Underground Cuties

Labour and Affect at the Margins of the Idol Industry in Japan

Andre Maffioletti, Concordia University [About | Email]

Volume 19, Issue 2 (Discussion paper 2 in 2019). First published in ejcjs on 10 September 2019.


Young performers in Japan, known as idols, not affiliated with large management or production firms operate in a grey area between independence and mainstream performance, relying on a system of affective labour to generate connections with fans and provide the means potentially to succeed as entertainers. This system of affective labour emerges through mutual interactions between fans and idols as an emotionally supportive enterprise, despite the generally difficult working conditions of the idols.

Keywords: Japan, popular culture, idol, underground performance.


In the world of Japanese idols (aidoru), young performers whose main attributes are their likeability, unthreatening cuteness and just enough talent to perform one step above high school festivals, affective labour is paramount. As defined by Negri and Hardt (1999, p. 79), the generation and manipulation of affect is labour “from below’, that is, that which is not traditionally measured in economic terms. Yet, in its capacity as labour that produces affective reactions and impel a response, it is a necessary practice to support the idol economy, which depends on the idol’s ability to mobilise fans, producing “social networks, forms of community [and] biopower” that foster constant consumption (Hardt, 1999, p. 96).

At the mainstream level, this system is supported by a robust network of major media outlets and marketing tools. However, as observed by Galbraith (2016, p. 233) at the underground level, the amateur and independent sphere of production, maintaining fan relationships becomes even more important, as the underground idol’s (chika aidoru) existence relies almost solely on nurturing continuous emotional and monetary support from a small pool of fans, sometimes as little as a dozen or so, without the luxury of advertising deals, significant royalties, TV exposure or major record label contracts. Additionally, operating outside the media and marketing network that props the “aboveground” results in alternative practices, which might be improvised, DIY or even questionable in legal terms. Taking the above into consideration, I propose to examine the labour practices of underground idols in terms of labour and affect, focusing on the intersections between formal and informal practices and how they converge and influence the current idol industry paradigm at the independent and amateur level.

Setting the scene: idols and the underground

Idol culture was born mainstream. Wendy Xie Boone (2015, p. 494) places the origin of idols in the late 1960s and 1970s as an offshoot of the myriad of beauty and talent contests sponsored by Japanese television. Back then, idols were marketed as “friendly-looking” boys and girls rather than beautiful, talented artists, performing sugary pop ballads on TV shows and jingles in commercials. The gimmick proved to be extremely popular, and idol debuts multiplied by the hundreds in the 1970s, peaking in the early and mid-1980s. This period is known as the “golden age of idols” (aidoru no ōgon jidai), an era when idols dominated pop charts and on average 40 to 50 new idols appeared every year (Galbraith and Karlin, 2012, p.5).

Parallel to the glitz of mainstream idolatry, the Japanese underground continued to chug along. In its own unsteady way, it had been there before and for as long as pop music had existed in Japan, with rock groups like The Jacks and Les Rallizes Dénudés fueling Japanese non-conformists with healthy doses of melodious rebellion through the 1960s and ’70s. Idols however, did not cross the surface line. Epitomised by the likes of the legendary Matsuda Seiko and Sakai Noriko, idols were a mass-produced, commercial commodity dissociated from the loud rabble below ground. Nevertheless, as observes journalist and music producer Ian F. Martin (2016, p. 60-61), the 1980s were a vibrant era for the underground, with DIY punk, metal, and hardcore rock acts fueling a band boom that would make its way up the entertainment ladder to influence the rise of Shibuya-kei and the rock explosion of the 1990s. And as bands such as the B’z, Mr. Children, and X Japan took over, idol media power abated in the late 1980s and early 90s. According to researcher Aoyagi Hiroshi (2005, p. 106), this period is known now as “the ice age of idols” (aidoru hyōgaki) and it would last until the late 1990s.

