Leah Dizon: A Shotgun Ending

American-born, “Japanese idol” singer Leah Dizon stunned fans at a October 14 Tokyo concert by announcing that she had legally wed four days earlier. The bigger shocker: she and her Japanese stylist husband “BUN” are expecting a baby sometime around June 2009.

(I feel like all my old Néomarxisme essays are having unprotected intercourse and breeding new developments in the Japanese entertainment world. I am waiting for the paternity tests, but this news looks like the love child of “The Japanification of Leah Dizon” and “No Shotguns, No Weddings.”)

Despite her “foreign origin,” Dizon has shown an amazing mastery of Japanese entertainment world conventions. At first, the media called her a “black ship.” She could have just been the Phoebe Cates of the 21st Century — a mysterious half-Caucasian/half-Filipino-Chinese American girl running a part-time idol career in Japan as a lark. But instead, Dizon seemed thrilled about becoming a full-out, TV-friendly Japanese bikini girl. Back in Nevada, she had passionately listened to Jpop and had an interest in Japanese culture. A few years later, she was on Japanese TV meeting her hero Utada Hikaru. With a few tweaks, Dizon’s demure sexuality melded perfectly with the expectations of the gravia world, and as a reward for her swimsuit posing, her handlers even allowed a singing career. (There must exist some fixed ratio: X bikini shoots —> Y singles).

In fact, Dizon’s transformation into a Japanese idol was so complete that the only way she could better live out the clichés was to end everything with a shotgun wedding (出来ちゃった結婚).

Like with Saeko, Tsuji Nozomi, Shiina Ringo, Amuro Namie, and Tsuchiya Anna, the standard grumble will again be: why do none of these youngins use birth control? Maybe all of these conceptions are “accidental” — the product of ignorance or irresponsibility. But I can’t believe that staying un-pregnant is so hard.

Let us instead consider the possibility that these idols want to get pregnant. For some, their own mothers had them at 19 or 20, or they live in communities (read: yankii) where “graduation” into adulthood and parentage at 20 is perfectly normal.

Having a baby at 18 or 19 is a killer for your idol career, but maybe that’s the point. Pregnancy is an amazingly graceful way to exit the entertainment industry, and just perhaps, they want to exit. The glamor of “showbiz” is one-sided for young idols. They are salaried employees of companies with questionable financial ties and no transparency. They work extremely long hours. Managers attempt to control every facet of idols’ public lives and try to suppress the girls’ private romances. In many of these idol jimushos, up-and-coming girls are expected to work side-jobs as hostesses at the management companies’ own subsidiary hostess clubs, required to flirt and drink with network executives for a chance at stardom. And it would not be a surprise to learn that the “casting couch” still determines a lot of career directions for many young women.

In this labor environment, getting pregnant and married is the ultimate reassertion of individual control. Management companies can disappear boyfriend rumors from gossip magazines, but they cannot hide increasing belly size and a newborn. Of course, we have no idea why Leah Dizon decided to embrace motherhood at this moment, but I find it suspicious that all these pregnant idols are the result of sheer absentmindedness.

In the last five years, the Western population of Japan has moved away from English Only, The Hub-flavor colonialism to a more youthful crowd obsessed with the magic of Japanese culture. Leah Dizon was a beautiful micro example of this macro phenomenon, and more critically, the start of a new trend: foreigners dreaming of specific success in the Japanese entertainment world. Just in the last year we have seen the Oricon success of Jero the African-American enka singer and bland post-Canadian J-Rock band Monkey Majik, the TBS and Gyao appearances of Magibon, and now a gravia DVD release from YouTube femtaku Emily.

Compared to the Western japandering of the past, these artists see success in Japan as something transcendent on its own. They are not here to cash in while waiting for American success, but to gain fame in Japan. Maybe nothing better demonstrates young North Americans’ newfound respect for Japanese pop culture that the fact they want to actually be a part of the system. Japan is no longer just a launching pad, but the end goal. I never got the sense that Leah Dizon hoped to sell a few Jpop singles and then return to Vegas import car shows.

