regular white-collar jobs new recruits will refrain from making any mention in the office of their romantic partner, lest their coworkers think they’re not making work their first priority.
Another factor at play is the intense value Japan places on teamwork. Idol acts are often made up of a number of vocalists, which, along with a focus on visual image more than the group’s sound is a time-tested way of compensating for deficiencies in musical talent. Any time spent making googly eyes with your boyfriend is time you’re not spending to work towards the common goal you share with your fellow idols, and a lack of perceived earnestness makes it that much more difficult to sell CDs and posters to the historically most dedicated idol-loving demographic.
As such, one can sort of understand the management company’s desire to defend its business interests, and that it would be worried about how its performer being in a relationship would affect them. On the other hand, the fact that no one in the lawsuit seemed bothered by the fact that the girl was 15-years-old at the time she was invited by the fan to join him at a hotel is worrisome in a completely different way.