The turn of the millennium saw the birth of the first generation of online idols. In her study on the subject, Gabriella Lukacs (2015, p. 491-492) explains how tech savvy woman branded themselves net idols (netto aidoru). Taking advantage of the cheap means of production and dissemination afforded by the Internet, these young Japanese women created and maintained personal Websites where they shared pictures, diary entries and eventually videos with online fans. Concomitantly, Arai Toshiro (2015, para. 7) says that numerous live idols (raibuaidoru)—amateur and indie idols who perform in small live houses—also begun activities in and around Akihabara.

Underground idols were a part of the rise of otaku culture in the early 2000s, when Akihabara became the mecca of anime and manga-related products (Miho, 2015, p. 123). Small acts such as the singing idol duo FICE and Momoko Halko became popular names at street-level in the scene and were able to get limited TV exposure out of sheer novelty (Himeno, 2015, loc. 762-770). Akimoto Yasushi, founder of the mega idol franchise AKB48, has acknowledged in interviews that he selected Akihabara as the site to launch his new idol outfit in 2004 because of its burgeoning fame. “At that time Akihabara was starting to gain wider popularity… as an area known for otaku culture it was becoming ‘hot’… so I thought it would be interesting” (Maxwell and Joyce, 2011). Although he does not mention underground idols outright, it is unlikely he was unaware of their growing numbers and appeal.

The 3-year rule: labour in the underground

While the number of underground idol groups continues to increase, idol careers span little over a couple of years in most cases. In her book on the underground scene, “veteran” (of six years) indie idol Himeno Tama explains what she calls the “3-Year Underground Lifespan Theory”: “Year 1: Just don’t know what to do and work hard; Year 2: Try to pull all your focus and do your best; Year 3: Give up” (2015, loc. 99-102, my translation). According to Galbraith and Karlin (2012, p. 16-17) the rule seems to apply to the mainstream level as well. Neither Himeno nor Galbraith and Karlin go into details as to why, yet further exploration reveal numerous possible hardships and labour conditions at work that account for such limited career prospects, at least at the independent level.

Underground idols straddle the line between formal and informal labour throughout their careers. They might not operate under contracts, receive money under the table, or take on unwritten responsibilities as part of their tenure with an idol group. As a rationale, I will adopt Ramon Lobato and Julian Thomas’ definition of informal labour better to construct my analysis. According to the latter, informal labour corresponds to a gamut of activities “occurring beyond the view of the state” and includes “unregistered employment, domestic homework, street trade, non-market production and backyard tinkering” (Lobato and Thomas, 2015, p. 8). These parameters are quite broad, but they provide enough scope to frame and expand on the structure that governs underground labour boundaries and their fluctuations.

To an extent, underground idols operate under the system established and maintained by mainstream companies. Members are often selected through auditions, undergo singing and dancing training, perform in live shows, and participate in meet & greet events with fans. It is in the grey areas within this system that the underground veers into informality, and in some cases, borderline illegality. At the mainstream level idols are usually salaried employees of their talent agencies, traditionally called “offices” (jimusho). Rather than income from royalties or any other sort of commission, they receive a base wage, which according to W. David Marx’s (2012, p. 47) research starts around ¥200,000 (roughly $2,400) per month. Aoyagi (2005, p. 166) says that the initial investment to train and market an idol can be quite high, with possible costs in the ¥30 and ¥40 million ($350-400,000) range per performer. Jimusho are able to recoup costs from successful idols through revenue from merchandise, advertising campaigns, and royalties, all of which go to the company in their entirety.