This influx of “foreign talent” could be an incredibly interesting moment in cross-cultural exchange, but leave it to the Japanese entertainment world to force the uniqueness of their new inputs into the exact same factory molds. The story so far has been the story itself: “foreign celebrities in Japan who speak Japanese and love Japan!” Content-wise their products are almost indistinguishable from their Japanese peers’. Jero is the most disappointing on this measure. He’s got the chops and the cultural angle to take the over-codified, increasingly-irrelevant enka style into the 21st globalized century. But instead of changing the content of his songs to reflect the real life-experiences of Jero, they just dress him up in near-parody hip-hop clothing and make him emote like a divorced Yokohama dock worker in 1963. Jero just lets the enka industry put a new label on an old bottle.

Leah Dizon’s singles suffer from the same cookie-cutter syndrome, but at least she’s a first-class gravia star and part-time TV celebrity. On this measure I feel for Emily: some second-rate gravia company decided her YouTube-proven near-fluent Japanese lent itself best to slow-motion and air-brushed G-string back-shots. Of course, this “not porn” gravia work will surely lead to a meaningful singing career — in the same way that 1905 Chicago stockyard jobs led Jurgis Rudkus to the “American Dream.” But again, how Japanese: Emily is in the same boat as all the other gravia girls promised acting roles and debut singles as reward for their 肉体労働.

But what incentive do Japanese companies have to not exploit their willing foreign talent immigrants? In the old pandering days, Japanese firms were the ones desperate to use Westerners. But now with the tide turning and the gates flooding with eager immigrants, why not pull out the skimpy bikinis and see who jumps highest? They’ve got the upper hand in the game — until that moment where sperm meets egg.

W. David MARX
October 17, 2008

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

42 Responses

  1. W. David MARX Says:

    Our own Matt T.’s explanation of the “big peach” concept here:

    http://no-sword.jp/blog/2008/10/leah_dizons_big_peach.html

  2. Gen Kanai Says:

    “dress him up in near-parody hip-hop clothing and make him emote like a divorced Yokohama dock worker in 1963.”

    Ouch! But spot on. Agreed. Jero’s being played when he could be playing the system. If he has staying power, (which is still up for grabs, although I’d bet enka is better for longevity than gravure or jpop) he may buck the system in the future but he’s still has no idea that he could run his own show.

  3. News » bunについて Says:

    […] for the paternity tests, but this news looks like the love child of “The Jap(Quote from : 「Leah Dizon: A Shotgun Ending」) アクセス解析                        […]

  4. Enka singer Jero on CNN | Japan Probe Says:

    […] view of Jero can be found in an article about foreign celebrities in Japan by W. David Marx at NeoJaponisme: The story so far has been the story itself: “foreign celebrities in Japan who speak Japanese and […]

  5. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    We may at this very moment be witnessing the transformation of enka into a codified and fossilized “traditional art”, passed down as identically as possible from generation to generation of strictly vetted teachers. That’s certainly what we see in every pre-enka form of Japanese entertainment that hasn’t gone extinct.

    Although I guess in that case we would expect Jero to be wearing Yokohama ’63 duds. Hmm….

  6. Bobbin Says:

    Great post, Marxy. Another angle on this, which picks up on some of your previous essays, is that becoming a mom in Japan means instantly that somebody else (i.e., the father) is now “supposed” to be responsible for you. It’s not just a graceful exit for starlets from the entertainment industry, but a way for women in general to exit from the pressures of corporate society, OLdom, etc.

    As soon as there’s a baby on the way and a man who is identified as the father, there is no longer any pressing need for young women to support themselves, pay for an expensive, tiny apartment, and generally cope with the financial burden of life in a highly competitive society. In the Japanese scheme of the things, the wife/mother is just assumed to be the dependent, with the man footing the bill for everything. In a stroke, a whole cloud of responsibilities of adult life vanish. Yes, the mother-to-be must soon jocky for position with the local park moms, etc., but that probably sounds a lot less stressful than a seemingly endless routine of packed commuter trains, annoying/smoky quasi-obligatory drinking parties after work, etc. It also dovetails smoothly with a general ethic of willful non-responsibility that one tends to find in the social-political sphere of Japanese life (i.e., oh, we weren’t really responsible for all of those bad things that happened, we were/are victims, etc.).

