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AKB48 member’s ‘penance’ shows flaws in idol culture

by Ian Martin

The image of a young girl in front of a camera, her head recently shaved, sobbing into the lens is one that’s guaranteed to shock. But when that girl is a key member of idol group AKB48, the reaction is bound to be stronger.

After being caught leaving the home of Generations boy-band member Alan Shirahama by weekly gossip rag Shukan Bunshun, AKB48 Team B member Minami Minegishi was instantly demoted to the idol group’s “trainee” team. More shockingly, a video was then posted on the group’s official YouTube channel in which the newly shorn Minegishi gradually works herself up into a torrent of tears, punctuated with long bows of supplication and gasped apologies, as she begs forgiveness from her “wonderful and sweet fans” for her “thoughtless deed.” She claims, implausibly, that the decision to shave her head was hers alone.

In Japan, the cutting of hair is often symbolic of a new start, or in more extreme cases of penance. The destruction of sexuality inherent in shaving it completely back, however, brings to mind more the humiliations inflicted by the French Resistance on women accused of sleeping with the occupying Nazi soldiers during what they called the épuration sauvage or “wild purge.” Minegishi’s only crime, however, was having a boyfriend.

AKB48′s members are contractually forbidden to have any kind of romantic relationships and they are punished if they do. Last year, member Yuka Masuda was forced out of the group under similar circumstances, while Rina Sashihara was “exiled” to Fukuoka-based sister group HKT48 (after another tear-stained apology to fans) when an ex-boyfriend revealed details of their relationship.

What is happening here is that the protection of fans’ fragile fantasies automatically trumps the basic human right to a life outside that fantasy framework. Though as lawyer Hifumi Okunuki pointed out in a Japan Times article on Jan. 22, such an arrangement is probably illegal under Japanese labor laws.

The central problem of groups such as AKB48 is the defence that by dating, idols are ruining fans’ fantasies. This is key to understanding not just AKB48 and their sister groups, but pretty much all idol culture. The groups are not just selling music, they are selling a fantasy narrative. It’s one that everyone knows is fake, which is why it is imperative that fans’ suspension of disbelief be maintained at all costs — with severe punishments for those who step out of line.

Reaction to Minegishi’s video among AKB48 fans online has generally been of the variety that she only has herself to blame and that the punishment is deserved. The “don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time,” defence is one of the most common arguments in these situations and one of the silliest.

Fans buy into the narrative at an early stage. At the AKB48 theater in Akihabara, fans can watch the new members stumble, fluff lines and maybe cry a bit on stage. Gradually, though, they can see them leave the background and develop into full frontline stars. The fans and the group members take an emotional journey together, and even though it’s a journey along a set of rails determined by marketing, management and industrial factors, at least they can believe that the girls themselves are sincere.

In order to be sincere, though, they cannot be ordinary girls. They cannot have lives outside the structured environment in which the fans experience them. In this sense, fans are just as complicit in Minegishi’s humiliation as producer Yasushi Akimoto and AKB48′s management.

Some fans, in particular those from overseas, are crying foul. “No!” they say, “You have gone too far, Mr. Akimoto! Even though she did something wrong, this punishment is cruel!” However, these fans are also guilty. By accepting that Minegishi transgressed in the first place they make it simply a matter of degree, when the system of which they are part — which believes that it has any right or say over the private lives of others — is what is really to blame.

The deeper truth is that idol fan culture, as well as the closely related anime and manga fan culture, is institutionally incapable of dealing with independence in young women. It seeks out and fetishizes weaknesses and vulnerabilities and calls it moé, it demands submissiveness, endless tearful displays of gratitude, a lack of confidence, and complete control over their sexual independence. AKB48 takes this a step further by allowing its (largely male) fans to sit in annual judgment, voting members up or down in the group’s hierarchy. The danger is of this fantasy creeping out more widely into society: Japan currently ranks at 101 in the world gender-equality rankings (79 places below the United States, 32 below China, and two below Azerbaijan). What will a 13-year-old girl think when she sees a humiliated member apologizing for natural human behavior?

Minegishi, who celebrated her coming of age last month — supposedly her final step into adulthood — will submit to her training and re-education; she will prostrate herself before the fans and beg for their acceptance, which they will gracefully bestow once she is deemed to have done penance. This whole episode will become part of the all-encompassing AKB48 narrative, but the framework of that narrative will continue to go unquestioned as long as fans cling to misogynistic fantasies and as long as Akimoto thinks he can still make money off of them.

Update: Minami Minegishi’s apology video was made private on the night of Feb. 2, reportedly due to requests from her fans.

  • http://twitter.com/smacklooshis smacklooshis

    Bad for society and all that, but they’re still more interesting than a lot of other bands out there.

    • Edohiguma

      Society will move on. 10 years from now nobody will remember this incident.

      • MauMau

        Which makes it all the more sadder, that no one will remember this, which means it won’t change. That this objectification and humiliation of girls like her will continue, that we will condemn these girls for just being girls and having desires outside of pleasing their fragile minded fans.

      • MiichanFan

        Oh please. Misogyny is not what this is about. It’s about a person who broke a rule. A rule that states that she can do whatever she wants to do…just not in public. A rule that was stated in her contract that she signed and has continually renewed year after year. She’s being paid hand over fist to put on an act for her fans and play the character of Minegishi Minami while keeping the group’s image intact. The head shaving was her own doing and there are multiple accounts *(Though you won’t see them on any of these sites that are sensationalizing this story like this)* that show that members of the staff tried to stop her but she kept going.

        I keep saying this…Can you imagine managing a group’s public image when you have 200 members going out on dates at will while being followed 24/7 by tabloids? It would make it impossible to keep a positive image for the group. This is the reason for the rule.

        There’s nothing that says that the male involved isn’t being punished. Sure, the group said that he’s free to do what he wants…but behind closed doors they may be docking his pay. They may be barring him from certain events. You just cannot tell the whole story from what gets released by agencies. They’re known to lie. They’re known to twist the story. Frankly, It’s their job to do so.

