With the release of another U-15 photobook comes the inevitable swimsuit debate. Well– not every U-15 photobook; those shots are a given for gravure idols, obviously, but when it’s someone who isn’t in the gravure industry, the announcement and release of a photobook always sparks this debate between fans. Just recently, Kusumi Koharu released her second solo photobook, POP. Before it was announced, I was wondering when the time for another photobook for Koharu would be. After all, she’d gained massive popularity from her seiyuu work in Kirarin Revolution, was given successively greater roles in Morning Musume (her center position in ‘Onna ni Sachi Are,’ highlights that best), and the slew of H!P Kids photobooks over the spring and summer gave a bit of a hint at what was next to come. And there it was– the announcement for POP. I happened to like the name when it was released– I had pretty high expectations for the photobook (which weren’t entirely met, but that’s off-topic), so I was looking forward to it.

By now, I’ve gotten pretty used to the H!P photobooks pattern– despite the age, there’s a huge chance that you’ll be getting some swimsuit shots. There have been a few exceptions, but more often than not, swimsuit pictures are part of the whole package. So, of course I was expecting swimsuit shots in Koharu’s new photobook, and needless to say, swimsuit shots did show up in POP, but these kind of things create a bit of a split in the fan community.

Before I put a cut on this entry, I’m just going to put a warning out there that there WILL be links to swimsuit pictures in the rest of the entry. I won’t thumbnail them, but I will be discussing specific pictures, so there will be corresponding links. If you’re sensitive to that kind of material, just don’t go blindly clicking on links. 🙂

When I first got into Hello! Project and Morning Musume, I spent a lot of time scanning through the members and seeing who I liked and didn’t. Koharu and Risa were my first favorites. So, as I was starting out, I tried to accumulate as much as I could about those two, and I figured I’d take a look at Koharu’s first photobook. I’d never learned anything much about the idol industry at that time, and I had never seen an idol photobook before, so I was a complete newbie when I stumbled across Koharu’s. I had no expectations, I was just curious. So, I downloaded it (I know, shame on me. But I wasn’t quite willing to spend a good amount of money on some random photobook from Japan, even if I did like the girl in it).

And I thought it was a cute photobook. I thought Koharu was really adorable, and I was not disappointed, even if I didn’t have any real expectations for it. I later downloaded Risa’s first photobook, and I thought that it was cute, too, but I liked Koharu’s more in comparison.

Shortly after, I’d found my way into the fandom. I’d been browsing forums, reading fan sites, and the like; I’d lurked around the Koharu threads, wanting to learn and see more about her. So, I skimmed through old discussions and the like, and a few posts I came across were about her first photobook– particularly the bathing suits. People were saying how inappropriate it was for her to be in a swimsuit in a PB at her age, and how awkward she looked.

And debates like that made me open up the folder and take another look. When I was flipping through the photos the first time, I thought she looked cute on the beach. Perhaps it was my untrained eye at the time that made me think she looked really genuine there– throwing around sand (and/or water?) and hamming it up from the camera.

 http://i20.tinypic.com/2ept2sx.png

I especially liked those ones of her in the blue and white bathing suit– the ones of her outdoors, and the black and white ones that followed.

http://i20.tinypic.com/14mz30y.png

Truth is, the thought that those photos were wrong (in the moral, ethical sense) hadn’t even crossed my mind until I read those debates.

Now, I was 17 when I came across her photobook. I’m only 19 now, so it’s not like this was a long time ago, so I’d like to think that I wasn’t exactly naive when I saw her photobook that first time. I was quite aware of sexuality, and while I hadn’t been exposed to the complexities of sexuality in the Japanese idol industry, it’s not like I had never seen a woman scantily clad in the media. It’s hard not to. Turn on MTV (if you happen to turn it on when they’re actually playing music videos), and I’m sure you’ll find nameless, ageless girls bumping and grinding in the background to some hip-hop song. My level of disgust to that sort of display couldn’t even be compared to seeing adorable Koharu in a swimsuit.

