01: Vessel   02: Burning   03: Foil
We have all been, or are, a fan of someone, Yurika Imaseki
December 2023

Image of Arianna at 4am when I visited her flat to watch the BTS concert. Courtesy the author 

xx July, 2023
I just returned to work after my solo trip, slowing down and processing feelings, conversations, and overwhelming amounts of information. As always, it ended up being an intense holiday, leaving me exhausted. However hard I try to slow down, I just can’t allow myself to be unproductive for a long period of time. If I feel comfortable to do something still, writing may be a good way to immerse oneself in emotions, return to interrupted thoughts, and give meaning to a past that has passed too quickly. But how does one write in the absence of time, especially living a life where we devote a great deal of energy for survival? How can I, someone who quickly loses concentration, write? I have decided to write whatever comes to my mind and see where it leads to.

When I was a teenager, my class was roughly divided into several groups (factions): Johnny's (mainly Arashi),1 AKB48,2 among others. Whenever we went to karaoke, idol songs were always sung. I liked Western music, but I was somewhat embarrassed to be singing only English songs in front of my friends, so I listened to Arashi and AKB48 songs as well, just in case. I wasn't really interested in idols at the time, but I knew I had to at least know them to have fun with my friends. To my surprise, three years ago I became an idol fan myself.

Fandom produces particular types of energy: blowing up (炎上), obsession, empowerment, and fanaticism. Idols attract people with their beauty, charisma, performance, voice, personality, and scandals. I came across a blog whose author was banned from attending any events by a so-called underground idol after repeatedly leaving sexual comments on the idol in person; In Idol, Burning (2020) by Usami Rin,3 fangirl Akari throws away her cotton swabs when her beloved idol quits his job after a scandal; Oli London, a white influencer from the UK, continuously undergoes medical procedures desperately wanting to look like Jimin from BTS. In the documentary Gangnam Beauty (2020) by Yan Tomaszewski, the camera captures the burning of masks of Jimin’s face. I wonder if the flame implies London’s obsession with unrealistic beauty, or if it releases him from the unrealisable desire to acquire the perfect look of the star.

When BTS said they felt slightly burnt out and that they would explore their solo activities at the 2022 FESTA Dinner, debates emerged around the unsustainable idol system, hyper-production under capitalism, and mandatory military service. Is violence inherent to love? How do we balance our ambivalent feelings about being a fan of idols?

In Perfect Blue (1998), Mima, who retired as an idol and became an actress, suffers from a split in her self-image. She tries to change her public persona and career by performing a rape scene that she does not really want to do and shooting nudes. Her mind is torn apart. On the train, she sees her former self as an idol reflected in a glass window and blames her current self. Mima discovers that someone is writing on a bulletin board called "Mima's Room," pretending to be her, and she fears that she is being watched. Then, a series of mysterious murders occur around her.

It goes without saying that surveillance society affects the idol industry. Today's idols are constantly communicating on the internet, often sharing their private lives. Their work depends on being liked and supported by others. It is easy for their work to encroach into the private sphere, and the pressure to be judged on one's every move must be considerable. The formation of “intimacy” and the consumption of personality are two sides of the same coin.

I do not deny the sexual expression by idols and fans’ desire towards them, provided that there’s consent, and the expression of desire by fans takes place in the private sphere, without fear of harm to the person concerned.4 Sexual expression could become violent and encourage objectification. However, this is not the same as sexual violence. Any form of violence should not be tolerated and there should be careful consideration into how and why scenes of sexual violence are included in a film.

Mima’s rape scene reflects a strong tendency in Japan to consider engaging in intimate scenes as a rite of passage to become a full-fledged actress. While fictional, it is painful to watch. Some may argue that this scene caused trauma to Mima and others involved, which led to a series of murders and her illusions, but watching Paprika (2006) by the same director made me wonder about the stereotypical portrayal of women in fiction. The hypersexualisation of Asian women is real. Survivors of sexual violence in the Japanese entertainment industry have faced silencing and second rape, regardless of their gender and sexual orientations. 

Perfect Blue was released 25 years ago, blurring the lines between reality and fantasy in fandom. How do today's idols handle the idealization of themselves by the public?

In January 2020, I was casually watching a video that popped up in the recommendations section of YouTube. Dynamite (2020) appeared at the top of the right column. BTS – a name I didn't know much about but had heard of, so I tapped on the video. They looked sparkling on the screen. Among them, Jimin, who was performing modern dance, stood out with his suppleness, grace, and power. He is an excellent performer who can be cute, cool, rebellious, and sexy at will, all in time with the music. Soon after, with other ARMY5 around me, I began attending their concerts and watching their content, which is an activity called “Oshikatsu (推し活)”6 in Japanese.