        I will close by saying this. Pause and think. Do you honestly feel that people like you are not also to blame for this rule? You’re the ones who judge something you don’t fully understand. You’re the ones they’re trying to prevent the negative publicity from getting to. If you weren’t so judgmental and quick to cry foul then maybe they wouldn’t have to worry as much as they do… Just saying…

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Motus-Fort/100000237193938 Motus Fort

        she will remember the humility, it will scar her. Is that ok?

      • MiichanFan

        Nothing is wrong with humility.

        Every star needs some.

    • Brian Lynchehaun

      Epic fail.

      That you find the objectification and emotional destruction of young women “more interesting than a lot of other bands out there” speaks *volumes*.

      That part where the article talks about the complicity of the fans? It’s talking about *you*.

      • http://twitter.com/smacklooshis smacklooshis

        I have shaved my head and will post an apology on YouTube soon, I’m sorry.

      • Brian Lynchehaun

        How about you stop supporting this misogynistic system instead? This isn’t about *you* feeling had about your actions, it’s about you *stopping* those misogynistic actions.

      • MiichanFan

        How about you stop screaming misogyny before you even fully understand the situation?

        Men are subject to many of the same rules in Japanese entertainment. The reason you don’t hear about it is the fact that their agencies tend to either just feign indifference to the media while punishing them behind closed doors or they just categorically deny everything.

        Not everything is an affront to women in Japan. Women in Japan get their own subway cars. Women in Japan can grab any man they want on a train car by the shirt sleeve, scream CHIKAN! and get him arrested. Japanese schoolgirls go to the police simply because a man waves at them or says good morning! That man is often taken in for police questioning or a police notice is issued for people to be on the lookout for him…just because he said hello.

        The idol industry has it’s flaws…but these girls signed up for it. This is not a foolish answer as the author of this article attempts to claim. They signed a contract and renewed it year after year. They are CHOOSING to portray the characters they do onstage while keeping their personal lives out the public eye. In return they get paid hand over fist. Lets be honest here…If it was so bad there wouldn’t be literally tens of thousands of girls auditioning to become idols…

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004138536484 Steve Smith

        Well let’s be fair. It is conveniently overlooked that male idols in Japan are subject to the same no dating rules. Since males reach their sexual peak at age 18, you could argue the rule is even worse for male idols. And just like how female idol groups have a lot of older male fans, the male idol groups similarly have a lot of older female fans, surprisingly age 20-50 something. So there is that “equality.”

        The idol culture reflects the general controlling nature of the society. I know foreigners have a problem but why not ask the Japanese if they have a problem. Apparently they don’t have enough of a problem to protest or riot in the street. And don’t say Japanese don’t protest and riot because they did in the 70′s. As I’ve said before, Japan and Korea have enjoyed great success and their countries are admired by foreigners. The people seem to get along or at least better than the people in America. Don’t expect them to change so quickly when their cultures bring success and relative harmony.

      • exclamationmark1

        Having such a high instance of molestation that separate trains for women are necessary is not a sign of equality, nor is being able to cry wolf. Being unanimously viewed as the weak, incapable victim in every instance is not such a position of power as you seem to think it is.

        The author argues that the contract is unlawful and a clear violation of human rights. The no boyfriend policy and the harsh punishment is justifying the subjection of degrading ideals of sexuality in a very public way which is harmful to the rights and freedoms of women.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004138536484 Steve Smith

        The complicity of the fans is an interesting topic. This could easily extend to fans of anything in Japanese culture. For instance, if you are a fan of Japanese women/girls, what does that say about you if you criticize the treatment of women/girls in Japan.

  • http://twitter.com/malamura malamura

    lol Cool haircut. they should exile her to HKT too

  • http://www.greenteagraffiti.com/ Jangta

    Spot on article with a deeper analysis of the AKB48 hair-shaving scandal. It’s pretty bad and quite inhumane.

    It’s true that not all AKB48 fans are like that. Most are legit, respectful, and nice fans.

    Yet, there’s a very large number of fans that spoil it for the rest of the AKB48 community. These fans have their hands dirty in scandals too.

    A lot of them literally control how they should act, appear, and talk. If the group does something bad, these not-so-nice fans spread rumors and fuel the gossip rumors, even if it is false.

    Then, you have shame moments like what Minami Minegishi did with her hair. The terrible fans don’t want to take responsibility, sadly. We have a similar bullying, cult-like fandom here in Korea, where if the K-pop idol singers do anything “not deemed appropriate” to the fans’ idea of perfection, they get hated and threatened in a heartbeat.

    Management also has its hands dirty for the same reasons above. They feed off the rumors, gossip, and what the bad fans want. Thus, they’ll do stupid stuff like humiliating the poor girl above. Like the terrible fans, management will not own up to their mistakes.

    I feel it will take a majority of good-hearted fans or big, influential news media telling both the horrible fans and management off to prevent any more bullying. Let’s hope this movement can happen soon.

    • Edohiguma

      In regards to the original article: It would have been over with the demotion. She wasn’t forced to shave her hair. She chose to do it herself. Considering what is known of her personality I don’t find it implausible at all that she’d chose this herself. And all the big names in AKB48 (assuming for a second there’s something like that) are supporting her. If she was forced to shave it would already have leaked. Habeas corpus. Prove it. Yes, it’s that simple.

      It’s funny, you blame everyone… except the people who demand to read about such scandals. The management doesn’t feed off rumors and gossip. The management feeds off selling a product and that product has a certain image. They want to protect that image, they don’t want it to get stained, because when it gets stained, it stops selling. The fans have no responsibility in this. The fan backlash was actually harmless when the news first appeared. 2ch was pretty civilized. A few fans showed where the term “fan” comes from (fanatic), but in general there was no big riot over it. Not even the media that found out about it is responsible.

      It’s the people who buy yellow press papers.

