The Curious Case of Sally Amaki, the Bilingual Idolby Kim Morrissy,
The Japanese idol scene exploded in the last decade, thanks to the success of popular groups like AKB48 and Nogizaka46. In the last few years, the trend has accelerated even further thanks to Virtual YouTubers. With motion capture technology and the internet, it feels like anyone can hit it big online and propel themselves into stardom.
At the same time, the J-idol scene remains elusive overseas, at least in western countries. It's no surprise that the most successful idol property so far in the west has been Love Live!, which is directly attached to a popular anime series. When it comes to following individual idols, non-Japanese speakers have to resort to things like joining a Discord group where some helpful fan translates the news and cute snippets of radio shows or TV programs, to say nothing of all the hoops you have to jump through to apply for concert tickets in Japan.
When the 22/7 idol Sally Amaki went viral in 2017, it came as a breath of fresh air. As a Japanese person who was born and raised in Los Angeles, Sally speaks fluent English. Not only that, her sense of humor is very American, so it feels easy to connect with what she's saying when she speaks English. The sheer gap between her Japanese-speaking idol persona and her more down-to-earth English-speaking persona is both hilarious to English speakers and intensely relatable to bilingual people.
月曜日!今週はリリース週ですね🥰— 22/7 Sally Amaki/天城サリー(Gintoki/Kuroo Enthusiast) (@sally_amaki) August 19, 2019
Morning 😎 it's a Monday~ that means our new single is gonna be out in 2 days!! 🌜🤝🌛💃🏻 yay ☝︎😘☝︎ pic.twitter.com/5v5KxxMvCX
Her appeal became even easier to understand when she started a Twitter account in 2018. The account tweets in both English and Japanese; with no official English-speaking 22/7 Twitter account, Sally has become the de facto overseas representative. By following her, you'll be able to keep up with 22/7 news and be amused by her quirky tweets.
The case of Sally Amaki highlights exactly what English-speaking idol fans have been missing until now. One of the biggest appeals of idols is following the growth in their careers, from their humble early days to their shining peaks. And Sally Amaki, so far, is perhaps the first idol to have received extensive English-language coverage right from an early stage. As a group that was planned from the get-go to have an anime and to play as virtual idols along with real-life gigs, 22/7 clearly had global appeal in mind. But awareness about Sally first spread not because of the anime but because of a viral tweet by an English-speaking fan in 2017. This tweet, to be precise:
In her interview with The Japan Times, Sally revealed that her character wasn't originally supposed to speak English, but the 22/7 staff encouraged her to use her English skills after videos of her speaking the language went viral. In other words, it was grassroots support from overseas fans that has shaped Sally's journey as an idol.
This mutually supportive relationship between idol and fan is something overseas fans have tended to miss out on because of the language barrier. No matter how much an idol expresses their appreciation for their overseas fans, the language barrier makes them out of reach. Anything the fans say has to be translated for them, and because they've already made it big domestically by the time they pick up a significant overseas fanbase, the support of those fans will have less of an impact comparatively. But for Sally Amaki, it was the other way around.
Thanks to the English-language coverage about Sally, there are other key facts that we know that make her feel relatable and not so untouchable. For example, we know that she first became interested in becoming a voice actor because she really liked anime in middle school (specifically Gintama). We know that she moved to Japan and auditioned for many different roles, but was rebuffed at many turns because, having grown up overseas, she hadn't mastered honorific language in Japanese. We know that she sees herself as an introvert, and that performing in front of others doesn't come naturally to her. All of these things make the dream of becoming an idol seem a bit more achievable, even for fans living overseas. Sally Amaki may be a star, but she's also "one of us."
And that's the appeal of idols in a nutshell. When you read interviews with idols and watch their shows, they all help make the performers seem real and more down-to-earth. This is true for both male and female idols. Sally Amaki says similar things about herself in her Japanese interviews, and the other idols in her group are also approachable when speaking in their own language. The difference between Sally and her cohorts is that less translation needs to be involved for their appeal to be noticed among non-Japanese speakers.
But it doesn't just have to be Sally who stands out. Thanks to Sally's influence, the other girls in 22/7 have been improving their English, and when they attended Crunchyroll Expo a few months ago, Ruri Umino wowed the crowd with her Japanese sword dances.
At the same time, as far as the international audiences of idol groups go, I do expect the fanbase to grow faster in East Asia and Southeast Asia compared to North America or Europe. This is a trend that's been observed by managers at otaku subculture shops. That feeling of physical proximity to an idol is important, and fans who live in countries closer to Japan find it easier to attend live events. And because events and CD sales make up the largest chunk of the pie when it comes to the profits for idol groups, I would hazard a guess that domestic success is more important than international success, at least compared to anime where international sales and licensing fees can make up for shortfalls in domestic sales. Even Sally Amaki tweets mostly in Japanese, and the same thing goes for the group's video content. There'd be no point in cultivating a devout overseas fanbase if no one's attending the concerts in Japan.
But that doesn't make the case of Sally Amaki any less fascinating as a case study in how to grow an idol's fanbase overseas. For all the cultural differences at play, I think that western fans are perfectly capable of "getting" the appeal of idols. They do, however, face more barriers than fans in Asia when it comes to appreciating idols and learning more about them. I'm looking forward to seeing how the 22/7 anime turns out, and where its girls go from here.
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