Idols, Oshimen and the West: Interview with Ito Raira (former HKT48)

English-speaking idols are rare enough for us to notice them, but it is not only for her skills in Shakespeare’s language that we were able to chat with Ito Raira. Formerly a member of HKT48, Raira also sports an uncommon interest in connecting with foreign idol fans. After publishing a long article about the word oshimen, she posted this summer a series of messages in English to open the dialogue with foreign fans on Twitter.

Bonjour Idol decided to go meet her to hear her experience as a former idol, as well as her thoughts about the relationship between Japanese idols and foreign fans. We met up in a cafe in Fukuoka for a long but thoughtful conversation in a serene atmosphere.

Ito Raira, hello. Thank you for accepting this interview.

Thank you.

Could you first please introduce yourself to Bonjour Idol’s readers?

I am Ito Raira. I was an idol from the group HKT48 for three and a half years from 2012 to 2016. After I left the group, I went to Canada for 8 months to study English as part of a university exchange program. Now that I am back in Japan, I am back in university, while also going to idol concerts ! (laugh)

Oh really? Which idols? Indie groups?

No, mostly groups like Hello!Project, BiSH or HKT. I also like Last Idol a lot.

Before becoming an idol yourself, since when did you follow idol groups and what was your relationship with them?

I once went to the HKT48 theater for a live as a fan. I admired their performance and I too wanted to stand on this same stage as an idol, so I applied for the auditions after that.

Did you enjoy idols before this HKT48 performance?

When I was about 3 years old, Morning Musume was extremely popular, and when I was a kid I loved watching them on television. It is as if it had become really natural for me to see or hear idols.

Last year, you wrote an English article about “oshimen”. Could you tell us who is your oshimen and explain why this word is so important for you?

My oshimen today? It’s really complicated but if I had to give one name it would be Morning Musume’s Sato Masaki. But in my entire life, my favorite idol will always be Sayashi Riho! If I were asked for my favorite member in each of the group I like, I would say Inaba Manaka (Juice=Juice), Funaki Musubu (ANGERME) and I also have favorites in Last Idol. But my number one is still Maa-chan!

If I am asked which face I prefer, or the girl who gives the best performance, I would say another names. For example, regarding my preferences for beauty, I would chose Makino Maria-chan, but my personal definition of “oshimen” is a member who seems perfect at all levels, and makes me want to support her, that kind of feeling…

Why did you write this article?

A person I met through my year abroad contacted me and asked me if I wanted to write some articles. At first, I had to write one per month, but it would have been too much work, so I decided to write only one single in-depth article about this word “oshimen”.

That’s amazing.

But the article in English was written by my contact in this company who speaks fluent English. I only wrote it in Japanese! (laugh)

Why did you want to become an idol?

At first I only saw idols as a fan, but when I saw HKT’s performance at their theater, I thought they were really cool. Plus I often watched AKB since I was a child, and I liked to imitate them. I also love singing so I decided to participate in the auditions. (laugh)

You joined HKT48 in September 2012, when you were 14. Why did you chose HKT48?

At the same time that I went to see HKT at their theater and wanted to become an idol, the group had just started auditions. And at that time, my favorite member was Miyawaki Sakura so I thought I could meet her when I joined the group. (laugh)

So as a fan at first?

When I finally joined the group, I put my fan side apart, but I really joined them because I admired them.

How did the auditions go?

I was nervous. At that time I lived in Ehime prefecture, and moving for the auditions to a city like Fukuoka that I only saw through Youtube or TV sounded like a miracle.

You waited two years to be promoted to Team KIV in 2014. During this period, what was your relationship with other trainees and senior members?

I was in touch with many members, like the new recruits I was on stage with during our performances, or the first generation I admired as a newcomer, but I got along well with everyone. Even today, I can talk to our senior members about anything and everything.

Are you still in touch with some of them?


Not with everyone, but I go to their lives regularly. I also meet some members on their days off to go get coffee or eat together.

The theater and handshake events are essential elements for each 48 group. What do you think of these new systems and do you think they have changed the way idols are appreciated compared to before?