      As long as there’s a market for this there will be supply. Simple as that. When people stop wanting to know about the lives of celebrities then the supply will disappear. But we all know that will never happen. Not in Japan. Not in South Korea. Not in the UK. Not in the US. Not anywhere. Because people will always want to know. The term yellow press is relatively young, but people wanting to know about the lives of celebrities goes back to the very first moment mankind had celebrities. It’s like prostitution. It will exist as long as there are customers.

      • uzumaki1976

        Sorry dude! You’re living in la-la-land. Of course the management make money off these “scoops”. They have monetised every aspect of their idols. So much so that if a foreign distributor picks up a film starring an idol (GANTZ for example) they are not allowed to use stills/photos from the movie featuring their acts online or in foreign magazines (Like Empire and Total Film) for fear that it will harm their domestic idol calender and postcard sales. The magazines usually pay the management for new photo-spreads etc and access to the acts. It’s the same with anime. The user pays.. This is all about money because the emotionally retarded idol fans in Japan don’t seem to understand that these “idoru” are people just like them. They have to remain “pure” and “available”, so that some sad-sack otaku can fantasize about one day making them the girl of their dreams. Ha!
        The simple message hear kids is, DON’T BECOME AN IDORU. Sure, you’ll be famous, but you will earn bugger all cash and every decision you make will be decided by a committee of seedy old, greedy men in a boardroom somewhere in Tokyo. Get a degree, see the world, but do not join a pop idol group whatever you do.

      • Mellozine

        While scandal readers do have some blame along with the media as in any other scandal, Idol fans who blame idols for this kind of thing are at some degree of fault. They’re in the same camp as Seiyuu otaku, I think. The fans who buy thousands of one CD to get tons of tickets to a hand shaking event, the fans that check blogs every Christmas to make sure everything adds up and that their favorite idol or seiyuu isn’t with some man and isn’t, as I’ve seen them referred to as, “used goods.”

        In any case, no matter who is responsible. no one deserves to be treated like this and the fact that they would force her to do something like this (and even if she DID do this voluntarily, the fact that she feels she needs to is incredibly unnerving) is completely ridiculous. Even contractually obligating them to refrain even from dating? Dating! The media, the scandal readers…when you get down to it, things like that are purely to protect the fragile little fantasies of fans who can’t handle their favorite idol living her own life. As you said, as long as there are customers. And those customers are the fans.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Motus-Fort/100000237193938 Motus Fort

        it is not voluntary, coercion and pressure of bad advice make it seem like a choice, but ultimately its not. Yes bullied kids have been known to give their bullies tens of millions of yen, but it was not really a choice that the victim can make…

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Motus-Fort/100000237193938 Motus Fort

        this silly scandal is a sales technique! dont fall for it. I pity the fools who actually listen to this crap and more who buy it.

      • Ian Martin

        All those fans saying that she got what she deserved and that it’s her own fault are not doing so as part of a marketing strategy. And even if the whole scandal was concocted by the management (unlikely given that it coincides so closely with other big AKB news stories like Tomomi Itano’s “graduation”), the fact that they would concoct something with such misogynistic “slut-shaming” overtones says something very unpleasant about the implied values of AKB48 and their so-called fans.

    • http://www.facebook.com/VinnyThunder Andrew Hill

      Yeah but by supporting this institution that you freely admit attracts these “not-so-nice” fans, aren’t you then encouraging this kind of behaviour in said fans, managers and even the stars themselves? I think it speaks to a trait in human behaviour, especially in young, probably lonely straight men, when they fully realize how morally corrupt and ultimately abject this system is, but will still engage in the whole charade for their own amusement…

  • http://www.facebook.com/berenice.laselve Bérénice La Selve

    The comments don’t do any justice to the contents of this good article.
    We can ask “what is wrong with Japan”, but to me the question is more like : “what the hell is wrong with pop culture”? From commentators dissecting every part of the body of every female star like she is a piece of meat, to commentators judging a star’s sex life that is none of their business, pop stars seem to be out there only to be weighted, torn appart, judged in an off-handed way that no one would use to address anyone they know and relate to. It seems like this constant, petty, self-agrandizing commenting is just a way to pump up one’s self-esteem. As if by taking cheap shots at famous people, commentators would feel more important themselves. In Western countries, pop starts mostly don’t care and possibly enjoy the occasional publicity provided by a bit of scandal. In Japan however the (stupid) audience seems to dictate the life of unprotected, bullied female pop stars. Turns out “Perfect Blue” was close to reality, and that’s a scary thought.

    • Troy Acree

      You have a good point and there might be some reason to sympathize with people who are so young as these girls are, however, the sickness is in the girls as well. This desire for fame comes with demands and that is pretty natural. The public gives them prestige and some “value” they can’t find any other way and they give the public some valuable qualities (such as innocence or beauty or talent or whatever combination of various qualities). This is the essence of commodity culture. The whole thing is appalling but EVERYONE involved by doing or watching is implicated.

    • mataikan

      the problem is that these manufactered stars, have not even discovered themselves as human beings. Totally dependent on the machine which created and controls them. ‘Fans’ should grow up and stop consuming this. It’s the Macdolands of Music.

  • Crank Dub

    I think Minegishi should start a solo career and go off and record “Nothing Compares to You”. She could be mega.

  • ashe

    I disagree with this assessment of the head-shaving part of this debacle. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it was her own idea, and if it was, it was a good one. The entire reason she’s not allowed to have a boyfriend is because the company wants to sell her sexual availability; by de-sexualizing herself with a shaved head she’s robbed them of that image of her to trade on, and she’s done it in a way that is culturally above reproach.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bjarnilisberg Bjarni Lisberg

    This is hardly a balanced and objective news article. I expect news agencies to provide a full view, that is the perspective of all individuals involved, so that I may make my own conclusions on the matter. Not only are there too few contrasting opinions, but Mr Ian Martin also states that it is ‘implausible’ that the girl’s decision to shave her head was her own. According to who? The editor’s opinion should never be present within the article, and, in my own personal opinion, should remain as invisible as possible. This article, however, shows a clear repulsion towards the industry in question. As a result, I am being convinced to share the same belief system, or ideology, as the writer.

