I think it’s quite significant, that Japan Time’s article about me being the first Black “Idol” is released the same day as the first venue I held an event at, Akihabara SIXTEEN has shut down this week.
As the Japan’s underground idol culture is gaining recognition rapidly in the West, with sensationalist VICE mini-documentary Japanese Schoolgirls for Sale , a recent Sundance feature documentary Tokyo Idols and the game/animation super series Love Live School Idol Project I find that idol culture is often shown in a perverted lenses by those often with an agenda. Idol nerds usually rage when the culture isn’t portrayed to their liking, while misunderstanding outsiders scream of human rights issues. As someone who has spent a year as a member of this subculture, as a Westerner but also a fan of this genre I think I offer a quite unique perspective.
AKIHABARA Sixteen by all means isn’t famous. Located in the off streets of Tokyo’s Electric Town, Akihabara — Geek paradise, the venue is(was) a hole in wall theatre smack dab between Manadarake used Figurine shop and a pornography store. Across the street from the famous AKB48 theatre, the live house was a complete opposite. Not mainstream and completely underground. Somewhere that totally would not be in tour guides.
Underground “idols” or amateur girls dreaming to be starlets are not a new thing to Akihabara. In the late 1990's-mid 2000's tons of girls who wouldn’t normally be on television began doing street performances in Akihabara’s pedestrian Sunday.
Duos like FICE and self dubbed “otaku artist” Momoi Halko are pioneers in this now grown subculture. As police became more and more strict on street performances, and after the Akihabara massacre of 2008 where pedestrians were murdered, the dancing girls were pushed into small live houses like Akihabara Sixteen that allowed them to perform without management or skills.
To those in the underground Akiba-idol community, Sixteen was an often mentioned venue.
The first time I went to Akihabara Sixteen was the first time I ever even visited the district. In 2015, a week after I moved to Japan my first meeting as an idol was in Akihabara. The topic? A proposed monthly event where my Japanese fans could meet me and I could live stream a talk show.
As an avid Akihabara enthusiast, I couldn’t wait to finally visit. I’m not a huge anime buff nor do I consider myself an “otaku”, however being a studied fan of the various subcultures that were birthed from this Electronic Mecca, I was riddled with glee. I was 18, wearing a pink girlish dress, oh and Black, not a common sight in Akiba which is usually filled with geeky men. Notably, before I met my manager that night I was propositioned by a man who asked me what grade I was in highschool, and he would pay me to drink with him. Quite surprised I obviously turned his offer down, but that experience would make me consider what kind of Akihabara is anyways.
Meeting my manager at the time, Satou, and an American expatriate Facebook friend of mine, Xavier we were off to Akihabara Sixteen. Xavier would introduce me to the owner of the venue, Ronri Fukusuke. His name has some history to it in Akihabara, especially amongst business owners.
I still remember my bewilderment when going into Sixteen. The venue was quite narrow and very easy to miss to the naked eye. The first floor is a bunch of hand made fliers with different idols promoting their events, and there’s a large poster. From the 1997 movie LOLITA, with the title character wearing her signature heat shaped glasses and sucking a lollipop. The sucker kind of unnerved me.
Satou, Xavier and I walked to the 3rd floor, the live stage venue. There were fans and some girl singing, and the infamous Ronri Fukusuke greeted us. He was a tall man, by Japanese standards, so around 180cm(6 feet) and missing more than one tooth. He immediately noted that I looked like Naomi Champbell to him and how “pretty” I was.
The four of us walked to the 2nd floor — the cafe, to talk business. The cafe floor often had collaboration events dedicated to Eroge(erotic anime games) amongst other game collaborations.
We all sat around drinking tea and talking. At this time my Japanese comprehension wasn’t as it is today, two years later, so I had a little hard time understanding the men talk so swiftly.
It was set. With the clink of two beer jugs, it was agreed that I would do monthly events at Akihabara SIXTEEN.
My first event? Valentine’s Day, Saturday, 2015.
The event went on pretty swell, except I sucked and was a nervous wreck. Amongst the 15 people that attended were mainly avid viewers of my live streams on Nico Nico Douga. It was so strange to put a real face to the people I had only known as funny net handles and cat avatars months before.
I would go on to start a series of monthly events featuring other foreigners in the same sub culture community as guests, and as these events got known online more and more Western girls wishing to be “idols” would perform at SIXTEEN. Most likely due to the venue’s openness and the girls’ lack of knowledge on where to go.
As time went on I got to know the other idols performing at Sixteen. Most were indie girls who would never be famous, but had a passion for idols, games and anime. The weekly events became like a community of girls and fans in Akihabara.
There was Pudding, a Taiwanese woman studying in Japan whose deep emotional singing voice served as a contrast to her babyish girlish speaking one on top of the thick Chinese accent she had.
There was Akira Chang, also Taiwanese, an aspiring voice actress whose Japanese was impeccable. She and Pudding often had falling outs. There’s some secret history in Taiwan I never found out.
Next was Elizabeth. She was in fact Japanese, but her gimmick was that she was an “English Lolita”. Modeling her character after what she perceived to be a British little girl. She often wore Lolita fashion, a blonde wig covering her natural hair which was longer than half her body size, and blue contact lenses. Elizabeth even told me she was studying English. She was featured on a Japanese television documentary that revealed she was well into her 30's and had been an underground idol in Akihabara for 6 years now. She called all her fans “onii-chan”(older brother)and she was their little sister. Elizabeth sung a lot of nursery rhymes.
There were Mermaid idol groups, groups of girls who like subcultures, plus sized idol groups, LGBT idol groups, groups from outside of Japan and a variety of creativity that often came by the small stage at Sixteen.
I happened to meet Cylinda who was half Fillipina and Meri, Japanese and 18 like me at the time. Both loved anime, manga, games and, surprisingly, were huge Nicki Minaj fans.
There were also girls like Arinrin who were in their late teens and still in high school however most of the girls performing at Sixteen were in fact adult women. Since they disclosed their ages privately, I shouldn’t write them here however it was not rare for women 25+ years old to perform there.
“When I turn 20" I once overheard Arinrin say “I’m quitting chika idol forever”
She was commenting on a girl, Zero, who quit all of a sudden and stopped responding to everyone. Said girl Zero said she quit to mental pressures, however she’s active again as of recent.
A lot of conversation often happens around the fans of idols. The “wota”. Why they’re fans of idols, their lifestyles, the funny chants they do but nobody really takes the time to look at the idols – underground or major.
A lot of the girls are social outcasts themselves, and venues like Akihabara Sixteen provided a community to gather with likeminded individuals.
As Mofuku(creator of DearStage, DenpaGumi Inc) once said “the stage is like therapy for a lot of girls.” Girls came and went through, Akiba SIXTEEN. Falling outs and arguments happened between idols, venue owners, managers, fans. Some events ballooned participant turnouts, some events nobody came.
As Japan’s underground idol community continues to expand, places like Sixteen will be like communal therapy for fans and amateur idols alike.
Ultimately, Japan is in the midst of idol “Sengoku Jidai”, Civil war. And as businesses crumble, new ones are created. Everyone and their mom is putting their hands in as idol producers these days so the industry is quite satured.
While mega groups like AKB48 will continue to power on, Akihabara’s underground idol community will stay. Providing fans with idols they can really meet and a bit of “therapy”.