Japanese pop star Ms. Minami Minegishi, a member of the girls’ entertainment group, AKB48, made headlines around the world after cropping her hair and delivering a tearful, apologetic video.
She had not broken any laws, as other male idols and actors have done. Instead, she spent the night at her boyfriend’s house, an activity that is still very much legal.
The video of the once peppy, long-haired young woman with a buzz cut, contorted face and red eyes apologizing directly into the camera was viewed millions of times, and continues to be.
Had such an apology come from, say, officials at Tokyo Electric Power Co., it would have seemed appropriate. But from a 20-year-old woman who did nothing wrong, it was a disturbing reminder of how troubling gender issues can be in Japan.
This type of female Japanese pop idol must present an impossible set of ideals to fans. She must be pure but sexy, docile yet energetic, reserved but always cheerful for photos. Those contradictions are not a realistic image for either gender. They are a projection of outdated, constricting concepts of women.
All members of AKB48 do sign a pledge agreeing to a code of conduct that demands no dating. Two former members, Rino Sashihara and Yuka Masuda, were demoted and forced out of the group when they admitted being intimate with their boyfriends.
Such a contract is legally questionable. No other job in Japan, and perhaps in the world, demands that sexuality be forgone in private life.
In the pop idol world of AKB48, the female members have plenty of relations with men. It’s just that they are all mediated by technology and the marketplace. Millions of male fans “relate” to the women onstage or online and through countless videos, photos, products and goods. Distant fantasy relationships are allowed, just not real relationships.
The pressure of those consumerist relationships must be more intense than with a real boyfriend. The popularity of the 88 members of AKB48 are voted on constantly in online polls and by the number of hits for Web page views and goods purchased. These rankings are obsessively tracked, and the group members’ status and, presumably, compensation depend on how much they are “liked,” which means how well they sell.
All of that might just be the normal workings of a vibrant pop culture and a thriving consumer market. However, Ms. Minegishi went a bit further. The young women in AKB48 all have long hair, a marker of femininity and girlishness.
To cut off that symbol, part of the requirements for her work, is a serious statement. The act of cropping one’s hair is often done to separate oneself from the mainstream world, as shown by the oft-shaven heads of soldiers, monks and prisoners. Perhaps a Japanese female pop idol is a bit of all of those.
In the fantasy world of this group, her shocking video is not really an adult apology. Those usually occur in stuffy press conferences with formal statements and lots of bowing. Instead, her video and much of the group’s image are rooted in melodramatic emotions and immature acts.
AKB48 and their fans seem lost in a Peter Pan world of repression and stereotypes, a world where women suffer dramatically and men look on impassively.
Her apology video was a striking contrast with other videos of the group. The usual AKB48 video is steeped in restrained, suggestive and adolescent sexuality. Members are often filmed in bikinis and other body-exposing outfits, sometimes with slow-motion closeups of various parts of their bodies.
This view of women as eternally sexy naturally frames women’s nature as responsive to male desires rather than as active and independent. The women of AKB48 and many other such groups are posed and presented by men for the pleasure and consumption by other men. Ms. Minegishi was allowed only to create an illusionary image of sexuality — not to have sex herself.
That illusion and restraint is highly profitable. Some estimates place the income of top members at ¥15 million to ¥20 million a year. According to pop music chart compiler Oricon, AKB48 grossed total sales of about ¥19.1 billion in 2012.
The image of young women as submissive, chaste and dependent may sell well. It is also an image that reflects what the World Economic Forum found last year when it ranked Japan No. 101 out of 135 nations in its annual Global Gender Gap ranking.
Of course, pop culture should be free to flourish. But because pop culture also expresses values and encourages attitudes, it is discouraging and unacceptable when it takes a regressive turn.
This incident does nothing to improve women’s position in society; nor does it present a positive view of women as autonomous human beings with their own desires and need for privacy.
Perhaps one of the biggest ironies is that the song for which Ms. Minegishi is well known is titled, “Watashi wa watashi” (I am me). Unfortunately, she, like many other young Japanese women, has not really been allowed to be herself.