All I saw was a teenager in a swimsuit, playing on the beach. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. Those photos of Koharu weren’t my favorite (I particularly liked the ones of her inside the house, near the beginning of the photobook), but I didn’t dislike them. I didn’t point and sputter and gasp in horror. In fact, the only negative comments I may have made at the time were just about how skinny she was! But generally my reaction was something along the lines of, “Aw, cute! Her smile’s so wonky, but she’s just so damn adorable! *Click to the next photo*”

Now that I’ve been exposed to more of the fan community and learned more about the idol industry in general, I do realize that some people will look at these kind of photos in a sexual way. It’s made me look at these kind of photos differently now, too. But it’s rare that I find myself very uncomfortable with swimsuit photos. Koharu’s new photobook did have one shot that left me feeling a little uneasy.

http://i24.tinypic.com/2wqy0pk.png

That’s just a bit more Koharu than I’m comfortable with (it’s sort of funny how a simple angle can do that). But the redeeming thing about this picture is her face. That goofy smile on her face is very reminiscent of those shots in her first photobook in the blue and white swimsuit. Her wonky smile portrays that same genuineness that I fell in love with in those shots from the first PB. In fact, I don’t think that that particular photo was her sexiest shot from her new PB (am I allowed to say that? I’m trying to be as PC as possible here, but no other synonym can correctly subsitute the meaning I’m trying to get across here. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, I guess. Oh well, too late now.) I think she tries to up the sex appeal much more in one particular picture where she’s isn’t even wearing a swimsuit– she’s much more clothed.

Some people may not see that picture as having any sex appeal at all. But personally, I think that picture has a lot more to it than her swimsuit ones do. But did this photo make me uncomfortable like the swimsuit one before did? Not really.

You know, it’s actually kind of funny. I decided to make a thumbnail for that picture because it wasn’t a swimsuit picture like the rest. But it’s sort of backward logic, if you think about it. For the sake of others’ sensitivity, I left the swimsuit pictures under links, but I thumbnailed the picture that I thought was the “sexiest,” because it’s one most people wouldn’t have a problem with since she has more clothes on. But isn’t that what this whole debate is about in the first place? Sexuality and the place of those feelings concerning photobooks of our favorite idols? Or is it really that simple of a debate– about how much skin they show in photos? It’s sort of ridiculous to think about it that way, because the debate is about the messages and the implications that go along with those photos-with-less-clothes. Hypothetically, if the government stepped in and regulated the industry more tightly and a limit was set about how much skin underage idols show in their photobooks, what would it be? What would make a photo guilty of showing too much skin– where would that line be drawn? And would these limits even have any results? Sure, there would literally be less skin shown, but what would that actually accomplish?

Like I mentioned before, it’s the expression of the face that makes a photo sexy or not to me. If it’s just Koha grinning like an idiot in a swimsuit, I’m going to think of airheaded Koharu having fun on a beach and nothing more. While in the case above, it had nothing to do about how much skin she was showing in the “sexy” photo that made me see it in a different way. But I guess my point is that everything is relative.

And in the end, this just digs deeper into the extremely sensitive issue of teenage sexuality. It’s hardly an issue you can ignore anywhere you go. But when I think of that issue in general, idol photobooks aren’t at the top of my list of things to be concerned about. Koharu doesn’t come to mind. None of the H!P Kids come to mind, even if a bunch of them have had their own photobooks, complete with swimsuit shots. Koharu is still airheaded little Koharu, with her cute little voice and overexcitability.

But some people do think of her in other ways, and that’s where the idea of everything being relative comes in once again. I’m going to stop with that idea before I end up getting into my personal philosophy, but I just want to say that I don’t want to be the moral police here. My own personal experiences have affected my values (and in perhaps in unexpected ways in the context of this particular issue), so what I believe is not the same as what others do. Obviously. (And who’s to say what’s right or wrong?) But no one can stop people from thinking something that they want to think. If people want to see Koharu as something different than what I do, they’ll find a way to do it. And if some covert scientific organization has been working on powerful brain/experience-altering measures to control peoples’ thoughts to combat that sort of thing, I’d be very, very afraid of the general outcomes of that sort of thing.

And my post has gotten so off-topic and vague that it’s not even funny. I really apologize if I’m not making sense anymore, but somehow this has gotten into the issue of free speech?

I don’t know… but I guess that’s what I meant by calling the entire sexuality issue extremely sensitive. Extremely relative, extremely sensitive… and I promise I had a point, but I lost it somewhere in the course of this post. I guess I just wanted to throw in my two cents on the issue.

And, to wrap this all up on another level, I think stuff like this is why I started blogging in the first place, and why I’m so interested in fan culture. Producers and other big players in the industry walk a thin line and push the envelope over and over again, and it makes us question, to ourselves, what’s right and wrong. And the outcome is different for everyone. I’m a psychology major, so needless to say, I’m fascinated by human behavior. And I’m a bit of a philosophy fan, too, so that adds to my interest. It’s always fascinating seeing where people end up on this moral spectrum– what peoples’ limits are, and, overall, it just makes me appreciate (and perhaps understand slightly better) people, in general. We’ve always been concerned with distinguishing right from wrong, and I don’t ever think we’ll figure out how to do that, but it sure is fun to watch us try. 🙂

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