Japanese idol – It's right there in the name. These cute starlets exist to be idolized. They sing, they dance, they appear on TV… but that's only the tip of the iceberg. AKB48 and Morning Musume; efficient idol making machines like these produce new idols on a regular basis. There are over a hundred idol groups in Japan, each with somewhere between a handful and a hundred plus members.
With the advent of the idol came the birth of the idol otaku. In Japanese, the word "otaku オタク" is a lot like the word geek. It refers to someone who is really into a certain thing. There are train otaku, food otaku, and probably even moss otaku.
In English, the word "otaku" refers to someone who is really into Japanese things, like anime. But in Japan, that word has a much broader usage. And yes, I happen to know an idol otaku. He was my classmate in high school. While I didn't know him very well at the time, I wouldn't have suspected that he would have gained such an intense interest in idols.
Fast forward some years and he is now a 29 year old lawyer who spends his free time following idols and participating in their many events. He would prefer to remain anonymous so we'll refer to him by his pen name, otaben オタ弁. He is actually famous within the idol otaku community. I suppose the people who follow him could be called "idol otaku otaku." You can become one too by following him on Twitter. His handle is @otalaywer.
We agreed to meet for the interview at a train station, which was an equally convenient location for both of us. I had only walked a few steps after getting off of the train when the flip phone that I had borrowed from my mother chimed in my purse. The text informed me that my interviewee was 5 minutes out. I spent that time finding the best place to stand for us to find one another. I had just posted myself outside the front gate when he emerged from the crowd of commuters. I soon learned that the signatures covering the tote bag he was carrying were signatures of idols, and that the contents that filled the bag were idol merchandise. Later on he told me that the bag itself was one of his most treasured items as it has the signatures of every member of The KOBerrieS♪, a well known idol group from Kobe. Although he showed up with this assortment of otaku-y things, he certainly didn't look like someone you might expect to be carrying such a collection. I suppose that means I was somewhat guilty of buying into the otaku stereotype, as well. I knew then that I would learn something new that day.
I flagged him down with a smile and a slight bow. We said hello and "yoroshiku onegaishimasu" to each other and moved to a nearby cafe for the interview.
Once our coffees had been ordered, I jumped right into interview. My first question was basic, "Which idols are you a fan of?"
Instantly I saw a light sparkle through his gaze and the right side of his mouth began reaching for his ear. Asking this question was like asking a sommelier which wine was worth drinking and, with him being a self-proclaimed idol otaku, I believed he would have "good taste" when it came to this subject.
With a deep breath he started down his list, "Kaori Matsumura (SKE48), Chiho Matsuoka (NMB48), Kano Nojima (SKE48), Yuka Asai (SKE48), Ayuka Kamimura (SKE48), Sana Takatera (SKE48), Mizuki Tsuchiyasu (AKB48), Momoka Onishi (AKB48), Nao Ota (AKB48), Yuri Ito (KOBerrieS♪), Shiori Inaoka (KOBerrieS♪), Hamburgirl Z…" He had paused for a second, possibly for some last minute restructuring, but I stopped him from continuing because I was lost after the first few names.
How Otaben Became a Japanese Idol Otaku
After receiving our cups of coffee, I took off the pink Panama hat I was wearing that day and set it on the side of the square table. With a regrettably lame attempt at a segue, "At the drop of a hat, the tough questions begin," I said with a jeering smirk. We shared an understanding grin before I continued, "What's your story? Could you tell us how you became an idol otaku?" Almost apologetically he asked, "Okay, but it's kind of a long story because the very first idol group that I cheered for was " mōningumusume モーニング娘 (Morning Musume)" back in junior high. Is that okay with you?" I assured him that a story like that was precisely the reason why I was there that day. I offered him a friendly smile and a nod to urge him to continue.
With a reminiscent upward glance and a deep, relaxing breath, he focused briefly on some unimportant point on the ceiling, presumably navigating his way through his past to the best starting point to his story. And once his eyes had slowly fallen back to meet mine, he began.
"Back then, Morning Musume had become really popular and all my classmates had developed crushes on them. So, I was basically just jumping on the idol-bandwagon. My first ever CD wasn't even an idol's. Yet, I had a fun time cheering for them with my friends. We were junior high students and didn't have much money, so we could really only see them on TV, listen to their CDs, and talk about them at school. We would gab back and forth with the typical chat, 'Who's your favorite?,' 'Well, I really like this girl,' you know, stuff like that."
"We also exchanged video tapes of TV shows that 'Morning Musume' appeared on. We only went to a couple of their concerts together. For some reason, we had an unspoken agreement that each classmate should choose a different member to cheer for, and I chose Ai Kago. A quick side note, my current idol otaku friends don't do such things. Instead of deciding individuals to cheer for, we unite our efforts and cheer for one member together. I am digressing a little, so let's talk about that later."
"Anyways, I already liked idol groups in junior high, but things changed when I entered high school. None of my friends liked idol groups anymore, so I had to cheer for the girls by myself. I tried, but I was alone in this devotion and admiration. Eventually, my passion for idols disappeared."
