What Minami Minegishi's fall from grace says about gender relations in Japan
The official YouTube channel of AKB48, the most popular musical group in Japan today, usually hosts music video clips and other promotions. Yet around 10 p.m. on January 31, a clip unlike anything ever posted there popped up. Minami Minegishi, a popular member of AKB48 since the group's founding in 2005, faced the camera and apologized profusely to fans. As tears washed over her face, she said those in charge of the group had demoted her to the "trainee" team and, to punish herself, she had shaved her head. Her transgression: being caught leaving a young man's apartment several days earlier.
Thousands in Japan watched the just-buzzed Minami deliver her tearful apology, and on Twitter the video promptly took up five trending-topic spaces. Many were shocked by what she had done to herself, while others believed the punishment was just and were surprised by what she had done. It quickly morphed into the country's first big entertainment scandal of the year, but Minegishi's painful-to-watch apology is much more than tabloid fodder: Her situation highlights the more disturbing aspects of the Japanese entertainment industry, and also on a growing gender problem in Japan.
One of AKB48's rules—and one found in a lot of Japanese music—is that its members must uphold a pure image. The group—totaling 87 members with several spinoff groups also in their fold—belongs to a sub-category of Japanese pop referred to as "idol music." It refers to pop stars of both sexes who are more than just musical talents—they often appear across all forms of media. Idols are perceived to be more "accessible" than other pop stars, and groups like AKB48 emphasize that they are "idols you can meet," regularly hosting handshake events. Fans develop personal connections with members, albeit ones built on an illusion of closeness. Still, this fantasy must be upheld and that means no smoking, no troublemaking, and no dating, rules that have dictated the J-Pop world since the 1980's.
AKB48's members have found themselves in trouble over dating over the last several years. Last year, prominent members Rino Sashihara and Yuka Masuda were respectively shipped to a far-less-popular sister group and forced out of AKB after they were caught with boyfriends. Minegishi's story starts out similarly, as she was photographed by Japanese tabloid Shukan Bunshun leaving the home of Alan Shirahama, a member of male-idol outfit Generations. They reported the story in an issue published on January 31, and later that day the video was posted to the AKB48 YouTube channel.
Tear-filled apologies are common following idol scandals, but Minegishi's video was more troubling than usual. Most immediate was her shaved head—in Japanese culture, shaving off one's hair signifies either a new start or, in extreme cases, an act by someone begging for forgiveness from someone they wronged. In the video, though, the head-shaving highlighted the ridiculousness of what was going on—here was a 20-year-old woman begging for forgiveness and starting anew all because she presumably had a boyfriend. Apologies like this also aren't usually filmed with the subject front-and-center. It was uncomfortable to watch.
Several days later, AKB48's management made the video private on YouTube after, they say, fans told them they had "felt Minegishi's good faith." Although plenty of fans showed outrage over her situation, others thought the punishment was just for her crime, citing the contract she signed stating she couldn't date, and welcomed her apology. Others thought that shaving her head seemed a bit drastic, but still believed what she did was wrong.
Over the weekend, Minegishi again apologized to fans at a live event.
This episode has illuminated the most problematic aspect of the Japanese music industry, which is the strict adherence to fantasy even at the expense of the performer's humanity. Ian Martin of The Japan Times sums up the relationship between fans and stars when he writes "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." Groups like AKB48 strive to create a personal connection between fan and performer—the group's tagline is "idols you can meet." Part of that process involves making fans feel close to the singers themselves, to the point where the consumer feels like he or she has the power to make them more popular. To maintain this illusion of control, members of the group can't do anything to show they are independent from fans—which includes dating.