Why an 'Ugly' Pin-up is Legendary in Japan

Another weekend. Another photo session for 21-year-old Mai Fujiko, no stranger to string bikinis that are more string than bikini. She wasn't embarrassed in the least, proud of the figure DNA bestowed her. But photographers pressed close and snapped off pic after pic of her mug. She smiled. "I always feel like my heart's about to leap out of my throat," Fujiko told Kotaku. "But I love that unbearable excitement."

The West dubs Japan the land of the cute—or kawaii. Adorable, perfect characters pop up seemingly everywhere. Cute girls, known as idols, sing and pose for pictures. Yet, it's not only the cute that Japan fetishizes. In Japan, Mai Fujiko isn't called cute. In Japan, Mai Fujiko is called a "busudoru"—an "ugly idol".

There's an seemingly endless stream of gravure idols, models who are, well, fetishized in Japan. To stand out, a handful of gravure idols have their on schtick, whether that being an "glasses gravure model" or "retro game idol". For Mai Fujiko, it's not about being cute at all.

For Fujiko, "The appeal of busudoru is like stinky cheese that you become totally addicted to." And Japanese idol fans tired of the standard fare are totally addicted to her. It's more than that—busudoru like Mai Fujiko are a modern take on the Japanese aesthetic.

Gravure idols are pin-ups. "Gravure" is short for "rotogravure", a printing process used in magazines, posters, and postcards. Gravure idols appear in photo layouts in comics and game mags, and they release photobooks and DVDs. Often getting as close as they can to full-nudity, gravure idols are more explicit with their sexuality than teeny bop singing idols. Fujiko, for example, has been doused in milk and licked sausages. Yet, that wasn't what garnered her primetime television experience.

Why an 'Ugly' Pin-up is Legendary in Japan
(日本テレビ)

It was 2007. Fujiko was young—disconcertingly so. She was 16, but a society drunk on youth and gloss pegged her closer towards the "adult" end of the spectrum. Against that questionable backdrop, forums and websites lit up as Fujiko's first DVD hit idol shops in Akihabara and Osaka's Den-Den Town. It wasn't her figure. It wasn't even her age or that she was a junior high school student. Netizen after netizen wrote the same thing: "She's ugly."

In Japanese, the sound "bu" is not nice. While we do get badass words like "bushido" (samurai code), "bushi" (warrior), and "Buraian" (um, Brian), we also get "bu bu" ("oink oink"), "buta" ("pig"), and "busaiku" ("homely" or "ugly"). "Busu" (ブス) was the word plucked out and used over and over again. It's a rude way to say someone is unfortunate-looking—a dog, even. The internet, being the internet, pounced and wielded the word towards Fujiko.

"My charm point is, of course, my face," Fujiko told Kotaku with a laugh. "I am a busudoru. No doubt, I'm taking a flaw and turning it into a sales point!"

"I am a busudoru. No doubt, I'm taking a flaw and turning it into a sales point!"

It wasn't so much that Fujiko was ugly (she's not), but rather, that she didn't fit the typical idol mold: small face, small nose, pert mouth, and large eyes. More importantly, she was the victim of an unfortunate haircut that led to comparisons between herself and Japanese comedian Miyuki Oshima (pictured) of comedy trio Morisanchu, which are typically described as "busu". Japanese television, being Japanese television, pounced, bringing Mai Fujiko out in a bikini to compare to Oshima. Said Fujiko, "I'm the only busudoru!"

Yet in Japan, being ugly is not necessarily a bad thing for idols. "Lack of natural beauty and talent has been praised by idol fans and producers in Japan since at least the 1980s," Patrick W. Galbraith, a researcher at the University of Tokyo and co-editor of an upcoming book on idols, told Kotaku. "From the standpoint of the producers, it means that an idol's re-markability is totally fabricated, and she can easily be replaced. It also means that the idol tries harder and is easier for fans to approach and get behind." During the 1980s, many idol groups were fronted by girls who were either cute and couldn't sing or who weren't cute and could sing. That was part of their charm.

Why an 'Ugly' Pin-up is Legendary in Japan
(D-Channel)

Just as Japan seems obsessed with beauty, it also seems fascinated with the lack thereof. Yoshimoto Kogyo, the famous comedy agency, ranks its most handsome male and female members each year—as well as its ugliest ones. But, it's not just comedians. On 2ch., idol fans are known to discuss not only which AKB48 members are the cutest, but which ones are the ugliest. This summer, Japanese tabloid Bubka ranked the ugliest members. Coming in first was Moeno Nitou, a girl I've interviewed before and someone who I wouldn't call ugly. Even when you enter her name in Google, 仁藤萌乃, one of first results is "busu". Being dubbed ugly, especially by the internet, is cruel, and there's obvious self-esteem concerns. Yet, in Japan, this drubbing can actually make her sympathetic. In the seemingly cute world of idols, it's counterintuitive, but some fans like that she's considered ugly.

"There are various ways to make the idol seem more average and approachable—more human—for example talking about flaws and mistakes," said Galbraith. "This can at times be somewhat malicious, where bringing people down and standing above them becomes an end in and of itself, but for a lot of fans an idol's imperfections, in addition to unique qualities in comparison with other idols, are really her major assets. She is loved not despite her flaws, but precisely because of them." According to Galbraith, busudoru like Mai Fujiko are an extreme manifestation of this logic.

"She is loved not despite her flaws, but precisely because of them."

The logic is, at its core, Japanese. There is a concept of "hetauma" (ヘタウマ). "Heta" refers to being bad at something. "Uma" is "umai" or "skilled", "yummy" or "wonderful". The term was used in the 1980's in art and music and later to calligraphy to refer to works that appear simple—crude, even—but were actually complex. Former Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman once said hetauma is one of his favorite things about Japanese pop music, which seems overly simplistic, but is actually deep and complex.

Hetauma is related to wabi-sabi, Japan's central and traditional aesthetic. While Western art strived towards perfection, wabi-sabi is preoccupied with the imperfect and the incomplete, with asymmetry and austerity. The wabi-sabi aesthetic is best understood and appreciated in humble Japanese pottery, old Kyoto tea houses and rock gardens. Yet, hints of that preoccupation with things that are not perfect and their fleeting transience linger in hetauma and, yes, homely idols.

Why an 'Ugly' Pin-up is Legendary in Japan
(Reborn: ブスドル復活)

Didn't it bother her? What seemingly, first, the Japanese internet ganging up on her and, later, the entertainment industry? If so, Fujiko isn't showing it. "Actually, I was happy when people started calling me busudoru," Fujiko said. "Because you can look me up twice online twice, right?" She's the top search result for both her name and busudoru. "Usually, people can't be found online two different ways like that, so I think I'm pretty lucky," Fujiko said. In Japan, she's now referred to as the "legendary busudoru".

"When people forget my name," she said, "they might remember busudoru." And if they forget "busudoru", her latest video has the word plastered all over it. She's found her schtick, and instead of running from the moniker as an insult, Fujiko's embraced it. The splash she's made opened the door for more plain Jane idols.

For Fujiko, the goal is to be a regular on Japanese variety programs, which are populated with celebrities each with their own unique schtick, whether that's dancing in a swimsuit, or naming oneself after a fighting game. Yet, her imperfections, her supposed flaws are far deeper and ever so fleeting.

(Top photo: D-Channel NSFW)

You can contact Brian Ashcraft, the author of this post, at bashcraft@kotaku.com. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and lurking around our #tips page.