Hearing that last part confirmed one of my own memories from that time. "Ahh! That's why I didn't know that you liked idols back then. When did your enthusiasm for idols come back?" I asked.
"Umm…" he thought for a moment. "It remained that way until I graduated from university and became a law school student. Law school lasts for three years and I got so busy in the second semester of the second year. Before that time, I was going to school but living with my parents. Just getting to school was a two hour commute. I had become so busy that I needed to find a place near the university. That change granted me more free time – my me-time."
I interjected and asked, "And with that free time you decided to cheer for idols?"
His head rocked side to side as he said, "Well, yes and no. I didn't decide to cheer for them right away. It was a natural progression that slowly developed, or redeveloped, over that period of time when I first started looking for a way to fill my newly acquired free time. I didn't want to waste it aimlessly surfing the internet or watching Youtube videos. AKB became popular around that time, so I started watching their shows on Youtube, to see what all the hype was about. They don't just dance and sing, they also go on talk shows and comedy shows. It was all enjoyable. I was also incredibly stressed out and nervous as a result of the mounting pressure of the upcoming National Bar Examination, and their smiles went a long way to relax me. Thus, the more I watched AKB48's shows on Youtube and listened to their songs, the happier I felt. "
He continued, "After that realization, I got into them in a serious way. However, for the first 6 months, I was only an at-home-fan, like I used to be back in junior high. I would watch TV and find my favorite members or listen to their CDs. I was satisfied with this practice of quiet admiration because I thought that it was normal not to meet idols."
"So then what made you change?" I asked.
He took a moment to find his thoughts before he answered and he did so by taking the first sip of the coffee in front of him. "Well," he said before taking a second needed gulp, "I read somewhere, or heard from someone, that it was possible to meet them at events. So naturally the prospect of meeting them piqued my interest decisively. In the summer before my third year of law school, I had the chance to see an idol up close for the first time. The girl I was cheering for at that time, Amina Sato, was chosen to be an actress in a play. The day following my first big examination of the year was the final showing of that play."
"My seat was far from the stage, but after the play, there was a meet-and-greet with the actors and actresses. I was only able to see her for one moment, but I was amazed at how close I was to her and it was so exciting for me."
Even then I could see the excitement of that day leap from his eyes. It was obvious then that the moment he had described made him very genuinely happy. Why wouldn't a person pursue such a source of happiness? I thought.
I was subtly petitioning him to tell me more when I asked, "So you gave yourself up to it entirely, didn't you?"
In a manner marked with seasoned assuredness he responded, "Yes. That experience was enough to make me want more. I wanted to go to another performance and I decided on a theatre concert. AKB48 and its local groups have their own theaters (unlike other artists today, aside from the odd headliner in Vegas) and perform a daily 2-hour live show. Also, you have to enter your name in a draw to buy a ticket. And newcomers have a better chance of winning that drawing. I lucked out and was able to buy a ticket the very first time I entered my name. It was at the SKE theatre in Nagoya. Since the theatre is not that big (maximum admission is about 300 people), even the farthest place from the stage is very close to the idols. At the end of the show, there was a meet-and-greet with the members, and I could tell them, 'This was my first time. Thank you!' I was surprised at how much fun it was to go see idols in person. After that, I started going to the SKE theatre once a month and sometimes to big concerts. At that time, I still hadn't gone to a handshaking event."
"Okay, so you are saying that you weren't a huge otaku, yet. So when did you finally become the committed idol otaku that you are now?" I inquired.
When he returned the coffee mug he was holding back to the table, I quickly glanced at my own mug to realize that I had nearly finished my coffee while his had hardly been touched. I was so enjoying the detail he kindly offered up in his stories that I didn't realize I had barely allowed him the chance to sip his coffee. While raising my mug to the barista, an action which received a understanding nod in return, he began again:
"It was over a year later. In May of 2012, I wrote and passed the National Bar Examination. My legal apprenticeship started in November of the same year. Even then, I just kept going to the mini theater concerts and their large concerts. In February of 2013, I went to the SKE theater, but this time I was lucky enough to get a first row seat. I made friends with the person next to me and he asked me if I wanted to go to the handshaking event after the concert. He was very kind and shared his ticket with me, so I decided to go with him."
"With one ticket (for national handshakes), you can only hold their hand and talk to them for three seconds, but it was more than I expected. After that, I began buying a lot of their CDs in order to get tickets for the handshaking events. I would typically buy 50 single CDs (1000 yen each). Now I've branched out and go see a variety of idol groups, but I still buy 30 of their CDs each time one is released. There are many sister groups of AKB48 and at least one of those groups releases a new CD every month, so it's very common for me to spend around 50,000 yen (500 USD) on CDs each month. And that is how I became the idol otaku that I am now."
Well, I thought, Rome wasn't built in a day, either.
What Does a Committed Idol Otaku Do?
After listening to the long history of Otaben, I realized that I had basically only asked him one question. And I had a long list of questions to ask. But I didn't fret as I was interested in his stories. So I asked, "Generally, what do you usually do as an idol otaku?"
