Morning Musume

The daughters of Japanese pop

28 May, 2010 by

When it comes to idol groups in Japan, it’s hard not to come across this particular group called Morning Musume (literally translated it means ‘Morning Daughters’). Few other groups come close when you look at how long the group has been around, not to mention the sheer number of singles they’ve released. Currently, they hold the record of having the highest overall single sales (of a female group) on the Oricon charts.

I’ve been following them for about 3 years now. It’s strange to try and explain the allure of this group, except for the fact that 3 years ago, I have never seen such a collection of lively and energetic girls, anywhere, ever. It was the first time I came in contact with Japanese Idols. I remember being so amazed at these groups of super cute girls with over the top reactions to the silliest things. That was how it all began for me.

The single that started it all, 'Love Machine', released in 1999, 3rd Gen Morning Musume. Yes, everyone looks a bit zombied in the cover. Maybe it was cool at the time.

Morning Musume was at their peak in 1999, with their ‘Love Machine’ single selling 1,646,630 copies, making it a massive hit (a #1 single in Japan) and their highest selling single. However, since then their popularity has some what waned over the years, with newer and younger groups like AKB48 overtaking them in sales and popularity.

5th Gen Morning Musume in 2003.

The group is known for their graduation and shuffle system, where the girls are graduated out for various reasons; to focus on their solo careers, to form other sub groups, when they get involved in scandals, when they get too old, or just when fall out of favor. This results in an ever-changing line up of girls, which makes it difficult for mainstream fans to keep up. This graduation system is one of the key factors in their ability to last over 10 years and still keep up with releases.

Each new addition to Morning Musume are grouped according to ‘generations’, with the original members being dubbed ‘1st gen’, and the latest ones being dubbed ‘8th gen’ members. The current line-up (as of May 2010) has a mix of 5th, 6th, and 8th gen members. The only 7th gen member, Kusumi Koharu, has since graduated from the group in 2009.

1st Gen Abe Natsumi, aka 'Abe-san', 'Nacchi'. Natsumi Abe was known as 'the face of Morning Musume' to the general public at the time because she was the front girl for just about every release. She graduated in January 2004 to pursue a soloist career. Her last single was 'Ai Araba It's All Right,' Morning Musume's last song to sell more than 100,000 copies. Her popularity gradually declined, with her last single 'Screen', released in 2008 selling a mere 6,400 copies.

1st gen Nakazawa Yuko (top) and Iida Kaori (bottom). These 2 simply got too old for the group, and had to graduate as they couldn't keep up with the group's activities. At the time of Yuko's graduation in 2001, she was 14 years older than the youngest member at the time. Iida Kaori was another 'low popularity' member, and graduated later in 2005.

Both 2nd gen members Yaguchi Mari 'Yagu-chan' and Yasuda Kei 'Kei-chan'. Yaguchi was best known for her sexy beam move, as well as being the boldest, shortest and loudest Musume there ever was. She resigned in 2005 due to a relationship scandal. She has, however bounced back and now has a very active variety show career going on. Kei-chan never seemed to get anywhere within the group, and was always among the less popular. She's often picked on because of her age. She graduated in 2003.

4th gen 'Charmy' Ishikawa Rika & 3rd gen 'Gottchan' Goto Maki. Both insanely popular golden girls during Morning Musume's prime years. They have since graduated to pursue their own solo careers. Goto Maki is now signed under Avex, while Charmy performs for the underground clothing label Hangry & Angry.

3rd Gen Goto Maki in 2009, after she signed with Avex. Without a doubt the most promising talent to come out of Hello!Project. It's sad that time after time, unfortunate events keep happening to her otherwise flawless career. Her brother going to jail, and the recent passing of her mother. She did announce that she'll be resuming activities in the coming months.

5th gen Ishikawa Rika in 2005, when she was still under Hello!Project. Because of the many rules and restrictions they have under Hello!Project, all idols aren't allow to have boyfriends or overly sexy images. Once they graduate however, they are free to do what they want. Rika here is a perfect example of such an image change.

