TOKYO—The Japanese call them “idols,” or aidoru: young women and girls who sing, dance, and act for their adoring male fans, and are role models for many kids. But they are under tremendous pressure and often are abused by their employers.
Recently, one 16-year-old may have been driven to commit suicide after trying to leave her talent agency, and her family has filed a lawsuit that exposes some of the darkness behind the performers’ always-sunny smiles.
Honoka Omoto, the lead member of the farm-themed idol group Enoha Girls, was 16 when she ended her life in March, and on Oct. 12 her family filed a lawsuit with the Matsuyama District Court against the production company she belonged to, demanding compensation and clarification of the events that led to her death.
The case has brought attention to the exploitative, troubling, and often seedy world of the idol business, and some hope that the sad chain of events that drove a young woman to an early grave might be prevented from happening again.
“Idol” in Japan is understood to mean “cute” young girls, often in a group, who belong to a talent agency and sing highly produced ditties, or sometimes just dance or act. The girls and their agencies tend to pander to the fantasies of a mostly male audience.
Rarely do the idols have any autonomy and the genres and sub-genres of the business are myriad. There are “junior idols” who are generally between three and 15 years old who perform in music videos and do photo shoots for fans, and the materials they appear in can border on child pornography. There also are weird anomalies like “Virtual Currency Girls” who sing about and promote cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin and MONA, and who obviously have appeal for a very specific audience.
The most famous idol group, AKB48 has 48 members ranging from 12 to 26 years of age. They perform daily at the AKB48 stage in Japan’s otaku mecca, Akihabara, and generate millions of dollars for their production company. According to labor rights activist and author Shohei Sakagura, little of that revenue reaches the girls working for the firm, and upon “graduating” many of them have few job skills, having wasted their best academic years in a low-paid job. Some of the girls have drifted into pornography and other less savory professions.
AKB48 was founded in 2005 by Yasushi Akimoto and his partner Kotaro Shiba who, according to police sources and reports by weekly magazines in Japan, was an associate of the Yamaguchi-gumi Goto-gumi crime group. He never offered a denial. The Goto-Gumi disbanded in 2008. AKB48 continues.
The 16-year-old who killed herself, Honoka Omoto, and the Enoha Girls, promoted the charms of farming and rural life in Ehime Prefecture, and they still have their own YouTube channel. The group was created by H Project, the talent agency that is being sued by her family. The group’s slogan was: “They’re idols who sing, dance, and plow fields.” The group was highly in demand for local gatherings and also events sponsored by Japan Agricultural Cooperatives singing songs like “Our Smiling Faces are for You.”
Omoto’s family claims that the reasons for her suicide were a heavy workload, high pressure and repeated workplace bullying —which is known as “power harassment” in Japan—by H Project, and in particular, the president of the company, Takahiro Sasaki. If she was an adult, it might even have been considered a case of karoshi (death by overwork).
“Power harassment” is a buzz word in Japan (often abbreviated to pawahara in Japanese-English) which covers the gamut of intimidation, verbal abuse, public shaming of lower ranking employees, and other rough assertions of authority that are problematic in Japan’s vertical corporate society.
H Project sent The Daily Beast a prepared statement on October 13 in response to inquiries. “We will make everything clear in court and are going to refrain from further statements,” the statement said. “However, our understanding is that there are many things being reported that are not facts.” The several page statement noted that Omoto was troubled by having to balance work and school life, but denied “power harassment” at the workplace. There was otherwise little comment on the specifics of the lawsuit.
Documents submitted to the court and other sources clearly paint a picture of an overworked young girl, struggling to maintain both her “career” and academic work, increasingly on edge. Omoto joined the agency in July of 2015 and did well but her workload increased to more than 10 hours a day. There were some days where she clocked 22 hours—all while trying to keep up with classes, according to the family.
The training by the company was spartan and severe at times. Sasaki would force her to redo the moves or songs, sometimes for four hours straight, in post-performance briefings. She wrote friends, “It’s already really grueling. I want to quit. It’s so painful.”
Texts left behind on Omoto’s LINE app, a popular messaging service for smartphones in Japan, show that when she attempted to prioritize school work over performances she met with verbal abuse and escalating demands from the firm. She sent a message saying she wanted to quit, and was hit with a reply from a staff member, “Seriously, if you say that kind of bullshit again, I’ll punch you out.”
The messages preserved in her cell phone show a consistent pattern of intimidation and abuse that is hard to convey in translation. The texts are often written in the imperative and instead of calling Omoto by her name, she is addressed as “Omae” one of the rudest words for “you” in the Japanese language.
The company had promised to lend her money to help her with high school but then rescinded the promise when she mentioned she was considering leaving the group. According to the family, the day before she committed suicide, Sasaki, told her, “If you quit, you’ll have to pay me 100 million yen ($891,000) in penalties.”
