We interview underground idols Yoshikawa Sunao and Sasakama Risuko30 April, 2011 by Chad
Idols are a universal concept. Music and acting talents admired by the people globally. Yet no where but in Japan is the concept taken as far. There being an idol is an aspiration, a career and a multi-billion dollar industry. Yes, in Japan, idols are serious business. But last weekend, I was introduced to and given the chance to interview a different breed of idols.
Yoshikawa Sunao (吉河順央) and Sasakama Risuko (ささかま リス子) call themselves Underground Idols. They are part of Dear Stage (ディアステージ), Akihabara’s most famous otaku club. The club allows artists like Yoshikawa and Sasakama to reach out to fans personally. It’s a concept that sounds familiar yet drastically different.
Intrigued, we pressed on with the questions. The two idols were assisted by Miyoko Quek who invited the girls down for Sakura Fest, she also acted as the girl’s English-speaking translator and took the effort to interpret some of the foreign concepts and hence the brevity. Sakura Fest was held last weekend at the Singapore Flyer in collaboration with the Singapore Red Cross to help raise funds in lieu of the Tohoku earthquake and resultant tsunami two months ago.
Like other clubs, Dear Stage operates live music from their building in Akihabara, Tokyo’s otaku paradise. The three story building combines elements of a restaurant, pub and the less alien maid cafe. From within, these underground idols provide the otaku audience with live music entertainment.
Yoshikawa Sunao and Sasakama Risuko are two of the idols who frequent the stages at Dear Stage. Meeting up with them before their performance at the Singapore flyer, the girls spoke a little about themselves. Yoshikawa took the opportunity to introduce herself as a solo artist speaking of her upcoming new single Strawberry Fiction. Sasakama Risuko on the other hand boasted about her affinity with alcohol and how she was able to transform into a cute idol for lively energetic performances with the help of sake.
What sets Yoshikawa and Sasakama apart from other talents in the music industry is of course their status as chika or underground idols. It is not uncommon to see aspiring talents performing on the streets of Japan. A walk around Tokyo will have you meeting indie musicians at Shinjuku, visual kei performers at Harajuku or chika idols in Akihabara.
Dear Stage provides a platform beyond just the streets of Akihabara for the chika idols to showcase their talents. Miyoko explained how unlike mainstream artists, the girls were still untainted by the more commercialized aspects of the industry. Without a producer, it is up to the girls to produce and promote themselves.
Casually, we asked Yoshikawa and Sasakama how it was like aiming to become an idol without any external guidance. Yoshikawa Sunao explained that they had to learn everything from scratch on their own. Everything from the songs they sing to the clothes they wore, were decided by themselves.
The girls’ manager explained the emergence of these new “live idols” who produce themselves. In a way, the girls are no longer bound by imaginary standards and this amazing new culture seems to have the effect of bringing us idols that people can relate to. Though he further expanded upon this by saying it is up to the girls themselves to decide how to continue should they get talent scouted or get production offers while performing at the club.
When asked what they personally did differently, Yoshikawa stated that she didn’t agree with the negativity present in some other idol blogs. Most idols of course have blogs, where fans can learn snippets of the person’s life. She made it her personal rule to carry any burdens on her own to not discourage fans. Sasakama Risuko said that the customers would worry when she falls ill. So she makes it a point to take care of her health.
The girls were also happy to share their own personal details when asked what motivated them to become idols. Yoshikawa Sunao revealed she was most inspired by singer-songwriter Mizuki Nana also a popular seiyuu or anime voice actress. Yoshikawa also explained her own dreams on pursuing a seiyuu career.
Sasakama Risuko brought up anime character Sheryl Nome and 80s singer-actress Togawa Jun as her musical role model. But she cited her exposure to Hello Project in Middle School as her main reason for becoming an idol. Interestingly, she names Onyako Club/AKB48 founder Akimoto Yasushi and Tsunku as her chief inspirations. Risuko wishs to become a idol producer herself. She decided to become an idol to get a view of how the industry operates from inside.
When asked about other interests, the girls admitted to being fujoshi. They were avid fans of yaoi, boys love comics and have gone so far as to found a Dear Stage fujoshi department with their circle at the company. Sasakama also brought up her interest in musicals, reflecting that she probably would had chosen a stage career if she had learned about it earlier.
Reactions were positive when the topic of Singapore came about. The girls were also invited to judge the cosplay contest at Sakura Fest. The host and I agreed that cosplay in Singapore and South East Asia differed drastically from the more private affair we’ve seen in Japan. Sasakama exclaimed that she was amazed by the Singaporean cosplayers and their standard of cosplay. Saying that they looked like anime characters. She also remarked that the locals had very nice, slim figures.
When asked if they’d like to address the local otaku community, the girls mentioned that they were glad that people supported Japan. They were thankful for the opportunity to perform here and especially to be able to help the earthquake disaster in a meaningful way. Ritsuko remarked that they will come back as much as fans would like, with the translator urging the locals to start their own fan club.
Yoshikawa Sunao and Sasakama Risuko had been performing daily at the Singapore Flyer since last Friday where they’ve had the chance to interact directly with the local otaku community. While, idol fans call themselves wota and generally differentiate themselves from regular otaku, Sunao and Risuko have been singing popular anime, idol and original songs at the mini-stage outside attracting a rather varied audience and the curious attention of passers-by.
The girls also took time between performances to teach the crowd “wotagei” (literally idol otaku performances), the curious dances performed by the audience during songs. Coincidentally, I had listed Dear Stage’s website in the past as a useful resource to learn the “Mix” and its variants, the synchronized cheers you see at concerts in Japan.
The girls were amused that the crowd already had prior knowledge of wotagei, performing demonstrations that the girls did not teach. To end things though, both the girls and their manager explained that true wotagei spirit was a fluid and spontaneous thing. Back home, fans often come up with unique responses to their performances. Sunao remarked that it would be interesting to see Singaporeans come up with original wotagei of their own, to which Risuko suggested that perhaps the locals may not practice “Romance” (the name of a wotagei move) but rather “Merlion”.