Home > Music > Morning Musume are Feminist – Really? – No, really!

Morning Musume are Feminist – Really? – No, really!

Morning Musume are Feminist – Really? – No, really!

For at least some of their life, yes.

Mr Moonlight

Ok, maybe we should step back and forget about that statement until we’ve looked at the history of the band, since it’s not just contentious, it’s a downright implausible sounding statement to most since, but then most people’s attitude towards them is based on a bunch of ridiculous misconceptions.

My enjoyment of this pop group, made up of an ever change crew of young and young-looking teenage girls (age unclear to me), is a cause of much bafflement and bewilderment amongst my friends and virtually anyone I happen to talk to about them or show them a video. Reactions have generally ranged from “why on earth do you like this?” to simple, unmistakeable looks of pure disgust and horror.  Never remotely positive.   I think perhaps people just file it away as some strange, unexplainable sexual fetish that I have.

It’s a classic reaction when talking about Japanese pop-culture, though, isn’t it? A westerner, not previously acquainted, can rarely react towards the Japanese  without seeing them through some weird preconceived alien lens.  Japanese culture has long since been associated in the west with extreme kookiness (those weird Japanes TV shows), sex fetishes, rape fantasies, hentai and pedophilia, so it’s as if Morning Musume, from a western perspective is just another defenceless wacky fad, morally contentious, but just about OK as long as it stays firmly in Japan. And so far it has, since I know few people in the West who are interested, and the group ceratinly have no plans to tour the States that I know of (which I find pretty sad)

This isn’t to say that contempt for Morning Musume is purely a Western thing. Watch any of their videos on Youtube and chances are someone will have commented. “For teenage girls or men 35-50 haha” They are clearly mocked in circles of Japanese culture in a similar way to Justin Bieber in the West, as successful and popular but talentless, over commercialised hacks. Based on their music alone that’s a blatantly unfair assumption. The music is commercial, the singing universally unremarkable, but Morning Musume’s output is at worst consistently sparkly, fun and enjoyable pop music and hard to criticise for what it i; and in my opinion, at best it’s some of the finest pop music I’ve ever heard. If you enjoy J-Pop then, frankly, it fits the bill perfectly.

But image is nearly everything in the world of pop music and that’s mostly what I want to address concerning Morning Musume. It’s easy to write something off as oversexualised teenagers and jailbait if you don’t consider it what it’s doing representationally too hard and furthermore their image in the last 5 years has sadly, increasingly moved towards something that encourages rather than refutes this poor snap judgement on them.  Bu, the Morning Musume of today is notably not the Morning Musume that became successful in 1998 or peaked with the brilliant album Ikimasshoi in 2002. I still like them, but that may be more fondness for the brand than anything particular about their music or image. One video Only You, released this year shows where Morning Musume have ended up, as a slickly produced, highly sexually charged MV with the girls looking very young, very cute and frequently staring into the camera with a “come hither” look.  As long as it remains an ambiguous fantasy, it’s defensible, but it’s about as far from feminist as one can reasonably go.  It’s been a pattern for around the last ten music videos and whilst I think it’s difficult to criticise the obvious professionalism of the piece, it explains why they’re gradually losing credibility and fans. In trying to please a broader audience and not disappoint old-time fans, Momosu too often shoot bland blanks.

The Beginning

In the early days of the band there’s definitely a sense that boundaries are being pushed and fun is being had. One can hardly accuse debut video Ai no Tane of being feminist but it’s not hard to see that this is a different group from what we see now, working on a different level. If the girls are still simply standing there to look pretty for an unspecified audience, singing a wistful, sentimental tune, the attraction is less on their youth (some members are in their twenties) or their figure, but more in their normality and approachability. This couldn’t be further from Only You and to watch this, charges of “perversion don’t seem obvious. Through Morning Coffee and Summer Night Town there’s an attempt to sell these girls primarily on the quality of their music, which is strong and infectious, if a little poorly produced. By the time their second album rolled around, attempts were made to sex up their image a little bit but were apparently unsuccessful with the punters as sales started to drop. It does feel like half-way house between the original girl-next-door image and the all-out dance troupe they’d later become, but the music is every bit as strong with Daite Hold On Me and Manatsu no Kōsen really standing out and there’s a strong reluctance to put these girls through the objectification mill and the videos, to me, look pretty classy as opposed to sleazy.

The third album, from 1999 saw the level of slickness increase and the group put out probably their best (and their bestselling) single, Love Machine but the imaging has shifted further towards the sexy, the skirts are getting shorter, the dancing boppier. and more alluring It’s still very mature and sexy though and throwing perverted labels at it is impossible since it mostly matches the kind of output you’d see in the West. 

And then something quite  wonderful happened. Someone in charge of the Morning Musume machine had a revalation, and a string of videos were produced featuring upbeat dance party numbers and a group of girls …. having fun. Not being alluringly sexy, but having fun. To clarify, these girls are attractive but they’re not doing it by fucking the camera or wearing overtly revealing costumes most of the time. The videos aren’t selling pure sex (like Only You later does), they’re selling enjoyability. And sometimes – even frequently – it’s enjoyability of the gender subversive variety.

And I love it.

I can’t, of course, feature all of their videos and I skip over a couple that don’t fit the mould, but hopefully there’s enough here to make the point.