Ishikawa Rika in 2010, her current look with Hangry & Angry. Compared to her very clean look while she was still in Morning Musume, I know, what happened right? xD

Ai Kago & Nozomi Tsuji. Both 4th gen members, they graduated in 2004 to form a new duo called 'Double You'. They did well up until 2007, when Kago Ai was involved in a smoking scandal, and it fell apart. Shortly after, Nozomi Tsuji got involved in a pregnancy scandal.

Ai Kago & Nozomi Tsuji, in 2010. Since their split and scandals, both have bounced back and are doing well for themselves in their own ways.

5th gen Konno Asami 'KonKon' and Ogawa Makoto 'Makocchan'. Both of them graduated in the same year in 2006, for the same reason, to further their studies. Both had relatively low profile careers in Morning Musume, always in the middle ranks. They did return to Hello!Project 2 years later for a brief period when they completed their studies.

6th gen 'Mikitty' Fujimoto Miki, 4th gen 'Yossie' Yoshizawa Hitomi & 7th gen Kusumi Koharu. Mikitty was one of the most illustrious idols of all time, having hordes of fans literally worshiping her at concerts. She was also the group's best singer at the time. In less than a month after she became leader, she was forced to resign due to a relationship scandal. Yossie in my opinion just fell out of favor and had to be graduated. Koharu graduated to pursue her solo career in modeling.

Graduation concerts are often filled with tears and emotions as the girls bid their farewells. The idols that had to leave because of scandals didn't have the privilege of having graduations shows and concerts.

The thing with idol groups (in case you’re not familiar with the concept of idols in Japan), compared to American girl groups, is that they’re built around the girls and their personality, more so than their music. As a result you’ll easily find them on TV shows, radio shows (5 of the 8 members have their own weekly radio show), variety game shows, photo books and a host of other stuff.

As impossible as it sounds, they even had their own Sports Festival, where fans paid to see their favourite idols compete in teams across track and field events, baseball and soccer. The last one was held in 2006, where they had the largest line up of idols in Hello!Project history.

Morning Musume and several ex members. They are often brought in as feature guests on game shows and interviews. Even more when a new single is about to be released.

Sayumi with her signature move, Usa-chan PISUUU!!! She frequently appears on variety and talk shows, more so than any of the other members because of her stubbornly cute persona and devilish remarks. The amount of verbal bombardment she gets from being on talk shows would make other idols in her position break down in tears, but being Sayumi, she always manages to brush off verbal attacks with even craftier replies.

5th gen Takahashi Ai in her first primetime drama series, 'Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou'. It's also the first time an active Morning Musume member gets to appear in a starring role.The drama is based on the mystery manga series by Katou Motohiro from 'Magazine Great' (Kodansha). The story follows easy-going and cheerful schoolgirl Kana (Takahashi Ai) and genius boy Touma (Nakamura Aoi) who graduated from an American university at age 15, who form an unlikely duo and solve various difficult cases with logic. The whole series was actually quite entertaining, and it allowed fans to see her in a whole new light.

5th gen Niigaki Risa & 6th gen Kamei Eri. The most lethal comedic duo there is. The both of them have great chemistry when paired together. Especially on screen, where it becomes an absolute riot to watch. They're most famously known as 'GakiKame' on their weekly radio show, and have had special segments on both Haromoni and Hello!Morning just for these two masters of comedy.

I was quite amazed when I first encountered their photo books. I could not imagine why anyone would buy or collect these hardcover booked filled with photos of them posing in different settings and in different outfits. Then I found out these were normal in Japan; Gravure and AV idol photo books. In the case of Morning Musume, the most popular idol would be Takahashi Ai, the current leader of the group, with 11 photo book releases. And it’s not hard to see why, just looking at her covers.

5th gen Takahashi Ai, Morning Musume's current leader. 5 feet of hot damn!

Trailing behind at 7 photobook releases, 6th gen Michshige Sayumi. Not as sexy hot as Takahashi Ai, but she holds her own in the cuteness department.