  7. W. David MARX Says:

    I would argue that art fossilization is a great example of over-orthopraxy, and yeah, it’s about time that enka would fall into the mold. The only difference is that the idol biz grew out of the enka world — a lot of the time it’s the same managers and companies — so there is still some crossover in order to introduce enka to a new audience.

    If you ever wonder why Japanese pop all sounds the same and enka never changes etc., maybe look at the fact that the exact same people have been running the show for 50 years straight. It’s a “closed world.” If you wanted to launch some new big enka talent without anybody’s help, a few scary guys without pinkies might come visit you if you actually succeed…

  8. M-Bone Says:

    “Dizon has shown an amazing mastery of Japanese entertainment world conventions.”

    Most of the time, when we talk about Japanese talent, bikini models, etc. we tend to assume that they do what their minders tell them to do. Is Dizon different? Or does she just have really smart backers?

  9. W. David MARX Says:

    “Smart” backers just means connected backers who can get her onto all the right TV shows and make sure she does what normal idols do. You can’t get that with a second-rate agency.

  10. M-Bone Says:

    So she has shown an amazing mastery of being carted about and coached by her agency? Do you think that she will be pretty much instantly replaced with another “foreign talent of the week” and forgotten now?

  11. W. David MARX Says:

    She had the raw materials and can’t be so easily replaced.

  12. M-Bone Says:

    Very entertaining essay, BTW.

    Bit of a strange question – did you wonder if Jero will end up reading this?

  13. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Get a room, you two.

    Question: Was Yamaguchi Momoe’s “kotobuki tai-idol” the first instance of this? (It’s the earliest one I know about.) Do you see any differences between how things went down then and how they do now? Apart from the getting pregnant first, I suppose.

  14. Aceface Says:

    I think Yamaguchi Momoe’s ”寿引退”isn’t an exception.
    Momoe was branded as ”花の中三トリオ”along with Mori Masako森昌子 and Sakurada Junko桜田淳子 whom all had debut in 1972.
    http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E8%8A%B1%E3%81%AE%E4%B8%AD%E4%B8%89%E3%83%88%E3%83%AA%E3%82%AA

    Mori was married to Enka singer Mori Shinichi and retired in 1986 and divorced with Mori in 2005 and retuned to show-biz world in 2006.

    Sakurada is in semi-retirement since 1993 after her marriage in 1992 which was a nation wide sensation since she married with one of the Moonie worshipper and had her mass wedding in Korea in 1992.

    “Do you see any differences between how things went down then and how they do now?”

    I think the turning point was Matsuda Seiko’s wedding in 1985.

  15. Mulboyne Says:

    I don’t buy the idea that that Westerners are, only for the first time, “dreaming of specific success in the Japanese entertainment world”. There are many who have uniquely courted the Japanese market over the years. Perhaps the most obvious examples are the gaijin tarento and Joan Shepherd always claims she was the first to play that role in the 1970s. The music industry has also used foreign talent domestically for years. Betsy & Chris, for example, were scouted by a Japanese agent and “Shiroiiro wa Koibito no Iro” was their first hit in 1969. Although he’s not a Westerner, Chadha was scoring enka hits a few years later. In fact, he has just come out of retirement to capitalize on the interest that Jero has revived.

    Leah Dizon isn’t necessarily the best example to make your point either. She did set her sights on success nearer home and only turned to Japan because that’s where she got the biggest reaction and the best opportunities. There’s a certain Scottish musician who found himself in the same position at a later point in his career.

    Certainly, Emily is interested in Japan but, at the moment, she has more in common with a foreign hostess who can handle her work in a Japanese context, and even see it as something of an adventure, but wouldn’t necessarily want to do the same at home.

