For Japan's Justin Biebers, No Selena Gomezes Allowed

J-Pop stars aren't allowed to date—but why?

Rino Sashihara akb48 apimages 615.jpg
AP Images

The 48-member Japanese girl-pop behemoth known as AKB48 will soon pass a big milestone in its already-huge career: performing three sold-out shows from Aug. 24 to Aug. 26 at the Tokyo Dome, the country's largest concert venue. But the coronation—further cementing the band's reputation as Japan's most successful pop export in Asia—also comes with a black eye.

Barring a reversal of fortune or clever marketing stunt, Rino Sashihara, a 19-year-old singer who's been involved with AKB48 since 2007, won't be part of the Tokyo Dome performance. Earlier this summer, a man claiming to be her ex-boyfriend approached popular Japanese tabloid newspaper Shukan Bunshun with half-naked photos of the pop star and lurid details of their supposed relationship. Sashihara, one of the group's most popular members, denied his allegations, but the damage had been done. She was removed from AKB48 and transferred to far-less-celebrated sister group HKT48 based on the other side of the country.

Sashihara alleged sin wasn't just posing scantily clad for a camera. She had violated a cardinal J-pop rule: no dating. No hint of dating. Whereas in America, fans and the media obsess over every detail of, say, teen-pop stars Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez's relationship, Japan's entertainment industry has a long history of pretending that its stars simply have no romantic interests—and punishing them when the illusion is broken. The policy is intended to preserve a performer's pureness, youth, and accessibility, and although it's seemingly old-fashioned, the ban likely won't be changing soon.

The Disney Channel's music management resembles the Japanese system, but its singers are eventually pushed to be more 'adult.'

"It's good business," says Dr. Laura Miller, a professor of Japanese studies and anthropology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "The group members are fantasy products, and allowing fans to imagine them as potential partners or as innocent and pure is part of their capital. It's in their interest and those who are trying to make money off them to keep their actual lives, personalities, and humanity separate."

The no-dating dictum can be traced back to the mid-'80s "idol" group Onyanko Club, an immensely popular lineup of schoolgirl-uniform-clad singers created by AKB48 founder Yasushi Akimoto. (In Japan, "idols" are prepackaged pop singers with choreographed moves, rabid fanbases, and pure-seeming public personas). The policy didn't lead to any scandals within Onyanko Club—an underage smoking controversy stands as that outfit's most salacious shakeup—and various members have since said they secretly dated men during their time with the group. Still, the rule maintained the singers' virginal public appearance, which was all that mattered to the suits selling records.

Since then, the no-dating prohibition has been applied to both idol groups and individual singers, and to both men and women. This year alone has seen a slew of scandals besides Sashihara's. In January, AKB48 members Natsumi Hirajima and Rumi Yonezawa resigned after photos of them with men appeared on the popular message board 2Channel (the Japanese equivalent of 4Chan). Garnering more press attention was Jin Akanishi, a member of the popular boy band KAT-TUN and a solo artist, who secretly married a woman earlier this year without telling his agency. As punishment, Akanishi was removed from a TV drama he was set to star in and also had his fan club dissolved. His career has since taken a big hit.

While plenty of non-pop entertainers are freely allowed to have normal relationships, idol groups, says Miller, are "a special category of media product." Indeed, when the leader of hugely popular act Morning Musume resigned in 2005 after being photographed walking out of a convenience store with a male actor she'd been secretly dating, she put out a statement saying she said she could no longer sustain an appropriate "idol" image. Even rumors of romance are enough to send J-Pop handlers into spin overdrive. Last year, Ayaka Nishiwaki of the successful electro-idol group Perfume was seen visiting the home of a famous male rock star late at night. Her management snuffed the story by saying with a straight face that she was merely bringing him medicine.

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Patrick St. Michel is a journalist living in Tokyo. He writes for The Japan Times and founded the Japanese music blog Make Believe Melodies. He has also contributed to Esquire.com, the Los Angeles Daily News, and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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