Former pop idol Noriko Sakai, who fell spectacularly from grace after being arrested on drugs charges, is a rare breed in Japan: A female celebrity who has suffered public humiliation and survived.
The swift demise of media sweetheart Becky over an alleged affair with Enon Kawatani, lead vocalist of indie-rock band Gesu no Kiwami Otome., recently highlighted Japan’s harsh treatment of women in the entertainment business, but Sakai insists that redemption is possible — for those with thick skin.
“I don’t like losing,” the 45-year-old says. “I used to play softball at school. It was very tough pulling tires around the schoolyard in winter (for training). If you made a mistake you would get a slap across the face, it was different to how it is today.
“It was very spartan,” Sakai adds. She is set to embark on an Asian tour to mark a new mini-album and celebrate 30 years in pop. “It toughened me up for later life, gave me that tenacity.”
Sakai, who two decades ago cultivated a sweet, girl-next-door image similar to Becky’s brand, was given a suspended jail sentence in 2009 for using illegal stimulants.
Her comeback, following a three-year hiatus, was little short of remarkable in a country that wants its female entertainers not only to entertain, but to be squeaky clean.
A native of Fukuoka, Sakai has just returned from Taiwan, where the singer-actress was greeted at the airport by hundreds of fans and around 50 television crews and media.
“I got a taste of what it feels like to be Lady Gaga,” she says with a laugh. “I didn’t expect an amazing welcome like that. I’m very grateful my fans have stayed with me.”
Becky regularly appeared on several television shows, in multiple commercials and was adored by millions — until a leaked text message from the star to her alleged lover, Kawatani, found its way into the Japanese tabloids and a 15-year career ended in tears.
Her plight is not a first in Japan, where a female performer’s stock can quickly plummet if she suddenly becomes “unavailable” to male fans.
Teeny-bopper Minami Minegishi, a member of Japan’s most popular girl group AKB48, famously shaved her hair off after being photographed leaving her boyfriend’s home in 2013.
“In some respects it’s tougher for a woman,” Sakai says. “But if you make a mistake in Japan, and not necessarily just women, people judge you to the bitter end.
“They will dig up a mixture of fact and fiction. It’s like a kind of group bullying, it’s quite spiteful. It’s contagious, like when a pupil makes a mistake at school — that pupil is made to feel totally alone and they parade them around until they break down completely. I wonder if it’s really necessary to go that far.”
The media vitriol ended Becky’s career, but Kawatani suffered no such backlash.
“What disgusts Japanese people about what Becky did was how she continued to lie about the affair,” says celebrity psychologist Yoko Haruka. “She carried on pretending to be a sweet girl. But when her lying was exposed, she became persona non grata.”
Sakai shot to fame in 1986, when she went by the nickname “Nori-P” and sang songs with lyrics such as “sweet couple, pee-pee! Woo be popple, pee-pee!”
Less sugar-puff and more street-wise 30 years on, Sakai believes that Japan has turned a corner with regard to the thorny issue of sexual equality.
“I think it has improved,” she says. “Although I’ve never worked in an office so I can’t speak for women working alongside men in companies.
“But every family has a strong woman running it. And if you look at Japan as a metaphor for the family, things can only improve the stronger women become.”