Ultimate J-Pop Vocab Guide: The Idol Dictionary

Ultimate J-Pop Vocab Guide: The Idol Dictionary

Are you interested in J-Pop and Japanese idols but unsure where to start? This is a complete dictionary for all the unfamiliar terms you might encounter, types of idols, unique genres, idols you should know, and more! Japan has a diverse and thriving music industry and is one of the largest music markets worldwide; since there’s so much ground to cover, this guide will specifically focus on the Japanese idol industry and culture.

Idol (アイドル, aidoru): A type of performer characterized by their skill in singing and dancing and the support they receive from a dedicated fanbase. Idols may be known not only for their skills, but for their appearance and personality. Oftentimes, idols also act, model, write songs, choreograph dances, and/or are ambassadors for cities/brands. The idol industry originated in Japan in the 1960’s, but has since inspired similar industries in South Korea, China, Thailand, and more.

Section 1 – Standard Vocabulary:

A member of Kamen Joshi crowdsurfing on an inflatable raft

Akiba-kei idols Dempagumi.inc

Section 2 – Types of J-Idols:

Alternative Idols (オルタナティブアイドル, orutanatibu aidoru): Idols who primarily perform other genres than pop, such as rock, metal, or hip-hop. Examples include BiS, ZOC, and BABYMETAL.
Featured: BiS

AV Idols (エーブアイドル): Adult video idols; pornographic actresses who also perform as idols. Examples include BRW108, Ebisu Muscats, and SEXY-J.

Featured: BLACK DIAMOND, a girl group composed of AV actresses.

Bandols (バンドル, bandoru): Combination of the words “band” and “idol.” Refers both to idols who play instruments like bands such as ZONE, Band Ja Naimon! MAXX NAKAYOSHI, and DISH//, or idol-like bands such as SILENT SIREN and Ganbare! Victory.Featured: SILENT SIREN

Chika Idols (地下アイドル, chika aidoru): Underground idols. Idols who focus on small-scale live performances and events instead of mass-media exposure. Typically managed by small agencies or independent. Some dream of a big break, while others are content as they are. Also called live idols (ライブアイドル, raibu aidoru), indie idols (インディーズアイドル, indīzu aidoru), pre-idols (プレアイドル, pure aidoru) and real idols (リアル系アイドル, riaru-kei aidoru). Examples include Bunny La Crew, Tenshitsukinuke-ni-yomi, and Stellight.

Menchika (メン地下): Male underground idols.

Panchika (半地下): Semi-underground idols. Refers to idols who have made a major debut, but are not well-known. Examples include Pimm’s, Yandoll and ukka.

Featured: Stellight

Dansei Idols (男性アイドル, dansei aidoru): Male idols.

Gravure Idols (グラビアアイドル, gurabia aidoru): Idols or talents who regularly do gravure modeling. Called “gradols” (グラドル, guradoru) for short. Examples include Hinako Sano, Aika Sawaguchi, and Yuno Ohara.

Featured: Chameleon Republic, an idol group composed of four gravure idols.

Josei Idols (女性アイドル, josei aidoru): Female idols.

Junior Idols (ジュニアアイドル, junia aidoru): Idols aged 15 or younger. Sometimes called “chidols” (チャイドル, chaidoru), short for “child idols,” although this term is mostly used for idols aged 12 or younger. Examples include Sakura Gakuin, Boys Be, and Ciào Smiles.

Featured: Sakura Gakuin 2020 Nendo

Kaigai Idols (海外アイドル, kaigai aidoru): Overseas idols, or foreign idols. Examples include PAiDA, Non Sweet, and Lulu Bitto.
What is a Kaigai Idol?: An Introduction and Guide to the Overseas J-Pop Community

Featured: Non Sweet

Local Idols (ローカルアイドル, lokaru aidoru): Idols based in a specific region who promote said region. They appear at local events, draw visitors to their region, and build relationships with their local community. Also called “locodol” (ロコドル) for short, “gotōchi idols” (ご当地アイドル) or “regional (chihō) idols” (地方アイドル). Examples include Ringo Musume (based in Aomori), Vienolossi (Toyama), and Menkoi Girls (Gunma).

