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.
Although these rules exist for both male and female performers, there is an imbalance in who gets punished and how they are dealt with. In Minegishi's case it's especially glaring—whereas her apology went up in front of millions, Shirahama has only issued one small apology, and he has not had to be recorded saying his "sorry's" or been compelled to do anything as extreme as Minegishi did to repent. The number of male idols caught in similar situations is far fewer than their female counterparts, and when they do find themselves in the spotlight the punishment tends to be far different. In 2012, male idol Jin Akanishi got married without telling his management, causing controversy. His upcoming tour was cancelled, he was removed from a TV drama, and his fan club was dissolved. These were all economic punishments, but Akanishi never had to apology multiple times or do anything as demeaning as Minegishi had to.
Female idols exist to fulfill a fantasy narrative for their fans—fans that happen to include a large percentage of males. As Martin writes in his Japan Times piece, "idol culture...is institutionally incapable of dealing with independence in young women." He elaborates by saying this fandom desires "submissiveness," and also control over aspects of who the idol is. Every year, AKB48 even holds an election to determine the most popular member, wherein fans determine who moves up and down within the group. Keeping these fans illusions intact is priority one for such groups, even at the expense of the members.
This isn't a niche situation, either. In 2012, the Japanese music industry struggled to sell music, with sales continuing to dip as they have over the past few years. Save for one genre—idol pop. When the Oricon Music Chart, Japan's premiere music ranking, released their "top sellers" list of 2012, the top 20 singles of the year were all idol pop, with AKB48 and several sister groups representing women (AKB took the top five spots by themselves). This sub-sect of music, which openly denies its performers the right to openly do what most humans do freely, is extremely popular.
It's reflective of a growing issue in Japanese society regarding gender relations. Late last year, the World Economic Forum ranked Japan number 101 out of 135 nations in their annual Global Gender Gap ranking. When this list was released, many Japanese Internet users came out arguing that women and men are inherently different, and that women should stay home as that makes them happy. And this mindset isn't an online-only view—a poll conducted by the Japanese government in December (the same month Japan overwhelmingly elected a conservative government) found 51 percent of the population believe women should stay home and raise the family while men focus on work. This was a jump from a poll done in 2009, with the most noticeable leap coming from those between the ages of 20 and 30.
Minegishi's apology and the idol culture that allowed it to happen are reflections of a Japan shifting more and more to the right, with gender issues especially changing. As people buzzed about this drama over the weekend, Americans focused on their own big musical happening Sunday night. Beyoncé performed during the Super Bowl halftime show, and at one of the country's most traditionally macho events, she wowed with all-women backup and her own charisma and talent, putting on a great show. Japan has had performers like that in the past—pop stars like Ayumi Hamasaki and Koda Kumi, who were fiercely independent and inspiring. But today they lack that. Instead, their pop stars are corralled by the backwards demands of their conservative fans.