He brought the palm of his hand to his chest with a confident thump, "My priority is making it to as many theatre performances, concerts and handshaking events as I can," he beamed. "On weekdays, I go to work and I work either Saturday or Sunday, as well. Yet, my remaining time is spent going to events. Recently, I've been cheering for multiple idols, so I often visit more than one idol a day."
After hearing that all his free time was zealously reserved for following idols, a curiosity escaped my lips, "How far will you travel to get something or see someone?" I suppose I was eager to hear an incredible story full of absurd and miraculous things he'd done in order to obtain something that I might never glance twice at.
So I was slightly disappointed when he announced, "I don't go too far, but I do make a tight schedule. For example, one three day weekend, I first went to an NMB48 meet and greet in Nagoya, then I went to a KOBerrieS♪ event in the evening. The next day, I went to Tokyo for an AKB concert in Akihabara, and then went back to Nagoya for another KOBerrieS♪ event. After that, I hopped on a Shinkansen and went to Tokyo to drink with my friends. I don't get to see them very often, so I didn't want to miss that chance to drink with them. The next day, I went to an AKB event in Akihabara, then hopped onto another Shinkansen to go back to Nagoya. After enjoying one final KOBerrieS♪ event, I came back to Nara on the Kintetsu special express."
I briefly wondered when he found time to sleep during all that, but then I quickly remembered all the trains he mentioned taking. "Wow! And I thought I did a good job at filling my weekends," I joked.
Otaben continued with a cheerful fervor, "I had a really tight schedule that Golden Week holiday (from April 29 through May 5, both of which are Japanese public holidays), as well. At 8pm on May 1st, there was a Miraiskirt event in front of Osaka station. The next day, I went to an idol event called "idol Koshien" in Osaka. That afternoon, I went back to work. The next day, I went to a photo event for the whole day from 10:30am to 8pm. The following morning, I had a ticket for an AKB event in the Kanto area, so I took a really early train to get there. After the AKB event, I went to a KOBerrieS♪ event in Yokohama and then came back to Nara. On May 5, there was a KOBerrieS♪ event in Kobe, so I worked in the morning and went to the show afterward. On the last day of Golden Week, I went to another Miraiskirt event in Kyoto. After all this, I totally lost my voice because I had attended events every day over the Golden week."
My head shook mildly in disbelief. "That sounds so busy," I scoffed.
"Yeah," he agreed sharing a like-minded grin. "It was really busy, but it was also a lot of fun."
I was quickly learning that I almost didn't even need to ask questions for this interview to progress. He was content to talk at length without any breaks. "I also check out social media sites, such as Twitter or Google + to find out idol information and share it with other fans, especially during my commute. On Google +, each AKB member has an account and they give updates with pictures from time to time, so most fans check there. There is also a new app called 755 (Nana-Go-Go), which lets you peek into the live threads of big-name celebrities and make comments. While idols do reply on 755 from time to time, they typically don't do that on Twitter or Google +. They certainly read posts or tweets that we write, though. In fact, when I go to their meet and greets, they sometimes ask me about posts that certain fans had written. There are also otaku communities on Google +, so it's convenient to share our information there."
"Most of the people in the community are those I've met before at some other event, so it's fun to chat with them. I'm busy during the day because of work, so I check those sites during my commute. There is also a service called mobile mail through which an AKB48 group member can send a message to your mobile phone (though all the messages and photos are the same for all otaku), and you can register for this service for 300 yen per member. They don't send messages every day, but I read them when I get them," he concluded.
He leaned back in his chair and reached for the cup of coffee in front of him. Before he picked it up I noticed the black coffee still cuddled the walls of the mug just below its brim. I speculated that his coffee had surely gone cold by this point. "Wow," I chuckled. "This seems like so much time and effort. I don't think I could be a serious idol otaku."
In a swift, unbalanced motion, he flung chest back towards the table. While gently rocking side to side, petitioning the chair to grant him a little more comfort. "Additionally…" he paused.
"Additionally?!" I teased.
Smiling and nodding, he moved on, "If one of my favorite members was on a magazine, or if they are utilized for a sales promotion, I go get the product because it could help raise her reputation in the idol industry. For example, my favorite idol Kaori Matsumura is working with a shoe shop called ASBee, and if I buy a pair of their shoes, I get a clear file folder with her picture on the front. Honestly, many fans probably don't need the gift, but a lot of them purchase one or more pairs of shoes hoping that higher sales in connection with her advertisement will result in her acquiring even more jobs in the future."
Hearing this was rather surprising for me and I believed I had finally heard something that qualified as 'going to a great length' in pursuit of this hobby. "Now that is true support, if I ever did hear it," I conceded.
Otaben's Parents' and Friends' Reactions to His Idol Otaku Lifestyle
"You really are a committed idol otaku. I'm impressed," I told him. He chuckled and thanked me for the compliment. I smiled back and tossed him another question, "What did your parents said when you became an idol otaku? I can't really see them being amazed with it."
His head tilted in a playful fashion and he shot me a friendly wink, "You are probably expecting me to say that my parents were shocked, right?" he coaxed. "How could they not be?" I amiably snickered. "Well, I'm sorry to disappoint…" he grumbled with a comical pause.