    • Barga

      This isn’t a news article at all. It’s an editorial. If you want a balanced and objective news article, you should go… actually read a news article.

      You may as well be complaining that a swimming pool isn’t dry enough for your tastes.

    • http://twitter.com/smacklooshis smacklooshis

      It’s an editorial so, yeah, his personal opinion should be there. That’s why it’s under a “column” called Strange Boutique. A hard news story was also posted on the website without the opinion.

    • http://twitter.com/schlagerfiasko Schlagerfiasko

      The title of the article is ‘AKB48 member’s ‘penance’ shows flaws in idol culture’. It is an opinion piece.

      Read before commenting.

    • Firas Kraïem

      Except this is not something that comes from a “news agency” but an opinion piece in a newspaper. I don’t know which kind of world you live in for it to be a novelty to you. Or do you go around the websites of all newspapers in the planet commenting on all opinion pieces ranting about how it is not “objective and balanced” enough for your liking?

    • Matthew

      Whilst I agree that this could be more clearly marked as essentially an opinion piece, it is, clearly, an opinion piece. Grow up – we can all agree or disagree but there is no mechanical flaw to this article and whatever ‘bias’ you may feel it has is irrelevant; the point is, for me, that this side needs to be discussed and isn’t being so in the mainstream – so why wouldn’t the writer be allowed to take such a tone?.

      But then, all of this is what these new comment threads are for – good on the JT for now allowing them.

  • http://astronerdboy.blogspot.com AstroNerdBoy

    *sigh* I suppose mentioning Faust would be wrong of me. These girls get baited by the notions of fame and a bit of money (’cause there isn’t much fortune in the idol business, as I understand it) to become an idol. So, they sign bad contracts that say, “You can’t date” and whatever else they aren’t allowed to do in order to sell a fantasy.

    I’m sorry for the girl in question here and I hope that she comes out of this even stronger, better, and financially secure in whatever her next endeavor is. Hopefully, it will be a warning to other wannabe idols. However, I suspect that there will be no end of young, pretty, Japanese girls willing to give up lots to be an idol.

    • Totoro

      If Minegishi was in the group when it began, she’d have been about 13 when she started; still a child, in other words. Children shouldn’t be recruited into sexually provocative groups. It’s grooming. Her parents should have prevented it; and if parents are not willing to ensure their daughters are in an environment which is conducive to dignity and self-respect, teachers and other responsible adults should have step in.

      As far as I can see it, AKB48 is just one aspect of a big cultural problem Japan has with young girls – from enjo kyosai through to the porn industry, manga and so on. Minegishi might be 20 now, but most of the girls seem to go out of their way to look ‘underage’ (itself a vaguely defined idea in Japan, with its array of local age of consent laws). That’s not a sign of a mature society.

      I’m glad I’m not bringing up daughters here.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004138536484 Steve Smith

        Yes but aren’t most foreign men glad they are living in a Japan that has that kind of culture. Are they truly upset or just talking? Isn’t a big part of the attraction of Japan due to the controlling culture which creates polite, compliant people.

        One way of looking at it is the culture has to be oppressive so foreign men can gain prestige for appearing as the good guy to all the oppressed Japanese. If that’s the case, why would foreign men want change. The greatest hypocracy are foreign men who are attracted to Japan because of the women/girls who famously behave in a manner that is obviously a result of the culture which foreigners are then happy to criticize as backward.

        Exploiting a situation does not make one better or a liberator. If you are truly sincere about equality, then live in a country that practices equality. If you are truly sincere about individuality and free thought, live a country where you will be surrounded by people who will challenge you with their uncontrolled thought. If you really have a beef with Asian culture, unless you have an important business reason to stay, you might want to question who you really are if you won’t move back to the West.

  • http://twitter.com/danax2007 DaNA

    I love some asian idol groups but the companies are just disgusting. A 20 year old apologizing for having a boyfriend? gimme a break! Is no wonder japan and korea rank as the most sexually frustrated nations in this planet and the biggets porn consumers. Is just plain pathetic living in fantasy worlds thinking that you own this stars…. I wonder if they care at all about the music or if the only product this idols sell is sex.

  • TO

    Thanks for your great opinion piece! I’m just hoping that there will be at least some debate about the larger cultural framework of the patriarchal and conservative (idol) culture in Japan. I also hope there will be a legal challenge.

    • MiichanFan

      Pffff Legal challenge!? From WHO!?

      Minegishi loves AKB so much she went to extreme lengths to show her remorse. Why would she sue?

  • Dave No

    I’d be interested to hear what the parents of these idols have to say. Surely they play a part in their children joining such a group in the first place and therefore must bear some responsibility when things like this happen? However I suppose the parents also have some obligation or must abide by a separate contract that silences them and forbids them to make public comment. It wouldn’t surprise me that questionable people like Akimoto not only try to control every element of the young girls they manage, but those closest to them too.

    And Ian’s point about what a 13 year old girl will think after seeing this is very valid. With the gender inequality that still exists here, I think the methods of control that Akimoto uses only strengthens and perpetuates that inequality. It’s quite sickening, but does anyone think things will change after this? To state the obvious…it’s highly unlikely, because this IS Japan.

    • MiichanFan

      Actually Miichan’s dad owns a teahouse in Tokyo and he tweets multiple times daily.

      He didn’t comment on the incident directly but he did thank everyone for their support and commented that many people, including members of AKB had come by the shop to express their support for his daughter.

      Aki-P doesn’t control the girls. They are controlled by their agencies if anything. Both male and female artists in Japan have stiff contracts. The women are simply the only ones whose contracts get noticed and debated because people just LOVE to scream misogyny wherever they can. Like the author of this article.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004421197233 Tatsushige Shigure

    OK this is just twisted… I always defend Japan, but this one I cannot … the Labor office needs to look in to this as this is a violation of the girls rights to freedom.

    If the fans need fantasies of being in a relationship with members of AKB then they must live very sad and unloved real lives.

