It took about 7 years for me to become a Hello! Project fan. It took another 3 years for me to fully accept it.
I had no real intention to dive into this fandom when I first started exploring a few things in the summer of 2009; a boredom-induced search for videos of Japanese people attempting to speak English led to stumbling upon a series of short, comedic lessons involving members of a particular J-pop group. Things could’ve (and probably should’ve) ended there…except I had recognized the name of this group before, as well as a few of its members from random media encounters in the past. This was certainly not the first time I’d be seeing the girls of Morning Musume in action, and, because of that, it definitely would not be the last.
I had many chances to take interest in Momusu after I had began taking Japanese classes in college, and considering how big they still were during that time it wouldn’t have been such a far-fetched notion to follow them. However, because of my tastes and attitude towards music at the time, there was just no way it would’ve worked out or lasted: my loyalty to the aggressive world of hip-hop and dismissiveness towards anything deemed too “light” or “cute” meant any long-term exposure to an idol group–the very nature of which represented everything I wanted to avoid in the music realm–was going to be a no-go.
Still, my efforts to learn about Japanese language and culture would inadvertently lead to some unintended and unknowing exposure to Morning Musume; after all, they were still the #1 idol group in Japan back then. Case in point: a weekly TV drama called Kochira Hon Ikegami Sho (or as I liked to call it, “That Cop Show”, because damn that’s a long title for a beginning student to remember) that was exported and subtitled for international viewing. While the show focused on a police chief and his easy-going methods of running a police station, a minor-yet-recurring character managed to catch my attention: the chief’s young daughter, played by some random kid by the name of Ai Kago. While she rarely got involved in the main storylines, her crooked smile and seemingly-unusual name did make her stand out for me. But as circumstances forced me to put my Japanese ambitions on hold her identity would be pushed to the back of my mind, perhaps for good…
Fast-forward a few years later and this Kago girl shows up on my TV again–except by this time I had forgotten who she was. In what would turn out to be the most unlikely and random encounters in retrospect, it was Jay Leno of all people who would lay the foundation for my future interests when a Tonight Show skit about Black History Month involved a surprisingly well-researched reference to a quartet known as Mini Moni.
This led to me researching who this group was: a sub-unit of a larger group known as Morning Musume, in which they took the shortest members of the group and tacked on a bi-racial American for good measure. My interest had been officially piqued by this gimmick, though not enough to do further research.
But wait! There’s more! Another Mini Moni encounter would come a year later thanks to the advent of YouTube, this time in the form of the “it was a meme before they were called memes” video known as The Dramatic Chipmunk. It was H!P’s most notable presence in the western world, yet I still wasn’t buying into it. It would be a few more years before I would discover Ayaka’s Surprise English Lessons, and thanks to all this previous exposure to Mini Moni it was only then that I was compelled to finally start looking into this crazy world of Hello! Project idols. Mari Yaguchi and Mika Todd were the only names I really knew right from the start, but the sudden desire to learn more of who they were and where they came from (Mika especially) easily led to quickly learning who everyone else was…and holy shit there were a lot of girls to learn about! How the hell do I figure out who’s who? What the hell is a Coconuts Musume? And why the hell am I finding all this so interesting now?
The long history and huge roster of this particular idol collective was an intimidating beast to tackle, but fueling my newfound interest in them were their legendary TV appearances. The Mechaike field trip and Bakajo test. Dodgeball and musical chairs shenanigans on Utaban. Eri Kamei’s struggles with cheese and a “refrijeeta” on Hello! Morning. The infamous lizard clip that made its way to The Colbert Report. Even a summer competition on Hey! Hey! Hey! Music Champ that I remembered watching once before knowing who these girls were. The actual songs made by these groups would be the last thing I would look into due to my lingering past attitudes on music, but by the time I got around to them I found myself entranced by the innate catchiness and generally positive, fun vibes these songs had going on. I also saw that the fanbase was just as diverse, ranging from stereotypical weeaboos to hardcore metalheads–one online community in particular was even founded by two guys who loved hip-hop as much as I do! Perhaps I wasn’t so crazy after all.
I was addicted to this brand new world, suddenly lamenting everything that I had missed out on over the years. Of course the biggest kick in the balls in regards to lament was the timing of all these discoveries: I quickly learned that I had missed out on actually seeing Morning Musume in person by a few months! They had made an appearance in Los Angeles earlier that year! Granted, my initial interests were mainly focused on the older generations and their works, but still, if only I could have discovered this crazy magic sooner…
Despite missing out on the most epic event for foreign H!P fans, I was still determined to keep exploring this new world, as there was still so much to learn and discover in its long history. I gradually established several favorites among the ever-evolving roster, generally favoring the older members but still finding appreciation for the newer ones. Momusu’s 4th generation members were the standouts with their energy, chemistry, and general goofball atmosphere, though one girl in particular was, despite not being my #1 favorite, the most intriguing of them all. Her not-so-gracious departure from the company, her attempted comeback into showbiz…I found her scandals and struggles appealing in a relatable way, having gone through similar trials and tribulations myself around the same time as her. Wanting to know even more about her, I took a quick glance at her filmography, and saw that she used to be a part of this one TV show called…Kochira Hon Ikegami Sho.
She was the police chief’s daughter in that one cop show.
My journey to becoming a Hello! Project fan had come full circle, seven years in the making.
Yet, the real journey had only just begun…