The Scandal of AKB48

A YouTube video from Japan recently caused a global sensation. It showed a 20 year-old Japanese girl in tears, apologizing for visiting her boyfriend. Japanese AKB48 pop group idol Minami Minegishi shaved her head in symbolical penance for spending the night with a fellow J-pop star. Minegishi claimed it was her own decision. She confided that she felt compelled to do it after seeing the picture of her leaving her boyfriend’s apartment in a expose’ magazine’s expose. “We all lost words,” commented AKB48’s group leader on the drastic change in Minegishi’s looks. Head shaving is a traditional form of showing contrition in Japan. What made this young girl take such an extreme measure?

In the apology video posted on the group’s website, she sobs and deeply bows. With her surprisingly stark look that left so little of her former starlet image, she asks for forgiveness for breaking the group’s no dating rule; “my actions were thoughtless and immature … if possible, I wish from the bottom of my heart to stay in the band. Everything I did is entirely my fault, I am so sorry.” The video got over six million hits. The news was broadcast by NHK and also picked up by large media outlets outside of Japan such as BBC, Al Jazeera and Time.

The story created a wide range of responses. Some fans defended her, saying she is entitled to a normal life, while some critics were more harsh. “She wants to stay in the group, but it is not up to her, it should be decided by the fans”, stage designer Terry Ito argued. He remarked how her apology seemed to just come from her desire to stay in the group and didn’t display ‘real’ remorse for her actions. Drag artist, Mitz Mangrove criticized her act of shaving her head as seeming staged. She pointed out how Minegishi’s use of such a traditional form to show contrition, with set-up lighting and a gray background appeared carefully crafted to gain public sympathy. Mangrove called such an act disingenuous and manipulative to the point of going beyond entertainment. She spoke of how the apology was made not out of social responsibility to the public, but for the customers. Some people voiced that the group rules themselves seemed like a kind of violation of human rights and challenged the ethics of it all.

What is this Japanese pop group that has such repressive rules? AKB48 is one of the most popular Japanese bands in J-pop history. It has had as many as 168 members, all girls from their early teens to mid-20s. One of Japan’s highest earning music groups in 2011, AKB48 made record sales of over US $200 million in Japan alone. With the concept, “Idols you can meet everyday,” the band with sub-groups in a number of major cities now perform somewhere in Japan nearly every day.

The management’s strict rules for the girls reflects the group’s marketing concept. This new theater-based idol group sells an image of innocent girls with an air of eternal youth. Members are to keep child-like looks. When the girls get older, they move on to other entertainment industry work or are simply replaced by new members. Contrary to the band’s projected image of youthful innocence, the girls wear suggestively sexy outfits and their lyrics are sometimes erotic. The group fosters a vague fantasy that someday men could date one of them. Their image is not just sex appeal, but a clever blend of messages that draws on various unique aspects of Japanese culture.

Japan is famous for its anime (short for animation) and manga, which are huge cultural exports. Men spend hours interacting with these stylized fictionnal characters and even develop affection for them. AKB48 is in a sense an ultimate product line produced to meet the demands of cross-platform pop-culture. Idealized images of these cartoon-like figures come alive to become an ‘idol next door’ fantasy. The caricature of girlish youth and purity on the surface creates a bubble of dreamland. Wearing costumes that resemble school uniforms but with cos-play elements, men find idealized animated girls in the flesh. By seeing them perform, talk and dance, the fantasy moves to another dimension of surreality.

This spectacle is managed behind the scenes by intricate corporate business operations. Yet, if you talk with the creator, Yasushi Akimoto, a different picture emerges. In the interview on CNN, he denies marketing to a specific audience and selling teenage sexuality to older men. He talks about how AKB48 emerged out of theater and internet culture and it is being shaped by fans’s feedback in an evolving co-creative process. Yet, from the beginnings of the group, clear sexual innuendo in the lyrics, revealing dresses and dancing has been skillfully scripted with a specific focus. It is a process of taking a stereotyped essence of ‘cute and pure’ to becoming an object that is marketed as veiled eroticism, while at the same time is put forth as a desirable role model for young girls.

Being part of AKB48 is a kind of initiation into the highly regimented corporate culture of the Japanese pop idol with a Manga twist. At the entry level, girls have to agree to contract terms and obey the rules of the group. By joining, they effectively sign away their rights to be an ordinary girl. Their job is to become an image that is shaped and desired from outside. Along with traditional hierarchy of seniority where older members are ranked higher than the first generation, kenkyūsei (trainee) members are also ranked by popularity. Fans regularly vote to influence the ranking. On stage and off, their bodies and personalities are targets of constant public judgment and management.

