Five-year veteran talks about indirect “cries for help.”

Being an idol singer in Japan is at least as much about the personality you radiate as the vocals you produce. Sure, idol songs may be almost invariably sweet and sugary, but the performers themselves are expected to be even more cheerful, cultivating the sort of earnest, plucky persona that attracts loyal fanbases.

But every day isn’t all sunshine and rainbows for idols, even those who are part of the industry’s most successful and prestigious group, AKB48. On January 14, former AKB48 member Miki Nishino, who was with the Akihabara-based unit from 2012 to 2017, appeared on streaming service Abema TV’s Ogiya Hagi no Busu TV talk show. Now a TV and media personality, during her appearance the 19-year-old Nishino said:

“There are a lot of mentally unwell girls in AKB48.”

▼ Miki Nishino

Nishino gave examples of AKB48 members who would set up their Line messaging app profiles with statements like “I think someday things will start going my way,” or “If I keep looking forward, I can see that things will get better,” or who would make their profile pictures a solid black field. Describing such actions as “attempts to get attention,” Nishino said “It’s obvious that they’re hoping someone will help them,” and voiced her opinion that it would be better for them to “just come right out and say so.”

It’s worth considering why idols might be suffering from mental or emotional distress. Though Nishino gave an obvious potential source by saying “AKB has a busy schedule, so a lot of girls [feel that way],” there’s also an intense amount of pressure placed on its members. Aside from competition with other groups in an era when the Japanese idol market is more crowded than ever before, part of the marketing for AKB48 (as well as many other idol groups) involves regularly holding “elections,” popularity contests in which fans cast votes for their favorite idol within the group, with the tallied results and rankings being publicly announced and tracked. At the same time, being part of a musical team, as with any team in Japan, comes with intense pressure to perform as closely as possible to perfection, since Japanese culture routinely stresses the importance of fulfilling responsibilities to the group over personal satisfaction.

Still, just about everyone in Japan, whether they’re a fan of idol music or not, agrees that being an idol is hard work, and so an idol coming out and saying “I’m in a bad place mentally right now, and I need some help” doesn’t seem like it should be such a shocker. However, a commonly heard sentiment from idol fans is how much they enjoy seeing their favorite singer trying her best and improving as a performer, and so maybe it’s not so surprising that idols and/or their talent agencies are loath to do anything that’s a departure from that narrative, since it’s been the tried-and-true path to idol success for so long.

As an example, look at the ongoing situation with idol Maho Yamaguchi, a member of AKB48’s Niigata-based sister group NGT48. After being attacked by two stalkers outside her home and waiting a month for her managers to take more decisive action in addressing her concerns about the attack, Yamaguchi herself finally spoke out about the incident, only to issue a tearful on-stage apology at NGT48’s very next concert for “causing a large commotion.” Of course, fans in attendance immediately shouted that Yamaguchi hadn’t done anything wrong and had nothing to apologize for, and NGT48’s direct manager has since resigned from the position, perhaps idol fandom is evolving to the point where idol singers can start to trust that it’s becoming more acceptable to be open about the mental strains that come with their job.

Source: Livedoor News/Abema Times via Jin
Top image: Pakutaso