At the underground level salaries are negotiated on a situational framework. Most underground jimusho are micro-companies that manage a handful, or even just one group at a time, and it is not uncommon for one man to run the entire operation (Kracker, 2019). According to journalist Kuwahara Rika (2019, para. 4), deferred payment is a common practice, with jimushooffering no money upfront and the promise of compensation “once [the idol] became popular.” Those who do get paid receive meagre sums. A recent report by Sekiguchi Manato (2018) estimates an average of ¥130,000 ($1,500), but journalists Misa Ogawa, Mayuko Isobe and Misa Hirabayashi (2018) have discovered idols making as little as ¥30-40,000 a month, around $450, which is often garnered by the jimusho to cover singing and dancing lessons and operational expenses. In addition, most jimusho also require idols to generate social media content, pay for their own transportation, and buy or make their own makeup and outfits.

Therefore, while underground idols are not technically working for free, as their contracts do stipulate pay, many do not see any of it in the form of a paycheque. Rather, informal agreements with management allow for off-the-books income during shows and meet & greet events. Traditional after-show activities always include product sales and the so-called “hand shake events” (akushukai), at which fans can buy tickets to shake hands with idols and have brief, 1- to 2-minute conversations, as well as take pictures known as cheki, a Japanese word for a Polaroid. These present the best chances company-managed underground idols have of making additional income besides a salary. The jimushoinvariably retains profits derived from tickets, CDs, DVDs and photo books; however money made from cheki(which usually cost around ¥500-1000, or $6-12 per photo) might be either shared with or go entirely to the idol herself (Kuwahara, 2019, para. 6). Besides praxis, there seems to be no specific reason why management allows for such arrangements, but it is likely to serve multiple purposes, from appeasing idols disgruntled over paltry wages to encouraging them actively to nurture a fanbase, fostering audience growth, and increasing or maintaining future profitability.

At the core of the above practices is what Lobato and Thomas theorise as the divide between opportunityandnecessityentrepreneurship:

Opportunity entrepreneurs are those who can see and act on market opportunities and are the classic self-starting go-getters. In contrast, necessity entrepreneurs often find themselves barred from this kind of action because they are locked out of certain markets or lack the required capital to get a conventional business set up… they improvise and get by however they can (Lobato and Thomas, 2015, p. 47).

Without corporate backing, little to no access to mainstream media outlets, and limited regional reach, underground idol outfits are a product of necessary entrepreneurship. Unable to access major markets and sometimes funded on an event-to-event basis, undergroundjimushoare compelled to cut costs and strike deals with their idols that would otherwise be deemed unfair in formal work environments.

However, low pay alone does not fully account for the short career span alluded to at the top of this section. At the underground level many idols do not see themselves as pursuing a career and only the most ambitious young girls are significantly bothered by the issue. “Some of the girls treated it like a school club activity,” says ex-underground idol Tsubasa Minmin, who now operates as the solo singer/songwriter Harajuku Minmin, “they didn’t think of it as a job” (Kuwahara, 2019, para. 6). Himeno Tama (2015, loc. 149-156) corroborates, saying that she also perceived it as a type of afterschool project when she started at the age of 16. But while idol activities might be construed as a hobby, the work load is far from that of a typical extracurricular activity, and it makes for a more compelling factor as a career deterrent.

In their recent exposé, Ogawa, Isobe and Hirabayashi (2018) shed light on typical underground and independent idol schedules. Idols, both anonymously and by name, reported their work schedule as “grueling.” One idol said she had one day off per month, attended events almost daily, and had to sell promotional items until late at night. She also confessed to going days without a shower due to a lack of time (Ogawa, Isobe and Hirabayashi, 2018, para. 15). Minmin shares a similar story, saying that she would perform up to four times a day during the week and attend regular school classes at the same time (Kuwahara, 2018, para. 5). Activist Nito Yumeno, head of Colabo, an organisation that provides counseling and support for teenage girls in dire straits, has heard many other reports, which include “idols claiming to have memorised dance moves late at night without any sleep to replace a member who had a fever, teens collapsing during dance lessons due to hyperventilation, [and] idols working from early in the morning to midnight” (Udagawa, 2018, para. 5). Extreme cases have also resulted in death, such as that of Otomo Honoka, a 16-year old idol from Ehime prefecture who took her own life in the end of 2018 due to exhaustion (Udagawa, 2018, para. 1-3).

