Being a non-Japanese speaker in the idol fandom


Yesterday the fandom was abuzz with everything SUPER GiRLS after the graduation of Yasaka Saori and the addition of 3 new girls into the group. And while I read people’s reaction to it, I sat there a little confused at what my own reaction was. To my surprise I didn’t feel anything I was expecting to feel, in fact I hardly felt anything at all. And the whole time I kept thinking to myself, ” Why?” I mean, I really like SUPER GiRLS. I’ve been following them since they released their very first PV, and I’ve been actively keeping up with them. So, why is it that I felt so apathetic? I then also started to think, did I even like them at all.

I have to say, first of all, I of course I do love the group. It’s just that at the same times it does feel like I’m not a fan at all. And I’ve been feeling that way about them for a while. And not really SUPER GiRLS alone, or in particular actually, I’ve been feeling this way about several groups. These feelings are surrounding by groups that aren’t, for lack of a better term, international fan friendly. And what I mean by that is, groups like SUPER GiRLS, Fudanjuku, YuiKaori, etc, that aren’t either insanely popular or are part of an established agency and therefore have a huge legion of foreign fans that subs and translate everything possible about a group or idol.

Fansubs and translations are basically the blood of the international fandom. I think it’s safe to say that about 7/10 (it maybe be more or less, it’s obviously impossible to know the real numbers) of the idol fandom doesn’t speak Japanese. Most of us, including myself of course, rely heavily on fansubs. But since there are way too many idols, not enough hours in the day, and not enough English/Japanese speaking fans, a lot of groups have hardly anything translated.

And because of that I kind of feel like I’m only 1/2 a fan of a lot of groups. When I like a group I like to absorb myself in them completely. I like to not only listen to their music and watch their concerts, but I like to know what each song is about. I like to know everything about them. I like to get to know a little bit about each member and then picked that one who’s got that something special that makes me go, “Yes, this is exactly my type of idol.” And then I like to put my full support in them.

As of right now a lot of my favorite idols are based on physical appearance or being drawn to how they perform in concerts or by the impression I get of them. And I really don’t like doing that because I think idols have a much broader appeal than cuteness. Take MomoClo for example, my initial oshi was Momoka. I thought she was this cute little spunky girl, and that was literally my basis for liking her. That was my oshi reasoning for a while. When I finally started to see some MomoClo subs happening I realized that Kanako was actually the member for me. I thought she was incredibly charming and I was drawn to her energetic and cheerful nature.

I think a much better example of this is with my Johnny’s initial oshis. With Johnny’s it was of course a lot easier to fall into picking members based solely on looks. And my initial oshis for each group were as follows: Ninomiya Kazunari, Akanishi Jin, Fujigaya Taisuke, Nakajima Yuto. And it was based on which  members I considered to be the most attractive. My favorites are now Aiba Masaki, Tanaka Koki (I know not a member anymore but he works for the point), Tamamori Yuta, Nakajima Yuto. My favorite member in JUMP is still Yuto but the point I’m making is really about my second favorite member Okamoto Keito. Now these are all members I never thought were even a little attractive. You don’t understand like I used to think a lot of silly things about them for completely shallow reasons.

But the thing is the moment I learned more about each group the more I could form actual opinions about the members and picked members for their personality. I was drawn to Aiba’s cheerful and playful nature, Koki’s funny side and the fact that he was incredibly sweet, Yuta’s airheadedness, and Keito’s awkwardness. Plus as I’ve said, I also do that thing where the more I like someone as a person the more physically attracted to them I become. I actually think all of my favorites are pretty gorgeous and can’t even believe there was a time that I didn’t.

To this day the only Johnny’s members that I liked initially that I am still a fan of are Nishikido Ryo, Nakajima Yuto, and Kawai Fumito. I’ve obviously always liked Ryo’s bluntness, it was perfect when I found out how energetic Yuto was, and the first time I came across Fumito was because of his impressions, so it’s always been personality from him.

And it’s because of this when people ask me who my favorite member of a certain idol group is a lot of the times I never feel 100% confident with my choice. Sure Maeshima Ami is probably one of the cutest idols that has ever existed, but does that mean she’d be my favorite SUPER GiRLS member? I do love how happy and energetic Mori Shiori is during Passpo concerts, but does that mean she’d be my type of idol? Hibi Mikoto has an incredibly adorable singing voice, but how do I know if she’s the best member of Dream5. And the list goes on and on.

And it’s not just not knowing everything about the members that bums me out, it’s not knowing what a song is about that also gets me down. When I hear a song on the radio for the first time it usually take me about 4 minutes to decide if I like it or not. But with idol songs it’s tricky, sometimes it takes me 4 months to decide if I like a song or not.

