Purity Culture and Idols – Bay Erickson

In my opinion, the way Japanese idol culture is being treated right now is dangerous, and relies on a long-standing history of fetishizing and commodifying women’s bodies. These ideas stand on a foundation of toxic masculinity, and in order to start to break down this caustic creation, we must analyze what the problems with current idol culture are. I believe the biggest problem with idol culture in Japan is the idea of “purity culture.” By explaining this mindset, I hope to shed some light on the toxic nature of Japan’s idol system, and possibly offer some insight on how to change it.

Essentially, purity culture relies on the sexist idea of women needing to maintain a “perfect, virginal and pure” image in order to be attractive to men. The whole of this culture is based on the ideas that women cannot have the same emotional wants and needs as men, cannot attempt to pursue the same kind of relationships (sexual or otherwise) and must yield to men’s desires. It also revolves around the idea of sex as a danger– something that can taint one’s reputation or livelihood. It tends to crop up in evangelistic religious circles, but has since branched out to other ways of expression–the entertainment industry is rife with purity culture (women being shamed for having sex, women shamed for dressing ‘provocatively’, etc.) This is especially true in Japan, where there is a consistent pressure of modesty placed on women.

There is a difference between purity culture and between women taking control over their sexuality– purity culture relies on the idea that women are nothing without their virginity, that it is something that when taken, lessens your worth. When women prefer to forgo sex or alternatively, prefer to engage in this, this is their own choice, not one assigned to them by society. Purity culture perpetuates an idea that women are nothing without their virginity or a ‘pure’ status–they are used and dirty, like Mima’s hallucinated clone repeatedly says in Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue.

How does this fit into idol culture of Japan? It is a common occurrence that Japanese idols are not allowed to date openly, and are consistently required to keep up a facade of being “attainable.”  This idea is flawed in that women are viewed in this mindset to be “won like a prize,” and that it is women’s nature to always be able to be “achieved” by men. It is in essence, a marketing strategy used by the companies in charge of the idol groups, such as AKB48, to sell merchandise. Idols are essentially props for products–they are blank slates on which anything can be projected. In many cases, this can mean the audience’s lust-like moe, a drive or hope to be connected to the idol–often in the sense of a relationship. In some other cases, the idea of a “pure and virginal woman” is a sexual fantasy of the audience; a fetish of ‘dirtying a woman’s image’. By keeping an “attainable and perfect” image, companies can sell the idea of a ‘perfect woman’, a blank slate with company/label-assigned traits that appeal to the masses, to a raving audience.

In order to change that mindset, I believe it is necessary to “humanize the idols.” Let idols express themselves in their actual words, let them live lives that are not secret and threatened by exposure. If these women were allowed actual lives and relationships out of idol-hood, it is likely that the fetishization and treating of idols like objects would lessen. Give women a say in their own expression of sexuality, and do not penalize them when they act on their own behalf. It is also important to note that purity culture cannot be dismantled without dismantling of the institutions that portray women as needing to be pure. It is not only on the idol’s shoulders to break free from the suffocating nature of ‘purity’, but on the shoulders of consumers. It is only a social construct, and if we can disassociate ‘purity’ with ‘good’ and engaging in private, personal decisions (whatever those may be) as ‘bad’, and furthermore, embrace that women are people and not objects to be sold, Japan’s idol culture can start taking some positive steps into the future.

One thought on “Purity Culture and Idols – Bay Erickson

  1. Bay,

    Good work here. I agree that the commodification of idols is inherently problematic, particularly as the illusion is so carefully crafted, regulated, and punished. As you wrote about “purity” I couldn’t help but recall that this term is frequently applied to many ethnocentric and nationalist concepts in Japan–the “pure” “Yamato race,” “the Yamato spirit,” the “Yamato na deshiko,” etc. I wonder if you see any parallels between the “ideal Japanese woman” and idols–and whether there is a nationalistic or racial component to their representation.

    I’d also be curious about your analysis of a specific media event in relation to purity/idols–specifically, Minami Minegishi’s shaving of her head to “atone” for having a boyfriend.


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