I think the handshake sessions offer us a good opportunity to have a direct conversation with the fans. If I were a fan, I would be very happy to be able to meet and talk to the members I admire. Plus there are a lot of fans from abroad so it’s really fun!

Regarding the theater, I think it’s really a nice place for a group to grow together. It is not just a daily performance where we dance, we do our best to achieve the goals we set for ourselves.

Do you think this changed the way fans support you?

Definitely! During lives, calls from the fans for the most popular members are super impressive, but even for less popular members, it is like a shock to hear so many voices yelling their names with that much intensity ! Actually, it encourages us to do our best to be able to hear our name being called by the fans one day. Same for handshake sessions, it’s sad if few people come to see us, but it also pushes us to surpass ourselves. In short, these are two opportunities for us to go beyond our limits.

What experience did you get from these 3 and a half years with HKT48?

Before I joined the group, I had no idea of the difficult moments you can experience as an idol. But I quickly understood that besides the good times, there were also many difficult challenges, such as, for example, that despite all my efforts, luck wouldn’t come any soon… I really had difficult times during this whole period.

Did it change your point of view as a fan?

Before, I simply supported the idols I admired. But now, I am often thinking “Everyone did their best during rehearsals” after going to a live. For the handshake sessions, I hardly go there anymore today, but I realized the short duration of these sessions, from 5 to 10 seconds. And even if I was on the other side, if I meet my favorite idols today I would still be as nervous as I was on the first day.

I sometimes go to Morning Musume’s handshake events, or BiSH’s Ayuni D’s cheki events, and I’m so nervous that I can barely talk… and I am thinking, “Ah yes, everyone feels that way after all”… I really understand the feelings of fans and idols.

You decided to graduate from HKT48 on February 2016. What were the reasons for your departure? Was it a difficult decision?

Yes, certainly. After my high school graduation, I started to think very seriously about my future… my desires at that time were to go abroad but also to spread the idol culture, so I decided to leave the group to accomplish these objectives. After three and a half years, I was able to think back about that decision and I realized that I was actually very young at the time, that three and a half years might have been a short career… but I am now focusing on what I can do today and it was a tough decision but I have no regrets!

You went to study in Canada a few months shortly after you left, was it the first time you went abroad and what experiences did you get out of it?

No, my first trip abroad was going to Taipei for a HKT48 concert, but as it was part of my work, I couldn’t visit the city. The first sightseeing trip abroad I made was right after I left the group, I went to Hawaii for a week! Then I went to Canada.

What kind of cultural difference surprised you the most?

I went to Canada because the culture is really different… for example I noticed that Canadians dress with the clothes they like. In Japan, we are extremely careful about how we look or how people perceive us, and this limits us a lot in the way we dress. But I noticed that this was not the case at all in Canada, Hawaii or the United States. People dress as they want and seem to attach more importance to simply being themselves.

Where does your desire to learn English and open yourself to the West come from?

I find it much easier to approach the foreigners. And I am very curious to discover a world that is unknown to me and discover plenty of new things that I have never seen before.

Which other countries would you like to visit?

I really would like to go to Northern Europe like Sweden or Norway. France also intrigues me a lot of course but my first choice would be Sweden!

Why Sweden?

Do you know the movie from Ghibli “Kiki’s Delivery Service”? It takes place in Sweden and the streets are so beautiful that I want to see them by myself!

Why are you studying English?

Actually, I love talking to people. Besides Japanese people, I also want to increase the number of foreigners I can talk to, to understand and learn what I don’t yet know. By speaking English, you can speak to more people around the world because it is the universal language, isn’t it? By speaking only Japanese, we are limiting ourselves to our own country. During my university exchange in Canada, I was able to talk to many foreigners who taught me a lot. It made me want to study English even more, and it’s also true that I love studying!

Do you also study English in university?

Yes, but I actually study it a lot by myself during my free time.

Do you watch american shows?

Yes! On Netflix? (laugh)
観ます。ネットフリックスとか?(笑) 観ます。

Because of the cultural differences, has your vision of the idol culture changed since your stay abroad, and if so, how?

