In Japanese culture, idols (アイドル, aidoru?) are (usually female) media personalities in their teens and early twenties who are considered particularly attractive or cute and who will, for a period ranging from several months to a few years, regularly appear in the mass media, e.g. as singers for J-pop groups, bit-part actors, TV personalities (tarento), models in photo spreads published in magazines, advertisements, etc.
The idol phenomenon began during the early seventies, reflecting a boom in Japan for the musician Sylvie Vartan in the French film Cherchez l'idole in 1963, with Japanese title (アイドルを探せ, Aidoru wo sagase?) in November 1964. The term came to be applied to any cute female actress or singer. Teenage girls, mostly between 14 and 16, began rising to stardom. One in particular, Momoe Yamaguchi, was a huge star until her marriage and retirement in 1980. Idols dominated the pop music scene in the 80s; and this period is known as the "Golden Age of Idols in Japan". In a single year, as many as 40 or 50 new idols could appear, only to disappear from the public spotlight shortly afterwards. A few idols from that era, such as Seiko Matsuda, are still popular. In the 90s, the power of Japanese idols began to wane, as the music industry shifted towards rock musicians and singers for whom music was a more important sales point than looks or wholesomeness, as well as towards genres such as rap that were harder to square with conventional prettiness. The Japanese idol phenomenon has had a large impact on popular culture in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
It is commonly said female Japanese idols represent the perfect female form in Japanese society. They are symbols of female sexuality and are often dressed erotically. For this reason they are often idolized by both males and females. Male audiences' infatuations with an idol's good looks are fed with detailed information about the idol's measurements, favorite colors, food, hobbies, blood type, etc. Female audiences are interested in imitating their style, hair color, fashion, etc. Good examples of fashion leader idols were Ayumi Hamasaki, Hitomi, Ryōko Hirosue and Namie Amuro. However, in what most Europeans would see to be a contradictory stance, this interest in the detail is accompanied by a simultaneous apparent disinterest in the truth of this detail as it is presented. This is most starkly shown in terms of age.
For example, it is widely acknowledged that many idols are older than the u19 or u15 categories that they are placed within. There is also an accompanying playfulness with age that one might not ordinarily associate with the stereotypical rigidity of Japanese culture. The popular idol magazine 'Beppin' for example is happy to associate a widely different age to the same model on consecutive pages of the same edition. This seems not to bother Japanese fans who understand that the model's details are a role. It can also be associated with ideas that lie deeper within Japanese culture: Firstly, the idealization of youth which is reflected in such things as 'cutesie' Sexy fashions and the portrayal by women of themselves (in terms of dress and manner) as younger than they are. Secondly, it can be seen as part of a Japanese tradition of developing roles within roles; this can be seen in the behaviour of the masked Geisha and in Kabuki theater. For a fuller understanding of both role play and the idealisation of youth in Japanese media and culture it is worth reading articles by Dr Sharon Kinsella, referenced below.
Namie Amuro was the most popular idol in the late 1990s, although marketed as sexier and more mature than other idols. She began her career in 1992 as a vocalist for the pop group Super Monkeys, but the group flopped very quickly. Producers liked Amuro and in 1995 she went solo, enjoying massive success. This status has since been eclipsed by Ayumi Hamasaki, who is known as one of Japan's current divas.
A diversification occurred in the 1990s and instead of few idols vying for popularity, a number of idols with specific characteristics divided the market. In the mid-1990s, idols became much younger than before, and groups of idols like Speed and Morning Musume became prominent. A new genre of idols called Net Idols became known in the late 1990s, only appearing on websites. In 1997 there appeared Kyoko Date, the first "cyber idol" or "virtual idol". Kyoko Date has a fabricated history and statistics and her own songs. Meanwhile, gurabia aidoru (グラビアアイドル, i.e. "photo gravure idols") such as Yoko Matsugane, Rio Natsume and Eiko Koike have largely appeared skimpily clad in "cheesecake" photographs.