Featured: Menkoi Girls

National Idols (国民的アイドル, kokuminteki aidoru): Popular idols and idol groups known and loved by everyone in the nation. Examples include SMAP, AKB48, and Arashi.
Featured: The top winners of AKB48‘s 2014 Senbatsu election – i.e. the most popular members at the time.
Top Row (Left to Right): Aya Shibata, Yui Yokoyama, Sakura Miyawaki, Minami Takahashi, Haruna Kojima, Akari Suda, Sae Miyazawa, Rina Ikoma

Bottom Row (Left to Right): Sayaka Yamamoto, Jurina Matsui, Rino Sashihara, Mayu Watanabe, Yuki Kashiwagi, Rena Matsui, Haruka Shimazaki

Net Idols (ネットアイドル, netto aidoru): Idols who mainly promote and conduct activities online instead of in-person. Examples include MICHIKO, Beckii Cruel, and DANCEROID.

Featured: DANCEROID, a girl group composed of net idols who posted on niconico. Active from 2009-2014.

Orthodox Idols (正統派アイドル, seitōha aidoru): Conventional idols. The idols you think of when someone mentions idols; classically cute girls with frilly stage costumes and bright smiles who perform fun pop music. Also called “royal idols” (王道アイドル, ōdō aidoru) although the exact definition of that term varies. Examples include FRUITS ZIPPER, Cho Tokimeki♡Sendenbu, and =LOVE.

Featured: Cho Tokimeki♡Sendenbu

Seiyuus (声優, seiyuu): Voice actors – specifically, actors who voice characters in anime, video games, and drama CDs. Some seiyuus – especially seiyuus in popular series, seiyuus who perform in units, and young, attractive seiyuus – gain a dedicated fanbase and are treated similar to an idol. Due to the similarity of the industries, some seiyuus are marketed as idols, and some retired idols become seiyuus. Examples of seiyuus include Hina Suguta, Yui Ogura, and Nana Mizuki. Examples of seiyuu units include Aqours, Merm4id, and ST☆RISH.

Featured: Seiyuu band Poppin’ Party in front of a poster of their characters.

Virtual Idols (バーチャルアイドル, bācharu aidoru): Fictional or partially fictional idols. Also called “kasō idols” (仮想アイドル), virtual reality idols/VR idols, and in some cases, CG idols (computer graphic idols). Ranges from fictional characters, such as Aya Maruyama from BanG Dream!, to VOCALOIDs or virtual singers such as Hatsune Miku, to VTubers such as Minato Aqua.

VTubers (ブイチューバー, buichūbā): Short for “virtual YouTuber” (バーチャルユーチューバー, bācharu yūchūbā). Streamers who use an animated avatar instead of their own face. VTubers, especially ones under agencies, are considered a type of virtual idol. Examples of popular Japanese VTubers are Kizuna AI, Inugami Korone, and Kuzuha. The industry has become internationally popular as well; examples of popular English-speaking VTubers include Gawr Gura, Mori Calliope, and Shxtou.

Official art from Hatsune Miku: Colorful Stage! featuring virtual singers Hatsune Miku, Kagamine Rin and Len, Megurine Luka, MEIKO, and KAITO.
Right: All VTubers under hololive production as of December 2021.

Section 3 – Unique Genres:
BABYMETAL is an international sensation credited with pioneering kawaii metal