  16. M-Bone Says:

    “Get a room, you two.”

    Oh yeah, I’m supposed to be an antagonist on this blog, right?

    Mulboyne makes some good points. Aside from getting some quotes from the figures involved concerning their motives, is there any way to settle this?

    I’ve seen quotes from Bob Sapp and others that Japan was just a stepping stone, but turned out to be the only show that would have them. This is before the “shift” that Marxy is presenting, however.

    This discussion also raises another point – there have been suggestions that Japanese women (or singers of all types) submit to an exploitative system because of the way that they are socialized, lack of other choices, etc. What does it say when people socialized in a different enviornment, who have other choices, decide that Japandering in hiphopware or a t-back (and maybe even getting knocked up and being a Japanese housewife) is just what they always wanted? Mulboyne’s point about “biggest reaction and the best opportunities” is germane, I think – lots of talentless people just want to be famous and glamorous and in Japan, someone will take care of it all for you if you make some money for them.

  17. Aceface Says:

    Hey! I thought I’m the antagonist of the blog.

    Mulboyne:
    You’ve mentioned about Steve Parker and Shirley Mclaine Japan connection in the related thread before.And guess what.Their daughter,Sachi Parker had debut in Japanese silver screen in the film ”西の魔女が死んだ”this year.
    http://www.sachiparker.com/index.php

  18. M-Bone Says:

    “Hey! I thought I’m the antagonist of the blog.”

    Tag team.

  19. W. David MARX Says:

    I love the idea that a blog that welcomes different opinions has a single “antagonist.” Even the editors aren’t on the same page most of the time. Sheesh.

  20. G Says:

    “肉体労働”
    which means…?

  21. W. David MARX Says:

    I don’t buy the idea that that Westerners are, only for the first time, “dreaming of specific success in the Japanese entertainment world”.

    I don’t know. Doesn’t Leah Dizon seem a lot cooler than Dave Spector? And weren’t half the old-timers Mormons or other missionaries?

    The big difference may be the way that Japanese companies have used the internet to easily scout (mostly American) proto-talent who seem interested in going to Japan, although I think Japan’s new “cool” has made the offer a lot sweeter.

  22. W. David MARX Says:

    “肉体労働” this was kind of a pun, although I am not sure if it’s a good one. The phrase usually means manual labor, but 肉体 is also used to mean “flesh” in a sexual way.

  23. M-Bone Says:

    “Sheesh.”

    Joking – just wanted to make it clear that I don’t want to get a room.

    Yesterday, I read the old Fujiwara threads (linked on Mutantfrog) and, back in the day, the blog really did have an antagonist, didn’t it? That 四季 thing was truly epic.

  24. Aceface Says:

    ” Doesn’t Leah Dizon seem a lot cooler than Dave Spector? ”

    I have to speak for Dave-san here,since he really is something.
    After all he did survive the cut-throat world of “wide-show” for more than two decades.Gotta give the man a credit.

  25. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Aw, everyone’s an antagonist here. Group antagonistic hug!

    Hey Aceface, I thought Yamaguchi got married in 1980 and retired pretty much right away. Am I mistaken? If not, and if Matsuda was the turning point five years later, what was different about the pre-turning point YM’s wedding?

  26. Aceface Says:

    “If not, and if Matsuda was the turning point five years later, what was different about the pre-turning point YM’s wedding?”

    1985 was a turning point for Japanese women since it was the year that law on gender equality in opportunity of employment was in act at the diet.MS got married in the same year.

    There has been a book in the 80’s by feminist psychologist Ogura Chikako小倉千加子called ”松田聖子論”.

    Basically Ogura had stated YM as the archtype of old Japanese women who devote herself to husband and her family.And that was exactly what she chose to be when she married actor Miura Tomokazu in 1980.Her career ended at the age of 21 and that made her 70’s icon.

