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Elizabeth Kinder
Photo: Sophie Ziegler

The Elusive Ethnomusicologist

Elizabeth Kinder’s monthly column

Ask anyone why they took up an instrument, particularly the guitar – wherever they’re from and whatever music they play – and if not always first up, but somewhere in the mix comes “I thought it’d be easier to get a shag”. The increased possibility of securing dates with the opposite sex is a draw whether you’re playing Womad like Bellowhead, or Wembley like Robert Plant – or both actually, if you’re Robert Plant. So spotting the headline “Japanese pop stars freed from sex ban,” I read on, surprised that anyone secure in the haven for hedonistic excess that is success in the music business could be banned from sex in the first place.

Turns out that in Japan, whilst Western music helped kick-start the trip to J-pop, the sexual freedom that went with it died in the wild fervency of fan adoration, particularly for Idol stars. This is where management companies successfully mine the Japanese cultural obsession with youth by signing up pretty teenage children, mostly girls, but boys too, shove them into their big pop machine that spits them out as scantily-clad living doll groups (or solo artists) for the audience to obsess and dribble over – then sit back and watch the yen roll in.

A judge last year fined a seventeen-year-old girl from an idol band 650,000 yen for dating someone, finding that “Single status was necessary to encourage the fantasy that the performers were romantically available. The clause prohibiting dating was necessary to get the support of male fans”, (implying imaginations so feeble that they can’t just dream that girls are free whilst constructing the sad unlikely scenarios in which they get to shag them).

Judging by the reams of column inches that pushes you know, news out of the press, this legally condoned infraction of human rights doesn’t affect artists here, but still, I checked with an A&R man. He was part of the team that signed the Spice Girls. “Are you mad?” he enquired. “We can’t ask artists to stop having sex – or taking drugs for that matter.” I rang my top pop promotions/manager friend. “Successful pop bands are so busy relationships might be frowned on, but not prevented.”

Happily for the Japanese girls and boys who fancy a performance career without having their basic freedoms denied – and facing punitive damages should they try to exercise them – a judge more recently proclaimed in a similar case that “We must acknowledge that forbidding pop idols to date by claiming compensation for damages goes too far… Relationships are a right exercised by an individual to enrich life.”

The management company of the girls in question was not having it. “They have betrayed the members of the group and all their fans. We cannot forgive this.” The girls left the band “due to ill health” and their management named and shamed the boyfriends, prompting one to publish “an emotional report on YouTube” whilst the other showed a bit of backbone and blogged about wondering what he’d done wrong.

The latest ruling has both excited and distressed fans in Japan, “This means victory! Let’s get dating idols.” Or: “You are already rich and famous. Expecting to go on dates too is asking too much!” Try telling that to Bellowhead – or Robert Plant.

Elizabeth Kinder


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