  • Anison (アニソン): Short for “anime song” (アニメソング, anime songu). A genre consisting of music, typically pop, that is specifically created for anime, video games, drama CDs, and similar.
    Notable Artists: Sumire Uesaka, Maaya Uchida, LiSA, Ichirou Mizuki, ClariS
  • Denpa Song (電波ソング, denpa songu): A category of music characterized by catchy and chaotic melodies, strange sound effects, high-pitched vocals, and nonsensical lyrics.
    Notable Artists: Dempagumi.inc, Nanahira, Moso Calibration, Toromi, KOTOKO
  • City Pop (シティ・ポップ, shiti poppu): A genre of pop popular in Japan in the 70’s and 80’s. Definitions vary, but it is generally defined as as Western-inspired pop with influences of jazz, soft rock, R&B, disco, funk, and/or synth pop, or pop with an urban feel.
    Notable Artists: Mariya Takeuchi, Anri, Omega Tribe, Junko Ohashi, Tatsuro Yamashita
  • Enka (演歌): Traditional Japanese ballads, or music inspired by traditional Japanese ballads.
    Notable Artists: Keiko Fuji, Hachiro Kasuga, Shinichi Mori, Sayuri Ishikawa, Takashi Hosokawa
  • Idol Pop (アイドルポップ, aidoru poppu): Pop music performed by idols, especially female idols. Typically fun and upbeat with cute lyrics.
    Notable Artists: AKB48, Morning Musume, Momoiro Clover Z, =LOVE, Girls²
  • Kawaii Metal (カワイイメタル, kawaii metaru): A fusion of J-Pop and heavy metal. Kawaii metal typically has the intense instrumentals of traditional heavy metal combined with cute lyrics and aesthetics.
    Bonus: Kawaii Metal Groups To Listen To
  • Kayōkyoku (歌謡曲): Japanese pop music created during the Shōwa era (1929-1989) which became the basis for modern J-Pop. The characteristics of Kayōkyoku are a fusion of Japanese and Western music scales and simple melodies and lyrics.
    Notable Artists: Momoe Yamaguchi, Seiko Matsuda, Kyu Sakamoto, Pink Lady, Akina Nakamori
  • Mixture Rock (ミクスチャー・ロック, mikusuchā rokku): A fusion of rock or metal and another genre such as rap, hip-hop, or reggae. Also known as alternative rock, funk rock, or rap rock.
    Notable Artists: MAN WITH A MISSION, THE ORAL CIGARETTES, RIZE, Kuchiroro, Xmas Eileen
  • Shibuya-kei (渋谷系): A genre of pop that originated and peaked in Shibuya, Tokyo in the 90’s. Generally defined as J-Pop fused with genres like jazz, indie, house, downtempo, soul, and yé-yé. The resulting music has a futuristic and surrealist feel.
    Notable Artists: Pizzicato Five, Flipper’s Guitar, Cornelius, Fantastic Plastic Machine, Mayumi Kojima
  • Visual Kei (ヴィジュアル系, vijuaru kei): A music and style movement intended to challenge conservative norms. Visual kei musicians are characterized by extravagant and androgynous costumes, heavy makeup, elaborate hairstyles, and shocking lyrics.
    Notable Artists: X JAPAN, MALICE MIZER, Versaillesexist†trace, L’Arc〜en〜Ciel
  • Vocaloid (ボーカロイド, bōkaroido): Any music containing synthesized vocals or VOCALOIDs (see Section 1).
    Notable Artists: wowaka, DECO*27, Mitchie M, Hachi, ryo

Section 4 – Notable Idols:


Johnnys (ジャニーズ, Janīzu): A boy group which debuted in 1962 and disbanded in 1967. They were first group produced by Johnny Kitagawa and Johnny & Associates (now known as SMILE-UP). Johnny & Associates has been a major figure in the idol scene since its founding and its influences are visible everywhere in the industry, such as in the trainee system used by both K-Pop and J-Pop agencies. Although the term “idol” wasn’t used for entertainers until after their debut, Johnnys is considered one of the first idol groups.

Onyanko Club

Onyanko Club (おニャン子クラブ, Onyanko Kurabu): A girl group which debuted in 1985 and disbanded in 1987. Despite their brief career, they had 54 members, three sub-units, their own tv show and movie, and were incredibly popular to the point that the news of their disbandment was a massive shock. Their influence on the idol industry can still be seen today, especially in the popularity of school girl concepts, younger debut ages, the graduation system, and higher member counts.

SMAP (スマップ, “Sports Music Assemble People”): A boy group which debuted in 1988 under SMILE-UP and disbanded in 2016. Described as “wildly beloved” by Billboard, the members’ personalities, versatility, and knack for entertainment, especially on variety shows, made them one of the most popular boy bands in Asia during their time. They ended their 28-year career as not only one of the most influential Johnny’s groups, but as one of the best-selling artists in Japan, one of the defining artists of the Heisei era, and as national icons.

Morning Musume

Morning Musume (モーニング娘, Mōningu Musume): A girl group which formed in 1997 under Hello! Project and continues to this day as Japan’s longest lasting girl group. After the Idol Winter Period, Morning Musume helped renew public interest in idols. Their graduation system and dedicated fanbase has ensured their continued existence for 26 years after their debut, with a total of 47 members over 17 generations as of 2023. To this day, they are still one of the most successful and well-known Japanese girl groups and hold the record for Most Top 10 singles by an artist in Japan.