I have always been aware of the layers between ARMY and Jimin, who performs behind the screen. He is a hard worker, known for his tenacity and drive to master a skill. When he is with his members, he is reserved and works as their mediator. These qualities are only one façade of his professional self, and we are aware that Jimin is also conscious of the fact that he performs according to the expectations of his fans.

팔레트 속 색을 섞어 pick your filter
어떤 나를 원해?
너의 세상을 변화시킬 I’m your filter
네 맘에 씌워줘

Mix the colors in the palette, pick your filter
Which me do you want?
The one to change your world, I'm your filter
Overlay me in your heart

Filter (2020), Jimin’s solo song
Translated by Genius English Translations7 

The all-consuming love in a fandom can appear as the creation of narratives, where fans often record and discursively interpret an idol's words and actions to construct different depictions of the idol. These stories are distributed as commodities and consumed through branding and campaigns. In this song, Jimin seems to perceive acting in accordance with fans’ ideal image of him as a proactive action to expand his own range of expression. He is probably well aware that such a message may be grating to his fans. In any case, the song shows the attitude of an idol who sublimates their image into entertainment without being swallowed up by an amplified self-image.

Idols have been long-considered heteronormative pseudo-love objects, expected to be disconnected from love, marriage, and childbearing. When these unstated “rules” are broken, there are severe penalties. I still remember my shock when I saw a video of an idol, hair shaved, apologizing with tears in her eyes after the revelation of her relationship. Idols also “graduate,” a form of retirement when they get older for their company to continuously add newer, younger members to keep the group active for a long time. I would like to see more idols that are not bound by ageism, patriarchy, or lookism, and I hope to see a sustainable idol industry where reproductive health and rights are guaranteed.

I had not previously imagined what it would be like to continue my own curatorial practice while working. As I try to balance my life, living with interruptions has become my daily routine. I would find time to write on the weekends, and as I groaned in front of a stilted, rough-hewn sentence, I realized that I am the type of person who builds up small parts to make a whole. In order to create something with the bigger picture in mind, it is necessary to have the ability to identify and plan what needs to be done in order to achieve that goal. But the schedule must also take into account the possibility of stagnation and setbacks in the process. Is it really possible to achieve your goals roughly on schedule? I can't imagine it.

Many people who choose an unstable, unpredictable lifestyle have developed a resigned acceptance of uncertainty. Now I see interruptions as part of who I am, cherish them, and incorporate them into my practice. In retrospect, I had other ideas for topics to write about, but I think I kept thinking about the same thing. Fandom and idol culture are deep, and the related fields are extensive. I did not set out to write an exhaustive article, and I hope this essay will be a starting point for discussing these cultural events.

Yurika Imaseki is a curator based in London and Tokyo. Her research has focused on queer feminisms, global tea trade, social practice and radical pedagogy. After receiving her MFA Curating at Goldsmiths, University of London and working as a Junior Fellow of the course, she started to work at Japan House London. Imaseki worked as a Critical Friend for 茶, चाय, Tea (Chá, Chai, Tea) at Horniman Museum and Gardens. She completed a one-year residency (2021-2022) at Goldsmiths CCA as a member of Mapping Local Ecologies, addressing themes of gentrification, local identity and community-building by exploring oral histories and real or fictive narratives. Other collaborations and projects have been with; Migration Museum, Deptford X, Food Cosmogonies devised by The Gramounce, and ONSU gonggan. As a fan of BTS, she has been waiting for their comeback as a group in 2025 while supporting their solo activities.

1. Johnny & Associates is a talent agency in Japan. Arashi is a Japanese boy band composed of five members.

2. AKB48 is a Japanese idol girl group. There are 48 members.

3. Japanese names are written in the order of Surname(s) followed by Given name, in accordance to the Japanese writing style. 

4. Objectification can take place in scenarios that the idols cannot control or intend. Idols may see provocative comments or statements from fans and feel hurt or uncomfortable. One former AKB48 idol expressed her offense when her fans left sexual comments about her, saying that they should not do so where she and other fans can see it.「コメントにいいね押すつもりが変なコメント多すぎて柏木由紀怒ってます」「ゆきりんワールド」(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3v_7RXFSyk) 28 August 2020 (Accessed 21 October 2023)

5. ARMY is the official fandom name for BTS.

6. Oshitaku is the act of connecting with other fans through supporting idols.

7. BTS - Filter (English Translation). Available at: https://genius.com/Genius-english-translations-bts-filter-english-translation-lyrics (Accessed 21 October 2023)