On par with Sayumi is also 6th gen's Kamei Eri, with 7 photobook releases. There's a certain carefree idiotic nature in her that shows in her photos. She's also the only idol where I've bought 2 of her books 😉

Not far behind her fellow 6th gen members is Tanaka Reina, with 6 photobook releases. Her 'yankee' personality reflects in many of her outfits and poses. She once mentioned on a radio show that she has the smallest chest among the girls, and has to rely on her other character traits to stand out. xD

Despite being the group's current sub-leader, 4th gen Niigaki Risa has only 4 photobook releases. She's never been the most popular member, always hovering around the middle to bottom rankings. I'm not sure why, maybe it's because of her bossy nature that she sometimes let slip.

Their most recent group photobook release, Alo Hello! 4, 2010.

During their prime years in 2000-2007, they were the only group in Japan, apart from SMAP, and later on AKB48, to have their very own show on national TV. The shows are often lighthearted and entertaining to watch, with the girls participating in the most random activities. Sumo wrestling in rubber suits, riding roller coasters while making announcements, telling stories in their limited English, eating overly spicy or horrible food, climbing walls, visiting famous landmarks, and most recently, walking through haunted houses and failing to throw a golf ball into the hole 300 times in a row.

Watching the ever un-athletic Sayumi failed attempts at rock climbing is retarded funny. As well as seeing the reactions of Ai-Chan eating mega spicy food and screaming her lungs out walking through a haunted house. Yes, welcome to the twisted world of Haromoni.

If you watch enough episodes of Hello!Morning, you'll get to see them in all manner of silly costumes and disguises, doing all manner of silly things. ^-^

The length of each show has, sadly, decreased over the years, from a full 45 minutes during their Hello! Morning shows, to 20 minutes during their Haromoni stint, and most recently, 10 minutes in their Yorosen! shorts. This decline can be attributed to decreasing viewership and less content to report, due to them cutting their Hello!Project line up and activities.

45 minute Hello! Morning shows, back in 2006 when they still had 13 members. These shows consist of multiple indoor and outdoor segments, with short performing stints and singing thrown in. Their magic corner was particularly entertaining, as well as the kindergarten games section, where they had various forfeits and punishment games.

Perhaps one of, if not THE MOST obscenely funny episode of Hello!Morning! Hard Gay appears as a guest and wreaks havoc on the 45 min version of the show, back when Morning Musume were still in their prime. The girl's reaction when he first came out doing all his obscene moves were priceless!! FOOOOO!!!

After losing about half their line up, the 45 minute Hello!Morning was replaced with these 20 minute Haromoni shows where they traveled around Japan in search of interesting destinations, food, factories, shops and the like. The series of episodes where they toured famous landmarks in Japan was most educational. My entire 1st trip to Japan was based around these Haromoni spots that they went to. Awesomeness ^-^.

It was actually a decent show until Yossie and Mikitty left, and they were reduced to playing indoor studio games and eventually, watching user submitted videos like on Youtube. The only saving grace then were the hilarious GakiKame segments on the show. Ratings however, continued to drop and the show was canceled.

A few months later these 10 minute Yorusen shorts came on to replace Haromoni. Every episode had the girls teaching something in a classroom setting. This one was particularly memorable, as they were asked to write a letter to themselves 10 years into the future. Most of them took it seriously, and wrote lengthy heartfelt letters, with the exception of Eri xD. Mitsui was moved to tears when her letter was read out by Gaki-san.

The only reason to watch these shows was to see your favorite idol’s reaction when put through unpredictable situations. And yes they have the most exaggerated reactions I’ve ever seen. They even have special episodes to see who was the ‘Reaction Queen’ among the girls. Through these televised shows you could actually watch them grow and mature, from their very first audition all the way to the skilled performers they are now, and for some, their graduation or departure from the group.

5th gen Niigaki Risa, also know as 'Gaki-san'. Without a doubt the Reaction Queen of Morning Musume.