  • http://madelinemaureen.tumblr.com/ madelinemaureen

    it’s sad to me. pop music from all over the world makes me happy, but when i hear things like this it just makes me upset. I’ve never had the illusion that they are perfect and pure. all these “idols” are nothing more than human, and many teenagers going throw the same things that i did at that age only in front of millions of people. They have a right to be happy just like we all do. They make us happy with the music they come out with the performances. job and personal life are separate…or at least they should be.

    I’ve always been happy for the men and women that get married or even just get a chance to date and try and connect to someone on a personal level that isn’t “paying for their time”. I try not to stick my nose into any personal relationships that the singers and actors i like have, because it’s really none of my business. But i will stick up for them if it becomes such a large issue with the public that it makes them(singer/actor) upset/unable to continue with what they love to do.

    This isn’t just in Asian culture, but in Japan, and Korea it’s the harshest backlash and then punishment for something that isn’t even a crime.

    i sometimes just make the argument with people and pull the “just think how talented and cute their kids would be”

  • blondein_tokyo

    Infuriating!!! Yet another way to control the sexuality of young females- make them sexually available as the target of male lust, but deny them any sexual autonomy. I’m beyond disgusted. There’s a sickness in society that demands purity from women and places their moral compass between their legs, whilst allowing men the freedom to sexually objectify them. It’s exploitation pure and simple. They’re sweet faced naive 13-20-year olds with no life experience and not a hint of guile. They want so badly to be famous, so badly to shine, and they’ll happily sign away their life for a chance. But quite simply, they don’t have the maturity to understand just what it is that they are actually signing up for. They’re used by their parents, used by unscrupulous managers and producers, and used by their fans. It’s child abuse, is what it is. Ask Britney Spears what fame and becoming a virginal sex symbol at a young age did to her. I’m sorry, but this is a sign of a society that is sexually backwards and more than a little sick.

  • Firas Kraïem

    Regardless of everything else I can’t fathom how whoever decided to publish this came to the conclusion that it would be a good idea. Even in purely “business” terms, it can only hurt the image of the band. The whole “She’s only doing this to attract attention and cause a stir.” doesn’t address the question of why this was published on the *official* youtube, and not by herself.

  • Tom Gill

    Dear all,

    According to page 1 of yesterday’s edition, of Tokyo Sports newspaper, there is a
    significant back-story to this incident. Ian Martin mentions that “Last year…
    Rina [that should be “Rino”] Sashihara was “exiled” to Fukuoka-based sister
    group HKT48 (after another tear-stained apology to fans) when an ex-boyfriend
    revealed details of their relationship.” Apparently Sashihara’s exile was
    announced by the unpleasant Mr. Yasushi Akimoto on a radio program last June,
    at which Minami Minegishi was also present. Akimoto told Sashihara “Sashihara,
    bouzu na”, meaning “Sashihara, shave your head.” This was meant to be jocular,
    and I don’t think she did shave her head. But the point is that Minegishi could
    be heard in the background, gleefully chanting “bou~zu, bou~zu”, i.e. “shaved
    head, shaved head,” kind of like school kids chanting something humiliating
    about another kid who is being beaten up by the schoolyard bully. Tokyo Sports
    speculates that she may have painted herself into a corner by denouncing her
    fellow AKB’er for doing something she has now been proven to have done herself.
    The newspaper is honest enough to admit that it really doesn’t know whether she
    was forced or pressurized to shave her head or if she really did decide to do
    it herself. But this other incident makes the whole sorry episode that little bit
    more creepy. Mutual denunciations … 1984… Animal Farm… the Crucible.

    • MiichanFan

      Very interesting thought. Though the evidence points to her doing it herself since there were accounts of the story told which involved staff members begging her her stop cutting her hair while she did it in the dressing room while waiting to be called in to hear how she would be “punished.”

      Also, you called Aki-P unpleasant…he’s likely smarter than everyone here combined. He’s been in the entertainment industry for many years and even holds a high ranking position at a university. He has been instrumental in creating some of the best acts in Japan. (Not just AKB) So while you may think he’s unpleasant…there’s no denying that he knows what he’s doing.

      • irairaneko

        What he’s doing is garbage.

  • bleh

    Maybe when every newspaper and every TV in the world will talk of that, Japanese government, japanese medias and Japanese music industry will be forced to admit they have allowed slavery in entertainment for the past 40 years.

    In the 80s, idols, young innocent girls, like Yukiko Okada and Yasuko Endo commited suicides because of such rules. They were followed by a lot of fans. Japanese continued like nothing happened. We can wonder if they want this to happen again.

  • Suzanne Ennazus

    People are just as gullible here in the UK, where celeb magazines fill their pages up with complete useless trash such as orange footballer’s girlfriends, in the hope of brainwashing some gullible and insecure teenage girls into liking idiots, so they keep selling the magazines.

  • kohkiss

    One thing that could be said is that Alan Shirahama got famous by this incident.

  • MiichanFan

    This article is what is disgusting here.

    She’s not apologizing for what she did in bed. She’s apologizing for getting caught, getting outed in a tabloid and giving the group negative publicity.

    She did “transgress.” She was caught in a public situation out of character and with a male. This is the only rule that was broken. You cannot date someone in public when you’re in AKB. Period. There is NO rule about dating though. They can do whatever they want to do as long as it’s not in public and not going to get them in a tabloid and create this HUGE mess (like it has created here.)

    If AKB48 allowed it’s members to date publicly can you imaging the PR nightmare they’d have to deal with? 200 girls going out on the town with guys doing who knows what…they’d simply be tabloid fodder! Why is this so shocking to people?

    EVERY star in Japan has a strict contract. The stars that CAN date have to ask their agency’s permission before they can go out in public with their new-found love! They’re even required to ask before they get married! Male idols are reportedly required to appear in husband roles in dramas and movies before they can announce their marriage plans. This is apparently so that fans can get used to the idea of them being married…That’s both women AND men who are treated poorly! Stop trying to scream misogyny!

