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Suicide of teen draws attention to poor working conditions, harassment of idols

This photo provided by a group of lawyers shows Honoka Omoto, a member of the idol group Enoha Girls, who passed away from suicide this March.

TOKYO -- Society has turned its eye on the working conditions of teen idols in the wake of a 16-year-old entertainer's suicide in March followed by her family's suit for damages against her talent agency.

Honoka Omoto was a member of the idol group Enoha Girls, based in Ehime Prefecture, western Japan, and belonged to the talent agency H Project in the city of Matsuyama, the capital of the prefecture. According to her bereaved family members, Omoto was forced to spend long hours at events and on other occasions even though she was a minor.

They claim Omoto was harassed by a staff member when she conveyed her intention to leave the idol group. She is said to have been met with abusive remarks like, "I'll seriously beat you up the next time you talk nonsense," and, "If you're going to quit, you need to pay 100 million yen." H Project denies harassing the girl and making such remarks and is poised to contest the allegations.

"The news reminded me of girls that had breakdowns following the same kind of idol experience," said Yumeno Nito, the head of Colabo, an organization that provides protection for teen girls wandering around the bustling streets of Tokyo.

Nito recalls one girl was taken to a venue without receiving a job description and then suddenly forced to wear a swimsuit. According to Nito, the girl was crying because she didn't want to participate in the event. Nito has heard horror stories such as: teen idols claiming to have memorized dance moves late at night without getting any sleep to replace a member who had a fever; teens collapsing during dance lessons due to hyperventilation, idols working from early in the morning to midnight without getting paid in the name of being a trainee, etc.

Nito explains that the teens are convinced into believing that this is what working as an idol involves. But she confirms that it is abuse. "I want to tell them to flee if they experience tough times."

Kunitaka Kasai, a lawyer engaged in protecting the rights of entertainers, explained, "There has been a recent increase of trouble occurring in relation to idol activities." Kasai receives several dozens of consultations a month. About half of them are from people involved around under-age idols. Most of their cases include overwork, power harassment and sexual harassment.

According to Kasai, the sudden increase in the number of idols is the driving force behind the situation. In the past, only a handful of idols performed on television. But now, anyone can upload videos of themselves dancing and singing. Currently, there are about an estimated 10,000 idols in Japan. This trend was encouraged by the success of the AKB48 pop group business model that closed the gap between idols and audiences by holding concerts as one large team where everyone participates.

The lawyer warned that the "number of talent agencies has also increased, but many of them are run by individuals lacking know-how and experience" unlike major agencies. Because of this, irresponsible talent agencies are flourishing. Members of indie idol groups that do not appear in major media are at high risk, claims Kasai. The lawyer demands that the government "take legal action against malicious cases, create guidelines considering minors' health and protect their right to learn, amongst other measures."

Currently, there are unknown idols bringing excitement to the community in many areas, making it easier for teens to enter the idol industry, which has increased the number of victims, as claimed by idol critic Akio Nakamori. "Guardians should not consider the idol industry as something special, and make a logical decision based on working conditions."

(Japanese original by Haruka Udagawa, General Digital News Center)

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