Spritely, he transitioned from a lamented tone to a positive one while rolling on with his explanation. "But things were the complete opposite in my case. My family was very accepting and welcoming of the fact that I became an idol otaku. As I mentioned earlier, I started cheering for them before the National Bar Examination. I'm not good at handling pressure and I get very nervous. I've experienced nausea before exams since I was in junior high. I believe that it was one of the reasons why I failed my first attempt at the university entrance exam. However, I was super healthy and calm before the National Bar Examination because of the idols. Cheering for them was a great stress reliever for me. My mom was really curious and asked me why I had been so genki 元気 (meaning healthy and energetic), and I confessed that I was cheering for idols and going to their live events and concerts."
"Her response was, 'Good for you! You look really healthy. If it was the ordinary you, you would be like a zombie around this time. This is really great!' The day before the National Bar Examination, I felt mentally unburdened and decided to go buy their new CD that had just been released. I enjoyed listening to the music the next day while on my way to the exam. The day following the exam I went to the theatrical performance, as well. As a result, I passed the National Bar Examination and for the very first time I took control of the pressure instead of the pressure taking control of me."
Admittedly, I was touched by his mother's reaction. "Aww! That's a really nice story." Otaben looked pleased.
But certainly not every reaction he received could have been as positive, I thought, so I decided to dig bit deeper. "But, you told me after passing the bar exam, you got even more involved and started going to a lot of meet and greets, right?"
He nodded, "That's right."
I pressed further, "So what do your parents say now that you had become a devout idol otaku?"
A flushed, but cheerful, smile stretched across his cheeks before he started, "Well, I lived with them after becoming a lawyer, so they often commented in ways like, 'Again? Who are you off to see today?' Or, because I order CDs online, 'More CDs? How many boxes did you order? Gimme a break!' You know, stuff like that."
"Although they razz me, they aren't opposed to what I am doing. I have a younger brother, but he has lived by himself for the past 5 or 6 years. When he visits us, he calls me "sick" or "gross" for being an idol otaku. But one day I said, 'Hey bro, you can take this CD, if you want.' His excitement was genuine. 'Really? This is the newly released one! Thanks!' And there it was, I thought. I had him."
"It's funny because who would have recognized it as being the newest CD, if they didn't follow it, you know? I suspect he is an idol otaku, as well, but just doesn't want to admit it," he finished with a hearty laugh. I chuckled with him and told Otaben that it's very possible he and his brother might have much more to talk about than they think.
I continued on with the same topic, "So, your family all seems pretty accepting. What about your friends?"
He gave a gentle shrug before answering, "Basically, my friends, who I met recently, knew that I was an idol otaku from the beginning, so they never had the chance to be surprised. My friends from junior high weren't surprised either because they knew I liked Morning Musume back then. People are fine with it. They may have been surprised, but I have never had a negative opinion tossed my way or anything. So I post my otaku activity on Facebook with my real name because I'm totally fine with telling the world that I'm an otaku. I post reports from events to let them know how fun being an idol otaku can be. In fact, many of my friends are rather interested. They often ask me what kind of things I do or what the handshaking events are like, though nobody comes with me. They've only seen these events on TV and so they want to know what it's really like, which is why I post conversations I've had with idols."
Otaben's Conversations with Idols
For those of you who aren't friends with Otaben on Facebook, I wanted to share some of his reports. So I asked, "Do you mind if we share some dialogue you've had with an idol at one of the meet and greets with our readers?"
"I'd be happy to," he approved. "You would be amazed at how well I am able to talk with famous girls. It's like we are friends, or maybe even like they are my girlfriend. Just kidding. I know it sounds creepy. It wasn't serious, just to clarify."
NMB Chiho Matsuoka
Chiho: "I want to take photos with Kao-tan san (Kaori Matsumura), so could you ask her for me?"
Otaben: "Huh? You should ask her yourself."
Chiho: "I'm a bit scared and I can't talk to her."
Otaben: "She'll be fine! Actually, if I were to tell her, she would find out that I came to you first and that would upset her and she'd ask why I went to see a different girl before her."
Chiho: "What? Then I'll say the same thing! You want to see a different girl?"
Otaben: "((((；゜Д゜))) OMG!"
SKE Kaori Matsumura
Otaben: "Hi Kao-tan. Chiho Matsuoka said that she wants to take photos with you."
Kaori: "The girl from Namba (NMB), right? You've been saying 'Chiho-chan' a lot recently! (angry tone)"
Otaben: "Kaotan, you are the cutest…(trembling voice)"
With a press from his thumb, the screen on his phone went black as it disappeared below the table top, undoubtedly on its way back to that The KOBerrieS♪ bag by his left foot.
Leaning back up to join me on the useful side of the table, he continued to try to make his case for attending the meet and greets. "So, as you could probably tell from those dialogues, the more you go, the more friendly and familiar you become with the idols. It allows for more free-spirited conversations between the two of you. They know not only my name but also Who I am a fan of and what kind of things we've talked about before. This was so much fun for me and I wanted other people to know about it, so I post reports on social media," he submitted.
Does Otaben Have a Girlfriend?
