Sotsugyō: Too Old to be an Idol?
The stage, a wash of tears. Doe-eyed and fresh-faced, teens sob as they bid farewell to their teammate, their friend, their sister. That is the norm at a typical sotsugyō show. But their tears are not just tears of inconsolable loss because in about 5 minutes those frowns will be turned upside down! The departing idol is going on to something bigger and better. Cue the uplifting, aspirational teen bop.
Golden era J-Pop stars like Akina Nakamori and Shizuka Kido didn’t have to “graduate” because it wasn’t really a thing back then. Idols in the 70s and 80s simply retired but there was a certain finality to that. It wasn’t until Miharu Nakajima and Sonoko Kawai from Onyanko Club that graduation, as we know, started to be defined and contextualised. The pair were leaving the group right in the middle of graduation season in Japan and the group had always had an after-school club vibe so their producer saw an opportunity to brand it as such. It struck a chord with the nation thanks to the televised graduation ceremony and the subsequent graduation tour. It was a big thank-you to the idols celebrating their contribution to the sisterhood.
The simple goodbye ceremony honouring the idol
became a means to preserve the group and the brand.
But it was with Morning Musume that we really saw a change. The simple goodbye ceremony honouring the idol became a means to preserve the group and the brand. Members may come and go but Morning Musume was forever. Fans used to live and die by their favourite idol and when they idol left so did the fans. With Morning Musume, a group with a high turnover, fans were able to simply transfer their support to whoever replaced their oshi. What allowed for the shift in loyalties? The Internet! What else? Information about idols was no longer restricted to TV and magazines. Fans could get a better understanding of who an idol was, but more importantly, the transience of the idol made fans more appreciative of them. Subsequent girl groups like AKB48 and Nogizaka46 have used this model but with slight tweaks. Sakura Gakuin idols, for example, graduate at the same time that they graduate high school in Japan.
Every idol comes to a certain point when it is time to move on from their teen life. And that is a key phrase: their teen life. Sotsugyō is a coming-of-age moment. At first glance it can seem quite cruel. You reach a certain age and you have to leave the group. Why not stay? Why not continue to hone your skills? It’s easy to assume that the driving force is age seeing as youth and the youthful cheer that comes with teenage life is one of the most valued virtues amongst idols. But that takes the agency out of the idol. These girls know that their lifespan may be short, these girls know that they have an uphill struggle on their hands. In Sakura Gakuin they have a rule: Keep on burning till graduation. Budding idols flock to these groups knowing that their time is short but they are determined to work hard towards their end goal regardless.
Image courtesy of ARAMATHEYDIDNT via LiveJournal.
Age is a factor in an idols life but not necessarily in the negative sense. The two most important ages for idols are 20 and 25 according to Nikkei Style because those are the ages when idols are most likely to graduate. Girls who haven’t seen steady improvement in the rankings by the age of 20 graduate soon after in order to concentrate on their education or find 9-to-5 jobs. While girls who graduated around the age of 25 do so to pursue solo careers as singer-songwriters or other jobs in the music and entertainment industry. In fact the average lifespan of idols has been extended in recent years. What was normally a 2-3 year term has become a 5-10 year one. And some just defy the “rules”, Yuki Kashiwagi from AKB48 is still an idol even though she will be turning 30 in July.
What may look like ageism can also just be a reflection of the basic structures of our societies. Like moving out of your family home or starting a new job, idols graduations are a rite of passage. The idol trajectory although full of whimsy and fantasy is actually one of the most normal human experiences. Because at its core the path of an idol is the path of any given person trying to make it in the world. Sotsugyō is the beginning of a new chapter. Sotsugyō is having the courage to take the next step.
Written by Anna.
Featured Image courtesy of Tokyo Girls Update.