Lineup as of May 2009:
Takahashi Ai, Niigaki Risa, Kamei Eri, Tanaka Reina, Michishige Ayumi, Mitsui Aika, and Chinese members Li Chun, Qian Lin.
(Former members in the order that they left: Fukuda Asuka, Ishiguro Aya, Ichii Sayaka, Nakazawa Yuuko, Goto Maki, Yasuda Kei, Kago Ai, Tsuji Nozomi, Abe Natsumi, Iida Kaori, Yaguchi Mari (photo below), Ishikawa Rika, Konno Asami, Ogawa Makoto, Yoshizawa Hitomi, Fujimoto Miki, Kusumi Koharu.)
When we worn-around-the-edges foreign veterans of Japan want to let off a bit of steam about the country's pop culture, one of the easiest targets (and believe me there are a lot of easy targets) is Morning Musume. By anybody's standards a cliched, manufactured money-spinning venture, this girl pop group epitomises everything we love to hate about J-Pop. The only problem is that some of their tunes are actually quite catchy. A lot of it is down to production and a group singing reasonably in tune being infinitely better than the nasal whine of a solo Kahala Tomomi or Morisaka Chisato.
Morning Musume started in 1997 as a five-girl unit put together on the TV Tokyo talent-search show Asayan by producer Tsunku, up till that point best known as vocalist of the moderately successful group SharanQ. The criterion for being allowed to make their professional debut was to sell 50,000 CDs in five days. With TV crews on hand, the teeny tots (actually they ranged in age from 12 to 24!) did a circuit of stores and radio shows, made street-corner appeals and used the newly popular medium of e-mail to spread the word. Guerilla marketing is nothing new but with the kind of backing these kids had there was never any real doubt that they'd succeed. Their debut single Morning Coffee got to No 6 in the charts and next thing you know there's suddenly eight members in the group. Another couple of singles and there they were, at the top of the charts and the talk of the town. Their own TV show was a natural next step as well as doing the music variety show scene.
There's no doubt that these girls have ambition and worked hard to pull off their image as a genki, polished team. And while not setting any new standards for originality, Tsunku has managed to put together some half-decent pop songs. Their 2000 hit Happy Summer Wedding had an infectious enthusiasm and a catchy melody. It was definitely not a song you wanted to hear before going to work in the morning 'cause it would haunt you all day long.
The group generated many spin-off groups, such as Pucchi Moni, Country Musume and Mini-Moni, as well as groups made up of MM members and girls from other groups in the "Tsunku Family". It's has all been expanded into what's called the "Hello! Project", that includes over 40 girls and young women. From a marketing point of view, these various groups give unlimited ways to sell CD's and other products. The sad thing is that the Japanese market seems to have no saturation point for this stuff. Early 2001 saw the release of MM's first greatest hits album but with new blood added every so often - the youngest members are sometimes not even in their teens - these guys are going to be around for a while yet.
But girls will be girls. As some members have grown up as stars, they have also simply grown up. And that means boys. But as members of Japan's premier idol group, they are not allowed to indulge in relationships, even if they're already in their 20s. In April 2005, leader Yaguchi Mari was discovered to be in a relationship with a young actor and had to quit the group, though she was 22 at the time. Kago Ai was caught smoking at the age of 17 (the age limit is 20) and put on disciplinary leave for a year. But in March 2007, and still only 19, she was spotted by a weekly magazine spending the night at a hot spring resort with a man twice her age and smoking in his car. End of career.
That left Tsuji Nozomi, Kago's partner in the spinoff duo W, in the lurch. A new group was quickly put together for her, but then she found out she was pregnant and announced she was planning to marry a handsome young actor (well, at 26 Sugiura Taiyou was young but seven years older than her) known for playing the super hero Ultraman. That would make Tsuji just the third former Musume to get married, the others being Ishiguro Aya (2000) and Ichii Sayaka (2004).
With the constant morphing of all these spin-off groups and changing of members, it's hard work trying to keep this section up to date! 2007 saw the group's 10th anniversary and the arrival of the first non-Japanese members, with the addition of two Chinese teenagers. This was just the start of a new era for the group as, like other J-pop stars, it started to make the most of its large fan base across Asia. The first concerts in Taiwan and South Korea were announced for the spring of 2008. In the summer of 2010, it was announced that Kamei Eri would leave the group in the autumn and take an extended leave of absence to undergo treatment for a skin disorder, while the two Chinese members were leaving to pursue careers in their home country. This would reduce the group to a mere five members, so of course a 10th round of auditions was also announced to bring fresh blood into this seemingly immortal group.