The crowd in the Ishimaru Soft event space in Akihabara sits anxiously awaiting the arrival of an idol, whose most recent DVD they purchased for the right to meet her. Led on by the MC, the 50 or so middle-aged men call out in unison: “Mana-chan!” After two more calls, she appears—a girl of 13, looking dazed and sheepish. As the cameras zoom in, she strips down to her bikini, which drapes on her under-developed form.
Mana is a “low teen” pursuing a career as a model. As abhorrent as it may sound, children as young as 2 who are billed as “junior idols” release photo books and DVDs. Insofar as the models do not expose their breasts or genitals, this is not against the law. But the way scantily clad kids blow on flutes and lick ice cream cones in front of the camera has raised eyebrows at home and abroad.
The idol industry in Japan in general is estimated at 60 billion yen annually, and junior idols shift some 3 million photo books and DVDs per year. There are countless websites (such as Pure Little Sister Club) and a syndicated magazine (Moecco) catering to fans.
This trend began in the ’90s, when columnist Akio Nakamori coined the term "chidol," or child idol, to describe the sudden increase of young models. The neologism fell out of favor and was replaced by “junior idol,” which shifts the emphasis from childhood and links the phenomenon with legitimate up-and-coming idols.
In Akihabara, long known for its stock of lolicon (Lolita Complex) and “little sister” movies and magazines, the number of shops advertising idol DVDs marked U-15 (under-15) has quietly increased.
“This is a gray area in Japan, but the residents of Akihabara and I find it reprehensible,” says Takaya Kobayashi, 54, a Chiyoda Ward councilman.
But at places such as Oimoya, located right on Akihabara’s main street of Chuo Dori, fans crowd around merchandise displays featuring underage girls.
“Looking at junior idols soothes me,” explains Shigure Akagi, 45, an artist who says he draws inspiration from these products. “I do not have children of my own, so seeing them makes me happy.”
He isn’t the only one. Mr, the most eccentric member of Takashi Murakami’s stable of pop artists, admits he suffers from lolicon, and recruited junior idols to star in his 2008 film, "Nobody Dies."
Ostensibly, the parents who sign their daughters to be junior idols are hoping they achieve mainstream fame like Mr’s girls. And it isn’t impossible. Saaya Irie, for example, was cast in "Hell Girl" and other TV programs after her stint as a child model.
Legally, this is a dark shade of gray. A 1999 Japanese law bans children in depictions of sex, genital touching and “arousing” nudity, but junior idols manage to skirt these issues. In 2002, Japan signed the U.N.’s Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography, which bans “any representation, by whatever means, of real or simulated explicit sexual activities or any representation of the sexual parts of a child for primarily sexual purposes.” Defenders say images of junior idols are not for “primarily” sexual purposes. Indeed, scenes in these DVDs can be as harmless as family travel videos. Just not always.
This may be gray, but people overseas are seeing red. In April 2008, UNICEF distributed a petition with 21,000 signatures asking Japan to curb junior idols and lolicon anime. In November, at an international meeting in Brazil, Japan was condemned as “The Nation of Child Porn.” Japan and Russia, the organizers say, are the only G8 nations that have not taken action against child exploitation.
Japanese authorities fire back that it is hard to define what is and isn’t art, and that policing the small, independent publishers and video companies is tough. Meanwhile, the numbers show that Japan is, in reality, a safe place for kids: there were 754 reported cases of sexual abuse in 2000, compared to 89,500 in the United States. This could, however, be due to underreporting, or the fact that the official age of consent can be 13 in some places.
Junior idols sell raw innocence—a major commodity today.
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today