AKB48: Unionize and take back your lost love lives


They started performing on stages in Tokyo’s Akihabara electronics district, and today their ubiquity is unrivaled. The current flavors of the month pepper the TV schedules and covers of weekly magazines all year round. In Tokyo, you can’t swing a carrot without hitting a giant poster of one or a bunch of the all-grinning, all-dancing “Vegetable Sisters.” AKB48 are, hands down, the busiest and most successful girl group in Japan.

They have spawned spinoffs in other cities: SKE48 from Nagoya’s Sakae district, NMB48 from Osaka’s Namba neighborhood and HKT48, from Fukuoka’s Hakata. Last year, their inspiration transcended national borders and a testy territorial dispute as the franchise set up shop in Shanghai as SNH48, hot on the heels of the group’s first foreign foray, Jakarta’s JKT48. Another offshoot, TPE48, is planned for Taipei.

The original AKB48 troupe now numbers 87 members (that’s including “trainees”), making it the largest pop group in the world. Among these teenagers and 20-somethings, cut-throat competition has arisen alongside gross disparities between the fortunes of the most popular, the less so, and those whose day on the big stage just never comes.

Their management prohibits the girls from having romantic relationships, with a contract clause stating that “Unrequited love is permissible, but you cannot return the affection.” Several members have been pushed to resign or “graduate” after photos leaked out revealing the girl was dating.

Quite recently, the much-loved Yuka Masuda announced her sudden resignation from the group after stepping over the no-love-life line. Photos splashed all over a weekly magazine suggested she had spent the night at a male celebrity’s home. Though not officially “dismissed,” it is clear that decisions in her personal life cost her her job.

Although not all scholars agree, I believe even celebrities such as AKB48 members are protected by labor standards law. This month I’d like to examine two questions: 1) Does the law permit chastity clauses? and 2) Can an employer fire someone for violating such a rule?

Labor contracts, like all contracts, are predicated on the assumption of agreement between two parties. But that does not mean that anything goes when it comes to their provisions. Four conditions must all be met to legitimize each and every term of a contract: kakuteisei (determinacy), jitsugen kanōsei (achievability), tekihōsei (legality) and shakaiteki datōsei (social justification).

It is the fourth, shakaiteki datōsei , that concerns us in the AKB48 case. This concept entails general ideals of morality and justice, specifically kōjo ryōzoku (public order and morality), a crucial and broadly ranging legal principle enshrined in Article 90 of the Civil Code.

Contract terms that violate kōjo ryōzoku are invalid. Textbook examples include: paying for a crime; terms that violate fundamental human rights, such as gender bias; terms that restrict individual freedom; and those that violate social morals such as human trafficking, prostitution or geisha provisions. While traditional geisha exist within the scope of the law, asking an employee to “entertain” a client does not.

Most would consider it an unjustifiable invasion of privacy if an ordinary company prohibited their employees from taking a lover. Apologists for the AKB48 chastity clause argue that a girl’s value as an idol is compromised if it becomes known she has a boyfriend because her job is to “sell fantasies” to male fans. In fact, quite a few fans have commented on chat sites that they felt “betrayed” and “lied to” by AKB members who began dating.

I have a different view. Teenage girls and women in their 20s are at an age when their love life is the most exciting — a time that’s arguably the best chance to experience the ups and downs of the adventures of love and life. Their managers and producers surely don’t have the right to deprive them of that opportunity.

Some might say that if the girls want love, they shouldn’t join the group in the first place. This argument could be and is used by the worst corporate exploiters to justify just about any illegal contract provision.

So can you be fired for violating such a provision, for a reason grounded in your private life? Dismissals must have “objective and rational grounds” (Labor Contract Law, Article 16).

Asahikawa District Court on Dec. 27, 1989, ruled against a company (Hankiko Setsubi) that fired a female employee but not a male one after discovering the two were committing adultery.

Management reasoned that even if it does not interfere with work, “adultery adversely affects the company’s moral order, hurts coworkers’ motivation, and makes the president lose face.” While acknowledging that the woman’s actions were illegal and immoral, the court said that only specific damage to the running of the company constitutes hurting the workers’ moral order or motivation, a condition not met in this case.

Thus judicial precedent prohibits disciplinary action for problematic personal behavior that has no connection with work duties. Meanwhile, only if such personal actions severely damage a company’s overall reputation can they be considered to have seriously damaged the company’s moral order.

It is clear that the AKB48 chastity clause fails to meet the court’s criteria for legitimate grounds for dismissal.

To members of AKB48: If you want to fight for your right to live and love freely, you’ll need solidarity with your fellow band members, so why not establish a union? The “Vegetable Sisters” should be sisters in deed as well as name — not rivals.

Hifumi Okunuki teaches constitutional and labor law at Daito Bunka University and Jissen Women’s University, among others. She also serves as paralegal for Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union. Usually on the third Tuesday of the month, Hifumi looks at a famous case in Japan’s legal history to illustrate an important principle in labor law. Send your comments and ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • I am not a lawyer, but If they are still minors I could imagine here in Germany such a contract would be illegal. To prohibit the natural right for young people to experience the love is not acceptable for me.
    I can imagine that the management want to have the girls concentrate on their ‘jobs’, but the first and most important ‘job’ for young girls is to have the freedom to experience their young lifes and of course the romantic love. This should be never restricted.
    Young girls of course are attracted to jobs as models, singers, dancers and so on, but parents, teachers, employers and all adults should be more critical, and they should not always see the advantage for themselves.