    The media has sensationalized this story. Minegishi’s head shaving was her own decision. What this article fails to mention was that she did it in the dressing room of the AKB theater with scissors while members of AKB’s staff begged her to stop. Had she not gone to the extent of cutting off all of her hair this story wouldn’t be in the news at all!

    You all act like you’re the innocent ones here. Unfortunately it’s not the “crazy fans” (which are few and far between) who are the reason for this rule. It’s people like you. It’s people like Ian Martin (the author of this piece). It’s the international media who latched onto this news. You are all the reason for the love ban rule. This comment section is living proof of why it must exist…for if it doesn’t there is, quite simply, a massive sh*tstorm.

  • RichardKnights

    The thing is its excessive by US and UK standards but par-for-course in
    Japan. What most people don’t realize is that more than likely the head
    shaving thing was her idea. Why do I say this? Because Japanese
    culture is inherently group-minded while the US and UK is much more
    individualistic. She probably feels that she not just let her fans down
    but EVERYONE (family, friends, the nice man down the street that said
    she could sing, etc.) It’s hard to describe but its almost a “cultural
    shame” that she’s attempting to atone for. Most US/UK people don’t
    understand because we tend to look at it in terms of “She’s a free
    person. She can do what she likes.” but the reality is that its really
    different over there. I do have a tiny criticism about the article.
    The majority of anime and manga is similar to the media in both the US
    and the UK. Which is to say that its multifaceted and not inherently
    anti-female so its a bit unfair to blame the fans for the contractual
    practices of the idol’s corporations. Blame the labor practices or lack
    thereof and not the fans who typically don’t even consider such
    things. Just my two cents. YMMV.

  • HS

    Don`t you all see all this is a well made performance as well? this controversy and criticism Is EXACTLY what they want, she should be nominated to an academy award and Minegishi to the best script ever, I can see them laughing backstage “see how infuriated are all those gaijin”, very good marketing strategy. (japanese public won`t take it as a negative, they just gonna boost their audience and sales none the less)

  • sick

    I have a hard time feeling sorry for any of them. I mean, they’re in some looney 48 member group. Of course, individuality will be stomped out. There’s 47 other people sharing the fricking stage with you. It’s basically a carnival act combined with some bizarro reality show where they’ve found a way to monetize artists development by throwing 48 girls into a pit where the ones with talent will either rise up and get promoted to being an actual artist and not having to be just a cog in this massive wheel, they’ll either not be able to cut it but not have no scrupples and will be ok with transitioning into the porn subsidiary, or are happy to go along for the ride and either get tossed away like garbage at some point or use this as launching pad for something else.

    Anyways, everyone knows (or should know) what the deal is going in and I doubt it will change any time soon. They already have knock offs of this in other countries and to be honest, pop has kinda always worked like this except the Japanese had a brilliant idea to try and monetize the entire process rather than just the end game where New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, New Edition, 98 Degrees, etc debut their album.

    “What will a 13-year-old girl think when she sees a humiliated member apologizing for natural human behavior?”

    Hopefully that this is the dumbest thing in the world, none of these folk are respected as individuals, and that if she wants to be a professional artist, being an idol should either be avoided or simply used as a stepping stone to get to bigger and better things.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ri.chang Ri Chang

    The product of an entertainment industry based in idols have always been a far-fetched fantasy between the idol and their fans as opposed to their music or dance or even looks.

    Ultimately, the music and entertainment industry deals in emotional currencies known as admiration and desire. We can cry afoul about the morality of it, but then we might as well dissect the morality of religions then. Humans need emotional support and comfort be it from an idol or a god. Something to look up to and feel like life is still wonderful.

    However the way that the Japanese entertainment industry goes about it horrifies me. In the past we looked up to the artists in the Japanese industry because their music or lyrics or personality gave us solace. The food chain of the ecosystem was such that whilst the artists relied on fans, they were ultimately on top. And this was obviously because the artists were talented at what they do, thus we could admire them.

    That’s still the reason why so many people support Beyonce and even musicians and actors long gone, like Amy Winehouse. But it’s not just the western entertainment industry that uses admiration towards its artists as a product. Taiwanese singers, or at least the frontliners, never have to apologize to their fans for having a personal life because their fans look UP to them, because they are the best at what they do and whilst disappointment in their loss in bachelor status will bog the fans down for a while, ultimately no one can replace Jay Chou in what he does. Heck, even Kpop idols, who are probably as much of a product as Japanese idols are given more respect and human rights. Sure many fans narrow-mindedly believe that their idol belongs to them and many are still forbidden to date but they aren’t treated as commodity as much as Japanese idols are.

    They lead their fans, they (or at least their companies) dictate what trend their fans will be following, they are admired as individuals for their traits as much as their looks. They are admired for the abilities to sing and mannerisms as human beings.

    Members of AKB48 and many Japanese idols aren’t ADMIRED, fans don’t look UP to them. Fanboys of ABK48 won’t want to become an idol, but fanboys of SNSD will try to audition and become a kpop star. The difference lies in the fact that AKB48 is made to be looked DOWN at, to be desired and they are replaceable. Members may have a name but they aren’t being marketed as individuals or PEOPLE. They’re just objects of desire for their fans, and as such are required to live up to those expectations. Fans may mourn the departure of one member but will quickly grow a new favourite, extremely rarely if ever will a fan of a member of AKB48 continue to support said idol after her departure. They’re buying into the AKB brand name not the person. Basically you can put any decent looking cute girl into the group and fans will support her given the right amount of marketing.

    And the whole reason why Japan is adopting this ethically challenged business model is because it’s FAST and it’s quick money. To be completely crude about it, as long as it’s a cute girl with a cute face and reasonable body, men can jack off to her and thus will buy into AKB48. It doesn’t matter if she can’t sing or dance or act to save her life. This means minimum training time required, any decent looking girl with an idol dream can be thrown into the group in less than a few months. It’s cheap and it’s low quality, which is weird coming from JAPAN of all countries. You’d expect this more from China than the country that routinely obsesses over quality over quantity.