    On the other hand,MS’s debut was the same year when YM retired and Ogura had stated MS as the archtype of women in the 80’s who chose the lifestyle of self fullfillment instead of married life.(MS had married twice and being reported to have trouble with her daughter Sayaka,herself an idol)
    As a feminist,Ogura had portrayed MS as a victor in gender politics while she was in the middle of media scandal over failed marriages.

    Last year NHK had also made documentary on MS and heavily reflecting this angle.

    http://www.nhk.or.jp/special/onair/070409.html

  27. Mulboyne Says:

    “I don’t know. Doesn’t Leah Dizon seem a lot cooler than Dave Spector? And weren’t half the old-timers Mormons or other missionaries?”

    I know you aren’t being entirely serious but it’s interesting nonetheless to think of some more appropriate comparisons.

    There’s always Kaiya, who was a Unitika swimsuit campaign girl before she married Mayo Kawasaki.

    Or what about Italian singer Rosanna Zambon who arrived in Japan in 1967? She sang hit duets with Hide Demon and then married him. She stayed in Japan with her children when her husband died and even today she’s a regular on TV cookery shows and shopping channels. She gave a tearful apology at a press conference earlier this year when her son was busted for drugs.

    If you really need a missionary connection then Edith Hanson was the daughter of one. She seemed to be on TV all the time at one stage in the sixties, featuring in series like “Gamera” and “Magma Taishi” as well as numerous variety shows. The camera also frequently found her in front row seats at pro-wrestling bouts which would be the equivalent of Leah Dizon turning up at an MMA event or Kameda fight.

    Leah Dizon is also part Asian so you could argue that she should also be compared with Hong Kong and Taiwanese starlets of years gone. However, even if you stick exclusively to making comparisons with Asian-Americans, and further limit it to those who first appeared in the gravure market before going on to start a pop career, and narrow it down again to those who made an appearance on Kohaku, you can still come up with Agnes Lum.

  28. W. David MARX Says:

    Rosanna: I never got the sense she came to Japan to be “a star.” It was more like she was roped into the folk thing by her husband. They worked well as a team, but I don’t think she proves that there were all these North Americans in the ’60s clammering to be big stars in Japan and learn Japanese.

    Hong Kong and Taiwanese stars make more sense in a classical hierarchy since Japan is a BIGGER market for them than their local ones.

  29. Mulboyne Says:

    “I don’t think she proves that there were all these North Americans in the ’60s clamouring to be big stars in Japan and learn Japanese.”

    Isn’t that just an observation about numbers, though? The Western population in Japan has grown – albeit not as much as the Brazilian, Filipino, Chinese etc – so there’s more of everyone.

    Above, you contrast Westerners aspiring to enter the entertainment business today with the “Hub-flavor” colonials of the bubble. I’d argue that the share of the population you would put into the latter category has grown at a faster rate than the former. You are noticing the gaijin manzai wannabes but not the increasing numbers of wealthy expats.

    It would be just as misleading if I was to talk about how foreigners of old used to be keen to engage with Japan, studying Zen, martial arts and even appearing in foreigner’s song contests on NHK, while all today’s crowd want to do is grab a Starbucks and then talk about buying a ski lodge in Hokkaido over dinner at Beige.

    I wondered about that point when you wrote that the western population today is “a more youthful crowd”. The data shared by the embassies, while not conclusive, points the other way. There may be more under 25s but there are also more over 40s so the average age has risen over the last 20 years (excluding the military).

    One thing that the older crowd have added to the equation is their kids. The Bubble-era expats who put down roots in Japan are largely responsible for the wave of hafu tarento appearing on the scene and they have blurred the boundaries between foreigners and Japanese in the entertainment business as you have noted elsewhere.

    As M-Bone says, we can’t really be conclusive about motives without some evidence from the principals. You doubt Rosanna’s ambition while I doubt whether Leah Dizon really preferred to make it in Japan rather than America. Perhaps, also, “clamouring for fame” is something today’s youth does more widely and conspicuously than previous generations.

    On balance, I think the trend you are identifying has more to do with technology, which you note, and demographics, rather than a sea change five years ago in the way Westerners engage with Japan.

