I haven’t been back to Japan for several years, so I’ve missed the AKB48 marketing blitz. For those who haven’t heard of them, they’re considered a pop group, though maybe they’re better understood as a theater troupe. There are 48 girls/women in the main group and several spinoffs groups throughout Japan, with a few more in Asia on the way. They’re similar to other ongoing pop groups like Japan’s Morning Musume or Mexico’s Menudo – their cast changes and older stars “graduate” (get old) or they get fired or quit, so membership changes often.
Most of these idol groups market to teen girls, much like Miley Cyrus or Taylor Swift or The Spice Girls. But much like the Olsen Twins had creepy dudes putting up websites with clocks counting down until they were “legal”, a large part of the idol fanbase in Japan is creepy, not adult dudes.
What strikes me as different about AKB48 was how much this group of underage (or made to appear underage) girls is openly aimed at said creepers. The AKB stands for Akihabara- a shout-out to Toyko’s geek district. AKB48 goes out of its way to make itself accessible, and fans, at least in the early days, were often able to meet the girls. In order add a touch of realism to the fantasy, the creators of AKB48 intentionally selects girls who aren’t exceptionally pretty, and requires all girls to sign a contract forbidding any dating in their personal lives. Because if their fans found out that the girls had boyfriends, that would mean they had no chance with these girls.
Which led to this:
Japanese pop star shaves head in apology – for night with boyfriend
Minami Minegishi of AKB48 appears in tearful mea culpa on YouTube after breaking her band’s strict rules on dating
I didn’t watch the video. I don’t really need to see someone that humiliated.
What’s crazy to me is that this video was posted on AKB48’s official channel. The group (or more likely its management) thought posting a video of one of its stars crying, with her head shaved, was a good idea.
Ian Martin at Japan Times had a very solid take:
In Japan, the cutting of hair is often symbolic of a new start, or in more extreme cases of penance. The destruction of sexuality inherent in shaving it completely back, however, brings to mind more the humiliations inflicted by the French Resistance on women accused of sleeping with the occupying Nazi soldiers during what they called the épuration sauvage or “wild purge.” Minegishi’s only crime, however, was having a boyfriend.
What is happening here is that the protection of fans’ fragile fantasies automatically trumps the basic human right to a life outside that fantasy framework.
I thought the internet was putting the final nails in the coffin of these sorts of entertainment fantasies. We see more of our stars than ever before, more than most of us care to see. It’s hard than ever for a star to have embarrassing personal flaws, even when they are surrounded by personal handlers. The USA had its incident of a well known pop star shaving her head, and the most common response was- oh shit, Britney needs help. I don’t think anyone thought she had been put up to it.
So the entertainment industry works around it. Any publicity is good publicity. If Taylor Swift is dating Harry Styles, good! Keeps One Direction in the news. If Justin Bieber has a girlfriend- good! It means he can start his transition from teen to adult star.
But the most important reason why no man is ever going to be asked to sign away his right to have a girlfriend- any man would think it unimaginably cruel to put a young man in front of thousands of screaming women and expect that young man to not fuck any of them. Most of men would think- dude, what other reason would there be for joining a boy band? Everyone knows they don’t actually make that much money.
Of course, this is a woman we’re talking about here, so management isn’t going to bother putting themselves in her shoes. I don’t know if there’s any more reason for it than that.