AKB48 and sexual politics

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 They are a projection of outdated, constricting concepts of women.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.

  • Zeev Herzeleid

    This editorial points to what all or most discerning adults surely already see: the sick side of the pop-culture world, but by simplistically assigning white hats to some, notably Ms. Minegishi, and black hats to others, esp. the AKB48
    establishment, and politicizing the incident in terms of “progressive” vs. “regressive,” it fails to convey both a still nastier reality and a more important moral lesson.

    Japan’s version of the “sexual revolution” has not
    made for either greater freedom or greater happiness, and its major (but not sole victims) have been women. I do not wish to defend unequivocally what might be called Japan’s “old hypocrisy,” which I well remember, but it arguably insured women greater privacy than does today’s false “openness.” Women had the option of assuming at least the veneer of modesty and chastity, thereby shaming predatory males into keeping their lustful inclinations to themselves. “No ring, no swing” was the rule—or, again, at least the tatemae. Of course, there were many non-virginal brides and grooms, but one did not go about either assuming or advertising that fact.

    The editorial seems to imply that it Is simply normal and
    even good for healthy, unmarried twenty-year-olds to be sexually active, ignoring the fact that there are still millions of reasonable, responsible people, not just traditionally religious Westerners, but also many secular-minded yet socially
    concerned Japanese, who strongly reject that notion and who do not sneer at the concept of chastity (for both sexes!) as somehow outmoded. One of the great ironies of modern times is that though believers in “progress” are constantly talking about “tolerance” and “diversity,” they tend to be utterly intolerant of anyone who does not share their faith in the “advance” of ever laxer moral standards.

    • Perry Constantine

      You have clearly missed the point.

      This article was not about whether premarital sex is moral or immoral. It was not about criticizing people who choose celibacy. It’s not even about tolerance or diversity.

      This article was 100% about criticizing an industry for the exploitation and fetishization of young women at the expense of their personal lives. It was about criticizing the dubious contracts that require the women to sacrifice their own happiness so that they can satisfy perverts on the Internet.

      That’s it. Period. The End.

      To take that sort of criticism and twist it into an attack on traditional morality takes a special kind of warped insight.

      In reality, the greatest irony of modern times is how the intolerant bullies who have gleefully persecuted any and everyone they perceived as immoral or inferior are now the ones who are constantly crying wolf about being persecuted.

      I guess it’s true what they say—bullies are nothing more than cowards at heart.

      • As an American, I understand and appreciate your comments. Sadly, this is just NOT your issue; THIS is OUR issue, too! :'( (Y)

      • Perry Constantine

        I’m not trying to claim it’s my issue, I was referring more to the comments that were trying to twist this article into something it was never intended to be.

      • Zeev Herzeleid

        No, you’re the one who has failed to understand the argument and implications of the editorial. We all agree that treating young women as pseudo-virginal sex objects is reprehensible. But the answer is not to replace hypocrisy with shamelessness. Anyone who enters the celebrity world is risking being eaten alive, but there are countless young people who cannot resist the allure. You sentimentalize them as pure victims and then further muddy the waters by demonizing those of us who see the full ugliness for what it is.

  • thedudeabidez

    The hypocrisy is greatest when one considers that AKB48 members are banned from dating and having normal healthy relationships with boys their own age, but –as testimony by former members like Rina Nakanishi and Eri Takamatsu confirms — they are routinely preyed upon sexually by managers and agents and other industry types who demand sex as a quid pro quo for advancing their careers. It seems the casting couch (makura eigyou) is alive and well.

  • Ben

    a modern slave. paraded and ordered around while her masters rake in the cash.

  • Abe

    This phenomena obviously reflects one of the strange aspects of Japanese pop culture. The girls are required to be fictionally fastidious and their fans are enthusiastic of improbable ideals. However this writer also misses the point and just easily clings to stereotyped gender problem. Women not allowed to be herself in Japan? Women idols are just consumed by men? No, they enjoy free love, they are also popular and supported among other women. In case of AKB48, no one actually believes those girls having no relation with opposite sex. It’s a hypocracy, a fiction which is enjoyed among fans. This abnormal apology should also be understood in that line. Cropping her hair and tearful apology is one of the ad strategy.

  • aaaa

    Idols are treated in a special way because their boyfriends are the fans, members of AKB48 don’t have spectacular singing, acting, other skills that’s supposed to make somebody special. They, without having any special skill gets to be worshipped just for following one simple rule, make the fans their boyfriend, make fans think she herself is their girlfriend. If a member wants to have an affair with somebody, then just stop being an idol, become a nobody, easy as that. Everybody in AKB48 knows what she signed up for. Extremely generalizing, Idols get easy access to the celebrity world, idol fans get to get close to young women. there are mutual advantages to both sides.

    It”s amusing to see so much people (not pointing finger at the author) who are unfamiliar with AKB48 and the Japanese idol culture expanding this into human rights and politics, Japanese and Non-Japanese! They’re just like people who suddenly like soccer when the World Cup is going on and don’t know anything about the sport and will forget about it soon after. Just leave idol fans and idols alone and understand that the idol culture is a strange one that may be hard to understand and take in for a lot of people.

  • Guest

    I truly hope that this opinion piece is being offered by a Japanese female who lives in Japan, because anyone else may not fully understand or appreciate AKB or the entertainment here.
    Indeed, there is nowhere on Earth where women are treated fairly or equitably, as is evidenced by their crime statistics. So if you’re doing the judging it should be about your own neighbourhood…

  • To be honest, I kinda like the fact that Sashiko ended up leaving AKB48 from her scandal. But I’m a fan of her because of the TV show she had, rather than all the other idol crap.

  • Kyoko Sakata

    Surely the stipulations of being part of the group were listed out in the contract each woman signed. If they skimped over it or were prevented from reading it (by a manager or PR person) before signing…that is on each lady. Can’t let fame and money blind you from the rights you have as a human being.

    • he chose to join and abide by the rules. I am sure she has finacially benefitted from being a member of AKB48. She could have not joined, or refused to shave her head and quite. Still desperate to be on the gravy train? That’s her choice. Slave my a#se.

      • Catherine Dassy

        It would be interesting to know how much each of the members of AKB actually made, or makes. It could be a lot, but this being Japan, it could as well be just a meagre ‘salary’.

  • She decided to join AKB, knowing the rules. I am sure she has more money than I ever will. She went into it with her eyes open? But it’s everybody else’s fault…….

  • When you consider that AKB48 was founded by three guys who include a former loan shark and the sexist comments of Akimoto, the chief manager–it becomes very easy to understand that the entire enterprise is about exploitation–exploiting the women and conning their male fans into believing that the girls really love them.