I obviously usually judge if an idol song is good initially by the music or how it’s sung. But that only really determines if the song is catchy or not, not really if it’s a good song or not. I have to wait for translations before I 100% can say, “hey, this is a great song.” There have been tons of times where I was super into a song and then read the translation and found out it was actually an awful song. Like I did with Berryz Koubou’s Ai no Dangan. Or how about the times where I was just not feeling the music or the way a song was sung and completely wrote it off until I read the lyric translation and found out it was actually a beautiful song? Like what I did with Passpo’s Sakura Komachi. Which is probably why I did not like Koisuru Fortune Cookie until I heard JKT48’s English version of the song. Since I instantly knew what the song was about I could make a connection to the song while I was listening to it.

And whenever I think of that I’m instantly transported back to school when I told one of my classmates that I like Japanese music. And instead of doing the first thing people usually do when you tell them this, which in my experience has been mocking, he did the second thing which was asking me, “How? You can’t even understand it.” My response was of course, “Yes, I can.” His retort was then a mocking tone of, “No you can’t.” The conversation then swiftly ended with me matter-of-factly saying, “Yes, I can.”

I of course didn’t have the time to explain to him, and quite frankly didn’t feel like explaining, that even though I couldn’t understand it I still could understand it. That you can find practically anything, within good reason, Japanese related you want either translated or subtitled if you knew where to look. And if you were willing to wait.

But having everything subtitled does make you a bit lazy to an extent, because my main complaint in this whole post could probably be solved if I just knew Japanese. I’ve been in the Japanese music fandom for many a years, September of this year actually marks my 10th year listening to Japanese music. You’d think I’d be able to speak it by now. But tons of circumstances have kept me from really attempting to. Most of my time was spent learning the language I was taught in school, which was Spanish, and because of that I had almost no motivation to learn another language. The fact that my mother would never allow me to have anything Japanese related for the longest time. Along with, of course, my own shear lazyness.

Nothing is really stopping me from learning it now, except the fact that it is an incredibly daunting task. Japanese is one of the hardest languages to learn. It’s a category V language, a language that is considered exceptionally difficult for native English speakers. And it apparently takes 88 weeks, or 2,200 class hours to learn. And that’s only to become proficient. I don’t dare to think how long it takes to become 100% fluent or native speaker level.

Maybe not knowing which idols favorite food is sweet potatoes, or not knowing which idol is funny, isn’t the biggest deal in the world. But at the same time it’s incredibly frustrating. I consider idol music to be one of my main hobbies. A hobby that includes many elements. I’ve got a new PV to watch practically every week, news to keep up with every day, dozens or so new concerts and albums a year, blogs and interviews to read, dramas, variety shows, movies, and miscellaneous other TV appearances. And I like that there’s so much going on that I’m never bored. But at the same time if I don’t understand what’s going on can I really enjoy it?

I know that there are a lot of fans out there that watch things raw and still enjoy it. That’s never been for me, and I don’t really understand how people can do that. If I don’t understand what’s going on it sucks all of the fun out. And it ruins it for when it does, if it does, get subbed. I’d honestly rather wait months or years for something to be subbed than to watch it without subs. Unless it’s something you don’t need subs for like music shows or Momusu’s recent Dokkiri.

I think being a non-Japanese speaker in the idol fandom is like being someone in the comic book fandom who has to read comics with half of the pages ripped out. It can certainly be done, and you can still wholeheartedly enjoy it, but it’s not really the same. And you never do get over the disappointment of knowing you’re missing out on something you see everyone else so easily enjoying. I guess for the time being us non-Japanese speaking idol fans have to just wait for the rest of the pages.

4 thoughts on “Being a non-Japanese speaker in the idol fandom”

  1. Hi how are you doing?
    I really understand where you are coming from. I am a huge idol music lover (mainly AKB and yes I know Perfume isn’t really an idol group, but I would say they are my all time favorite group in anything) and I find it also incredibly frustrating at times to not know more about the idols I love and adore. I do know a decent amount of Japanese and I am married to a Japanese woman, so whenever I need help, I can usually ask her (though I try not to ask for much because she absolutely hates all the idol stuff lol). Anyways, my humble suggestion might be to have you really surround yourself with Japanese friends who will be more than willing to help you figure out subs. Or if you don’t feel like bugging your Japanese friends, you can get on fiverr and hire somebody for a few bucks to translate a lot of Japanese for you. I know it may seem extreme, but it’s a great way to know more about your favorite idol groups and their members.
    Of course, you can also just wait until hard or soft subs come out for videos online. I think if you did this and learned even a little bit of Japanese, you will catch A LOT and figure things out rather fast. You will learn Japanese the fun way, which is by watching tons of idols say the same ten or twelve phrases over and over again and more importantly, you’ll understand how to use those phrases in certain social contexts specific to Japan. This method, by the way, has worked wonders for me. I went to Japan in December to see Perfume at the Tokyo Dome, and I understood much more than I even realized and could even have conversations with Japanese people in their language, all by knowing some very basic understanding of Japanese.
    I hope you find this encouraging. Sorry this is so long. I wish you luck. I love reading your blog posts. You make me smile so much… I figured maybe I can return the favor 🙂 –Derek