The Golden Age of Subversion

Koi No Dance Site – Starts the revelation with light dancing and humour with a subtle Indian theme.
Happy Summer Wedding – Maxes up the Indian theme and the happiness but we’re still not quite there yet.
I Wish – begins the subversion.  It has the girls in casual costumes and follows a Wizard of Oz theme, and features mimed comedic moments, pratfalling, dressing up as and mocking police officers, karate experts and silent theater tropes. Production-wise the video is quite awful but it’s the first time that the Momosu girls toy with the full-on subversive potential of what they’re doing.

With Ikimasshoi, their fourth album, Morning Musume cranked it up another notch and full on demonstrated the potential of pop music as subversive genre bending theater. The record is a pop masterpiece and it shows that the whole machine was in a great place since the music videos are just as good and the perfect complement to the music.

The Peace!The musical mockery of the chants in the song are reflected in the subverssive messages of the video. The girls are shown singing and dancing in Sailor’r outfits (a masculine mode they confidently embrace and make their own) in a public urinal. Apparently this was mocking a controversy surrounding hidden camera footage that had been taken of a member in a toilet, but the fuck me poses next to the toilet bowls also further make a mockery of the idea that these girls should be on display as sex-objects.  This video is, honestly, as sensational as it is strange.

Mr MoonlightEqually as exciting, if not moreso than its predecessor, Mr Moonlight is a popped up big band show tune which sees lead singer Hitomi Yoshizawa sing in a masculine style voice and cross-dressing galore in an all-female troupe.  Apparently inspiration for this was taken from the Takarazuka Revue an all female crossdressing gender-bending female-troupe in Japan. Giving it a mass-audience through the leading pop idol group of the day is nothing short of genius and yes, this finally justifies my title that Morning Musume were indeed, feminist.

Souda! We’re Alive
– Another great song, but a slightly more generic singing/dancing video, but again showcases the joy and happiness in the jumping and karate posing.

And if Do It Now – properly introduced the group to the fuck me camera pose for the first time and featured sexy slick black dresses, Koko Ni Iruzee – brings back the crossdressing again with old jackets, cowboy hats, caps and army style outfits,all to a barnstorming frenetic pop tune that defies sexual expectation to its very core. Morning Musume at this stage in their career were determined to defy the very idea of a feminine image with a wardrobe that literally makes no sense and cannot be gender coded.

And it continues into 2003,  with Pirate suits, chef outfits and comedy moustaches in Morning Musume no Hyokkori Hyōtanjima” The comic play that started in I Wish has reached it’s full potential as subversive cross-dressing theater that’s natural and completely unforced.

The End of It

If, after these period there’s a move to make the girls more sexy again, there’s still some fun and subversion to be had. Shabondama is a great upbeat song and features the girls in casual streetwear (alongside of fuck me shots and dresses, though)

Go Girl! Koi No Victory half heartedly puts some of the girls in suits, some skirts and juxtaposes it with images of them in football costume. Some of the magic is still there but the camera is starting to want to love them a bit too much now.

After a few further failures (schoolgirl outfits, purple dresses etc) one last final gasp is had with Joshi Kashimashi Monogatari, one of my favourite moments in pop music. The girls jump around on a subway train and directly address the camera talking about their differing personalities and jostling/joking with each other. It’s slightly more adorable than earlier videos in the cute high-school-girl-ness but the personality shines through in buckets and if one loves these girls, it’s not through the camera but through their character. It’s perhaps not a feminist statement – much of it is discussing the girl’s hairstyles – but an image that girls can relate to and not primarily one for perving over. It’s about girls getting together and having fun. The song, also, is infectiously brilliant and my other favourite for the group.

The problem was, that the sexy image was too easy to do well, it seems, and on a few occasions occasions they pulled it off with sublimity. The Manpower sees the girls making love to a bunch of fruit. It’s better than it sounds but in representational turns a comedown. It’s a sexy video and a much sexier song. Sexy Boy and Resonant Blue sungthe death knell for Momosu subversion. They’re both hot, sweaty, beautiful and terrific songs and stunningly produced videos, but we’re so far into the territory of sexing up the girls that it seems there was no way back for the group imagewise. Everything since has been the same, but less good. Sultry dance numbers with the girls dancing sexily.


For a period of  4-5 years Morning Musume turned the tables on expectation and societal conventions of what gender roling ought to be. I originally got into the group through youtubing their videos and loved the crazy diversity of what I was seeing. Looking at their video output chronologically is much more telling and shows a story of an attempt to subvert gender, genre and expectation that eventually sank under the weight of its success, turning a great group into a sexier version of a great group, which eventually became a production machine. That it held up for for a period of nearly 5 years is actually quite a surprise and far from being such an obvious pervert’s dream it seems to me that Morning Musume have left something of a legacy that’s the polar opposite to that.

It’s frustrating that people prejudge what they don’t understand based on assumptions they make about race and gender and Morning Musume’s lack of a respectable place in the pantheon of western pop culture is strong evidence of this and as with so much of Japanese culture, it remains a mystery to the West because the West want it to remain a mystery.


The End – Goodnight

  1. February 8, 2012 at 7:31 pm

    The problem is in the US nearly every female performer past puberty is sexualized. Because of this it’s hard to see Morning Musume as anything but sexual, meanwhile they’re not sexual in the least. Do guys look at them in a sexual way? Sure, but that’s a personal choice. There’s nothing inherently sexual about them. Young girls can look at these idols as role models and not get any “hey, be sexy like us” messages.

    The girls do photo shoots in bathing suits, etc. but it’s still not done in a sexual manner. They don’t pose sexually (except for Kago Ai, but this was a scandal).

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