Reaching your mid-twenties as an idol: Iikubo Haruna announces her graduation

On August 17 important news were told on Hello! Project’s website: Iikubo Haruna has decided to graduate at the end of Morning Musume.’18’s fall concert.

While the timing might seem a bit weird – they’re midway through the summer concerts and Morning Musume already had a graduation this year – the general opinion among fans was: „That’s really sad, but also to be expected.“

I agree with this sentiment.

As you can see on my banner (which shows Kanazawa Tomoko on the left and Iikubo Haruna on the right) I’m a big fan of our dear Honey (a nickname made off her official colour, ‚honey‘). She has been my favourite current H!P member since Suzuki Kanon graduated and is far up in the ranking of my all-time favourites.

When I’m looking at a group I usually look for ‚obvious‘ talent first – the best singer, the best dancer, the person with the best overall stage presence. Haruna wasn’t that person at all when she first joined, and my eyes went to Ishida Ayumi, the best of her generation back then. I quickly came to love Haruna, though: I stick more often to charismatic members, those that can entertain me outside of strict performing the most. That’s why my favourite Morning Musume members are girls like Yoshizawa Hitomi, Iida Kaori and Niigaki Risa and not Takahashi Ai, Fukuda Asuka or Linlin (kudos to them, though, they’re great).

Haruna had already been a great entertainer when she joined. She quickly made use of her talent to talk freely and was made the go-to talker in TV shows next to Michishige Sayumi. She quickly joined the latter on the radio show YoungTown where she had been a regular ever since. Of course, there’s also been quirks that did not really work: Her „praising“ talent was talked about a few times and then ignored and forgotten.

In the end Haruna became Morning Musume’s best talking talent. And this leads to two questions:

  1. Who will fill this role once Haruna is not a member of the group anymore?
  2. Can Haruna make use of this in her future jobs?

The first question is not easy to answer. Personally I think the second best talker of the group is Haga Akane, but she is also the youngest member. She’s good, but she’s only around the age when Haruna had joined the group. Making her the first reference person for TV talks could be too much for her. Unfortunately, the next best talker is just the 2nd youngest member, Yokoyama Reina. Come to think of it, Akane and Reina would make a great duo. But that’s a thought for another day. In the meantime, while they should go on and train the two youngesters, Ishida Ayumi and maybe Ikuta Erina can take over Haruna’s role. Ayumi is a regular in another regional TV show and therefore has experience. While I wouldn’t say that Erina can keep a conversation up that well she definitely makes a talk more interesting.

On the other hand, of course, Morning Musume is not on TV as often anymore.

Moving onto the next question: I’m almost certain Haruna will be successful in whatever she plans for her future. I can imagine her as a radio host and a TV regular – maybe not in the big variety shows, but making her own name in niche programmes. Her interests in video games and manga and especially in fashion can open her several doors. It’s also very helpful that she already has many friends among other celebrities. At another place I mentioned that I could imagine her becoming some kind of influencer – though I have to admit that I don’t know how popular these are in Japan.

Personally I’d be very happy with this. This way we can follow her after her graduation – since she most likely will get an instagram account and maybe a twitter one as well. She can also focus on her interests. I don’t think she disliked performing, dancing and singing, but she liked other things more, as she has said herself: She likes MCs, plays, introducing her hobbies to others (as said in the official announcement of her graduation).

But does she have to graduate to do these things?

I think there’s mainly two reasons why she decided to graduate.

First of all, Morning Musume is a very busy group. We do make jokes about them not doing much outside performing in concerts and plays, but that alone is a lot of work. They increased the numbers of concerts for every tour, the group usually has one stage play / musical per year. The biggest time-eater is probably everything related to single releases. Handshake events, mini-lives, every kind of promotions eat up many days of the week. This way the members can only join few regular shows (may it be on radio or on TV). Generally, of course, more time means more possibilities for projects. Since she has many different interests she could dedicate more days to set regular appointments, but also to freelance work.