I don't know who came up with this idea, but it was a stable part of the show until they ran out of roller-coasters to ride in Japan. They even did a count down for the top 10 most insane roller coasters in Japan. The basic idea of this segment was that they had to read out a special announcement within the duration of the ride, or they'll suffer some forfeit after. Most of the time they fail miserably, making things all the more entertaining to watch. lol.

On top of all this, they also hold seasonal concerts, where they perform their songs at venues all over Japan. They’re usually only held on weekends, with same-day afternoon and evening concerts. Special concert-only merchandises are sold at the venues; like backstage DVD footage of the previous concerts, DVD ‘magazines’ with lengthy interviews or conversations with the girls.

It's in these behind the scene DVDs that you get to see the often silly funny antics of the girls during concerts, photo shoots and outings. There's an insane amount of things to watch. And that's not including their solo DVDs.

No other group (apart from AKB48) offers this amount of ‘access’ and content for fans to absorb. It’s this amazing amount of coverage and access that gives them the status of Idols, instead of say, singers or artistes.

The girls within the group each have their own color and concert merchandise, which makes it easier for fans to show their support. It also helps to further enhance their visibility towards their favorite idols during concerts. The girls themselves have surprisingly good eyesight, and have mentioned in their blogs that they can clearly see the faces of their fans, even those in the back rows, and they pay special attention to the fans in their colors. So it pays to be clad completely in pink when you’re a Sayumi fan.

This would be going a bit overboard, but you get the picture.

The girls wearing their respective concert tees and wristbands, color coded just for them. The only problem is differentiating the glow stick colors for Reina, Jun Jun and Lin Lin, as all 3 of them are different shades of blue.

Apart from the concert venues, fans are also able to purchase photos, yes, just photos and special merchandises from official shops at central areas around Tokyo. Over the years, these photo sets have become collectible items, and photos of popular members can be traded or re-sold at higher value. I don’t know any other group outside of Asia that manages to make decent money selling just photos of their idols.

If you ever traded baseball or magic cards, it feels the same, except much larger. Special areas are set up near concert venues just for these guys to 'set up shop'. They can bring several luggages of stuff just to trade.

Areas outside the concert hall where fans set up shop to trade.

Despite my limited Japanese, I did try trading photos with them, and they were a friendly bunch. It might take a while longer, but eventually I got the photos I wanted with enough asking and hand signs.

Concert merchandise and traded photos.

If you're not in their fanclub and want to acquire good tickets, you can purchase reseller ones from this shop along Harajuku in Tokyo.

It's called Garakudoh, and they have listings on their websites on the tickets they have available.

Rows and rows of fanclub tickets according to concert dates.

Closeup of how the tickets are displayed, with prices.

Depending on the seats, the tickets here can go up to 10 times the normal price, so make sure to prepare enough before hand. This 5th row ticket is about 300USD.

Hello! Project shop signage at Shibuya 109-2 basement.

We managed to visit 3 out of the 4 H!P stores in Japan the last time we were there. They had rows upon rows of numbered photos, and to purchase them you would have to write your name and fill up a form indicating the numbers of all the photos you would like to get. They handle your photos in gloves and with extreme care so as not to leave any finger prints.

AKB48 has in recent years however, taken this idol concept to new heights by providing hand phone video conference calls with your idols, handshakes events, pool parties, holiday camps and other out out of this world interaction opportunities. It’s amazing.

With regards to the public’s impression of this long time idol group, interviewed fans have mentioned that they’ve become so professional now, they’ve sort of lost their idol appeal, feeling more like mainstream artistes than the ‘girl next door idol image’ they used to have. Because of this, more and more fans are moving over to AKB48.

Hello! Project in recent years have started to react by making 2 huge moves. The first being the addition of 2 new members from China into their flagship group Morning Musume, in March 2007, breaking the tradition of being an all Japanese idol group. It was met with mixed reactions from fans at first, but them breaking into the China market shortly after was a valid enough reason to shake things up. Now in 2010, 3 years since their addition, they’ve blended in well enough into the group, and even have their own following. Since their expansion into the Chinese market in 2007, the group officially adopted the name Zǎo Ān Shào Nǚ Zǔ, Traditional Chinese:早安少女組, meaning, “Good Morning Girl’s Group”.

