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Reviewed by:
  • Islands of Eight Million Smiles: Idol Performance and Symbolic Production in Contemporary Japan
  • Brian J. McVeigh (bio)
Islands of Eight Million Smiles: Idol Performance and Symbolic Production in Contemporary Japan. By Hiroshi Aoyagi. Harvard University Asia Center, Cambridge, Mass., 2005. xi, 290 pages. $42.50.

Ethnographers and anthropologists have proudly distinguished themselves from other social scientists by their methodology of participant observation: long-term immersion in and intensive exposure to a well-circumscribed group. Hiroshi Aoyagi's Islands of Eight Million Smiles clearly illustrates the distinction between "what passes for" ethnography and an ethnographic endeavor based on participant observation. Short-term stays and one-shot interviews (especially if with "official spokespersons") do not participant [End Page 462] observation make. Of course, it is not always the fault of a researcher for failing to conduct intensive ethnography, and for a variety of reasons—lack of continued funding for long-term field work, inability to secure interview permissions, overly strict "human research" protocols—genuine participant observation can be elusive.

In this book Aoyagi breaks new ground by exploring how Japan's "idol performers" represent and resonate with the "youth of a nation" as well as reflect the "dreams" and "fantasies" of the masses. Though there is much written in Japanese, there is no extended treatment in English of idols and for this Aoyagi's book is welcomed. Associated with a genre of Japanese pop music from the late 1960s, idols are often criticized as "artless," "fluffy," or "bubble-gum" performers. Despite such criticisms, they offer a window into Japan's culture industry and "how the idol-manufacturing industry absorbs young people into its system of production, molds their selves into marketable personalities, commercializes their images for the masses, and contributes to the ongoing construction of ideal images of adolescent selfhood" (p. 3).

This book is rich in different themes and their linkages, but for the sake of brevity I focus on six: methodology, gender, idol industry, the impact of Japanese idol performers in Asia, simulation, and analogies between postmodern consumption and religious sentiment.

The strength of the book is in its methodology (see chapter one), which Aoyagi judiciously explains: "idology," or "the ethnographic study of idolatry." Idolatry "works as an organizing force in our taken-for-granted lifeworld" in the way it encourages adolescents to idolize and emulate performers (p. 19), thereby "capitalizing adolescence" (see chapter two, "The Making of Japanese Adolescent Role Models"). In a fascinating case of "observer turned observed," Aoyagi describes how he himself was "made into an idol" (pp. 144 –58). In addition to being turned into an idol-like personality, Aoyagi acted as a judge and an adviser. Eventually, he received requests to pen articles and offer commentaries. He appeared in the entertainment magazine SPA! and became known as an expert on Japanese idols. These experiences raise issues concerning participant observation and of losing objectivity when becoming an "insider."

In chapter three ("Idol Performance and Gender Identities"), Aoyagi delineates tensions between two competing definitions of Japanese womanhood. On the one hand, there is the "traditional" view epitomized by "good wife, wise mother" ideology (which links national identity and gender). Closely connected to this view is the ubiquitous aesthetic of cuteness, articulated in expressions such as kawaiko-chan (cute girls), burikko (pretentiously cute girls), otome (sweet little girls), and Yamato nadeshiko (cute Japanese women). On the other hand, there is a more "modern" perspective [End Page 463] less tolerant of male chauvinism; it is now the "age of women" or the "age of powerful femaleness." Tensions between the "traditional" and more up-to-date view of women are reflected in the realm of idol performers: there has been a shift from sugary, cutesy, passive, and childlike idols to sexy, active, and sensual "post-idols" (e.g., Amuro Namie and Chinen Rina). Whereas in the past, idols used to dress up in frilly dresses, known as buri-buri ishō (fake-child costumes), now many pursue a more "classy" look. Aoyagi suggests that this change indicates that women in society at large are becoming more powerful and outspoken.

In chapter five ("Following the Trajectory of an Idol Superstar"), Aoyagi examines the career of Matsuda Seiko, whose personal success...


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