Arashi (嵐): A boy group which debuted in 1999 under SMILE-UP. Despite being active for over 20 years, the members’ skills, personalities, and efforts to market outside of Japan has built them a steadfast fanbase and they remain one of the most popular Japanese boy groups of all time. During their career, they released 23 albums (9 of which are platinum), released more than 450 songs, earned 58 Japan Gold Disc awards, sold over 41 million records, and performed to over 14 million people. They hold the records for most number 1 singles by a Japanese artist and for the biggest-selling album worldwide in 2020 with 5×20 All The Best!!. The group is currently on hiatus since December 2020, but intend to resume activities in the future.

AKB48 (short for Akihabara48): A girl group which debuted in 2005 under DH and is known for their high member count. Their unique “idols you can meet” concept which includes daily live shows, frequent handshake events, and more interaction between fans and idols was a novelty at the time and made them a near-instant success. They have opened sister groups in Nagoya, Osaka, Fukuoka, Niigata, Okayama, Indonesia, China, Thailand, The Philippines, Taiwan, and more. To this day, they are one of the best-selling Japanese acts and the fifth best-selling girl group worldwide. Although their popularity has declined slightly in recent years, AKB48 remains the face of Japanese female idols.

BABYMETAL (ベビーメタル, Bebīmetaru): A girl group which debuted in 2010 under Amuse Inc. Originally a sub-unit of Sakura Gakuin, BABYMETAL distinguishes itself from its peers by performing heavy metal with influences of idol pop, also known as “kawaii metal.” Their uniqueness and individual talent has earned them fans worldwide, and while not as domestically popular as groups like AKB48 or Nogizaka46, they are one of the most internationally famous Japanese idol groups. They hold the record for the youngest act to perform at the Budokan (at the age range of 14-16), are the first Asian act to top the Billboard Rock Albums chart, and are the highest-charting Japanese band in UK chart history.

JO1 (ジェイオーワン, Jeiōwan): A boy group formed through Produce 101 Japan which debuted in 2020 under LAPONE Entertainment. They are a global boy group which fuses aspects of J-Pop and K-Pop to create their own unique sound, drawing in a large international fanbase alongside a domestic one. Despite being a relatively new group, they have earned instant popularity in the male idol scene and already have earned achievements such as three MTV Japan awards, two Billboard Japan awards, three MAMA awards, and more.

NiziU (ニジュー/니쥬): A girl group formed from Nizi Project which debuted in 2020. They are the first Japanese girl group produced by the infamous Korean company JYP Entertainment. NiziU stands out as a distinctive group by combining the best qualities of J-Pop idols and K-Pop idols, and their popularity has only expanded since their Korean debut in 2023. They are the fastest artist to appear on Kōhaku Uta Gassen after debut, consistenly top the charts and win awards, and their faces can be seen everywhere in Japanese advertisements.

Section 5 – Notable Agencies:
Featured: All active idol groups under SMILE-UP
Japanese idols don’t have a “big three” agencies like South Korea, but these are some popular names you may encounter.

  • SMILE-UP, Inc.
    • Notes:
      • Better known by it’s previous name – Johnny & Associates, Inc.
      • Considered the first idol agency.
      • Only produces male talents; temporarily held a monopoly on the male idol industry.
      • Currently undergoing restructuring due to the founder’s (Johnny Kitagawa) convictions of sexual abuse.
    • Notable Idols: Johnnys (Disbanded), King & Prince, Travis Japan, Snow Man, Arashi, SixTONES, Naniwa Danshi, Hey! Say! JUMP, SMAP (Disbanded).
  • Stardust Promotion Co., Ltd. 
  • Amuse Inc.
  • Yoshimoto Kogyo Holdings Co., Ltd.
  • hololive production
    • Note: Solely manages virtual idols, or VTubers.
    • Notable Idols: Gawr Gura, Houshou Marine, Usada Pekora, Mori Calliope, Shirakami Fubuki, Hoshimachi Suisei, Kobo Kanaeru.

