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Aspiring pre-teen popstars in Japan have a reported growing fanbase of lonely middle age men. These ‘junior idols’ are part of a controversial subculture in booming Japan’s music industry.
At a theatre in Tokyo, then eleven-year-old Yune Sakurai sings and dances for her fans, mostly middle-aged men. As she sings on stage, her audience of male fans clap along. Others take photos of her performance with long-range camera lens.
These men are fans of junior idols. They paid around $55 AUD to attend Yune’s concert. And will pay more to buy her merchandise, talk to Yune and take her photo after the concert - all under the watchful eye of Yune’s mother and manager.
Yune performing at a concert in 2020. Source: SBS
Yune is a junior idol, part of a growing industry of pre-teen girls training to become popstars. She started her music career at the age of six when she was talent spotted by her current manager and began performing at live events when she was eight.
Japan boasts the second biggest music industry in the world. The idol industry is , attracting young girls and fans old enough to be their fathers.
The number of young idols working in Japan is thought to . Idols begin performing at 13 years old. Pre-teens are referred to as junior idols.
This lucrative industry that creates opportunities for aspiring entertainers also attracts much criticism over the sexualisation of children.
Young idols are often dressed in school uniforms and French maid costumes. They also are in order to seem available.
Yune performing in a French maid’s costume. Source: SBS
Chia, Yune’s mother, believes men admire her daughter for her talent. “I think for Yune people come for her singing voice.”
Yune trains twice a week and performs regularly in order to build a career as a singer.
“I’ve always dreamed of standing on stage at the Budokan [arena]” said Yune.
Until then, Yune performs in small theatres with other junior idols and attended by middle-aged men like Neko.
After watching Yune perform at a junior idol concert in 2020, Neko was one of the men lining up to buy her merchandise and pose with her in photos.
Yune and her manager. Source: SBS
“Her skill is crazy high,” he says about Yune.
When asked about why idols attract adult male fans, Neko suspects that some men indulge in sexual fantasies about the young schoolgirls.
“We enjoy her performance in gentleman’s way,” he said. “[There’s] no pressure, no harassment, but we support her play and, let’s say, her growing up.”
Koji, another of Yune’s male fans, calls the situation dangerous. But he suspects many fans admire young idols in a fatherly manner. “I personally think the majority of them are single with no children. So they feel like they’re watching their own daughter grow up.”
The proportion of single men has been on the rise in Japan. In a 2017 census, . As the number of singles increase, so to have industries that cater to lonely adults.
Professor Masahiro Yamada, a sociologist who studied single culture in Japan, said “People are looking for a fantasy family, such as a sister, mother or lover. In the case of idols, it’s a daughter. Satisfying people who want a fantasy family has become a business.”
As Yune continues to navigate this industry, she is guided by her mother and manager. They accompany her to live events and monitor her interactions with fans online.
“I’ve no intention of denying that some audience members fall in love with her because different people exist. But if someone crosses the line it’s my job to protect her from them,” says manager Mr Karimata.
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