    But sadly the entertainment industry doesn’t feel the same way. If you can make the same money, why spend years and millions of dollars training an idol group to become something people can admire in order to make money when you can spend a couple thousand bucks a few months and earn the same off minimally trained girls that are kept in stocks by selling the idea of sex and fantasy?

    It’s just a shame, and it shows that the industry has absolutely no pride in trying to create a product, an idol group to be proud of. In most countries, an idol is just that, an idol, someone to look up to that is a model for other people to follow. Which is why in Korea it’s a big deal for their idols to not drink, not smoke, follow the laws as law abiding citizens; because they are IDOLS, people, kids, look up to them and imitate their behavior. However in Japan, the same term is used to describe females who are objects of sexual fantasies with no actual skill or social value. That fault lies in the society and industry that created this structure. Ethics aside, this is the reason why Japanese music industry has been failing to rise above, if all you want is quick cash, then that’s as far as you can go.

  • gg

    In fact, I don’t know much about AKB, so I’m not interested in this article. But I was stunned at a lot of response to this problem.

    Living in Japan, actually I don’t think that AKB is the problem community but watching comments from abroad different aspect of views, I have no other choice but to rethink this problem.
    Of cource, I think Minegishi’s penance is too humiliated, even thogh it was voluntarily and it’s ridiculous to tolerate these inhumane incident.

    They sacrificed their own dignity or humanity for fame or money for living in Tokyo.
    And they want it, need it.

  • FormX

    “The deeper truth is that idol fan culture, as well as the closely related anime and manga fan culture”

    No matter how they are related, you are missing the key point: one deals with fiction and the other is reality.

    “institutionally incapable of dealing with independence in young women.
    It seeks out and fetishizes weaknesses and vulnerabilities and calls it moé,
    it demands submissiveness, endless tearful displays of gratitude, a
    lack of confidence, and complete control over their sexual independence.”

    That’s what sells in Japan. Surprise.

    Enough said, really.

  • Fany

    to ignorant people who judge but know nothing about akb48

    There is a classic rule exists called love-prohibition policy.

    They signed contracts which this rule is included

    They’re aware, they agreed and they signed it consciously.

    As AKB member, no matter what a contract must be respected and obeyed. (just like in other working environments, rules must be obeyed or you’re fired)

    To have love, sure is everyone’s rights, but not as long as she’s still in AKB. Please see the difference.

    If they want to have love or don’t agree anymore with the love-prohibition policy, they can quit. No compulsion.

    There’s NO human rights violation in AKB48. They’re allowed to live their life just like us, just NO requited love/sex. (And you won’t die for not having boyfriend and having sex right, idiots?)

    Also, they’re not allowed to smoke.

    There’s no such thing called slavery in AKB48. They’re paid based on their works, they have rights to choose or leave some jobs if they don’t want to do it, they got holidays and they got luxury facilities. Member Kashiwagi Yuki WILLINGLY SAID, “Relationships, private life and freesom. I gave up these kinds of things becuase I devote myself to AKB48 becuase I have hopes and dreams I want to accomplish”

    There is NO silly punishment such as shaving head. Minegishi Minami did it on her will to show fans she’s responsible and feeling so guilty about breaking the rule. It shows dedication. And yes, it’s silly and too extreme. Well, everyone can do stupid thing if she/he’s panic or stressed.

    Minegishi herself chose (no force) to stay in AKB while she has rights to leave this group for love. It means her job as an idol is more important than having a boyfriend.

    Minegishi Minami’s punishment from management is only demoting her to what AKB called “kenkyusei” (trainee)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=793480203 Jen L.

    I’m disgusted by some of the racist and defamatory comment posted here. Don’t talk like any of you actually know these girls. What Infuriating me the most was some people are using this to attack Japanese society in general. No one is saying Japan has the perfect society, but I would say Japanese society are better than most. The Otaku culture in Japan are the most passionate and unique individual fanbase anywhere in the world. Let the Otaku’s have their fantasies. What is wrong with that? It’s ok to fantasizes about being the king of the world but you can’t fantasizes about having sex with your IDOL? Since when is fantasy sex a crime? Some of you never fantasizes having sex with Huge Jackman or Charlize Theron. These girls are not being sexually exploited as many of you claimed. It’s actually the other way around. Most members of AkB48 are in their teen, Akimoto is keeping his girls away from sexually predatory and sexually exploited, that’s a bad thing when your girl is 16-18 year old? He forbidden them for having relationships, but most of this girls shouldn’t even be in a relationship to begin with, let alone a sexually one. I disagree with Akimoto ways of management, as he have too much control in his singers life. He should allow them to have a relationship if they’re 21 or older, as most of them will leave around 23 or 24 anyway. You forget one important element here. NO ONE WAS HURT, BEATEN or otherwise. I think it’s funny that some of you made those sicken racist comment about Japanese society but it’s OK for a teenage in America can walk into a school with a gun and murdered 22 innocent 8 year old kids. Now that’s barbaric and backwards.

    • MedWonk

      This is one long straw man argument.

      First off, you don’t know any of these girls personally. Your argument is about as valid as any other.

      You’re right that no one said that Japanese society is perfect. OTOH, no one mentioned any other society being better or perfect aside from yourself. Can you qualitatively prove that Japanese society is better than most? What societies will you reference? You have no real point here.

      Otaku subculture is certainly passionate, but they are not unique. You can find a similar subculture in the US/Canada. In fact, you could find subcultures all over that are just as passionate.

      Yes, I have fantasized about giving Charlize Theron the most disappointing five seconds of her life. Unlike members of AKB48, though, Charlize Theron doesn’t seem immediately “available”. Hugh Jackman is married, so he definitely isn’t either. And yet, it doesn’t really stop the fantasy.

      I’m not sure I agree that the point of the rule is protect the members of AKB48 from sexual predation as it is to protect a business investment. You make it sound like there are sexual predators ready to jump out the woodwork all over Japan. I don’t recall that ever happening here.

