Today we heard word of a scandal overtaking the modern Tokyo phenomenon of AKB48. Their 14th most popular member, Minegishi Minami, was caught by a journalist leaving the house of a “boyfriend,” a 19 year old member of some random boy band (compared to AKB48, the boy band in question is largely irrelevant). The pictures were published in some scandal rag, Shukan bunshun (週刊文春), a magazine which basically makes its income from printing shit. As a result of this indiscretion, Miss Minegishi has been demoted to research student (kenkyusei) status, meaning a massive loss of pay and that in the strange heirarchy of AKB48 she will have to climb back up the ranks to reclaim her position as an enormously popular public figure.
The heart bleeds, doesn’t it? Actually the apology is a beautiful and heartfelt thing, and it’s clear that Miss Minegishi is under a lot of pressure, as one might expect if one were published leaving the house of one’s lover the morning after a trist and published in a magazine read by millions of people, in a country where everyone (well, not me!) is watching you and discretion in sexual encounters is paramount. This is a nation where holding hands in public is still frowned upon by many young people, and kissing generally avoided at all costs. Being photographed the morning after a shag is obviously going to be very embarrassing.
AKB48 sold $200 million of records alone in 2011, and endorse everything from elections to instant coffee. They are the very definition of a household name, and getting into the top 48 of this weird little business enterprise is a license to print money for the young women involved. It’s also not easy: their recent documentary carries the subtitle no flower without rain, which draws on an old saying about how beauty and/or success depend on suffering. The structure of the AKB48 system is redolent of university and the early years of the corporate system: it is intended to reproduce the sense of having to strive to make it, being indebted to one’s seniors, and being vulnerable in the face of life’s challenges. In many ways, AKB48 are perfect representatives of the Japanese notion of gaman, of having to suffer through adverse circumstances to achieve: this is the same spirit of gaman that enables Judo masters to bully their charges, but which makes a Sumo wrestler like Takanoyama enormously popular because he tries so hard. Two sides of the same coin … I don’t know if it could be said that Miss Meinegishi is being bullied in this instance, though … what she did do is fall foul of a contractual obligation not to go on dates. That’s right – AKB48 girls are not allowed to go on dates! The Guardian article makes it appear as if this rule is based on “the strict rules to which Japan’s young pop stars must adhere to project an image of unimpeachable morals” but this isn’t the reason at all – that’s just bullshit western misinterpretation of east Asia’s so-called conservatism. The real reason that Miss Minegishi has to live a sexless (or at least secret) life until she “graduates” from AKB48 is that her band is idolized by nerds and pre-sexual teenage girls, and to both groups of fans they have to appear pure and single. These are girls next door who are struggling through a metaphorical high school/university/early corporate life, and girls like that don’t get DP’d in love hotels.
Miss Minegishi’s extreme haircut is also not forced on her by her contract: she did this all by herself, to symbolize her abasement. This means she’s going to be trying extra hard to regain the favour of her fans, and my prediction is that this little cock up is going to be a goldmine for her and for the AKB48 business: she’ll soon be returned to the top ranks, fans will love her more for having fallen and strived, and there’ll be another documentary with tears and struggle – a genre that AKB48′s fans love.
Which brings me to my William Gibson-esque point: these girls are Japan’s modern shrine maidens, the modern equivalent of western nuns of yesteryear. They’re required to swear themselves to celibacy, live lives of constant self-flagellation and torment, and simultaneously have to symbolize everything that is admired in the women of their time: chastity, beauty, sexiness, innocence and endurance. They also have to tread the line of hypocrisy that characterizes modern attitudes towards young women: at the same time as they are making swimsuit videos and soft porn, these girls will get demoted if they are caught having sex. And because it’s Japan they also have to be educated: there’s currently a TV show about some of these girls going to college and trying to get a qualification. William Gibson has a few short stories about these kinds of characters in the cyberpunk world (I think Idoru is the most apt, though I haven’t read it): women whose celebrity depends on their embodying all of the ideals of femininity of their time, and whose personal lives are warped or ruined as a result of it. So let’s hear it for Minami Minegishi, embodiment of all the trials and tribulations of modern womanhood – and of the complexities of the cyberpunk era. Ganbare, Minegishi san! The hopes of a generation, and the weight of an entire society’s sexist expectations, are resting on your skinny shoulders …
fn1: though maybe not anymore: watch the video of the coach apologizing and listen to the cameras – the girls he bullied weren’t willing to tolerate it and his humiliation is pretty much complete. These guys’ world is changing, and it’s apparent that they aren’t catching up…