There are K-POP CDs in any music store today, but there are almost no Japanese CDs. In Japan, we can hear music from all over the world, K-POP, English or American music and even Spanish music… but when I went to the United States, I clearly saw that no Japanese music was being played there. It’s very different.

When I went to Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, I could see a little piece of Japan represented in the United States. But abroad, Japan is mainly represented by anime, manga and cosplay. There was nothing related to Japanese idols yet. It seems normal to see and hear about famous idols everywhere in Japan, but it is not yet the case outside of the country.

Why do you think groups such as Hello!Project ones are more popular abroad than, for example, the 48Group?

Hello!Project music videos can be watched all over the world and are subtitled in English, right? This allows foreigners to understand the meaning of the lyrics. While AKB48 do not have any subtitles and rarely go to events abroad, so it is difficult for most people to get to know them. The same goes for Keyakizaka46, who have an official Youtube channel that can only be watched… in Japan. I really wonder why these groups don’t promote more abroad. If they did, the idol culture could spread more around the world.

Their singing and dancing skills, as well as the performances of Hello!Project are really incredible, but I also think that AKB48 are very strong in being entertaining and staging their concerts. That’s why I think it would be good if they were better known around the world. But English is essential for this.

After several trips abroad, why do you think Korean idols are more popular than Japanese idols?

I don’t know much about K-POP, but as Nako, Saku-chan and other HKT members participated into Produce48, watching the show gave me the opportunity to watch and listen to Korean music that I really like today. As a novice in K-POP bands, I only know a few songs and I only get to see music videos with friends who are fans. And I have to admit I understand why these bands are so popular… their dance skills are incredible and their style is really cool.

Do you only listen to IZ*ONE?

I also know a little about TWICE.

Your desire to share the idol culture abroad was noticed on Twitter, where you tweeted several times in English to the attention of foreign idol fans, especially about a group 48 outside Asia. What were the reactions of these fans, their messages and what did you think about that?

There are fans in many countries who would like to go to idol concerts or handshake sessions, but coming to Japan costs a lot of money and takes time that all these people don’t necessarily have. And even if Youtube or other video websites allows them to watch some videos of these events, they are few… so seeing that foreign idol fans are so passionate and enthusiastic makes me really grateful and even makes me feel like organizing events to be able to show my gratitude to them.

Maneki Kecak and Wa-suta are going abroad quite often, aren’t they? I think it’s really good and I’m sure they got a lot of fans during their trips. But I was once told that shaking hands is very common abroad, while in Japan, we use it for events such as handshake sessions. Foreigners may not understand why they should pay for these kinds of events, do they?

The japanese language also doesn’t help the communication between foreign fans and idols. It is as if we were saying “there are no subtitles so we can’t communicate”.

Would you go to these kind of events abroad?

If one of my favorite artists was a foreign artist, I would really like to see them once in their country. You never know when the person will stop their career, so I’d like to see them before! It would cost a lot of money but well… (laugh)

Do you plan on having these English discussions with foreign idol fans online regularly, or even to improve it? If so, how?

I don’t see them as my fans, but as friends who are also idol fans! So I would like to continue to share our common passion together.

Everyone will be waiting for your next tweets then!

Thank you (laugh)

Are there any other topics you would like to share with an English-speaking audience?

Fans are often too kind. In reality, many of them probably think “You should work harder on your singing” or “Try to give yourself more time to dance”, but they don’t tell this to us because they don’t want to hurt us. And it is actually the same for Japanese fans. So I think it would be better if they shared their advice. It’s completely different from insults, because if it is a fan who says it, we feel that it is sincere and we know it is not malicious, so in the end it is a good thing.

Even now, the idol culture still hardly extends beyond Japan’s borders, despite the help of foreign festivals. During your HKT48 period, was there a willingness on the staff’s side, or even the members’ side, to get closer to the foreign audience?

In fact, since we are only active in Japan, it was quite normal for us to see foreign fans attending our events. But just before leaving the group and after I left, I often thought that we would never be able to expand abroad if we kept waiting. Promotion must come from us, because without it, we will never grow. Today, we advertise concerts and handshake events as “Buy tickets and come and see us! We are waiting for you!”… Maybe we should change something about this.