The idols’ inexperience and deference to authority aggravate matters. Lawyer Kunihata Kasai, who has represented idol plaintiffs in the past, explains that “young girls and women are often at a disadvantage because they find it difficult to discern whether the conditions of their contracts are suitable of not” (Ogawa, Isobe and Hirabayashi, 2018, para. 21). Former underground idol Kotobano Aya corroborates Kasai’s evaluation, confessing that upon reading her contract “my friend said to me it sounded like a ‘slave contract’. But I thought this was just normal” (Ogawa, Isobe and Hirabayashi, 2018, para. 9). She also said that when she brought up her concerns to management she was met with hostility and threats. “Don’t ever try to make it in the entertainment industry,” a female producer told Kotobano when she decided to quit, “I will crush you with everything I’ve got” (Ogawa, Isobe and Hirabayashi, 2018, para. 6). Otomo Honoka’s jimusho was also accused of harassment, attempting to force her to pay ¥100 million ($890,000) to let her quit, and sending threatening phone messages such as “If you talk about quitting again, I will definitely punch you” (Fuji and Tanagawa, 2018, para. 6, 9). Some idols, who are able to stand up for themselves, like Minmin, jump ship and, disillusioned, go on hiatus, abandon idol work altogether, or change careers. A few join different jimusho that might offer better working conditions. Most underground jimusho do not have the means to engage in legal battles and will relent if they cannot intimidate or persuade idols to remain in their ranks, opting for hiring new amateurs as a cheaper and quicker solution.

The scenarios above present extreme developments of the most common issues that plague the industry, and evince the shortcomings of necessary entrepreneurship and what John T. Caldwell describes as “blackmailed or unpaid creative work” (2013, p. 92). Caldwell theorises that the shift from “financial payroll systems to complex cultural and symbolic payroll systems” has been fueled by what he refers to as “stress aesthetics.” The concept dictates that within certain systems of production, companies and/or employers promulgate the belief that hard work under strenuous conditions begets value, promotes quality, and ultimately rewards workers with a sense of accomplishment and meaning (Caldwell, 2013, p. 93-96).

This type of underdog, against-all-odds narrativisation of labour is an intricate part of idol culture. Marketed as possibly untalented and still developing performers, idols are supposed to “give their best” (ganbatte) and strive to succeed regardless of their natural abilities. As Ian F. Martin puts it, “no matter how successful the idols may become, they must always be seen to be struggling—preferably with a camera nearby to record the tears” (Martin, 2016, p.193). The perceived difficulties foster fan sympathy and incentivise them to “help” the idol in his/her quest to improve, usually by buying merchandise and voting for the idol on contests and elections. “The Japanese virtue of accomplishment is realised though a rite of passage which consists of a struggle in which [the idol], wishing to public express her- or himself faces a series of social pressures and obstacles” says researcher Aoyagi Hiroshi, asserting that upon success an idol is seen as “a diligent person who works hard to accomplish her dream, as Japanese would say asoko made yaretara sugoi! Meaning, ‘Being able to do that much is admirable!’” (2005, p. 207)

In his analysis of Hollywood and other filmmaking hubs, Caldwell has found that the unreasonable shooting schedules that pervade the industry are rationalised as a way to maintain the flow of creativity, and an overall sense that adversity breeds excellence (Caldwell, 2013, p. 98). In the underground idol scene, working under a scarcity of promotional channels, overabundance of competition, and limited resources generate a need for constant exposure and fan contact, in which daily shows and long hours selling or promoting groups is rationalized as survival. Idols are convinced—or coerced—by management that their job is on the line lest they can maintain production.

