The universe shifted on the afternoon of Sunday, May 25, when a young, unemployed man attacked two members of the all-female idol collective AKB48 and a male security staffer with a folding saw during a fan event in the city of Takizawa, Iwate Prefecture. Or, at least, that’s how the media reacted. Some outlets were slow on the uptake. Fuji TV’s early morning news show “Mezamashii” tweeted it would be covering the story in detail the next day, and some were offended by the casual tone. Fuji apologized and quickly assumed the proper gravitas befitting an incident whose import affected the direction of Japanese show business.
It was clear from the earliest reports that the victims of the attack were not seriously hurt, but later the man who was arrested reportedly told police he wanted to carry out a random killing, so the outcome could have been much worse. The police conjectured that the attack was indiscriminate. Apparently, the man went to the event mainly because there would be many people there.
This is significant because it means AKB48 wasn’t the specific reason for the attack. The injured members were not victimized by a twisted fan, though the possibility can’t be completely ruled out until a thorough evaluation of the attacker’s motives is made. If he had been enamored of the group, then the assault would have called into question the whole “AKB business model,” with its focus on bringing fans and idols into personal contact (the former can meet the latter if they buy a CD). Without that model, AKB would not be the cultural and economic juggernaut it is.
But even if the attack was random in nature, things will never be the same. Cartoonist Yoshinori Kobayashi, the author of the reactionary “Gomanism” series, updated his blog immediately afterward and sounded shaken. Kobayashi is a fan, though he seems to be taken more by the idea of AKB48 than by their value to him as entertainment. Nevertheless, he knows too much about the world to believe the group can continue in the same way.
He wrote that he “always worries” about AKB members’ relationship with their fans. One way management heightens interest is to encourage individual admirers’ identification with certain members through things like popularity polls called “elections” (the next of which is scheduled for June 7), with the result being that fan events are marred by “rude individuals” who cheer for their favorites and bad mouth those favorites’ “rivals.” The members are required to put up with it and, in accordance with sunao (demureness), the collective’s default virtue, they cannot talk back or otherwise acknowledge the ugly sentiments.
“They are paid to be there,” Kobayashi points out, “so somebody should also be there to protect them (from this verbal abuse). Now, physical violence has finally manifested itself.”
At that point, Kobayashi may have thought the attack was carried out by a troubled fan, and believed the group could no longer maintain its viability because it is nothing “without these handshake events.” Kobayashi found this realization “depressing,” and in a later blog entry, after it became clear the attacker was not a fan, he expressed relief that people who dislike AKB and “demonize” their commercial methodology will not be able to exploit the incident to their advantage.
Kobayashi didn’t say who these people are but we can assume, based on the cartoonist’s existing body of opinion, that they are feminists who think AKB48 commodifies women and intellectuals who dismiss or otherwise condescend to the whole idol-making enterprise. But there are some AKB-haters who you’d think ought to appreciate what the group has accomplished. Ko Koike, the CEO of Oricon, which compiles Japan’s music charts, dissed the group last December when Oricon gave out its annual awards. Koike praised boy band Arashi at the ceremony for “following the right path” and not succumbing to the “incentive method,” which, in addition to AKB, is also used by groups such as Exile and Morning Musume and presumably undermines Oricon’s self-assigned authority as kingmaker in all things J-pop. But a music industry that relies solely on charts to gauge success is certain to generate the kind of promotional scheme that AKB thrives on.
And it’s not an original scheme. Basically, it follows the code of mizu shōbai (the water trade), in which the patron of a drinking establishment pays an extra margin for drinks that gains him or her personal attention from an employee, usually called a hostess or host. As long as customers pay, the employees are theirs for a period of time determined by how much they pay. It is a commercial transaction, but because it involves intimacy, or the appearance of intimacy, misunderstandings can arise. Kobayashi wasn’t the only media person to discuss how some of AKB’s fans “abuse” the dispensation they receive for buying into the inner sanctum. Tabloids were filled with stories about behavior at past fan events that stopped short of violence, but which nevertheless could be just as traumatic to the group’s members.
It would be too much to compare those actions and that of the Takizawa assailant with the misogyny-fueled murders that happened the same weekend in California, as University of Tokyo professor Robert Campbell tried to do on Nippon TV’s morning news show, “Sukkiri,” but it was also hyperbolic of TV raconteur Terry Ito to assert on the same program that the attack was a blow to “culture.”
Regardless of how you feel about the quality of AKB’s music or the appeal of idols, the AKB business model, like all business models, was devised to take advantage of specific consumer impulses, in this case the sexual longings of men, not all of them young, who feel isolated from women and maybe even society in general. In that regard, halting hand-shake events, which police have suggested, would throw AKB on the mercy of the marketplace, which can be just as heartless as any desperate character with a folding saw in his backpack and mayhem on his mind.