Should you ever crash into a phone zombie on the streets of Tokyo, pity them. They are probably doing it for love.
The lack of commitment by young people to a flesh-and-blood intimate partner is worrying authorities in Japan, where the birth rate has plunged to an all-time low – but devotion to someone other than a romantic partner has neither been so widespread nor intense. In fact it’s almost a requirement. To be a “normal” teenager in Japan, one must have an oshi.
An oshi, derived from the word meaning “to push”, can be anything from a pop idol to an anime character to a porn star. The key is to take the relationship beyond run-of-the-mill fandom to a dedicated obsession, similar to that one might lavish on a spouse or offspring. The duty, as a fan, is to make your oshi the centre of your world.
As one marketer put it, the amorphous concept means “fans enjoy co-creation rather than consumption.”
A typical oshi target is a pop idol from Japan or South Korea. Once they have been chosen, the person belongs to an oshi-katsu (push group) responsible for pushing their idol to the height of fame and success.
“Especially in the time of Covid- 19 crisis, oshi-katsu gained popular attention as a means of self-fulfilment and in order to escape from the harshness of everyday lives, loneliness and a general lack of communication,” writes Maiko Kodaka, a PhD candidate at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) University in her paper on male-porn-star oshi.
Her study looked at female fans of male porn actors with the “boy-next-door” aesthetic often seen in pop idols. She revealed how women ranging from their 20s to their 60s felt about their idols, including money spent on “pay as you go” experiences.
“The interaction with oshi for me is a means to feel relaxed, which eliminates my daily stress,” said hospital nurse Miki, whose surname i is omitting to protect her identity. “In order to support oshi, I can survive hard work. The more I support oshi, the more confidence and motivation for life I receive from them.”
Oshi fandom has parallels with “stan culture” in the west, reference to an Eminem song Stan (a stalker and fan), about a devotee who turned violent when his idol wouldn’t answer his fan mail.
But now Stan, like the term otaku for Japanese Stans, has lost its negative sense and has become a badge of honour among fans for whom obsessiveness is the norm.
The quiet revolution is seemingly harmless – apart from the demands of screen time and spending – and can be a life-enhancing hobby, according to the fans, at least.
“I tend to like idols who express their sensibility in their own way, so I see them as ‘creative friends’ in some ways,” says Annu Hazumi, a soft-core follower of K-pop groups perhaps typical of many “lighter” oshi adherents. “To be honest, they are not my life support or indispensable to me. So I think I can live a normal life without being too oshi-focused,” she told i.
Pop idol worship dominates the oshi-katsu spectrum and includes all age groups. At least half of Japanese women have an oshi they follow, according to some surveys. Support is trans-generational, with many mothers sharing their daughters’ passion, says another idol fan who goes by the name of Miku.
“My mother is positive and I often talk to her about my hobby, as she shares the same hobby,” she told i.
Having an oshi strengthens family bonds and generates fun and discussions, agrees Ms Hazumi.
“Both my mother and sister enjoy doing oshi, which gives them more confidence. Probably because they have found something they are passionate about. They both have an oshi and are very supportive of my oshi lifestyle – they record my programmes, even get me tickets!” she says.
Cult of consumerism
For those in the market for an oshi to worship, there are thousands of groups and individuals to choose from, with delightful lost-in-translation names such as Babyraids, Smileage, Up Up Girls, and the Possibooooo.
Bands and brands have created an industry around the commodification of intimacy between these oshi – which are usually romantic in nature – where all fanciful wishes are granted, usually through events like phone-ins, online fan meet-ups, and “special” access websites.
Some more dedicated fans dine alone with pictures of their oshi for company. It is this sense of “co-creation” that has many hooked. Nagomi Sato, 22, “supports” Korean idols from their first auditions. “I want to see them excelling in the brief moments when they are shining as idols, which are beautiful, sparkling, fleeting, and precious,” she says.
But life besotted by an oshi is not without complications. Such dedication has created a lucrative “love capitalism” industry. Marketeers behind the idols – rather than the oshi themselves – seek to ramp up fan engagement with endless merchandise and paid-for encounters. Fans can come to view such behaviour as a necessary part of their “support” and in some cases, are milked mercilessly for their devotion.
Expenses incurred “pushing” oshi can lead to a type of toxic fandom referred to as falling into the “swamp”. According to oshikatu.com, a website ostensibly dedicated to guiding oshi fans with tips and gossip about their habit, excessive oshi costs are often covered by “overtime, multiple jobs, bank-of-mum-and-dad, and running up debts”. The site also provides links offering “highly paid work” among its advice on avoiding the “oshi debt trap”, which includes links to a sex work agency.
Japan’s authorities are becoming increasingly aware of the slippery slope to the “swamp” and are trying to prevent people from being ruthlessly preyed upon. Warning against the blandishments of some “underground” oshi, Japan’s police produced a poster on the dangers, including how funding such make-believe romances can end in the enlisting a sugar daddy, or papa-katsu.
But with ever more addictive hooks being dreamed up by the Svengali marketeers behind their winsome cash cows, pandering to Asia’s unstoppable oshi looks here to stay.