Finally, oversaturation is a further drive for idols to accept unfair working conditions in what Caldwell deems a “symbolic payroll system.” Arguing that oversupply in the film industry promotes lower wages and might otherwise be discouraging to cheap labourers, Caldwell theorises that management rebrands their workers as “artists” as a kind of “symbolic payment intended to convince the firm’s work ‘talent’ to stay on the ‘team’” (Caldwell, 2013, p. 100-101.). Substitute “film industry” with “underground scene” and “artists” for “idols,” and the same argument illustrates the current situation in Japan. In a market overflowing with young hopefuls, small, cash-strapped jimushoor indie managers hire cute girls to perform on stage and events under the much-coveted title of “idol,” justifying unreasonable and potentially harmful work conditions as a necessity of the market. The labourers, whose ideal of idol culture is modeled on the idealised glamour and coquetry of the mainstream, accept the symbolic cultural capital offered by their employers instead of proportional financial remuneration, buying into the narrative of struggle connected to the “Japanese virtue of accomplishment,” and the employers’ promise of future rewards “when the idol becomes successful.” The cycle continues until the spell is broken and the idol either rebels and looks for better opportunities, strikes out on her own, or, most often, quits the scene, at which point the jimusho mines the market for new prospects.

Shared intimacy: affect production and consumption at the margin

The hardships, precarity, and the short career span described in the previous section have not stymied the increasing number of amateurs flooding the underground scene. According to Himeno, more than money and fame, underground idols are in search of recognition, or in her own words, “the desire to be seen, cheered on, and acknowledged” (2015, loc. 1267-1270, my translation). Himeno’s words reverberate with those of the net idols interviewed by Gabriella Lukacs, who have similarly begun their careers “in search of meaning in their lives” (2015, p. 488). What that recognition or meaning entails has been theorised as both resistance to gender prescriptions in Japan as well as exercising agency in the pursuit of self-realisation.

For journalist Kitahara Minori, it represents a form of assertion in an otherwise highly patriarchal environment. “In idol culture women are stars. There may be nowhere else in Japanese society where we are the driving force,” she comments on an interview for the 2017 documentary Tokyo Idols. Koga Reiko (2009, p. 9-12) also sees it in a similar manner, observing that since the 1990s women in Japan have resorted to the same cuteness that most idols embrace to promote their opinions and values, becoming thus able to set fashion trends based on aesthetics. In the underground context, Kitahara and Koga’s observations echo the scene’s relative potential as a vehicle of self-expression that might surpass that of the mainstream.

Idols are seldom born. As Marx (2012, p. 37) explains, specially at the mainstream level, they are crafted from scratch, fine-tuned by their producers in every aspect of their public and private persona, and tightly controlled both at the individual and career level. They also rarely compose any of their music or have a say about the artistic aspects of their performances. According to Tsunku, producer of the renowned idol group Morning Musume, ideal candidates must be “obedient… lack a strong sense of self, and give her agency over entirely” to the producer (Tsuku, cited by Galbraith, 2012, p. 192). Malleability allows producers to survey the market and match idols to fans, thus increasing the likelihood that an idol will prove successful—and therefore profitable—in the future. For example, Wendy Xie Boone (2015, p. 496) describes how Akimoto Yasushi marketed popular AKB48 idol Shimazaki Haruka. Noticing the girl’s natural introversion, Akimoto promoted her as a shy girl in hopes that timid fans would empathise. The strategy proved to be quite successful, and Shimazaki eventually received enough fan support to reach 8th place (out of a 116 candidates) in the group’s general elections.

Underground idols on the other hand are not as tightly controlled. Most independent jimusho do not possess the time or resources carefully to craft and then micromanage idols for extended periods of time. That allows underground idols a certain freedom in their industry, both privately and artistically. Those who work with jimusho are often involved in the production of choreographies, makeup and wardrobe, and some even write their own lyrics. Freelance idols with no affiliation, such as the duo Nama Ham to Yaki Udon and entrepreneur idol Satosaki Risa (who manages her own group, Shojo Kakka, in addition to her solo work), are in full control of their careers, managing not only performances but also booking shows, maintaining Websites, and purchasing and selling merchandise (Okudara, 2016).