    • Cheyanne Bardsley

      The ages vary anywhere from 12-26 I believe… I can understand that many girls when they enter at 12 or 13 are probably NOT looking towards being in any type of serious relationship like that, but as they grow older in the group, and work with males their age, there is naturally going to be attraction going on… like you said, I can see that they wouldn’t want to harm business by loosing die-hard fans who want to keep their ‘idols’ pure and innocent or by having girls less focused on their job… but having to deny ANY feelings one might have, at such a vital age, thats gotta do some mental damage whether its guilt based damage or what… The news with Minegishi Minami shaving her head in disspare after her scandal news broke can attest to the emotional & mental damage this can have…

      • Edohiguma

        She’s 20, under the law she’s an adult. I would hardly call it a “vital age”. But she signed a contract. Since she’s a legal adult any discussion over it is irrelevant. She signed a contract, if she doesn’t like it she can quit, aka graduate and find a job with a bigger and brighter future than AKB48.

        The shaving was an extreme move by her, but I’m not exactly shocked or surprised. I mean she’s been around for a while, her personality is somewhat known.

        The thing that angers me more is the complete lack of reaction from the guy. He lets her hang out dry. Everybody cries about the “evil” contract (which the girls all sign and agree on), but nobody goes after the guy who lets his friend (or girl friend) face this without his support. Great friend, isn’t he?

    • I think westerners have to remember that no one delays gratification like East Asians. You can see it in their emphasis on discipline, education and the success speaks for itself. It is part of the greater cultural framework that makes East Asian cultures more traditional and conservative compared to more liberal western cultures. But my point is the no dating rule is not so shocking in Japan and it is not uncommon to see celebrities in Asia (athletes, singers, etc.) not date or without a boy/girlfriend. You could argue that Asian success makes changing their culture difficult. Of course not all Asians will easily accept delaying gratification but I just state this as a general cultural trait.

      • Dear Steve, I am Euro-Japanese and I do not think that any cultural relativism is useful here. It rather supportes the whole misogynic system. This is not about dating-culture or economic success (I’m half-German, by the way) – what we have to do here is condemn this whole system and expose it. The claim of the traditional values of the Japanese only mask the system of women used as commodities that have to be accessible to the heterosexual male.

  • mark

    It is immoral and illegal, this has shown us the dark side of Japanese culture

  • Troy

    Legally, you may be right, but the contract is much bigger in scope than just employer/employee.

    The contract is really between the performer (the provider of talent, beauty, innocence or whatever quality is admired) and the public (the provider of adulation, money, fame (or whatever quality is accepted in trade for public displays).

    All other moral issues aside (and there are many and they are not negligible), everyone involved in creating the “value” of pop stars contributes to this situation. And when a performer breaks their part of the implicit agreement, punishment or banishment are entirely appropriate. Anyone who doesn’t have the stomach for the consequences should not be involved in any aspect of the exchange.

    If this sick system is itself the tragedy (and I think it is – e.g. I feel very badly for Kago Ai who represents someone who was in over her head from the start and now seems unable to function without the artificial “love” of the masses), it is the system that should be criticized. However, those who enter the system in search of its rewards are all “takers” and they have no moral grounds for criticizing the outcomes that naturally occur from the “contract” they have entered.

  • Ddubdrahcir

    This is a very Japanese thing, I think. Fans who feel betrayed when their idols take lovers? This is the fantasy that the managers are peddling, and it sets a very strange cultural tone. Japan is sexually quite permissive, but the idea of female purity (also seen in the reluctant female in AV) seems unhealthy. This is otaku at a level when they are removed from reality…what happens when they have their own partners? Can they? How do they behave? Maybe I’m just a relativist gaikokujin, but socially there are a number of intertwined issues here which this bizarre story has brought into the open.

  • Nicholas Gatewood

    I think AKB48 is a horrible group, almost completely because of this one contract clause alone. It’s totally illegal, if they were from any other first-world country they’d sue their pants off and make a legal precedent of it. Hopefully one of the members will “man up” and handle the problem, instead of letting it go on as-is.

  • Kahuna

    FREEDOM… this is going to change things as JPOP must grow up…

  • zengoku

    Well one thing people have forgotten is here on the other side of the ocean, almost all the celebrity and stars all have what you call “less that noble” social lives, filled with scandal and debauchery. Look at Lindsay Lohan or any of the other stars in Hollywood. I don’t see that other extreme any better. Maybe people should ask themselves what kind of stars and role models do you really want? Sure it’s true it is a little strict and the poor girl just was young and in love. But that’s where benevolence and compassion comes in, it’s not so much the system, but the circumstances involved. I for one don’t see a problem with the current system, as there are problems with any system, I see it more a issue of humanity as no one is perfect and we are all destined to make mistakes.

  • stevie

    Please, there is nothing to do with discipline or education. It is the marketability of a product (or a dream), that in the eyes of some poor spotty young man, or in many cases bald old men, gets shattered when they know that the dream is real and is dating a real person. Having lived in japan, with two young daughters, i can testify first hand, that unfortunately there is a perverse undertone that resonates through this country, and AKB 48 are the epitome of that. The girls are in it to become famous, nothing else, so the management company is simply protecting its product. Go the veggie sistsers!

  • Mr C Hargreaves

    Interesting take; and an important one. Humans are not cattle to be traded as specimens for fantasizing about. this brings the fundamental requirement of the AKB48 contract into question. Long-term all the girls could end up suing the company for breaching their Human Rights (the right to `found a family` [via a relationship]).
    However, you could go slightly too far;
    e.g. do you sue a TV company for not giving a one-eyed female newsreader weighing 300lbs the job of News anchor; even if they have slightlly better presentation skills than an attractive one; where employing the heavy half-blind one causes viewers to switch off?
    Everything depends on the type of society you want to (and can) `create` from what you have, in the end. If you are unrealistic, then you have a dysfunctional culture evolving. Do people actually know that?