When Aya and Inori stepped onstage to perform as Otadol.HK at an anime event at West Kowloon Cultural District in early April, they received a pop-stars’ welcome. But the pair, both in their early 20s, are not exactly pop stars – they are underground idols.
In Japanese pop culture, idols are entertainers whose image and personality have been carefully curated to appeal to a dedicated – and financially faithful – fanbase. They are primarily young singers and dancers whose outfits, choreography, songs and even the way that they interact with followers come from Japanese animation, comics, and games. They often make money through merchandise and meeting their fervent followers.
Japan’s idol industry emerged in the 1960s and is still going strong, providing a model for some of the biggest K-pop groups today.
Underground idols, a subculture of the idol industry, have fans and perform like their better-known counterparts.
But their allure is more niche and the venues they play are significantly smaller.
According to fan statistics, Hong Kong currently has around 140 underground idols.
Aya and Inori, along with another girl, formed Otadol.HK last year. The name means: “as an otaku, can I really be an idol?” Otaku roughly translates to “nerd” or “geek” in Japanese.
Their songs and choreography came from a Japanese group with the same name, while their outfits are sponsored by a Japanese company. Aya is responsible for the group’s dance moves, while Inori, who studied in Japan, ensures they can understand and pronounce the lyrics.
Underground idols’ main selling points are their down-to-earth personalities and their willingness to work hard to achieve their dreams. As a result, they are forgiven if their performances are not up to the professional level.
Of course, their youth, energy, and cute aesthetic are all part of their appeal.
As well as onstage performances, post-show sessions are arranged during which fans can meet, talk to and take instant photos with their idols – for a fee.
The idols write messages of appreciation and encouragement to their fans on the photos.
However, being an underground idol is not easy. The third member of Otadol.HK dropped out for health reasons.
Edmond Lai from Dokuran Production, which manages several idol groups, told HKFP the industry had a high turnover rate. While there were a lot of people wanting to join, not many make it, finding the time management involved, an exhausting training schedule, and interacting with fans to be considerable burdens.
Underground idols also do not earn a lot, Lai said, adding that it could barely be called a job. Neither member of Otadol.HK is a full-time idol, with Aya training to be a nurse and Inori working part time.
HKFP’s photographer followed Aya and Inori as they prepared for a performance and met fans afterwards.
“I have wanted to become an underground idol since I was in [Form Three] because of an anime. I am not ready to give up. My ultimate goal is to perform with the Japanese idols I like,” Aya said.
“I am willing to try as long as what I am doing is related to music. Hopefully one day I can pursue electronic music, which I like. However, I have also decided that I will give up if I have not succeeded by a certain age,” Inori said.
Additional reporting: Candice Chau.
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