Charisma's Realm: Fandom in Japan

By Yano, Christine | Ethnology, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Charisma's Realm: Fandom in Japan


Yano, Christine, Ethnology


Most studies of Japanese social organization focus upon structural elements of duty and obligation. This study of Japanese fan clubs uses the concept of charisma to analyze the voluntary bonds that connect individuals to one another. The concept of charisma recognizes individual choice, transcendental affect, and the role of the exceptional. Moreover, this study examines charisma within the context of popular music. Charisma here becomes not a mystical enigma, but a manipulable tool of big industry and fan alike. (Japan, consumption, popular culture, charisma)

Weber (1968:xviii) defines charisma as "a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional qualities." Charisma, however, only exists within a particular set of relationships between a leader and those for whom that leader's magnetism finds resonance. One cannot, therefore, speak of charisma without referring to an intrinsically social relationship founded upon ties of transcendent appeal. Most studies of charisma focus on religious movements and political leadership. This article, however, explores the relationship between charismatic performer and audience, which is cultivated on stage and screen and ritualized in fan clubs. The ways in which an ordinary listener becomes an ardent fan strikes at the core of charisma-based human interaction and the formation of resultant social groups.

This essay explores that core in the context of fan clubs for popular singers of enka, a sentimental musical genre in Japan that appeals primarily to older adults. As a genre which reputedly sings of and from "the heart/soul of the Japanese," enka not only expresses what are considered traditional values, but also exemplifies them in its patterning of fandom. The organization of fandom by and around commercial industries in Japan does not lessen the emotional grip among members or invalidate its community of ardent fans. The charisma of a popular singer may (or may not) be individually derived, but its maintenance by a profit-seeking music industry forms the basis of fandom in Japan. The questions addressed here are: 1) What is the patterning of fandom in Japan? 2) How is the charisma-based relationship between performer and audience cultivated by the music industry? and 3) What is the nature of the community created by fan clubs?

Most studies of Japanese social organization focus on structural elements of duty and obligation. This study of fan clubs uses the concept of charisma to analyze the voluntary bonds that connect individuals to one another. The concept of charisma recognizes individual choice, transcendental affect, and the role of the exceptional. These elements have been long neglected within anthropological studies of Japan. Moreover, this study examines charisma within the context of popular music (clearly charisma for profit); that is, charisma which is industrially produced, culturally sanctioned, and economically deployed. Charisma here becomes not a mystical enigma, but a manipulable tool of big industry and fan alike.

THE CULTURAL PATTERNING OF FANDOM IN JAPAN

Fandom in the United States is often denigrated as social pathology, as "a psychological symptom of a presumed social dysfunction" (Jenson 1992:10). Fans are negatively viewed as passive victims of manipulation who have easily fallen prey to the seductive powers of mass media. Fandom is perceived as symptomatic of a lack in people's lives, as action which rests upon filling an emotional void with a fantasized "parasocial" relationship (cf. Horton and Wohl 1956). Indeed, Weber (1968:333) describes charismatic relationships as those born "in times of psychic, physical, economic, ethical, religious, political distress." A fan is someone lacking the individuality to stand on his or her own. To be a fan is to be a follower, without independent ideas or an inner core of one's own, without control over one's actions. …

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