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Japan pop scandal a hair-raising issue

Minegishi Minami's tearful apology and new look hair. Image from YouTube.
05 February 2013
Minegishi Minami's tearful apology and new look hair. Image from YouTube.

As a sex scandal rocks Japan’s pop world, CAROL HAYES asks whether you would shave your head in penance if you were caught sneaking out of a man’s apartment the morning after?

Shaving her head in penance and posting a tearful public apology on YouTube via Google+ was the response of Japan’s AKB48’s pop idol Minegishi Minami (峯岸みなみ) when pictures of her, disguised in a baseball cap and a cold mask, were published in the weekly tabloid Shūkan Bunshun on 30 January.

She was caught, in what has been dubbed ‘otomari ai’ or ‘overnight love’ by the Japanese media, leaving the apartment building of Aran Shirahama (白濱亜嵐), a dancer in the popular boy band Generations. All members of AKB48 are pledged to a life of ‘purity’, or ‘virginity’ if you will, and are contractually forbidden from having relationships – either romantic or sexual. Previous scandals involving band members have led to forced retirements or moves to the regional troupes of AKB48.

The sighting immediately went viral, flooding not only the Japanese tabloids but quickly spilling over into the international press. The Guardian noted, “her dramatic gesture underlined the strict rules to which Japan's young pop stars must adhere to project an image of unimpeachable morals”, while CNN’s Peter Shadbolt drew links between the head shaving and the bushido code; likening Minegishi Minami to “a disgraced samurai trying to retrieve his honor”, which he went on to argue had a lot to do with the military structure of the band's management.

Registered with the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest band, AKB48 is a marketing dream and has proven a gold mine not only in CD and DVD sales, but also in live performance tickets and memorabilia. The AK and B of the name stands for Akihabara, the Tokyo electronic mecca for ‘otaku’ computer and gaming nerds, and the 48 for the members. The AKB48 stable also includes other similar groups, with SKE48 (Sakae48) based in Nagoya, and NMB48 (Namba48) based in Osaka. By basing groups in the three big urban centres of Japan –Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya – a further marketing goal is served; developing a home-based geographic rivalry between the bands.

AKB48 has very successfully sold the concept of ‘daily contact’ with ‘real idols’. They are encouraged to ‘harmonise’ with their audience. Rather than be worshiped from afar as unattainable stars, their images are fabricated to present familiar personalities. The band performs regularly on TV music shows, and the more popular members appear on TV chat shows and in magazine and tabloid interviews. The band is divided into three groups, A, B and K, and one of the three teams of 16–20 girls performs live almost everyday at their exclusive AKB Theater in Akihabara, with the other two groups touring or participating in ‘meet your idol’ handshake events.

While some of these ‘meet and greet’ events place the girls on a outdoor stage with fans moving past them in lines quickly shaking hands, others set up individual booths with each girl, so that fans get the illusion of privacy and can choose to have 60 seconds with their favourite star. Another clever marketing strategy allows fans to vote for the favourite member, and the most popular girls are then given the best spot centre-stage in performances – which in a group of 48 is clearly very important. Fans vote on which member they want to sing in the next single release, giving them an illusion of control. To vote each fan must buy a CD to lodge their vote, and so die-hard fans buy multiple copies to place multiple votes. The whole marketing machine that is AKB48 is designed to allow fans regular contact with their idols, fostering the belief that they are participating in the growth and development of the idols and that they have an ‘outside chance’ to be with their favourite. AKB48’s management cleverly manipulates the tension between sexiness and cuteness (‘kawaii’) of their idols to encourage these fantasies.

This is why the exposure of Minami’s affair hits home – the moment she goes out with a man the illusion is destroyed, and the mainly male ‘otaku’ fan base of AKB48 is lost. It is unclear how much of her decision to post her apology video, accompanied by heartfelt tears, deep bows and very humble language, was influenced by the AKB48 management. However, her decision to shave her head as a sign of penance has deep roots in Japanese cultural history, where head shaving has more in common with the rough hacking away of Anne Hathaway’s beautiful long hair in Les Miserables as a symbol of her degradation, than with the positive ‘shave for cancer’ fundraising events popular in the West. A Buddhist priest shaves his head as a symbol of his renouncement of the world and its carnal pleasures. To cut the top-knot from a samurai was a symbol of deep dishonour and for a Japanese women, as in the West, her hair was her treasure and an important part of her feminine beauty. Well-known for her beautiful long hair, the image of Minegishi Minami’s shaven head provides a particularly striking example of the public apology seen so often in the Japanese popular media, when the private invades the public domain.

The web is now flooded with parody videos – my favourite is an animated version which shows Minami with a large red M emblazoned on her forehead, echoing the letter A of the punishment meted out on the infamous adulteress in Hawthorn’s The Scarlet Letter. Many fans have, however, come out in support of her actions and apology – some even shaving their own heads in sympathy. While the majority of the fan sites offer words of encouragement and support, the party line presented on the official AKB48 website unsurprisingly supports the rules, arguing that these idols must be ‘everyone’s’ idols. This position is well expressed, by Yuki Kashiwagi’s (another popular group member) comment: “Relationships, private life, freedom. I gave up these kind of things because I devote myself to AKB48”, adding “idols should always put their fans first and think about what they can do to please them”. 

Time will tell whether the ‘otaku’ fans of AKB48 turn away from the band with their dreams of a relationship with a band member shattered. 

Dr Carol Hayes is a senior lecturer at the School of Culture, History and Language in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. In addition to teaching, she researches Japanese language, literature, and Japanese screen and media culture.

More: Listen to a radio interview with Dr Carol Hayes on the AKB48 scandal at ABC Radio Australia's Connect Asia program.



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