Augmenting Japan’s Bodies and Futures: The Politics of Human-Technology Encounters in Japanese Idol Pop




augmentation, Japan, technology, idol, popular culture

How to Cite

Otsuki, G. J. (2013). Augmenting Japan’s Bodies and Futures: The Politics of Human-Technology Encounters in Japanese Idol Pop. M/C Journal, 16(6).
Vol. 16 No. 6 (2013): augment
Published 2013-11-07
Perfume is a Japanese “techno-pop” idol trio formed in 2000 consisting of three women–Ayano Omoto, Yuka Kashino, and Ayaka Nishiwaki. Since 2007, when one of their songs was selected for a recycling awareness campaign by Japan's national public broadcaster, Perfume has been a consistent fixture in the Japanese pop music charts. They have been involved in the full gamut of typical idol activities, from television and radio shows to commercials for clothing brands, candy, and drinks. Their success reflects Japanese pop culture's long-standing obsession with pop idols, who once breaking into the mainstream, become ubiquitous cross-media presences.

Perfume’s fame in Japan is due in large part to their masterful performance of traditional female idol roles, through which they assume the kaleidoscopic positions of daughter, sister, platonic friend, and heterosexual romantic partner depending on the standpoint of the beholder. In the lyrical content of their songs, they play the various parts of the cute but shy girl who loves from a distance, the strong compatriot that pushes the listener to keep striving for their dreams, and the kindred spirit with whom the listener can face life's ordinary challenges. Like other successful idols, their extensive lines of Perfume-branded merchandise and product endorsements make the exercise of consumer spending power by their fans a vehicle for them to approach the ideals and experiences that Perfume embodies.

Yet, Perfume's videos, music, and stage performances are also replete with subversive images of machines, virtual cities and landscapes, and computer generated apparitions. In their works, the traditional idol as an object of consumer desire co-exists with images of the fragmentation of identity, distrust in the world and the senses, and the desire to escape from illusion, all presented in terms of encounters with technology. In what their fans call the "Near Future Trilogy", a set of three singles released soon after their major label debut (2005-06), lyrics refer to the artificiality and transience of virtual worlds ("Nothing I see or touch has any reality" from "Electro-World," or "I want to escape. I want to destroy this city created by immaculate computation" from "Computer City"). In their later work, explicit lyrical references to virtual worlds and machines largely disappear, but they are replaced with images and bodily performances of Perfume with robotic machinery and electronic information. Perfume is an idol group augmented by technology.

In this paper, I explore the significance of these images of technological augmentation of the human body in the work of Perfume. I suggest that the ways these bodily encounters of the human body and technology are articulated in their work reflect broader social and economic anxieties and hopes in Japan. I focus in the first section of this paper on describing some of the recurring technological motifs in their works. Next, I show how their recent work is an experiment with the emergent possibilities of human-technology relationships for imagining Japan's future development. Not only in their visual and performance style, but in their modes of engagement with their fans through new media, I suggest that Perfume itself is attempting to seek out new forms of value creation, which hold the promise of pushing Japan out of the extended economic and social stagnation of its 1990s post-bubble "Lost Decade,” particularly by articulating how they connect with the world. The idol's technologically augmented body becomes both icon and experiment for rethinking Japan and staking out a new global position for it.

Though I have referred above to Perfume as its three members, I also use the term to signify the broader group of managers and collaborating artists that surrounds them. Perfume is a creation of corporate media companies and the output of development institutions designed to train multi-talented entertainers from a young age. In addition to the three women who form the public face of Perfume, main figures include music producer Yasutaka Nakata, producer and choreographer MIKIKO, and more recently, the new media artist Daito Manabe and his company, Rhizomatiks. Though Perfume very rarely appear on stage or in their videos with any other identifiable human performers, every production is an effort involving dozens of professional staff.

In this respect, Perfume is a very conventional pop idol unit. The attraction of these idols for their fans is not primarily their originality, creativity, or musicality, but their professionalism and image as striving servants (Yano 336). Idols are beloved because they "are well-polished, are trained to sing and act, maintain the mask of stardom, and are extremely skillful at entertaining the audience" (Iwabuchi 561). Moreover, their charisma is based on a relationship of omoiyari or mutual empathy and service. As Christine Yano has argued for Japanese Enka music, the singer must maintain the image of service to his or her fans and reach out to them as if engaged in a personal relationship with each (337). Fans reciprocate by caring for the singer, and making his or her needs their own, not the least of which are financial. The omoiyari relationship of mutual empathy and care is essential to the singer’s charismatic appeal (Yano 347). Thus it does not matter to their fans that Perfume do not play their own instruments or write their own songs. These are jobs for other professionals. However, mirroring the role of the employee in the Japanese company-as-family (see Kondo), their devotion to their jobs as entertainers, and their care and respect for their fans must be evident at all times. The tarnishing of this image, for instance through revelations of underage smoking or drinking, can be fatal, and has resulted in banishment from the media spotlight for some former stars. A large part of Japanese stars' conventional appeal is based on their appearance as devoted workers, consummate professionals, and partners in mutual empathy.