Screen caps from when the new members from China was announced. The girls were filled with apprehension. I wasn't too keen on the new addition, but over time it didn't feel that big of a deal anymore. Although Lin Lin still annoys me till no end with her annoying megawatt smile.

The second major move was the graduation of the entire Elder Club from Hello! Project. Elder Club consists of all ex-Morning Musume members and solo artists like Abe Natsumi and Matsuura Aya. 22 idols were affected.

1st gen Nakazawa Yuko passing the torch of Hello!Project's overall leader to 5th gen Takahashi Ai at the Elder's Graduation Concert in March 2009.

It’s not clear what would happen to them afterward, but it’s safe to say that the production teams have probably been spread too thin with so many artists to write for. Less people to deal with could mean better musical output overall and maybe a higher budget for promotions, videos and concerts.

Flat and simplistic costumes of the past, compared to the fancy, layered and stylized costumes they have now. At least now they're putting more effort into costumes.

Hello! Project aside, Morning Musume, being the flagship group, have struggled over the past year to regain their former glory by trying on different sounds and looks with their recent single releases. Resonant Blue marked their biggest change in image, with the girls bearing smokey dark make-up and costumes coupled with a serious looking PV, and killer dance routines. A far cry from the bright, happy releases they’ve been doing in the past.

Morning Musume's dark new look in Resonant Blue, 2009.

The following singles Naichau Kamo, Shōganai Yume Oibito, Nanchatte Renai, Kimagure Princess and Onna ga Medatte Naze Ikenai continued this trend, pushing the group into more mature and sexy themes. I’m all for this new direction towards a cooler image, although their music videos, when compared to the more popular groups out there now, still leaves more to be desired.

Their 39th Single B-side, 3,2,1 Breakin’ Out, marked their first ever PV making contest, of which results were announced at Anime Expo in LA. The top 25 entries that the girls themselves selected are still on display here. The 1st row, rightmost one from Singapore is my entry! Didn’t win though. It was also the theme song for the Anime Expo 2009 convention.

Their next single, titled ‘Seishun Collection’, to be released June 9, 2010, will be the theme song for a ‘fashionable’ stage play that the girls are participating in. Hopefully that will mean more time and effort will be put into this single, resulting in a higher quality song and video to match.

Regardless of their single releases, both the good and bad ones, the one thing you can’t fault them on are their concerts, all of which are jammed packed with more energy than most other artists’ concerts combined. No amount of videos, photos, or merchandise can give you the same euphoric experience as being in a LIVE Hello!Project concert. The sheer amount of hype and energy generated from all the girls singing and dancing, combined with united chants and cheers under under a sea of glowsticks from the color coordinated audience, is the signature mark of a true Hello!Project concert.

Morning Musume Concerts.

Boundless energy.

8th gen Morning Musume in concert, performing Naicho Kamo, 2009.

Morning Musume & OG members, performing Sakura Mankai.

They also on occasion, they also perform day time outdoor concerts like these. You won’t get the full experience and lighting effects in day concerts. My advice would be to go for the indoor ones.

Amongst the sea of color coded glowsticks and crazy cheering fans.

I doubt any western offering could inject that much fun and energy into my world of music than Morning Musume. They’ve completely changed my perception of Japanese music, and how insanely fun concerts can be. I admit that after attending my first Morning Musume concert, I’ve become somewhat of a concert junkie, and anything with less energy just pales in comparison.

Despite their shortcomings, Morning Musume is a group that I’ll be supporting for still some years to come, or at least until my favorite members graduate ;]

Born and raised in Singapore, MJ earns his keep by pushing pixels around as a media designer. Other jobs include getting paid taking pictures, as well as being a full time fanboy for all things cool & kawaii. MJ shoots with a Canon 5DmkII.