Idols march to the beats of different drummers

A scene from a joint live show of Shiritsu Ebisu Chugaku and an ensemble of the United States Army Japan Band

Niconico Chokaigi 2015 was held on April 25-26 at Makuhari Messe in Chiba, attracting about 150,000 people. One of the leading otaku events in Japan, it was broadcast on the Niconico online streaming site, and was watched by about 7.9 million people.

I visited the event and found that it had everything - performances by anison and idol singers, a haunted house, pro wrestling and sumo matches, an exhibition of robots, booths for selling dojinshi self-published comics, and much more.

The "anything goes" atmosphere made me feel as if I were visiting an otaku event overseas introducing Japanese culture from traditional to contemporary. I felt Niconico Chokaigi was a complete edition of such events. So, I walked all around the event venue until my legs got tired.

On one of the stages, a Vocaloid music creator called Vocalo P performed for an excited audience. On the next stage, Sachiko Kobayashi, a great performer of enka Japanese ballads, was singing expressively, entertaining the large audience. Such a juxtaposition would be unlikely at any of the numerous music festivals in summer.

Before admission time for ordinary visitors, I took a self-guided tour of the venue before stopping at a music rehearsal. It was a collaboration between Shiritsu Ebisu Chugaku, a popular idol group, and an ensemble formed by members of the United States Army Japan Band. The military ensemble, named Samurai of Rock, was like a rock band with wind instruments.

Japanese idol stars are diverse. They work in an "anything goes" situation and enjoy tremendous freedom. Their main turf is not TV for millions of people, but live events for several hundred people, or several thousand at most. They usually start at small venues, but they can move to larger ones once they are supported by many fans. If they give a conventional performance, they can't succeed. Performing differently from the other groups, even if only a little bit, helps differentiate the idol group from others and establish its characteristic style.

So, just do it anyway - this attitude is important for idol groups. It can also lead to a collaboration of an idol group and a military band at an "anything goes" event like Niconico Chokaigi.

When I talk with musicians in bands, I notice they are more interested in idol culture more than the public might think. That's because CDs of these idols sell well and they attract many people to their live shows. What's more, these musicians probably envy the freedom on stage given to idols.

Originally, freedom on stage was the symbol of rock musicians and rock bands. However, it cannot be denied that they put so much emphasis on keeping their images that their styles tend to be inflexible.

However, the live shows of many idol groups are unpredictable. This is one of the reasons why I'm so attracted to live shows of idol groups.

The joint live performance of Shiritsu Ebisu Chugaku and the US Army ensemble was simply splendid and entertaining. So I won't say more, but just let me tell you that the two groups enjoyed the once-in-a-lifetime live collaboration, as if saying, "It's music, so we should enjoy it." Their emotions were certainly shared by the audience.

After the show, fans of the idol group chanted together "USA! USA!" for some time. How pleased the performers on stage must be with such chants. I can understand the joy as I'm often on stage overseas.

I think it would be fun if more varieties of music collaborations are given at such free places as Niconico Chokaigi, and I want to organise such unique events as a producer.

(The next instalment will appear June 13.)

Sakurai is a content producer who uses events and seminars to engage in "pop culture diplomacy." Follow him at

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