And now the question we've all been waiting for: "This may be a personal question, but do you have a girlfriend? Or, have you had a girlfriend while you have been an idol otaku? If so, what does/did she say? If not, are you the type of person who can only love idols?"
For the first time since this interview began, his face winced to a somber red, even though a few moments before he was positively merry. "Of course," he regretfully moaned, "I don't have a girlfriend. Since becoming an otaku, I haven't had a girlfriend, either. I'm interested solely in idol girls now."
I felt immediately responsible for the mood that question had cast over my friend and I sought quickly to dispel it. "But, you are a nice looking guy with a great job. You seriously don't get approached by any girls?" I appealed.
"Well, I don't care about ordinary girls, even though I've been asked out on dates or goukon 合コン1 he asserted softly.
"Several girls have sent me messages on occasion, but I was not interested in them at all and bluntly told them, 'Sorry, but I'm busy.' I mean, to be fair, I really am busy. I spend so much time working and doing idol otaku activities. Now it feels like a waste of time and money even going to a goukon. I don't enjoy them or hanging out with girls nearly as much as I enjoy idol events. I prefer to go to idol events and use my money for their stuff. After going on a goukon group date, I think, 'Darn, I could have gotten 4 more CDs or tickets to a photoshoot with that money.'"
"Of course, I don't mentally convert all the money I spend into how many idol CDs I could have had. Only when I spend money for goukon or dates. But if I go drinking with my guy friends, I don't think that way. I only think this way when money is spent on a woman. It's fun to talk with people, but not as fun as the idol stuff. There are also female otaku and I am sometimes told that we could enjoy the same things together. But they are just female otaku and not idols, so I am not interested in them either. It's no exaggeration to say that I'm the type of person who can only love idols."
I wondered if he truly loved idol girls, or whether it was just an excuse to avoid dating, so I asked, "So, what if an idol girl quit her group and became an ordinary girl? Would you want to date her?"
The question forced him to pause for some time. "That's a tough question," he groaned. "Umm…" he thought on his answer for a while longer and I could hear his foot begin to tap. His head swayed from side to side as though toying with the prospect, or perhaps the impossibility of it, until finally, with an unaffected assuredness, his eyes met mine once again.
"Well, this is my personal opinion, so other otaku may be different, but I cheer for them as an idol – the figure on the stage. I know that they are human and they live their private lives normally, like we all do. But I'm not interested in their private lives. It's said that real people are 3D, anime characters are 2D, and idols are 2.5D. That is to say, we cheer for idols not as real people, but for the image that they project themselves as. We like them as idols. So, if one became an ordinary girl, I don't think that it would be the same. Since I've never had such an experience, I cannot say anything with confidence, but that's what I think for now. Although I might get excited to see them, I only cheer for them as idols," he concluded.
From that answer I could see that his was a level of otaku far greater than ever I had come across in all my wide travels. I marvel at the commitment. While the words in my mouth had temporarily left me, my brain was racing with all manners of hypotheticals. Alas, I couldn't prevent my curiosity from bursting onward. "So," I warily inched, "you said that it may be not an exaggeration to say that you're the type of person who can only love idols. I'm compelled to ask, but I'm hesitant to word my question improperly and so I apologize beforehand, but do you see idols as being sexual?"
In a manner leagues more relaxed than I was, he calmly shrugged and said, "Well, I never thought of them in that way. I'm not sure about other people, though. It's too scary to ask them. This topic is a taboo in the idol otaku world. In my case, however, it's a 100% no! In fact, an ex-member of SKE48 (Momona Kitou) became a porn star (Yua Mikami). Anyways, Kaori Matsumura, whom I cheer for, recommended fans to buy the video on a radio program, so I bought it. However, she looked exactly like she did in the idol group and I could only see her as an idol, so I didn't even watch it. It was really disturbing and I felt weird about it all. I would have never thought that such a pure idol would have become so dirty. It was too uncomfortable for me. What I'm trying to say, I suppose, is that idols don't create that link to such things in my mind."
"What about their scandals?" I asked. "What do you feel when one arises?"
"Actually, Kaori Matsumura had a scandalous past. It was revealed in a magazine that she was employed as a hostess in a bar. But she was not like other idols when she got famous, so fans weren't shocked at all. Some fans get really upset with their favorite idol when they are involved in scandals." I was so impressed by his demeanor and by his completely rational answers. I was developing a fond respect for his candidness.
Japanese Idol Otaku with Wives and Families
Soon things took a natural turn towards discussing the romantic lives of other otaku and how idol activities affect them. At this point I wasn't surprised that Otaben had knowledge about this area of the idol otaku life, as well.
"Realistically," he began, "single men make up the majority of the male fans, but there are those who have girlfriends or wives, too. Those people aren't usually the type of otaku that show up to every event like us, though. Of course, they would have limited time and resources to devote to idols, especially if they have a family, right? People usually work on weekdays, so main idol events are on weekends. But if they have a girlfriend, a wife, or a family, it makes it much more difficult to attend. It's impossible for them to adjust their schedule. Among married people, some have permission from their wives, but I happen to know that some of them are sneaking out. I heard that the sneaky husbands receive CDs at the post office and hide them in their cars and stuff like that. They have to scrape their money together from what remains after paying for family necessities, so they can get away and do what they like doing."
