In the immediate media firestorm after Ai Kago’s suicide attempt, I found myself freaking out at 3 in the morning because that was the time IN AMERICA when the news broke.
After collecting my senses and stopping myself from flipping a table (I think I would’ve been too sleepy anyway), I scoured the state of the internet to see what was going on. Sadly, I learned what the kanji for “suicide attempt” was. And it was also in that 3 a.m. daze that, for the first time on Japan’s Twitter trending topics, a [former] Hello! Project artist was more important than whatever-and-ever-48. For all the wrong reasons.
But what struck me—more than the obvious sensationalism and the re-tweeting of news links—was the outpouring of concern from the Japanese internettes. From what little kanji I could skim, most of it was feelings of worry (“shinpai” 心配) and sympathy towards a celebrity who, in many eyes, had fallen even below the D-list. Ex-Morning Musume. Got caught smoking underage. Dated significantly older men. Got caught again. House arrest. Foreign exile. Attempted comeback. And now, a boyfriend accused of yakuza dealings and other criminal shenanigans. Wouldn’t you feel like you had nothing else to live for? Yet, if this were IN AMERICA, Kago would have been laughed off with a lot of sanctimonious tut-tutting and “I-told-you-so”.
(Admittedly, there was a fair share of shit-talking in the wake of the suicide attempt, but that’s a subject to piss me off for another time.)
Instead, many of the tweets rolling in during those first few hours were full of support. Even Harajuku darling Kyary took a break from her PON-ing and WEI-ing to express concern for an artist that she had admired since her grade-school days. It was in that moment that people from all walks of life—from the J-pop idol hardcores to the casual observers of Japanese culture—banded together to commiserate over a life in crisis. No one should ever be driven to the point where they want to end their life, and for goodness sakes we all hope she comes out okay.
What also struck me was that one of the trending words was “Kago-chan,” a form of address that one might use in casual, friendly conversation. I realized then that, even though it had been practically a decade since her heyday, she was still an idol in everyone’s hearts. Critics can talk crap about their fake personalities and short career lifespans, but something about that bond between fan and performer outlasts the bright lights of media attention. It was more than just “oh dear look at what happened to this famous person,” but as if a close friend were in serious trouble.
I think this is something unique about the perception of the Japanese idol, that has no analogue in any other pop culture. Her ability as a singer, dancer, or actress is secondary to the charisma that pours out of her, that likability and accessibility as a human being. We care about Kago not just because she is a sorta-famous person in deep distress, but because she is a sister, a classmate, a cousin, a best friend, who lit up our hearts when life got us down. And now, in this moment of unspeakable darkness, it is the least we can do to shine that light back at her.