As charismatic figures that exchange cultural ideals for fans’ disposable income, it is not surprising that many authors have tied the emergence of the pop idol to the height of Japan's economic prosperity in the 1970s and 1980s, when the social contract between labor and corporations that provided both lifelong employment and social identity had yet to be seriously threatened. Aoyagi suggests (82) that the idol system is tied to post-war consumerism and the increased importance of young adults, particularly women, as consumers. As this correlation between the health of idols and the economy might imply, there is a strong popular connection between concerns of social fission and discontent and economic stagnation. Koichi Iwabuchi writes that Japanese media accounts in the 1990s connected the health of the idol system to the "vigor of society" (555). As Iwabuchi describes, some Japanese fans have looked for their idols abroad in places such as Hong Kong, with a sense of nostalgia for a kind of stardom that has waned in Japan and because of "a deep sense of disillusionment and discontent with Japanese society" (Iwabuchi 561) following the collapse of Japan's bubble economy in the early 1990s. In reaction to the same conditions, some Japanese idols have attempted to exploit this nostalgia. During a brief period of fin-de-siècle optimism that coincided with neoliberal structural reforms under the government of Junichiro Koizumi, Morning Musume, the most popular female idol group at the time, had a hit single entitled "Love Machine" that ended the 1990s in Japan. The song's lyrics tie together dreams of life-long employment, romantic love, stable traditional families, and national resurgence, linking Japan's prosperity in the world at large to its internal social, emotional, and economic health. The song’s chorus declares, "The world will be envious of Japan's future!", although that future still has yet to materialize.

In its place has appeared the "near-future" imaginary of Perfume. As mentioned above, the lyrics of some of their early songs referenced illusory virtual worlds that need to be destroyed or transcended. In their later works, these themes are continued in images of the bodies of the three performers augmented by technology in various ways, depicting the performers themselves as robots. Images of the three performers as robots are first introduced in the music video for their single "Secret Secret" (2007). At the outset of the video, three mannequins resembling Perfume are frozen on a futuristic TV soundstage being dressed by masked attendants who march off screen in lock step. The camera fades in and out, and the mannequins are replaced with the human members frozen in the same poses. Other attendants raise pieces of chocolate-covered ice cream (the music video also served as an advertisement for the ice cream) to the performers' mouths, which when consumed, activate them, launching them into a dance consisting of stilted, mechanical steps, and orthogonal arm positions. Later, one of the performers falls on stairs and appears to malfunction, becoming frozen in place until she receives another piece of ice cream. They are later more explicitly made into robots in the video for "Spring of Life" (2012), in which each of the three members are shown with sections of skin lifted back to reveal shiny, metallic parts inside. Throughout this video, their backs are connected to coiled cables hanging from the ceiling, which serve as a further visual sign of their robotic characters. In the same video, they are also shown in states of distress, each sitting on the floor with parts exposed, limbs rigid and performing repetitive motions, as though their control systems have failed.

In their live shows, themes of augmentation are much more apparent. At a 2010 performance at the Tokyo Dome, which was awarded the jury selection prize in the 15th Japan Media Arts Festival by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs, the centerpiece was a special performance entitled "Perfume no Okite" or "The Laws of Perfume." Like "Secret Secret," the performance begins with the emergence of three mannequins posed at the center of the stadium. During the introductory sequence, the members rise out of a different stage to the side. They begin to dance, synchronized to massively magnified, computer generated projections of themselves. The projections fluctuate between photorealistic representations of each member and ghostly CG figures consisting of oscillating lines and shimmering particles that perform the same movements. At the midpoint, the members each face their own images, and state their names and dates of birth before uttering a series of commands: "The right hand and right leg are together. The height of the hands must be precise. Check the motion of the fingers. The movement of the legs must be smooth. The palms of the hands must be here." With each command, the members move their own bodies mechanically, mirrored by the CG figures. After more dancing with their avatars, the performance ends with Perfume slowly lowered down on the platform at the center of the stage, frozen in the same poses and positions as the mannequins, which have now disappeared.

These performances cleverly use images of robotic machinery in order to subvert Perfume's idol personas. The robotic augmentations are portrayed as vectors for control by some unseen external party, and each of the members must have their life injected into them through cables, ice cream, or external command, before they can begin to dance and sing as pop idols. Pop idols have always been manufactured products, but through such technological imagery Perfume make their own artificiality explicit, revealing to the audience that it is not the performers they love, but the emergent and contingently human forms of a social, technological, and commercial system that they desire. In this way, these images subvert the performers' charisma and idol fans' own feelings of adoration, revealing the premise of the idol system to have been manufactured to manipulate consumer affect and desire.

If, as Iwabuchi suggests, some fans of idols are attracted to their stars by a sense of nostalgia for an age of economic prosperity, then Perfume's robotic augmentations offer a reflexive critique of this industrial form. In "The Laws of Perfume", the commands that comport their bodies may be stated in their own voices, yet they issue not from the members themselves, but their magnified and processed avatars. It is Perfume the commercial entity speaking. The malfunctioning bodies of Perfume depicted in "Secret Secret" and "Spring of Life" do not detract from their charisma as idols as an incident of public drunkenness might, because the represented breakdowns in their performances are linked not to the moral purity or professionalism of the humans, but to failures of the technological and economic systems that have supported them. If idols of a past age were defined by their seamless and idealized personas as entertainers and employees, then it is fitting that in an age of much greater economic and social uncertainty that they should acknowledge the cracks in the social and commercial mechanisms from which their carefully designed personas emerge.