What? Some men sneak away from their wives so they can go watch, shake hands and chat with idols? I suppose I wasn't surprised that it happens, but I told Otaben I couldn't believe that some people could secretly cheer for idols without being found out by their spouses. "From a lawyer's perspective," I asked "do you think it could be the reason for a divorce?"
Otaben's brow furled in thought. "Well," he mused, "I've never thought about that either. I'm not 100% sure, but I don't think it would be the only reason for a divorce, even if it was found out. Going after idols is not cheating. It's just a hobby. It's the same as spending their money on a motorbike. I mean, they couldn't ask for consolation money for that reason alone. It could count as one of the reasons, though. Perhaps you could link it to incompatibility. However, I haven't heard of any such troubles, so I believe that most of those men strike a healthy balance between their loved ones and their hobby."
I pouted with a sigh of mild dissatisfaction and said, "All right."
The Best and Toughest Part About Being an Idol Otaku
"Okay, let's get back on track. What is the best part and the toughest part about being an idol otaku?" I asked.
He leapt right into his answer. "The best part is definitely that I can meet a wide variety of people. Their occupations and ages are all so varied. Each otaku has a different personality too. We all have the same hobby, so talking with them is really fun. If we get closer, we sometimes talk about our private lives. It's definitely the best part about being an idol otaku – Getting to know many kinds of people and having a fun time together."
"The toughest part about it is the money and time you need to invest. Scheduling events to go to and how much money it all costs is definitely the toughest."
Yep, I thought, spending around $500 a month on CDs sounds difficult. "Yeah, I bet it can be," I said as I imagine how this hobby might set him back over time. "Well, I hope I'm not being to brazen to ask, but how much money do you spend in one year?"
Surprisingly, he didn't hesitate answering for a second. In fact, he looked proud. "Last year I spent about 1,000,000 yen (approximately $10,000 USD). This year, I think it will be more than that. I can openly declare that it will increase proportionately with my income. Now, my maximum limit is 1,000,000 yen. I also have savings and I always try to make sure I have money for other stuff. I don't spend all of it. Maybe 20 to 30 %."
"Here is a rough breakdown of that 1,000,000 yen: 400,000 yen for CDs (handshaking event tickets/votes for election), 400,000 yen for transportation and accommodation for events, the rest is spent on goods and other things."
What Makes an Idol Otaku Fall in Love (and Spend Money)?
Now we all know that he spends a good amount of money on idols. Let's ask how he chooses who to spend his money on. "Can you list the names of the idols that you were and are a fan of? Could you explain how your favorites have shifted over time and also why they became your favorite in the first place?", I asked.
"As for AKB48, I started with Amina Sato, then Sawako Hata, then Kaori Matsumura and now Chiho Matsuoka is placed right alongside Kaori Matsumura. The reason I cheer for them is that they are different from other idols. They are really unique," he answered.
Once again I saw a look of sheer delight fall over his face when he began talking about his favorites. He continued, "For example, Kaori Matsumura often gets involved in arguments with people in management. It's something that idols don't usually do. She also says things that an idol shouldn't say. I can't come up with any good examples because there are so many. But, yeah, she is not afraid to speak her mind and if she thinks something isn't right, she will tell you. She is a really outspoken person. It's very different from the stereotypical idol, right? I like it!"
He moved right along to a more detailed story about his favorite girl, Kaori Matsumura. "Speaking of Kaori, she was not popular at first. But when the Google+ service started, she posted updates more than anybody else. She also taped and posted videos everyday, even without any make-up on her face. Sometimes she would talk about whatever, other times she would cook. She'd show us behind the scenes footage of concerts and she'd even show us quarrels with other members. Because of her, we finally knew about what idols were doing off stage. Throughout this videotaping period, she also took on the role of an adviser for the younger or newer members of the group, as though she was their mother. She was liked by all other higher positioned members, as well. It was really fun to watch, and it quickly made her a lot of fans. Before that, she was not involved in the annual AKB48 member election, but her videos catapulted her to 34th place in the 'Future Girls' category. The following year, she moved up to the 24th place (Undergirls), then to 17th place (Undergirls), and finally 13th place (senbatsu 選抜) this year. I literally cried when this happened," he confided.
I admit I felt my eye brows raise when he uttered that last part. I then briefly pondered whether he uses the word literally… ummm… literally.
"As I was saying," he continued, "she was not popular at all in the beginning. Although she speaks well, she is not the cutest, nor is her dancing or singing all that great either. So she wasn't garnering much praise. She has been a trainee idol so long that she was even granted the title of 'honorary lifetime trainee.' But she was promoted to a member of team KII of SKE by exception due to her success on Google+. I've seen her put forth effort and achieve such growth over the years. I've witnessed her struggles and her triumphs, and I've watched her make her way out of the swamp. How could I not become her fan? Well, I might have gotten a bit excited talking about her just now, but my point is that I like unique girls more than ordinary girls."
I understood completely. Why have tofu when you can have a dill-pickle-pizza-ice-cream-sundae?
