Filmstill: Tokyo Idols (Kyoko Miyake, Japan 2017)

A Profane Religion

In the Japanese «aidoru bunka» (idol culture), grown men kneel down to mimic their infantile stars. When watching Kyoko Miyake's film Tokyo Idols, musicologist Oliver Seibt sees a strong connection between this ritual and the sacred – which has a potential to create a sense of belonging.

According to Emile Durkheim, founding father of French sociology, there is one thing that all religions in the world have in common: the fundamental distinction between the profane and the sacred. As diverse its manifestations in various religions throughout history might be, for him it is the sacred that creates community.

The term «idol» describes a person that is strongly admired. As a technical term in religious studies, it stands for a sacred item being worshipped. There couldn’t be a more suitable term for the social arrangement that originated in Japan in the 1970s as «アイドル文化» («aidoru bunka», idol culture).

It might be true that today’s Japanese consumer society doesn’t shy away from generally fulfilling any thinkable male fantasy, as journalist Minori Kitahara puts it in the documentary Toyko Idols. In light of the behavior exhibited by some of the fans in the film, it appears obvious that pedophile desire fuels the adoration of the very young idols.

Filmstill: Tokyo Idols (Kyoko Miyake, Japan 2017)

Like a Worship Service

However, Kyoko Miyake’s film also shows that it definitely isn’t the only motivation. Kitahara’s claim that the significantly older male fans expect to be loved and accepted by the young girls, without making any efforts, is in obvious contrast to the enormous emotional and bodily work that «otaku» (nerds), like 43-year old Koji, invest into their fandom. For example, the fans of the artist Rio, a «karaoke box», bow down on their knees in front of a huge television set showing their «idol» Rio, the image reminiscent of a worship service, especially when you see them ecstatically singing together and synchronously performing the prescribed dance patterns («para-para») during one of Rio’s live shows.

Rio calls on her fans to «believe», to «make a pilgrimage», and to «pray». She speaks of her followers as «her children», whom she «equally loves». Like a priest who doesn’t favor or reject any of his community members, Rio pays equal attention to all of her fans so that they don’t have to compete for her regard. As a sacred gesture, this has important social implications. At the end of the film, Koji explains that being together with his «brothers» means not having to worry about social distinctions and obligations. If he weren’t part of what he calls «a religion», he would be «alone forever».


Published on January 10, 2019

Last updated on January 16, 2020


Oliver Seibt is Professor for Ethnomusicology. His research interests include the history and globalization of Japanese popular music, the musical ethnography of everyday life, and the role of the imaginary in (popular) music cultures.

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