The Japanese Idol Room Experience


It’s mid-afternoon in Akihabra. I’ve been in and out of shops all morning, bewildered by cutesy anime characters, girls in costume, tight clusters of shoppers, and an array of noise from every direction. On my way down the street I stop to picture-read another cluster of signs on the side of the road, but I can’t quite make sense out of what I’m seeing. For the thousandth time I find myself wondering what exactly I’m looking at.

Photo by Michael Johnstone

Photo by Michael Johnstone

Idol groups are insanely popular in Japan. These groups, made up primarily of high-school aged girls, sell tens of millions of records. The best known of these is AKB 48. The name derives from abbreviating Akihabara, and I could never quite figure out the 48, as there are actually 68 members of the group.

Naturally, most teenage girls aspire to become the next member of the constantly changing troupe of singers.

With this in mind, I’m trying to ascertain if it’s an audition centre. And maybe it is. A guy that speaks English approaches me, asking me if I wanted to come in. I’m a bit leery at first. Korea is full of businesses that appear to be benign yet are actually fronts for brothels, so one becomes hesitant when asked inside by staff.

He explains the concept. You pay a fee, and enter a private room. The room is divided by a two-way mirror. You then watch a performance by a girl who sings and dances a J-Pop hit, and hit either a green button or a red button, depending on if you liked the performance or not.

“That’s it?”

“Yes.”

Why the hell not?

He showed me into a small room, and sure enough there was a two-way mirror where I could see into the next room. He shows me the green and red buttons, gives me a pair of headphones, and leaves me with a binder of cards.

Photo by Michael Johnstone

Each card has a girl’s photo, and presumably, some information on them. Since I was only there for the minimum amount of time (about 3 songs) I didn’t “audition” several girls, I was easily amused by the first, who entered promptly. She introduced herself and began her dance number. She sang relatively well, and put quite a bit of zeal into her routine. I hit the green button, which set off a flash and an approving sound effect. Out of curiosity, I’ll admit I hit the red button after the second number, which flashed a red light and a disapproving bell, causing the poor girl to feign that her feelings were hurt that she didn’t please the judge.

It was an experience, to say the least. To be honest, I’m still a bit confused by the entire operation. Who goes to these rooms? Creepy old men? Teenagers? Confused travellers? I’ve done a few quick searches online, but haven’t been able to glean any further information. If you have the faintest idea what I’m talking about, let me know in the comments below. I’m still baffled.

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