    1. Hey, I’m doing really well. Thanks for asking. 😀

      Yeah it is really frustrating. But it’s cool that you know people with a better handle on Japanese that can help you with it. As for myself, I can’t really surround my self with Japanese friends since there aren’t really any Japanese people in my area. Unless you meant online. But my online friends seem to be in pretty much the same language situation I’m in. XD I’ve actually never really heard of fiverr before. I has no idea that there were so many people out there willing to do stuff for $5. The only downside to that is after a while it could get expensive since people translate only 200-400 words, which is nothing really. I mean this blog post is a little over 1,800 words even though it doesn’t even seem like it. But it’s definitely something to consider.

      While I watch things subbed I’m not really focused on learning or picking up phrases, since I’m at too low of a level to do that. I have picked up some random words, slang, phrases, and kanji over the years, but not really all that much. Right now I am focused on the learning the absolute basics of Japanese, hiragana, katakana, and sentence structure. After that I can be on my way to learn Japanese the fun way through idols. 😀 Sadly, I don’t think I’ll be able to test out my Japanese on people in Japan anytime soon since I can’t really afford a trip. But hopefully in a few months I’ll be able to tweet in Japanese to people to build up my language skills.

      This was really encouraging, and I really appreciate you taking the time to give me a few pointers. Also, never appoligize for writing long comments, I love long comments. And I usually end up writing something equally as long in response anyway. Lol. I’m so happy to hear that you enjoy reading my blog. Really you have no idea. It’s comments like this that keep me writing. 😀

  2. I don’t know how someone watches idols for as long as you have and doesn’t simply pick up Japanese as a byproduct. I’d imagine listening to the language for so long you’d gain an interest in it somewhere along the line and begin studying it on a serious level. It’s almost as if you’ve actively tried to not learn Japanese simply because it’s “difficult”.

    I feel if idols are important to you, rather than sit around and complain about being unable to bridge the gap… you should pick up language learning. In the time it took you to write this post, you could have had a wonderful study session. Add that to all the times you’ve probably sat around frustrated that you couldn’t understand Japanese.. and you’d be fluent.

    All it takes is 30min a day.. and in a few months you’d see drastic changes.

    You’re robbing yourself of the thing you want to enjoy because of laziness and reallocating responsibility to others in waiting for them to subtitle things for you. Stop writing so many blog posts and give Japanese a SERIOUS go. It’ll be the most rewarding experience of your life… and totally worth your future as a fan.

    You have apparent misunderstandings when it comes to language learning… and sadly you just want the an easy button– too bad it’s never gonna appear for you.

    1. I haven’t been watching idols for as long as I have been listening to Japanese music. I became a Japanese fan in 2004 and back then up until I’d say 2008 or 2009 I was pretty much just a casual fan of Japanese music. Meaning I only listened to the music, and only a handful of artists. I became an idol fan in 2007 and was still a pretty casual fan. I was also still pretty casual when I started this blog in lateish 2008. Because of this blog I’ve been more and more serious about idol music and have then branched out and started watching TV shows, dramas, etc in increasing volumes over the years. So, it’s not really something I’ve done from day one which is why I haven’t picked up Japanese as a byproduct. And I haven’t actively tried not to learn it. I’ve always from day one thought it would be nice to speak Japanese, but I was never really serious about it because I wasn’t nearly as into Japanese things as I am now. And besides that I never had the time because of school. I spent most of my free time either writing in this blog or with my friends.

      I’m not really complaining, I’m merely just voicing what I have been feeling lately. And even if I was complaining that’s what I have this blog for. To get out all of my opinions, feelings, and complaints about everything pertaining to idols. And it’s really easier said than done to tell someone they could become fluent in a language. Language learning isn’t easy for everyone. I’ve found it particularly challenging since I have to teach myself.

      I’m not passing the responsibility onto someone else either. That’s why I said in this post that learning the language would solve my problem, because I know that it would. And saying that Japanese is difficult doesn’t mean I’m lazy or doesn’t mean that I’m not trying. I am trying to learn it now. I guess I maybe should have said that in my blog post. That’s why I’m trying to buckle down and learn it now. Whether you believe it or not, I haven’t felt really serious about learning Japanese until pretty recently.

      I don’t really want an easy button, I just want an easier way to learn Japanese than the method I have now. But I know once I get past the initial hurdle of the basics of Japanese it’ll only get easier to learn.

      Also, and maybe I’m being a little overly sensitive here, but this whole comment seems a little harsh and has what I take as mean undertones. And I’m not really sure why. I get that you feel I should know Japanese by now, but there’s no reason to go about it in such a condescending manner. It’s not as if I was snippy in this blog post, or ever really, to someone because I can’t speak Japanese.

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