Fandom on the whole, whatever its centric media is, is a little universe all its own. In general, I keep to the fringes of whichever ones I associate with, if even participating at all. But it’s hard not to get sucked in to the drama and discussion surrounding J-Pop, no matter what company or group you like. If you couldn’t already tell, my personal vice is Hello!Project, particularly their star group, Morning Musume. And like all major fans, momosu fans can get a little nuts, especially with their favorites and their not-so-favorites. Me included. And my least favorite of the most current generations? Mitsui Aika. And she’s not exactly the darling of many others either. But lately, I’ve been thinking about her very recent graduation, and what it meant for both her and my own views as a fan – can you really dislike an idol just for what you see on screen and stage? What are the effects of this behavior?
Mitsui Aika was the only member of Morning Musume’s 8th generation, joining only shortly before the very popular Chinese “exchange student” members Jun Jun and Lin Lin. Her debut single, Egao YES NUDE, was not exactly a hit, and she wasn’t a stand out member – I didn’t even know she was in the group until I was looking at the lyrics for Onna ni Sachi Are, and wondered who she was. So, to start off, in a group of high energy, energetic girls, Aika was pushed to the back by both on television shows, and the songs with limited lines. She did, and still does, have fans, but was otherwise somewhat unpopular.
But her lack of star power didn’t do much to deter fans from disliking her, me included. If you were to ask me just why I didn’t like her, I’m almost ashamed to say it wasn’t anything very concrete. I didn’t like her voice, she couldn’t dance very well, I thought she was always holding back, and I didn’t like her face. Yes, that sounds stupid, but I really didn’t like her face, especially how she smiled, a expression commonly referred to as “duck face.” I think, though, she was told no longer to smile with her teeth, cause it would smush her eyes, but at least she looked like she was actually happy. This look just makes her seem like she’s trying to hide a grill, or some broken teeth.
I honestly thought she should graduate, if only because she didn’t get any real attention, and never seemed to mesh with the rest of the group in their look. I didn’t see her having a very long career with them, and might have done better, say in Berryz, or even another company. I wished she had been part of the earlier Morning Musume, when she would have meshed better, but in her line up, she stood out like a sore thumb, when she stood out at all. Were those some stupid reasons not to like her? Absolutely. But I still didn’t like her, and I was sure that was never going to change…until it did.
A few months to a year back, she really hurt her leg badly enough where she couldn’t dance or perform on stage. Obviously, I’m not the type of jerk who applauds someone getting hurt, but I didn’t really think anything of it. It happens – everyone has their far share of stumbles. But when it was announced that the injury was so bad, she would probably never be able to dance professionally again, and would have to graduate, I admit I felt bad. Whether I liked her or not, she was still an idol, and her career was essentially over for good now – she was going to have a hard time doing anything but some acting if even that. She was set to share her graduation with already graduating leader Niigaki Risa, who is my personal favorite, but I didn’t mind much – there are had been double graduations before, even triple ones, and some members never got a graduation concert at all.
However, a lot of people felt Aika was stealing Risa’s spotlight, while others felt it wasn’t right that Aika’s just got tacked on last minute. She didn’t get a solo song on the single, or have any special messages or flowers at the concert, even though she tried to dance around as best she could. When she read her letter, that’s when my feelings about her changed. Besides being incredibly humble, she apologized for not being a very good singer or dancer, and being kind of slow all the time. And that’s when I heard the rumors – either Aika had left of her own choice or was forced to graduate out by management because of how incredibly unpopular she was. And she knew it.
It’s a little like being in a big group of friends and then someone saying “You guys are awesome!” before turning to look you straight in the face, and saying “Except you, you’re terrible. You should leave so the group can be better” and multiplying it by hundreds, maybe even thousands. That can’t be easy on anyone, especially on an idol where your livelihood depends entirely on being liked. But the fact that Aika knew she was hated and might have chosen to leave the group to spare everyone the trouble of graduating her out later is really sad in a way I never even fathomed.
In the end, it brings up the question, why do we as idol fans hate on idols? If you thought Aika was the only case, think again. Tanaka Reina’s been getting it for years, Sayashi Riho is being called a line hog (even though those decisions aren’t made by her), and Suzuki Kanon and Sato Masaki are being called ugly and fat, which just blows my mind entirely. These are people who are constantly running around and performing for our pleasure, mostly with all the strings being pulled by their corporation, and only having each other for support. These idols might have money, and fame, but they are also heavily scrutinized all the time, and it’s one wrong move before you’re out the door, even if that wrong move is “looking different.”
I think sometimes we fans forget that those we admire or despise are real people, and they are acutely aware of how we perceive them and the commentaries we makes both with our words of the web and with our dollars, especially in this era where the French, Spanish, and English speaking markets are now making up parts of those sales figures. Why do we hate? Because being a idol fan is like being a fan of anything else – once you get invested enough, you feel personally involved and you can’t help but pick favorites and defend them, and denounce those you find less-than-stellar. You have strong opinions about which line-ups work, about what songs are good, about who gets too much attention, who gets too little, etc. You don’t do it to be spiteful (usually), you just know what and who you like. But in that attitude we often don’t realize that those things we say and do affect the music we love a little more directly, and by hating on Aika, I wasn’t just hurting her, I was hurting the group on the whole.
Does that mean you shouldn’t be critical of certain singers? No, and it’s not like if I said otherwise anything would change. People will have their favorites. People will rage against others. It is the cycle that’s not apt to end anytime soon, and it doesn’t make anyone a bad fan. But I think it’s still important to remember that they are people who think, feel, and are incredibly aware of their fans, because it’s all a part of their job.
In the end, what happened to Aika isn’t the first time and it won’t be the last, but it doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking when it happens. But it speaks volumes to fans who know see that losing an idol in such an unpleasant way is a wake up call about how we treat the idols who make up the groups we love.