This all recalls a scene from the Wachowski’s recent film Cloud Atlas. It is set in futuristic Korea where cloned waitresses with identical faces live together in barracks and work in a glitzy fast food chain. They are called fabricants and are banned from having their own thoughts, feelings or intimate relations. If one steps out of line and acts like an individual, she is eliminated and replaced. In the story, one of the fabricants was sexually harassed by a customer and she responded with righteous indignation. She acted on her own impulse and was immediately killed by security. Somni-451, an innocent fabricant who gradually woke up to her individuality, broke out of this brutal capitalist enslavement and began acting like an individual. She discovered the secret behind the whole factory, the machinery that births them, chews up their humanity and spit out profits. She witnessed with horror that when the fabricants passed their prime, they were unknowingly sent to a meat processing plant and melted down into a kind of edible soap. She discovered that the food the clones were serving was partly made out of their sister’s disposed bodies.

This film portrayal can be seen as a surreal reflection of current sweat-shop operations in countries like China, but it also eerily mirrors current manufactured celebrity culture produced by similar commercial interests. It is a culture that consumes the uniqueness of our humanity, seduces and sucks us into the assembly line of perpetuated illusion and disconnects us from the real world. In a newly created religion of superficial titillation, people’s own feelings and bodies are occupied by controlled images and impulses from outside. With scripted lines, they are programmed to think and act in certain ways. Love for others, natural human feelings and expression of individuality are forbidden.

Young girls like Minegishi begin to identify themselves with this outer superficial image by consuming these corrupted personas. Like Somni-451, she herself likely doesn’t realize that stardom and idolatry is possible only through the death to her own self. Whether her public apology was a calculated board-room decision or genuine personal expression, her dramatic action represents many girls whose identity is wrapped up with a fabricated caricature on stage; the threat of losing it may feel like a threat to their very existence.

As of Feb 1, she was demoted to the lowest rank of trainee. The message was: if you break the ‘contract’ and act like a normal human being instead of something like a product, then you will be disposed of or utilized for tabloid sensation. Such is the price of maintaining a manufactured self image. In the end, the corporate master behind the stage always wins the game. The message is ‘Don’t question the corporate molding of your being and demand your own freedom …don’t even try.’ As we are amused by the attraction on the stage, perhaps we too are lost in this shared illusion. 

I’m all alone, so are we all
We’re all clones
All are one and one are all …..
I just wanna be myself
I just wanna be myself
I just wanna be myself
Be myself
Be myself
Alice Cooper

Perhaps what is really behind Minegishi’s tearful pledge is just a girl wanting to be herself. Yet, she is looking for it in the wrong place — the artificial spotlight of strangers projecting images on her that are simply not who she is. The eruption of the AKB48 scandal brought worldwide media attention to the group. It revealed a global trend of corporate infiltration into every aspect of economy and culture.

From Occupy to the Indignado Movement in southern Europe, people around the world are starting to say no to a merciless system that systematically exploits our basic humanity for profit. In the US, people have begun to rise up against the corporate takeover of government by occupying Wall Street. Occupy highlighted the criminal elite 1% who command the systematic fraud and theft that now defines much of the global economy. The indigenous peoples in Canada have recently pledged to no longer passively accept government and corporate plunder of their culture and our Mother Earth. They encouraged us all to be Idle No More.

In the West, pop culture has long been a crass commodity, turning people’s lower desires into objects to be packaged and sold. By becoming an idol, one’s own life and will is suspended and made idle. An article in the Telegraph reports how J-pop star, Minagishi posted a statement on her Google+page, saying that by the time her hair grows back, she will strive to learn more and eventually get back to the stage. For the world, her head shaving for a moment shattered the glittery veneer covering the dark side of Japanese pop-culture and opened a public dialogue questioning the exploitative nature of this idol production machine.

When will we say ‘Idol No More’ to the corporate indoctrination of our youth? When will we begin to challenge the blind worship of fabricated false images and instead start to occupy our bodies and minds with our own uniqueness? Maybe it’s time to end this idle worship of a culture that consumes and renders us into mere clones.

Nozomi Hayase, Ph.D., is an essayist and author of WikiLeaks, the Global Fourth Estate: History Is Happening (Libertarian Books, 2018). Find her on twitter @nozomimagine. Read other articles by Nozomi.