Since AKB or HKT are not popular in the United States or other foreign countries, and because the management and members know that very well, the desire to organize concerts outside of Japan is probably not there. Foreign Hello!Project fans actually show their wish to see their favorite groups coming to their own country, while AKB48 fans go directly to Japan to meet them in handshake events and concerts. So we are more waiting for foreign fans to come to us than trying to reach out to them. I think members should be more clear about their desire to participate to events abroad.

This is where we see the difference between groups like Hello!Project and independent idol groups. Nonaka Miki from Morning Musume writes articles in English from time to time on their Facebook page, and tries to attract foreign fans. Obviously, it is important to become a popular group in Japan, but there are already so many idol groups now that to make themselves known, I think it is better to target foreign countries.

Looking at the activities of IZ*ONE, we can see that they have a lot of fans all around the world, and I think that the more groups like them there are, the more the Japanese idol culture will spread.

Amaki Sally is a member of 22/7. She grew up in the United States and came to Japan to work in the Japanese entertainment. Her native language is English, and she has become very popular with foreign fans. Former AKB48 Hirata Rina also grew up in the US and spoke fluent English, how could you explain that she didn’t have the same kind of success?

It was a different era. At that time, we only had Google+, while recently, social media and Youtube offer many more opportunities. Hirari-san didn’t have all that, and the adults didn’t really help her either.

Do you think a 48 group in the USA or Europe could be successful?

If it’s in the same style as the Japanese 48 Groups, I don’t think it would work at all. Different type of costumes should be designed, more adapted to the West, less “kawaii”. A member of HKT48, Ueno Haruka, recently published a dance cover of a song with a rather difficult choreography and looking at the comments, a lot of foreign fans were actually very impressed by her performance. So I think that if a 48 group were to be created in the West, it would be more in the style of K-POP, which focuses much more on dance and singing skills. If it were to be the same as Japan, it probably would not have the same success. As with costumes, other types of promotional events should be considered, since handshake sessions are not really of interest in the West.

You came back from your vacation in the United States last week. How was your trip?

It was great! I went to Los Angeles and New York. The people, culture and atmosphere are really different from Japan.

What are your projects from now on?

For the moment I am still in university so I will concentrate on my studies as a priority, but I would very much like to keep sharing my passion for idols and the different things I love with people all over the world.

Finally, could you give us three groups that you like very much?

If I had to give three, it would be Morning Musume, BiSH and HKT48. But regarding HKT48, it would be more as a former member than as a fan. I feel like I’m supporting them from a distance. I would very much like to go back to see Morning Musume live because Maa-chan gives very good performances there. For BiSH, this is definitely not an ordinary group of idols. I have a lot of fun watching their performances, because they don’t sing cute songs like usual other idol groups, it’s really cool! The fans are also really involved and very energetic when dancing during the concerts.

Can you also share some of your favorite songs?

It’s really difficult (laugh), between the songs I like in live events, that I like listening to on the street and the ones I sing in karaoke there are too many! (laugh) For BiSH, I love “Promise the star” because it really gives me the thrills live!
いっぱいあるんですけど(笑) 難しい(笑) ライブで好きな曲とか、イヤフォンで聴くのが好きな曲とか、カラオケで歌うのが好きな曲とかもバラバラだし。BiSHは「プロミスザスター」がライブで聴いたら「おおぉ」って鳥肌が。

There is also “Seishun Train” from Last Idol, isn’t it?

Yes, I like it very much! I went to see them at one of their events and they really put a lot of effort into singing and dancing! In addition the performance was outside so the girls sweated a lot, but they kept the same sharpness throughout the show. I watched all the videos of the group’s auditions one by one, and that’s the first reason I want to support them!

I see. The interview is now finished. Thank you very much!

Thank you very much.

Photos by Brice and Nathan
Transcript by Angélique, translated to French and English by Nathan and Jonathan

Ito Raira – Twitter Ito Raira – Instagram

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