      The girls are being sexually exploited. Sexual fantasy is what drives their popularity. Are the fans being sexually exploited as well? Probably. It does take two to tango.

      I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make with people being beaten or hurt. I don’t recall Britney Spears being beaten for committing a string of PR no-no’s a few years back, or Kusanagi Tsuyoshi suffering any such fate after being arrested for being drunk and naked in the wee hours of the morning in the middle of a park.

      I’m not sure what racist comments you’re referring to. Some may be ignorant, but I don’t see anything racist. It’s odd that you think the deaths of 22 children in a random act of violence is funny. It’s also odd that you point to that one specific example to paint the whole of American society as “barbaric and backwards”. In essence, you’re guilty of the same ignorance that you claim to be attacking and do nothing to rebut the other side’s argument.

  • http://www.sheldonthinks.com/ andrew Sheldon

    Ridiculous if you buy into that narrative. Why don’t these ‘idols’ define their own narrative that preserves it merely as an illusion or fantasy. Perhaps because Japan needs to believe in a fantasy because the reality is so horrid. Well then, define a new narrative, where one is ‘an unattainable star’ for pathetic fans. Yeh, that will catch on.

  • ejownz6

    This article isn’t objective. Minegishi said she shaved her head of her own accord. Also the girls who join AKB48 and their guardians are informed of the requirements before joining. If they don’t like the rules and regulations they should quit or not join in the first place.

    They aren’t forced to do anything and they aren’t punished. They’re asked to do a job and if they don’t they’re demoted. It’s no different than a job listing hairstyles that are acceptable on an application form.

  • Equalizer

    What century are we in right now?

  • disqus_7Ja7JxcpdJ

    “Whereas a married, sexually-active person gives herself/himself to a spouse and to a family, a nun gives herself to her relationship with God which is expressed through her relationship with her religious community (her “family”) and her mission (the way she serves the world)” – words from Sister Julie Vieira

    AKB48 is a religion, bourn of archetypes present in the human core before the
    development of the prefrontal cortex, which brought us the Age of Reason. Our
    modern minds think from this reasonable source; some of our souls are still in
    tune with deeper truths, such as the spiritual message from AKB48.

  • darius

    well, i dont want to sound misogynistic(even though im not a fan of akb48) but she signed the contract. its her responsibility. if she wants to do something that’s not akb then good for her. akb maybe “oppresive” and some other delusional fans but she decided to be under that contract. we’ll if she really wants to have a normal life then don’t be an idol. right? (i feel like im gonna get a lot of backlash here)

  • Mr Nightcat

    The problem is, and has been mentioned in this article, that demanding members stay completely single is likely to be unlawful under Japan’s labour laws, and in my opinion it should be too.

    Saying that one signed the contract and bears responsibility is all well and good under fair and normal circumstances, but when the requirements within break labour laws or are grossly unfair to the signee they become unfair and unlawful terms become invalid – although only truly invalid if proper legal enforcement is made. The signed contract argument in such cases ignores those who are mistreated under the opinion that a signature should mean all responsibility, reasonable or not, must rest on the signee’s shoulders.

    Instead of just saying that she shouldn’t have entered the kitchen if she couldn’t take the heat, it’s high time gradual movements were made to make the idol industry more fair. The fact that she shaved her hair and publicly begged fans shows more that the pressure and mentality of the industry is harmful to the girls’ development and thinking than it shows devotion to the band.

  • Becks

    This whole don’t sign a contract doesnt sit well with me. She was an original member back in 2005. that would have made her, 13? How many 13 year olds would sign a contract guaranteeing fame and fortune? All they had to do is sign away some of their human rights such as a right to having a sexual partner. Most 13 year olds would because thats what being adolescence means; you haven’t developed the ability to understand see that far forward in your future and that having relationships is an important part of adult that that few are able to do without. I imagine many of these young women are coerced into agreeing to these contracts as they get older as they become vulnerable targets to these male bosses they are told they owe everything to. In its own way its a form of child abuse, I hope that it just shocks japan into proactively protecting these young women.

  • TooLongName

    Protecting a 13-year-old child’s public image by telling them not to have sex is child abuse. Right.

  • http://www.facebook.com/yuuki.nagahara Yuuki Nagahara

    I see ur point, but u do know that those girls get paid just for shaking hands with their fans right? and there a lot of fans are spending so much money to meet them, some of them even committed crimes. Of course, its their own fault thou.
    Everything come with a price and she just paid her’s. Its not like she is forced to shave her hair or something and there should be more ways to resolve the problem.
    I think she shaved her hair first, to gain attention from the public, second, revenge her company by misleading other to think the girls have to shave their heads if they r in a relationship. Plus, she can do whatever she want after she graduate from the group.
    Sorry my english is not really good since I am a japanese.

  • MiichanFan

    There is no demand that they stay single. That is an absolute misinterpretation.

    The rule is that they APPEAR single. They can do whatever they want as long as it remains off the covers of the newspapers. Why is this such a hard concept for you sensationalist types to understand?

  • Becks

    Hi Yuuki,

    Thanks for commenting. Yes I had heard that they get paid to just meet fans. I do agree it is a bit wrong and that is some else that needs addressing too along with the obsessive behavior of teens. In the UK school children have lessons from age of 6 on the media and taught from a young age that pop idols are used to sell products and how they look is not how they are in ‘real life’. Do they have that in schools in Japan? Not being sarcastic here, I am genuinely interested.

    I disagree that it is her own fault. Even if she did choose to shave her own head, would you agree that is the behavior of someone of sound mind? Speaking as someone who has had a mental break down due to work and personal stress, I know the signs of someone who is mentally unwell. People suffering from anxiety and depression will act completely out of character. She is unwell and its wrong that she has been allowed to get to this point of shaving her head seems to her to be the only option. It will unfortunately be turned in to a publicy stunt by mangers of AKB48 and she won’t get the help she needs. Please dont treat mental illness as something that is self inflected, no matter how much money you earn or how successful you are, I would not wish it on anyone. Again, I hope this highlights issues in Japan that can be solved.