"So all the other girls you listed up are also unique like Kaori Matsumura?" I asked.
"Actually no. The local idol group that I cheer for isn't that unique. They are just like traditional idol groups, but the distance between them and the fans is much smaller. For instance, they check my twitter page often. When I visit them, they ask me about my twitter page. When I changed my photo on twitter to a picture with them, the very next day one of them said, 'Thank you for changing the pic.' When I tweeted that I can't go to their event but ended up making it there anyway, while I was there one told me, 'You said on Twitter you couldn't make it, but you did!' It feels like they care about me, you know? There are a lot of fans and they certainly can't check all of the tweets, but they do check mine. That makes me feel great."
"It's not just the local groups that make me feel that way," he continued. "For example, Chiho Matsuoka (NMB in AKB48 group) makes me feel welcome at the handshaking events. For example, I said to her, 'You looked sick at the last live show. Were you okay?', then she told me, 'What? How did you know? You know me really well. You are the only one who noticed that. Thank you.'"
"Another time, she told me, 'I want to talk to you a little longer. It's really fun to chat with you. I can relax when talking with you.' I know she might say things like that to other people too, but among all the other fans, I felt as though I was special. I think that the girls who can make fans feel that way are the best idols. It definitely makes me want to go to another one of their events."
"They also show me their weaknesses sometimes. Chiho was recently promoted to sub-leader, requiring her to take on the role of MC, but she told me that she didn't think she was any good at it. I encouraged her to work on it and reassured her that she would soon get used to it. She responded with, 'Please support me until then.' I immediately answered, 'I will!'"
Why Japanese Idol Otaku Buy So Many CDs
At this point I understood spending money on CDs to shake a girls' hand. One CD is usually 1,000yen. If I could shake hands with Orlando Bloom and chat with him, even if it was only for a few seconds, I'd buy his CD.
But it seemed to me that having one fan buy a ton of CDs would increase garbage production. "Well, why don't they simply sell the tickets to the handshaking events rather than making fans buy CDs?"
"I can't be certain," Otaben responded. "But I think it's because it would conflict with the Entertainment and Amusement Trades Control Law. Companies need special permission to sell tickets for handshaking events (literally tickets to touch other people). You can imagine it being a "touchy issue" when the event involves so many minors."
"However, I imagine most otaku wish they could just buy the tickets. I hold on to almost all my CDs as a way to reflect on my actions. I haven't counted them, but I believe that there are between 500 to 600."
"And the CDs are also used for member election, correct?" I asked. "I mean, every CD sold between May and June would count as one vote. I think many fans spend more money on CDs during that period. Most fans understand the system, so they know that they are spending money on something for which they get nothing in return. So why do they still buy so many CDs?"
He gave yet another sound answer to explain such, I believed, odd behavior. "I think that there are two reasons," he posited. "First, we can show our appreciation to the idol we really like with a visual result. We enjoy their performance and they make us happy. We cheer for them, but their performance cheers us on, as well. We want to thank them and we show gratitude with our votes at the election. An ex-AKB48 member, Yuko Oshima, said in the election speech that the votes are like love from all the fans. Oh, and it's not as though we get nothing in return. Each CD comes with a ticket to a handshaking event. Although, I think we might still buy the CDs to amass votes even if they didn't contain tickets."
"Secondly, we can give our favorite idol a chance to take an active part in the group. There are so many members in the AKB group, but when they release a new CD, only 'senbatsu' members can sing and be on the cover. Only 'senbatsu' members can be in the spotlight. Typically, management chooses the 'senbatsu' girls, but the election grants us the opportunity to choose. We figure they choose girls who are already popular, girls who they want to be more popular and those that are good at dancing. But there is no clear criteria. It's up to the discretion of management."
"But at the annual AKB48 members election, those 'senbatsu' members are decided by fan votes (1st to 16th places become senbatsu members). That's why we vote for our favorite girl. It gives them the chance." With that delightful conclusion, he jumped instantly back to his favorite girl, Kaori Matsumura.
"Kaori Matsumura, whom I cheer for and won 13th place, has been chosen as a senbatsu member for the SKE single only twice. For various reasons, girls who are less popular than her were chosen, and fans were really sad. We really wanted her as a senbatsu member and to see her on nationally broadcast television. The only thing we could do for her was to vote for her. So, this year, we formed a group. There were about 100 members. Our goal was to get her to become a senbatsu member and we pooled our money and raised 14,000,000 yen (roughly $140,000). Not everyone spent the same amount of money. We hired an accountant, so we wouldn't have any trouble. This is only a guess, but I think that the average amount each member spent was 50,000 to 400,000 yen. I spent somewhere between that, too. The richest of them probably spent at least 3,000,000 yen. Some people also bought CDs on top of what they donated. I heard that one guy sold all his assets to buy votes for her since she told us that this year will be her last. She got 17th last year, which is just one position away from being a senbatsu member. We were all so frustrated and sad about it, so we focused our efforts this year."