H Project, in its brief statement sent to The Daily Beast, denied that Sasaki had ever demanded the girl pay nearly $900,000 in damages if she left the group.
According to an article written by the girl’s mother, Yukie Omoto, on March 21 as she was leaving the house her daughter approached her.
“She came running up to me and said, ‘Mom, do I have to go to the event today?’... I told her, ‘You’d best do what you have to do, I think.’ Her face darkened and she said as she had the day before, ‘But I’m afraid to meet the boss [Sasaki]. I’m afraid. I don’t want to go.’ That was the last conversation I had with Honoka.”
When the mother returned around 1:40 p.m., she noticed her daughter’s bike was still there. She ran up to the second floor and saw her daughter’s legs dangling down. The girl’s smartphone was on the floor beneath her; the girl had looked up a way to kill herself on the internet.
The funeral was held on March 24 and over 200 of Omoto’s fans came to pay their respects.
In May of this year, Shukan Bunshun, one of Japan’s leading weekly news magazines, ran a series of stories on Omoto’s suicide. The magazine wrote the series with the cooperation of her mother and family members, while conducting its own investigation.
The abuse that Honoka allegedly suffered isn’t an isolated case. Japan’s first black idol, Amina Du Jean, who retired last year to pursue a degree in sociology, wasn’t surprised but was saddened, by the events in this case. While hailing from Detroit, Michigan, she spent several years working as an idol in Japan and is fluent in the language. “I think the problem is that idols are treated like replaceable commodities rather than young entertainers,” Amina told The Daily Beast.
Amina, in her social media accounts, often paints a complex picture of the idol industry. She was an iconoclast in the idolverse for daring to pose in Japan’s Weekly Playboy, poking fun at the “pure” asexual image the girls are supposed to maintain.
Her swansong, Seppuku, with the lyrics “I can’t really forgive you/ You need to apologize/ I guess I’m too cold-hearted/ Please eviscerate yourself, baby,” can be taken as a pretty blunt “fuck you” to rabid fans and the ruthless industry that treats the girls like disposable love dolls.
Amina hopes that the idol industry eventually will become a more humane and equitable business but she isn’t holding her breath.
In order to pander to their male fans, idols often have been forbidden contractually to have romantic partners and must maintain a “pure“ demeanor. In a reverse form of sexual trafficking, many contracts require the girls to more or less remain celibate to fuel the erotic fantasies of men.
A 23-year-old woman was sued for roughly $82,000 by her talent agency after she began dating one of her male fans in December 2013. The judge overseeing the case made a rare decision in 2016, which affirmed the basic human rights of an idol and put a check on the agencies. He acknowledged that satisfying the desires of the fans by prohibiting romantic relationships—from the perspective of the management—was a good business plan, but then ultimately ruled that romantic freedom should exist even for idols.
“Association with the opposite sex is one of the liberties essential to the pursuit of happiness,” the judge said, alluding to that guarantee in the Japanese constitution of Japan. “Even taking into account the special circumstances of being an idol, prohibiting such interactions is going too far.”
The intrusion of the talent agency into an idol’s personal life isn’t the only problem. In the last two years idols have sued their talent agencies for sexual harassment, being forced to give massages, and poor labor conditions.
Last November, four former members of an idol girl group sued their management company for forcing them to work with little or no pay for two years, and then threatening to “crush” them if they sought other work in the entertainment industry. The girls belonged to the group, Nijiiro Fanfare, which debuted with a CD in October 2015 and performs several concerts a month. According to media reports, the revenue from sales of the CD, photographs and videos were never shared with the group members. Their management firm put a clause into their contract that prevents them from working with other talent agencies for seven years, making them the equivalent of singing serfs.
The most famous of the idol groups is still the ubiquitous AKB48, which is also the subject of a critically praised book titled AKB48 Is an Evil Corporation, which derisively analyzes the idol industry as an exploitive enterprise. Social critic and writer Kaori Shoji, in a review of the book notes, “Yasushi Akimoto [creator of AKB48] is what 50 years ago many older Japanese would describe as a Zegen or merchant who dealt exclusively in young women. A Zegen was the middleman who bought and sold girls (often with the express consent of the parents) to the sex trade and entertainment industry.”
The trafficking of women as commodities is a problem that has existed in Japan for a long, long time.
It’s not clear that the family of Honoka Omoto will win their case, but in seeking to clarify the circumstances that led to her death, they bring much needed light on the dark side of an industry that isn’t just about young women cheerfully singing, dancing, and plowing fields. The fans idolize the young girls performing for them; if the industry won’t show its these women the same reverence, at least the companies might be be forced to stop making their serfs dig their own graves.
If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).