However, with greater freedom comes even more pressure to perform and an increased necessity to offer fan services, as without company backing much of the affective labour involved in the idol business must be manufactured by the young performer. In her study of independent net idols, Lukacs discusses what she labels as “the labour of cute,” referring to the arduous work of producing cuteness and performing it to entice and maintain a fan base. Rather than a tangible product, it is the cute attitude that attracts the audience, for a cute demeanour “induces feelings of ease, comfort and pleasure” in the fan (Lukacs, 2015, p. 496). But without media exposure, cuteness is not enough. It must accompany personalisation that will allow the underground idol to stand out in a sea of anonymous faces. That is were intimacy becomes labour, what Galbraith (2016, p. 234) terms “the labour of love,” in which idols treat fans as individuals as well as supporters.

Intimacy here does not mean sexual interaction but instead a sense of acknowledgment and community. “Thousands of underground idols exist, but only a few can draw 500 people to a live performance,” says Galbraith, “most depend on about 20 core fans, whom they appeal to directly to buy multiple copies of CDs to support them as well as spread the word and recruit new fans” (Galbraith, 2016, p. 233). While mainstream idols can count on TV, magazines, and their own companies to enlist fans into the immaterial labour of supporting an idol, underground idols must cultivate personal connections with fans. “My fans are like my children. They are the most important thing in my life. Without them I’m nothing” says idol Hiragi Rio, the main subject of Miyabe Kyoko’s documentary on the underground idol scene, Tokyo Girls. In the film, Rio supporters (known as “Rio Brothers”) numbered no more than a dozen or so, but their devotion is palpable. “I’ve never felt so passionate about anything in my life” says one fan in voice-over. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” confesses another fan, “this isn’t a fad. It’s a religion.”

Affective production and its networks of intimacy are segmented and highly structured in the underground idol world. Imbued with unwritten rules of socialisation and reciprocity as integral vehicles of production, affective labour operates as a facet of what Mario Tronti defines as the social factory. It does so by extending the rewards of affective interactions beyond its immediate scope within the underground scene and supporting other spheres of existence for fans and idols.

In his definition, Tronti points that

At the highest level of capitalist development social relations become moments of the relations of production, and the whole society becomes an articulation of production. In short. All of society lives as a function of the factory and the factory extends its exclusive domination over all of society (Translated and cited in Cleaver, 1992, p. 137).

Within this framework, idol concerts become the binding activity that transform relations, the live house converted into the social factory “production floor” as idol-fan interactions take place. Consider for example the singing-dancing choreographies performed by idol fans during shows, the so-called otagei, sometimes also written as wotagei. As a performance, it is deployed within a call-and-response system in which the idol on stage performs her song, which will be acknowledged by fans and thus “responded” to with their own, distinct choreography designed to complement the idol’s rather than mimic it, conveying their admiration and support via dance and the chanting of slogans. The back-and-forth bonds fan and performer into a synergetic “spectacle of intimacy” as Christine Yano puts it, labouring together to solidify their connection. “In the darkened rows of the concert hall, penlight waving becomes an act of solidarity,” says Yano, alluding to the traditional glowstick fans use to highlight their position and dance moves in the dim of the audience pit. “Allowing fans to perform their devotion back [to the idol]… penlight waving thus become more than a simple gesture, but an assertion of a fan’s support… her identity as an fan, and her relationship with [the idol]” (Yano, 2004, p. 54).

The affective bond initiated at shows is further solidified with numerous activities that surround live events. After-show meet & greets, merchandising, and social media communication comprise the bulk of social factory activities at the underground level. Idols are particularly careful to learn the names of avid supporters and keep tabs on their lives as much as the fans themselves do about the idol. Their interactions become personalised. For instance, as depicted in Tokyo Idols, Mitacchi, an avid fan of Yuka, a member of the underground group P.IDL, has a collection of hand-crafted letters and personalised items he has received as a demonstration of gratitude for his continuous support. Likewise, Koji, one of Hiragi Rio’s most devoted fans, spends much of his free time organising the Rio Brothers, coordinatingget-togethers and on occasion following Rio on the road to help her during meet & greets and boost numbers during shows.

