A Beginner’s Guide to Produce 101 Japan

With songs on the radio by South Korean pop groups and mentions in recent movies, idol culture is on a steady rise in the western world. For the uneducated on East Asian idol culture, the meaning of the word idol that you might have heard of from western television shows (such as X-factor or American Idol) differs in East Asia. The concept of an idol in these countries is an almost untouchable figure, someone to look up to and admire, who is also expected to be free from most human faults as well as being great at singing, performing, and entertaining at the same time.

This time we’re focusing on the highly popular Japanese idol survival show Produce 101 Japan; written by three members of our organisation that are dedicated fans of the show and the groups that came out of it. This article will hopefully act as an introduction to what it’s all about, and a offer an insight to a slightly different take on Japanese idols!

With inspiration from the highly popular multiple-season series Produce 101 from South Korea, Produce 101 Japan was perhaps set up for success from the start. The concept of 101 participants – or trainees, as they are called in the show – practicing and performing together, while at the same time fighting for their time in the spotlight and in the final top spots make for some interesting television. The setup goes by the name idol survival show, maybe a somewhat frightening name for someone unfamiliar with the concept. However, it has proven to be a big hit in South Korea with some of the most popular new groups originating from idol survival shows, such as IOI, fromis_9, Wanna One, KEP1ER, and IZ*ONE (which was formed through the collaborative show between AKB48 members in Japan and Korean idol trainees from Produce 48).

In the original South Korean Produce 101 series, the goal for the trainees is to finish in the debut range and form an 11 or 12-member group that will debut and be active for a limited time. The participants compete against each other to accumulate votes from the watchers at home, who are called producers in the show. They’re competing against each other both individually, trying their best to charm the viewers with their quirky special talents, hard work, and personality, as well as in group battles performing popular songs.

The group battles, which setup varies slightly every round, are performed in front of a live audience who get to vote for their favorites and determine the winner(s) of the round, and is then followed by an elimination episode where the votes from the viewers at home are tallied together with the live audience’s. The viewers at home get to take part in observing the trainees’ hard work as well, with much of the episode’s content being filled with the trainees practicing for their group stages. When there’s time off and time to be filled, fun segments are made where the trainees get to not only have some fun but also show off their entertaining side.

When it comes to South Korean idols and K-pop, there is not only a strong emphasis on being good dancers & singers, but also to be able to perform complex choreography in perfect synchronization. On the other hand, the general conception is that Japanese idols seem to be more focused on the entertainment and fan-interaction aspect. There’s no need to be a perfectly polished idol from the get-go, because with the right personality and attitude you can win the hearts of many. With these two slightly different takes on what an idol is, the Produce 101 Japan series set the stage for K-pop styled Japanese groups to create something new in the Japanese music industry and dip their toes into the highly popular genre of K-pop.

Produce 101 Japan

The Japanese version of Produce 101 is much the same with the exception being that the trainees are not signed under entertainment companies, often resulting in them being completely inexperienced when it comes to dancing and singing, or strongly contrasted by former dancers, trainees, or idols with industry experience. With many of the trainees being inexperienced, an important charm is added to the show that is typical for Japanse idol culture: watching idols grow and develop. There are many trainees that garner fans and votes based on potential, personality, and showing off their hard work and improvement rather than pure talent.

Furthermore, since trainees are not allowed to already be signed to any sort of company, the debuting group in the Japanese version has no set disbandment date, meaning that they form a permanent group.

「ツカメ~It’s Coming~」, opening theme of Produce 101 Japan (season 1)

「Let Me Fly ~その未来へ~」 , opening theme for the 2nd season of Produce 101 Japan

Produce 101 Japan: Season 2

While the first season of Produce 101 Japan aired according the original setup in 2019, the same was not true for the second season. Because of COVID-19, the second season had to make adjustments in accordance with the regulations in Japan. The first voting round (called ON:TACT) took place online where trainees got to show off their charm and talent through a series of videos, and the season kicked off with only 60 out of the 101 trainees physically on set.

Despite the situation, the season had a higher viewer count than the previous season, and the show aired with English subtitles on YouTube for the first time so global viewers could tune in as well.

Both groups debuting from the two seasons of Produce 101 Japan that have aired (so far), JO1 and INI, have become highly popular not only in Japan but also overseas. With millions in album sales and streams, it’s clear that there’s a huge demand for K-pop style idol groups in Japan. Even amongst those who do not debut in the top 11, multiple groups with similar concepts have successfully been formed with former Produce 101 Japan trainees from both seasons such as ORβIT, ENJIN, OWV, and OCTPATH.

JO1: The eleven-member group that was formed through the first season of Produce 101 Japan (2019)
INI: The eleven-member group that was formed through Produce 101 Japan Season 2 (2021)

After watching the over two hour-long episodes, you can’t help but want to cheer the trainees on. With over 100 people participating, you easily end up getting one or a few favorite trainees in particular. Even having already chosen a favorite member of a debuted group from Produce 101 Japan before watching the show, it is an interesting experience seeing that member learn and adapt from the beginning, and train to become a better artist. It’s also very interesting to get a look into the trainee lifestyle, seeing all the hard work that goes into preparing performances and the trainees learn how to get along with each other. Watching these often inexperienced yet eager trainees do their best to learn how to dance, sing, and rap with help from their industry veteran mentors as well as their more experienced peers, and following their journey to improvement, is a very unique experience which pulls you deeper in with every episode. Even though the show isn’t currently airing, it can still be a fun experience to watch and to recognize current members of the already debuted groups, or perhaps discover someone new.

If you are interested in seeing more of what the show is about, check out the videos embedded in the article. SJPA will also release a series of articles detailing some of the groups that have debuted following Produce 101 Japan. Stay tuned for more reading!

Links to Produce 101 Japan

Written by:
Rudy Marijne Klaassen
Petronella Lodin
Vera Ahnlund Berg