THE spectacle of a young pop star making a tearful online apology for dating a boy has sparked national debate in Japan.
Minami Minegishi, 20, of girl band AKB48, hacked off her hair in contrition and then posted her apology on the band’s website after being caught by a gossip magazine leaving a boy’s apartment.
Her image has since been plastered across Japan’s newspapers, fuelling television and social media debate about the band’s ethos and how it seeks to control young women.
AKB48, made up of more than 90 girls and young women divided into several teams, forbids its members from dating to project an image of purity and signal their devotion to the group and its mostly male fans.
Ms Minegishi belonged to one of the top teams, but her manager announced her demotion to the bottom-ranked “research student” status in wake of the magazine story.
In her short video, released last weekend, she pleaded with fans to let her stay in the band. She said she shaved her head in contrition over her “thoughtless and irresponsible behaviour.” “I don’t think this is enough to get your forgiveness for what I did, but the first thing that came to my mind was I don’t want to quit AKB48,” she said. “This is maybe wishful thinking, but if it’s all possible, I wish to stay as part of AKB48. It’s entirely my fault. I am truly sorry.”
She lowered her head for eight seconds in the video, which has since been removed from the site. Band bosses deny forcing her to cut her hair.
“If you ask me whether it was necessary for her to shave her head, I would say it wasn’t,” said manager Tomonobu Togasaki. “But Minegishi said she felt strongly about it.”
Others questioned whether any group member would take such a step of her own accord.
“Was it a witch-hunt or a marketing strategy?” asked Hideomi Tanaka, an economist and AKBfan. “If the latter, I’ve had enough of such calculated actions. What we want is idols, not bullying.”
Ms Minegishi’s apparent misery prompted comments likening her head shaving to corporal punishment, a topic to the fore in Japan after a junior basketball player took his own life having been battered by his coach.
AKB48 is one of Japan’s most popular pop groups. It performs almost daily at its own venue in Tokyo and has affiliates across the country and in Indonesia, China and Taiwan. The singing and dancing aren’t always perfect, and the ever-changing line-up is hard to track. But fans view members as friends or sisters, not unattainable superstars.
Ms Minegishi damaged that myth when Weekly Bunshun reported on 31 January she had spent the night with a 19-year-old member of a boy band, and published photos showing her leaving his flat wearing a baseball cap and surgical mask.
In Japan, head shaving is a gesture of contrition, though rare among women.
“This is too much… Even a criminal wouldn’t have to shave her head,” said Hisamichi Okamura, a lawyer. Kazuko Ito, a human rights expert, said the case underscored the exploitation of girl idols in male-dominated Japanese society.
Ms Minegishi is not the only AKB48 member hit by scandal. Last year, Rino Sashihara, 20, was demoted to a lesser AKB affiliate over an affair. And another girl had to cancel a photograph album because it contained an image of a little boy covering her breasts with his hands.
Sociologist Hiroki Azuma said the scandals were part of the AKB48 brand. He said: “Whether positive or negative, more news is good for AKB48. That’s the cult of the AKB48 system and how they make money.”