He continued. "Of course, there are a lot of opinions about this annual AKB48 members election and various stances among otaku. Some people don't care about it at all and only buy a certain number of CDs. However, some people can really get carried away and go as far as maxing out credit cards, selling their assets or even taking out loans from money lenders. It all really depends on how firmly someone desires their girl to succeed. You will never hear of one otaku spending an extraordinary amount of money on votes and then turn around and complain to another otaku for not spending as much. We act as a group, but we respect individual ideas about the election. Everyone understands the system and does what they can do."
Japanese Idol Merchandise
"So, now that we know how you think of the CDs, what about special merchandise? Do you collect a lot of things and how important is it for you to have them right away?" I asked.
"Well, I don't collect merchandise, per se, but I do have a fair number of goods." He brought a lot of items to the cafe, but it was only a part of what he has collected over the years.
He continued, "They sell randomly packaged pictures at shops and concert venues. I have the complete sets of SKE trainee members when Kaori Matsumura was a trainee. There weren't trainee pictures at first, but they started selling them, so I bought a lot and completed the collection. I really only buy things that I truly want."
"One of my rarest items is a KOBerrieS♪ T-shirt with all the member's signatures on it. Yet, the most rare item of mine is Kaori Matsumura's solo CD that I waited in the pouring rain for hours to get my hands on. It was a limited edition, for 1000 people only, and I was 1006th. But I didn't give up and hoped others would leave on account of the rain. When I was told that I could get it, I was so happy. Actually, it was my most memorable moment as an otaku." Yet another mark of strong determination in this young man.
I asked him afterwards if he could have bought it online if he hadn't received one. He told me that the only merchandise worth buying are the ones you buy first hand.
How to Become an Idol Otaku
With a waning number of questions on my list, I glanced down at Otaben's remaining coffee. He had done pretty well. Nearly half was gone.
With my readers in mind, I asked, "If somebody wanted to become an idol otaku, what do you think would be the first step? "
He answered very politely, "On top of watching TV, videos, and listening to their music, you should go to an actual event. Perhaps concerts or other live performances. It might be a big step for you, but I'd like you to experience that atmosphere. It's common for other fans to talk to you. If you told them that it was your first time, they would happily teach you as much as they could. If you make friends there, it becomes a lot more fun. Therefore, visiting an actual event is the most important step. You probably won't know how to enjoy yourself there, at first, so just watch2 the other otaku.
"So, do whatever you can to join in on the fun. We have a specific cheer that we shout out during songs, and it's also coupled with dance moves. But it's fine to clap your hands and feel the fun of the atmosphere. If you continue to go to concerts, you will eventually know what to do during each song and it will become more fun."
"What about rules?" I asked, taking another swig of coffee. "Are there any rules all idol otaku agree on?"
"There are a lot of rules, though none are specifically written and enacted in the community," he said seriously. "It basically falls in to the realm of common sense. Here's a list:"
- Do not say bad things to the idol or swear at them during the meet and greet.
- Do not to touch anything other than their hands.
- Do not get close to them or talk to them without reason. (Some girls who don't like to be talked to.)
- If you have a lot of handshaking tickets, you should stand at the end of the line so that the people who only have a few tickets don't wait so long.
- The local idol groups have their show with other groups usually. So we let fans of specific groups ahead. Also if you want to move around (dance) a lot during the live performances, take the back row.
- Don't reveal personal information to other fans unless you know them well. Also don't ask for their information. Don't poke your noses into other fan's private affairs.
"There are a lot of other small rules, but those are the major ones," he concluded with a serious nod.
Otaben's Parting Words
"Lastly," I said, "is there anything else you want to say about yourself, idol otaku, or idols in general?" He crossed his arms in front of his chest and stared in thought at the floor to his left. Peering back towards the table, he uncrossed his arms, took ahold of his coffee mug and emptied the remaining contents into his mouth with a forceful upturn of the mug. A look of pleasant satisfaction eased its way over to me, where I now sat looking at my own coffee.
"I want everyone to see these events in person. There are a lot of videos and shows on TV, but I want everyone to come on over to the actual events. There is a concert, they sell their goods and CDs, and if you buy a CD, you can shake their hands. If it is the local idols, you may be able to talk to them for one CD, as well. Even though you can't speak Japanese, they would try talking to you. If you buy a photo ticket, called chekkiken チェキ券, they can do any pose you want (nothing racy, of course). It costs from 500yen to 2000yen."
"When you come to Japan, it might be a fun thing to try and learn about this part of Japanese culture. There are so many idol events all over Japan, so I'd like tourists to stop by at least one of them and get to know what it's like. The atmosphere is really different from what you would expect. It's also fun to do fan performances to the music and to chat with the members. It'll probably make you feel more genki."
As you can see in the picture above, I tried it out at the photo shooting event. It was fun and I did feel really genki!
"The term Otaku has a negative image. You might imagine a chubby person with glasses who doesn't care about their outward appearance, or someone who seems a bit out of place socially. However, there are many kinds of otaku. Of course, the stereotypical otaku does exist, but there are cute girl otaku, kids, fashionable otaku and young otaku – every one of them with something special to offer."
I learned a great deal talking with Otaben and experienced a big change of perspective. I would love it if more people came to idol events to sweep that bad image of otaku away for good. Thank you, Otaben-san!