Idols going global: Morning Musume's worldwide renaissance

Idols going global: Morning Musume's worldwide renaissance

International interest in anime and games opens the door for Japan's revered idol groups overseas
Morning Musume
Enjoying the Hawaiian sunshine: Lin Lin, Eri Kamei, Jun Jun, Aika Mitsui (back row), Sayumi Michishige, Risa Niigaki, Ai Takahashi and Reina Tanaka (front row).

This year from July 1-4, an estimated 180,000 people visited the Paris Nord Villepinte in Paris, a near 60-fold increase on the 3,200 who came to see the first Paris Japan EXPO in 1999. As the scale of the event has increased, showcasing anime, fashion, cosplay, traditional Japanese ikebana and minyo and live music, so has the level of the guests of honor, this year attracting all-girl pop group Morning Musume. 

Japanese culture has recently been spreading worldwide with a boom in Japan-oriented EXPOs across the globe. But while many facets of Japanese entertainment have found a foothold in many countries -- manga, anime, horror films -- music has struggled. But with pop acts regularly contributing theme songs to anime and games, the tie-ins are paying off.

Having played in Los Angeles & Hawaii in the USA, Shanghai & Hong Kong in China, South Korea, Taiwan and now Paris, France, eight-piece Morning Musume's high-energy routines and songs are leading the charge for J-Pop, and three members spoke to CNNGo about their international exploits.

Morning MusumeAika, Ai and Lin Lin pose at their company offices in Tokyo

Worldwide recognition

Sat gleefully on a sofa in their company's Tokyo headquarters, group leader Ai Takahashi (23), Aika Mitsui (17) and Chinese member Lin Lin (19) described their highly anticipated show in Paris as "so exciting and lively!"

"The fans called us before we went out, like 'Momusu! Momusu!' and called out our names as well," explains Takahashi. "We managed to sing 12 songs and change costumes four times."

"Being in Paris was like watching a TV drama or a movie, the town was so beautiful," adds Lin Lin.

Even before getting in to the city the girls' arrival at the airport stirred a fan frenzy. At one of two autograph sessions, fans from many countries queued for autographs and photos. "They tried to speak Japanese," says a smiling Takahashi, before Lin Ling chimes in, "Chinese too! I was really surprised they tried to talk to me in Chinese!"

On stage the girls also spoke French, explains Takahashi; "We often say 'Jump!' to the audience during our live shows, so this time we said 'Sautez!! Sautez!' We also said 'C’est parti!' which means 'it’s started!' when we wanted to stir up the audience." 

Keeping ahead of the rivals

The reaction mirrored that of when the group played at the Los Angeles Anime EXPO 2009 last year, attended by some 40,000, marking a renaissance in a group that began back in 1997 and that has rotated members to keep the group fresh. No original members survive and the group's popularity has slipped in Japan from their early 2000s heyday, despite continued top 10 hits and another no.1 single in May 2009.

In the meantime a rival girl group, AKB48 was born in 2005 and by 2010 has near ubiquitous media coverage in Japan, prompting two replica groups to form, SKE48 and NMB48. AKB48 have alternated with Morning Musume in the last two years, playing the Paris EXPO in 2009 and LA Anime EXPO this year. They have also debuted in New York and will play in Macau, China, later this year.

Morning MusumeEx-Ceed!: A new four-peice combo for the Shanghai EXPOMorning Musume leader Ai Takahashi admits that Los Angeles is her favorite place so far though. "I went there in private the other day, just two nights and four days and really liked it. I was shopping and observing an acting class. I liked the nice atmosphere and it made me wish I could live there. But it rained so much that I was being kept inside, so I thought maybe I brought it with me and said 'sorry' to everyone!"

 

Korean wave inspires Morning Musume

Lin Lin has twice performed in China this year at the Shanghai EXPO with a new four-piece unit called Ex-Ceed alongside fellow Chinese Morning Musume member Jun Jun, and Hello Project! members Miyabi Natsuyaki and Koharu Kusumi. Morning Musume will be back together in China in August for a special appearance on the TV show "Day Day Up" 「天々向上」 on Hunan TV, which broadcasts to around 300 million viewers according to their management.

Meanwhile, the success of Japanese girl groups is under threat from Korean counterparts who have been invading Japan in 2010. Sexy and sassy groups like 4Minute, Girls Generation and 2NE1 are booming in Asia and have their own sights set on international success. 

Morning Musume themselves admit to being fans; "I really like them very much," says Takahashi, before bursting into a refrain from 2NE1's hit single Lollipop with Lin Lin. "She dances perfectly to it," Lin Lin says of Takahashi, before revealing that Takahashi dances to Korean pop regularly in her dressing room.

 

 

Robert Michael Poole is a specialist on the Japanese music and entertainment scene.

Read more about Robert Michael Poole