Section 6 – Music TV Programs:

Featured: Naniwa Danshi performing at the 73rd Kōhaku Uta Gassen

  • Kōhaku Uta Gassen (紅白歌合戦, Kōhaku Uta Gassen): Lit. “Red and White Song Battle.” A television special on NHK which airs annually on New Year’s Eve. The top artists in Japan and internationally are invited to attend, and are divided into the red group (female artists) and the white group (male artists). Winners are chosen by popular vote from both the audience and judges. Since only top artists are invited, being invited is a big deal for an artist’s career. Competitors in 2022’s episode include Perfume, Hinatazaka46, Nogizaka46, NiziU, Aimer, SEKAI NO OWARI, milet, IVE, LE SSERAFIM, TWICE, SixTONES, Naniwa Danshi, JO1, BE:FIRST, Snow Man, King & Prince, Kanjani Eight, KinKi Kids, and more.
    YouTube Channel: NHK MUSIC
  • MUSIC STATION (ミュージックステーション, Myūjikku Sutēshon): A music variety show on TV Asashi which airs weekly on Fridays. It is hosted by comedian Tamori and announcer Marina Namiki. 5-8 artists perform per show.
    YouTube Channel: MUSIC STATION
  • COUNT DOWN TV (カウントダウン・ティーヴィー, Kauntodaun Tīvī): Also called CDTV. A music ranking show on Tokyo Broadcasting System which airs weekly on Mondays. It shows live performances and lists the top songs and artists of the week.
    YouTube: CDTV 公式YouTube
  • MelodiX! Premium (プレミアMelodiX!, Puremia MelodiX!): A music program on TV Tokyo which airs weekly on Tuesdays. Primarily features live performances. Hosted by the comedy duo Nankai Candies.
  • SHIONOGI MUSIC FAIR (シオノギ・ミュージックフェア, Shionogi Myūjikku Fea): A music program on Fuji Television which airs weekly on Saturdays. It is Japan’s longest running music show, having run since August 31, 1964.

Section 7 – Other:
Featured: Iginari Tohoku San at TOKYO IDOL FESTIVAL 2023

  • Nippon Budokan (日本武道館): lit. “Japan Martial Arts Hall,” often shortened to Budokan (武道館). One of the largest and most famous concert venues in Japan. It is located in Chiyoda, Tokyo and primarily serves as an arena for martial arts. Many music artists, especially idols, have performing at the Budokan as their ultimate goal.
  • Tokyo Dome (東京ドーム, Tōkyō Dōmu): A major music venue in Bunkyo, Japan. Primarily serves as a baseball stadium and occasionally hosts tournaments for other sports. Artists all around the world perform there, but three idol groups (KinKi Kids, Arashi, and Kanjani Eight) hold the records for most solo performances.
    Bonus: K-Pop Groups That Have Performed at Tokyo Dome
  • Tokyo Idol Festival (トウキョウ・アイドル・フェスティバル, Tokyo Aidoru Fesutibaru): Often shortened to “TIF.” An annual music festival held in Odaiba, Tokyo which primarily features female idol groups. It is the largest idol festival in Japan, featuring around 200-300 artists. All kinds of idols – big names, underground groups, alternative idols, orthodox idols, junior idols, gravure idols, bandols, soloists, and everything in between – perform there. The event was started by idol and producer Rino Sashihara in 2010 and has been thriving ever since.
  • SUMMER SONIC (サマーソニック, Samā Sonikku): An internationally renowned music festival held annually in Chiba and Osaka, Japan. It features both international and domestic artists.
  • Golden Age of Idols (アイドル黄金時代, Aidoru Ougon Jidai): The 1980’s; this was the era when there was a surge of new idols and idol groups debuting and a growing commercial interest in idols. Idols began appearing more frequently on variety shows, commercials, and music shows. The most influential idols of this era include Seiko Matsuda, Akina Nakamori, and Onyanko Club.
  • Idol Winter Period (アイドル冬の時代, Aidoru Fuyu no Jidai): A period from the late 1980’s to the late 1990’s. Began shortly after Onyanko Club‘s disbandment in 1987. Slowly, idols stopped being featured in TV shows, commercials, and magazines and few groups debuted; many groups which did disliked the idol label. Morning Musume‘s success helped contribute to the end of this era.
  • Idol Warring Period (アイドル戦国時代, Aidoru Sengoku Jidai): A period that began in 2010 with a boom of new idol groups and idols rising to popularity. As more groups debuted, they experimented with more concepts and the idol scene diversified, drawing in new fans, and idol groups began setting new records for musicians in Japan. Tokyo Idol Festival was established the same year. There is no set date for when this era ended, but 2019 can be considered the final year of the warring period as it was the last year before the pandemic (which had a strong impact on the idol industry) and the final year of the Heisei era.

Ultimate K-Pop Vocab Guide
Ultimate K-Pop Vocab Guide Part Two
What is a Kaigai Idol?: An Introduction and Guide to the Overseas J-Pop Community

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