Yet the proximity between idol and fan does not cross boundaries into the private, blurring the lines between labour and leisure without disrupting the system that enables it. Fans rarely know where idols live and do not hang out together outside official functions. Even amongst their own circles, fans maintain a certain “work etiquette” that separates their idol-related activities from the rest of their lives. For example, while filming her documentary, director Miyake Kyoko discovered that most of the Rio Brothers do not know each other’s real name, using their online nicknames instead, even though they spend several hours every week in meetings and other idol-related activities (Nord, 2017). Similarly, when two members of the group Zenbu Kimi no Sei Da. admitted having private interactions with fans, they were found to be in breach of contract and forced to withdraw from the group (ykmk, 2019).

Rather than become their lives, the affective connection developed by idol-fan interactions is designed to support their emotional well-being through risk-free interactions that foster connection without the complications of deep emotional relationships. “She [the idol] allows men to love her and cheer her with a great sense of comfort,” says a fan in an interview, “As a man, I wouldn’t have to worry about being criticised, rejected, or betrayed, as can be the case with a real-life girlfriend or sister” (Aoyagi, 2005, p. 88). Lukacs’ research evinces similar dynamics in the realm of net idols, observing that “by feeding their fans’ belief that the feeling of intimacy between fans and net idols was mutual, the net idols boosted their fan’s egos” (Lukacs, 2015, p. 493), wherein lies the great appeal of underground idol culture. On one hand, idols provide affective support through live and media interactions, offering fans a safe environment for self-expression and emotional connection without the danger of rejection. On the other hand, fans support their idols financially and allow them to express themselves through their activities, and in some cases transform their hobby into a career.


At the end of her study on net idols, Lukacs concludes that “as affective labour is ascending in the hierarchy of labouring forms, it is becoming increasingly difficult to measure the value of labour as well” (Lukacs, 2015, p. 506). Idol culture and performance are intricately connected to producing and disseminating affect. As Nakamori Akio sums it, “idols are not necessarily good singers or actors. If we look at them closely, we realise that they are not extremely beautiful or attractive. They are merely cute and popular. Idols are simply admired by fans, for no specific or persuasive reason” (Nakamori, 2007, p. 14-15). Simply put, without affect idols are a second-rate product. As performers they are largely awkward. They are marketed as inferior and often vacuous. Their function is primarily emotional, not artistic. Their work is to build rapport through cuteness, to charm audiences through the appearance of innocence and virtue.

Within idol hierarchy, underground idols stand as a paradox. At the bottom of the ladder, they are hardly seen, and are barred from most mainstream media outlets and systems of marketing and dissemination. Toeing the blurry boundary between formal and informal labour leaves them more susceptible to exploitation and abusive work conditions, and provides them even less career prospects than their mainstream counterparts. Yet in their limitations they have access to avenues of self-expression that most mainstream idols do not. They can be an active part of the creative process and even take control of it.

While both mainstream and underground idols require affective production to thrive, underground idols work at it without a net. Their infrastructure is underdeveloped and precarious, compounding challenges and reducing effectiveness. Therefore, greater connection and reciprocity with fans are vital for an underground idol’s continued existence. Within such disadvantages however is one of their greatest appeals. Underground idols provide fans with unmatched access and intimacy, at times providing individual support and personalised emotional care. Together, fans and idols support each other both through financial and affective labour practices, converting sociality into immaterial work to mutual benefit.


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About the Author

Andre Maffioletti is a PhD candidate at Concordia University in Montreal, where he focusses on Film and Moving Image Studies. He has curated film series in Montreal, and taught courses on Japanese film and folklore.

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