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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.