The second thought is that she is at that age. There are two critical ages for an idol (sadly, only talking about female idols here): The time she graduates from (high) school, and once she’s in her mid-twenties.

Especially girls that have been in the business since their early youth decide to do something else with their lives once they get out of school. That’s the time when they have to decide on a future outside entertainment business after all: The best jobs in Japan require a university degree, and while there are more and more cases of idols that balanced their work and education sometimes it’s better to focus on one. Of course, it’s not only the school graduation: For several fields of work you need to start at an early age or access might be limited. We have seen this with Tamura Meimi who graduated to become a full-time musical actress and Kudo Haruka who is now an actress for the Super Sentai series. Sayashi Riho’s official reason for graduating was to study dance – as many fans have pointed out she needed to do more specialized training than being in an idol group if she wanted to pursue a future in a dance-related field. To give examples about education-related graduations we have Ogata Haruna who left to go to university or the (planned) graduation of Fujii Rio who wanted to become a nurse.

The ‚reason‘ why a female idol should graduate in her mid-twenties is, of course, traditional (and very sexist): The old story about the Christmas cake that nobody wants to eat after the 25th. While women even in Japan marry at a later age nowadays this way of thinking is still very present at the world of employment. Once women graduate from university and have their first job interviews questions like „have you thought about starting a family?“ or „aren’t you going to marry soon?“ become more frequent.

Looking at the latest graduations it does not seem like former H!P girls jump right into marriage after leaving the main umbrella company. The last marriage was Mano Erina’s to soccer star Shibasaki Gaku – 5 years after her graduation, long after she had made herself a name as an actress. The members of °C-ute have not married yet and while Sugaya Risako already gave birth to a child the same can be said about Berryz Koubou. All Morning Musume graduatees after Niigaki Risa are still unwed: Mitsui Aika (25), Tanaka Reina (28) and Michishige Sayumi (29) (as well as the girls after them, but those are also a few years younger).

So why should you graduate from a group just because you are not a teenager anymore?

Once again, I believe the girls who say that it’s got nothing to do with their age (which is what Haruna and Wada Ayaka, her friend and leader of H!P and ANGERME who will also graduate earlier next year, said). These girls have been active for several years, so trying out new things and just leaving the past behind is necessary for personal development. The mid-twenties are also a fascinating age to be honest. You’re not as lost as you were as an early adult in your early twenties. You had time to think over several things. You have grown because at that point you have experience living as an adult. Setting new goals at that age is absolutely understandable and probably the right thing. It could be compared to graduating with a masters degree, finishing probation period or maybe getting your first promotion.

Especially considering Haruna, who has thought about graduating for two years by now, this seems like a very likely reason.

After all there’s also another part of female idols: The fact that you graduate from a group also goes with the perception that you have finished some kind of education or training. If a girl – or in many cases, management – realize that she can’t grow anymore or not as much inside the group it is time to graduate. Personally I think Haruna could have blossomed even more in the group, but I don’t know about the situation inside the group, whether or not her dreams were possible within Morning Musume.

To me personally there were only a few cases in which a graduation was ‚too early‘. These mostly come with illnesses or contract conflicts (Mitsui Aika, Aikawa Maho, Otsuka Aina, Shimamura Uta). The Platinum Era girls, °C-ute or Berryz Koubou, however? They can now follow their dreams outside the strict idol life, and most of them do rather well. Suzuki Airi could not have started a solo career as a member of °C-ute, Kumai Yurina probably would not have become an actual model, Tsugunaga Momoko could not have fulfilled her dream to work as a teacher.

I do not think that Suzuki Kanon or Ogata Haruna were ‚finished‘ (as in polished) as idols as the other examples were. They did, however, decide on another future for themselves – and have also left the public eye. Sometimes it is like that.

Iikubo Haruna will go her way. May it be under Up-Front, as a freelancer, under another agency; may it be as a radio/TV personality, influencer, model – or even as a married housewife: She will go her way.

I’m just happy that she stayed long enough to finally be recognized by management. I wished more fans payed her attention.

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