Japan 101: Gravure Idols

The Japanese entertainment industry is know for its over-the-top variety shows and wacky characters. From robotic cats with no ears, to flamboyant semi-pro wrestlers who make their careers by forcing kids to eat their greens. Among this constantly revolving set of media stars, lies the trademark profession that calls the nation’s attention of salarymen, and women, alike, the gravure model.

Since the 1970′s, the gravure idol industry has been a prominent part Japanese media culture. The word “gravure” comes from English and is used in Japanese as a way to describe a type of female model. It is derived from the term “Rotogravure” which is a printing method that was once commonly used for magazine and photos. Thus, the modern meaning can loosely be translated to “magazine model”, the medium in which most of the idols gain stardom.

At a glance, gravure idols (グラビアアイドル pronounced gu-ra-bee-ah aye-do-roo) are easy to write off Japan’s disposal babes who prance around in skimpy outfits making suggestive poses to the camera. These female models often start their careers as young as sixteen, after being scouted by modelling agencies for their photogenic potential. Following their debute in print magazines, most idols often make their own DVD collections that show them jumping around by themselves in suggestive clothing and engaging in activities that exemplify their top-heavy attributes.

From a westerner’s perspective it is difficult to understand how an industry that uses such young models can thrive without a public outcry to what would be considered the exploitation of minors. However, it is important to note the cultural differences that make gravure idols such a popular and widely accepted aspect of Japanese media.

Contrary to AV (Adult Video) idols, gravure idols do not pose for nude photography or engage in sexual acts. Although they often do not leave much to the imagination, gravure photography is not considered pornographic. It is common to see the models grazing the front covers of weekly comic books target for junior high school students and up, lined in racks at convenience stores. Inside each issue includes a full-color poster spread featuring a model dressed up in a variety of loosely clad cosplay costumes. Most Japanese people would probably agree that the models are a bit suggestive in nature, but the overall consensus would be 可愛い! (read as ka-wa-ee or cute).

Like most things in Japan, gravure idols careers are often short lived. Model’s careers usually begin at a young age, followed by a loss in popularity as they mature to adults and their “innocent” appeal fades away. Although many of the young idols tend to be swayed toward the adult industry, a select few have gone on to shed their career as eye-candy and make professional debuts as announcers and actors. By taking their fan-base with them and expanding on their popularity, former gravure idols, such as Natsuna Watanabe, Aki Hoshino, and Koike Eiko, have gone on to lead successful careers outside of the modelling world.

Japan’s sexual culture is quite unique compared to what would be considered “normal” from the western world. However, it is important consider a contrasting point of view when making a judgement on any culture. So before you go on a rant, take some time to do some research the perspectives that challenge your own. In the case of gravure idols, you might find it to be more enjoyable than you thought…

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