The Japanese media love a scandal and so far 2018 hasn’t disappointed in that regard. Two recent stories centered around J-pop idols have been mostly ignored by mainstream outlets, but both have taken off online thanks to web publications, hinting at a shift unfolding in the nation’s news landscape.
In late March, teenager Honoka Oomoto died in an apparent suicide in her home prefecture of Ehime. She was a member of a local idol-pop group called Enoha Girls, and weekly tabloid Shukan Bunshun’s website has been investigating the incident. On May 19 it published a story online built around comments from the young woman’s mother, who said the pressures of idol work contributed to her daughter’s death.
Bunshun also shared messages from the chat service Line suggesting that the talent agency working with Oomoto pressured her to prioritize performing over school, and threatened her with a penalty fee if she quit.
A week later, Buzzfeed Japan published an interview with a member of the pop group Niji no Conquistador wherein she detailed alleged sexual harassment from Hiroaki Nagata, the president of social media platform Pixiv. She told the online outlet how Nagata slept uncomfortably close to her on a business trip, how he pressured her to give him full body massages to supplement her idol income, and how he secretly recorded her when she stayed at his house in Tokyo.
Both stories went viral in Japan, with readers expressing disgust at how men in positions of power were treating the performers. Yet neither story has registered much of a blip with newspapers or TV shows (with the exception of weekly tabloid Flash, which has started looking into Nagata). So far, only other online destinations such as Livedoor have devoted space to both.
The media here still treats stories in the #MeToo orbit with a celebrity news angle. Take the case of Tokio’s Tatsuya Yamaguchi’s alleged harassment of a high school-age girl. Coverage focused more on the salaciousness of celebrity behavior than on the structures that allow those at the top to exploit those lower down.
Both the cases of Oomoto and the Niji no Conquistador idol revolve around those systems of abuse, with Buzzfeed Japan labeling the latter as part of the #MeToo coverage it has been focusing on since last year. Claims of exploitation aimed at photographer Nobuyoshi Araki also unfolded and proliferated solely on the web, although some American publications reported on it.
While a few notable exceptions exist — see coverage of “power harassment” on TV shows and in the papers — it’s new media that is lending the charge with these social-platform-age scandals. And readers are following along, with stories going viral and sparking discussions online. It’s helping digital outlets find their space in Japan, and giving welcome attention to issues that would otherwise be passed over.