In these videos and performances, the visual trope of technological body augmentation serves as a means for representing both the dependence of the idol persona on consumer capitalism, and the fracturing of that system. However, they do not provide an answer to the question of what might lie beyond the fracturing. The only suggestions provided are the disappearance of that world, as in the end of "Computer City," or in the reproduction of the same structure, as when the members of Perfume become mannequins in "The Laws of Perfume" and "Secret Secret." Interestingly, it was with Perfume's management's decision to switch record labels and market Perfume to an international audience that Perfume became newly augmented, and a suggestion of an answer became visible.

Perfume began their international push in 2012 with the release of a compilation album, "Love the World," and live shows and new media works in Asia and Europe. The album made their music available for purchase outside of Japan for the first time. Its cover depicts three posed figures computer rendered as clouds of colored dots produced from 3D scans of the members. The same scans were used to create 3D-printed plastic figures, whose fabrication process is shown in the Japanese television ad for the album. The robotic images of bodily augmentation have been replaced by a more powerful form of augmentation–digital information.

The website which accompanied their international debut received the Grand Prix of the 17th Japan Media Arts Prize. Developed by Daito Manabe and Rhizomatiks, visitors to the Perfume Global website were greeted by a video of three figures composed of pulsating clouds of triangles, dancing to a heavy, glitch-laden electronic track produced by Nakata. Behind them, dozens of tweets about Perfume collected in real-time scroll across the background. Controls to the side let visitors change not only the volume of the music, but also the angle of their perspective, and the number and responsiveness of the pulsating polygons.

The citation for the site's prize refers to the innovative participatory features of the website. Motion capture data from Perfume, music, and programming examples used to render the digital performance were made available for free to visitors, who were encouraged to create their own versions. This resulted in hundreds of fan-produced videos showing various figures, from animals and cartoon characters to swooshing multi-colored lines, dancing the same routine. Several of these were selected to be featured on the website, and were later integrated into the stage performance of the piece during Perfume's Asia tour. A later project extended this idea in a different direction, letting website visitors paint animations on computer representations of the members, and use a simple programming language to control the images.

Many of these user creations were integrated into Perfume's 2013 performance at the Cannes Lions International Festival as advertising. Their Cannes performance begins with rapidly shifting computer graphics projected onto their costumes as they speak in unison, as though they are visitors from another realm: "We are Perfume. We have come. Japan is far to the east. To encounter the world, the three of us and everyone stand before you: to connect you with Japan, and to communicate with you, the world." The user-contributed designs were projected on to the members' costumes as they danced. 

This new mode of augmentation–through information rather than machinery–shows Perfume to be more than a representation of Japan's socio-economic transitions, but a live experiment in effecting these transitions. In their international performances, their bodies are synthesized in real-time from the performers' motions and the informatic layer generated from tweets and user-generated creations. This creates the conditions for fans to inscribe their own marks on to Perfume, transforming the emotional engagement between fan and idol into a technological linkage through which the idols’ bodies can be modified. Perfume’s augmented bodies are not just seen and desired, but made by their fans. The value added by this new mode of connection is imagined as the critical difference needed to transform Perfume from a local Japanese idol group into an entity capable of moving around the world, embodying the promise of a new global position for Japan enabled through information.

In Perfume, augmentation suggests a possible answer to Japan’s economic stagnation and social fragmentation. It points past a longing for the past towards new values produced in encounters with the world beyond Japan. Augmentations newly connect Perfume and Japan with the world economically and culturally. At the same time, a vision of Japan emerges, more mobile, flexible, and connected perhaps, yet one that attempts to keep Japan a distinct entity in the world. Bodily augmentations, in media representations and as technological practices, do more than figuratively and materially link silicon and metal with flesh. They mark the interface of the body and technology as a site of transnational connection, where borders between the nation and what lies outside are made


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———. “[SPOT] Perfume Global Compilation “LOVE THE WORLD.”” 11 Sep. 2012. 11 Nov. 2013 ‹›.

———. “Computer City.” 18 June 2013. 10 Oct. 2013 ‹›.

———. “Electro World.” 18 June 2013. 10 Oct. 2013 ‹›.

———. “Perfume no Okite.” 8 May 2011. 10 Oct. 2013 ‹›.

———. “Perfume Official Global Website.” 2012. 11 Nov. 2013 ‹›.

———. “Secret Secret.” 18 Jan. 2012. 10 Oct. 2013 ‹›.

———. “Spring of Life.” 18 June 2013. 10 Oct. 2013 ‹›.

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Author Biography

Grant Jun Otsuki, University of Toronto

Grant Jun Otsuki is a Ph.D. candidate in social-cultural anthropology at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on the human-technology relationships in Japan and North America. His dissertation examines the cultural politics of how the ‘human’ is imagined by wearable technology researchers in Japan.