    Incidentally, what visa do you think Leah Dizon is on? Entertainer? Jimusho employee? Is she even resident in Japan? She’s having a baby so there’s already a major reason to get married but the news did make me wonder if she would be applying for a spouse visa.

  30. W. David MARX Says:

    We can at least say this: I bet Leah Dizon listened to way more Japanese music before she came to Japan than her predecessors.

  31. youngjames Says:

    work side-jobs as hostesses at the management companies’ own subsidiary hostess clubs, required to flirt and drink with network executives for a chance at stardom. And it would not be a surprise to learn that the “casting couch” still determines a lot of career directions for many young women.

    so, is there anyone who actually confirms that these idol girls work in company run hostess clubs? am i the only one who thinks these are products of marxy’s (who never misses an opportunity to rail on sexism of hostess clubs) imagination? while i would not be surprised if girls were payed monthly salaries and expected to attend company functions at night, that include entertaining and drinking with big wigs and clients… Thats also what upwardly mobile OL’s do. お付き合い is very much part of the social fabric of japanese corporate life and not limited to the entertainment industry.

    Also was japan ever a launching pad for western artists? western artists who are sold exclusively (or semi-exclusively) here are universally has beens and never were’s, and everyone knows it. prior to a few years ago the term ‘big in japan’ was purely derogatory. and if Jero updated enka wouldn’t it just be R&B?

  32. W. David MARX Says:

    so, is there anyone who actually confirms that these idol girls work in company run hostess clubs?

    Someone at a magazine “confirmed” this for me, but I would appreciate any leads in this area. If they are imaginary, at least they are part of a wider shared social Japaense imagination. I didn’t make up the idea. In fact, I downgraded from the “jimusho run high-class brothels” theory.

    Also was japan ever a launching pad for western artists?

    Cheap Trick – Live at the Budokan

  33. Justin Says:

    if Jero updated enka wouldn’t it just be R&B?

    Now you’re conflating image and musical style.

  34. youngjames Says:

    I’m not saying they couldn’t exist, I’m just saying the idea seems far fetched, and I’ve been to high class hostess clubs with clients, but idea of label run clubs just seems left field. I also believe i have now dated myself as someone who grew up post cheap-trick’s rise to stardom.

    As to enka, could you update enka and have it still be enka? I mean do you really think Jero could update enka?? more importantly if he did would anyone buy it?

  35. alin Says:

    congratulations marxy for being in the best brutus so far this year (that hat though strikes me just a small step away from exploitation. very cool otherwise :-)

  36. Kenny Says:

    Hey Marxy,

    Just because you can’t make it anywhere as a musician, you do not have to put Jero down. What do you mean he is the most disappointing? Do you expect him to sing enka in a kimono? I do not care if he dresses up in hip-hop clothing or the Pope. He has an outstanding voice and most of all he has passion for enka music. That’s all that matters. Jero is the real deal and he will be a star for a long time.

  37. W. David MARX Says:

    I think you misunderstand what I am saying, but nice ad hominem thrown in there.

  38. Kenny Says:

    If I have misunderstood, could you please clarify?

    Thank you.

  39. W. David MARX Says:

    I am saying the opposite of what you think I am saying: Jero is good and could do something new with enka, so they should let his music reflect more of Jero’s situation rather than just force him to sing enka like everyone else.

  40. Adamu Says:

    An enka singer dressed like the pope? I like the sound of that!

  41. Kenny Says:

    No one has forced Jero to sing enka like everyone else. He only wants to be himself. He has not changed the way he sings enka since he was 5 years old. I feel that Jero’s enka is unique and different than anyone else. He has more rhythm. His enka is somewhat pop-like and R & B. This is the reason why he is attracting a lot of young people. He doesn’t sound like traditional enka singers.

  42. Nihon on the Net - 10/26/08 Says:

    […] Leah Dizon, a Gravure Idol (read bikini model and video star) in Japan, recently got married and W. David Marx talks about the Japanese entertainment industry in an interesting article at his blog, Neojaponisme. […]