Strange Boutique (AKB48 hair-shaving weirdness special!)

So I wrote an emergency subsidiary Strange Boutique column for The Japan Times that was put online on Friday and went into the paper on Sunday, about the weirdness surrounding Minami Minegishi from AKB48, who was caught leaving the home of a boy (a boy, I say, of all the horrors!) and then subsequently demoted to the “trainee” team, and then appeared in a bizarre, weepy apology video with her hair shaved off.

Reactions were divided into five basic categories.

Firstly there are the core fans, whose argument is basically that she broke the rule and her punishment is justified. “Our fantasies of your virginity trump your actual rights over whether or not to have a virginity.”

Second are what we might call generalised J-Pop fans, including a lot of overseas fans. Their reaction was more along the lines of, “This goes a bit far, but then again, she did upset her fans. It’s strange that they need to have this rule but then again, if the rule is there…” These fans are probably well meaning, but every bit as much part of the problem.

Then there’s the general Japanese population, who also seem to basically buy into the whole, “It’s a rule” thing, but at the same time, generally think the whole hair-shaving, sobbing apology was way over the top and that it makes AKB48 look like some sort of cult. I also get the impression that among ordinary Japanese, there is a sort of defensive need to brush it off as insignificant and “part of that weird thing those people have”. There is a shame-fuelled eagerness that this incident not be seen as representative of wider Japanese culture, which suggests that even if few are willing to outright condemn it, they at least understand that it ain’t right.

There’s also the argument that says it’s all a publicity stunt orchestrated by evil mastermind Yasushi Akimoto. I don’t buy this, and if it was, it backfired. It came during the week that a new AKB48 documentary came out, and the management may have thought that by skillfully orchestrating an apology, they could turn a potential downer into a positive, but the fact that they’ve since pulled the video from their official YouTube channel suggests that the reaction was not what they were hoping for at all. I think the publicity stunt to promote the film was meant to be Tomomi Itano’s graduation news the following day, although all that ended up being was damage limitation. A distractor to divert negative publicity and column inches onto something more easily controlled.

Then there has been the English language reaction, which has ranged from some fairly ignorant, outright condemnation of Japanese culture as a whole to some slightly more moderate remarks. The reaction is of pretty uniform condemnation though.

So yeah, expect some fan kickback against this to be along the lines that this is just a manufactured scandal by foreigners who don’t understand Japanese culture, imposing their ignorant Western values on deep, preciously held Japanese traditions.

And there are some Japanese traditions here. Hair cutting is something people in Japan do, perhaps when breaking up with a boyfriend, making a symbolic new start, or maaaaaaybe in cases of penance. Shaving it all down to the bone is what you do when you join the army or go off to join a monastery though, so we’re still way off base here (unless you believe that AKB48 are a kind of religious cult, which is the way a lot of people are increasingly starting to think).

There’s the argument that she chose to do it herself. That her management begged her not to, but she did it secretly without telling them while they were privately discussing her punishment.

This is a mad argument.

Even if she did make the actual specific decision to cut it herself, you can hardly call it “her decision”. Anything she does while there are a bunch of people in the next room discussing what her punishment should be, and masses of fans pouring onto 2ch to discuss their outrage that she was seen with a boy, is something she did under duress, whether direct or indirect. What do the fans who make these kinds of arguments think happened?

MINEGISHI: I’m going to do it! I’m going to cut it all off!
AKIMOTO: Noooooooo! Miichan, your beautiful tresses! Please!
MINEGISHI: My heart is decided! The only way I can show my sincere repentance to my sweet fans is by being bold! (Bzzzzzzzzz-SNIP!)
AKIMOTO: Oh, the humanity! What have you done, you sweet, foolish child? WHAT HAVE YOU DONE!?!? … (Shouts out of frame) OK, GET THE CAMERA IN NOW, SHE’S DONE!

But fans don’t like to see the framework, they don’t like to see the wires, they like to believe that everything the girls do is just as they see it on the stage, because they have so much emotionally invested in the fantasy, in the narrative that they’re being sold, that it would crush them if they allowed their suspension of disbelief to slip. You can’t argue with AKB48 fans for the same reason you can’t argue with religious fundamentalists: because you’re not arguing with a person, you’re arguing with cognitive dissonance.

One particular objection I have with the whole story is the way some insist on calling it a “scandal”. A scandal implies she did something scandalous, whereas all I see here is a girl doing something ordinary. The only people who feel scandalised are the fans who believe that they have some kind of rights over her life, who feel that by signing that contract when she was thirteen, they own her, and that is the real scandal here. That fans and management have colluded first in forcing a young girl to sneak around in shame when visiting a boyfriend should be the most natural thing, and then when exposed to collaborate in her public humiliation, that is the only scandal that anyone should be talking about.

There’s a fan in the comments under my JT piece (who insists on referring to Akimoto as “Aki-P” — I mean, wow, do fans really call him that? Wow!) making all sorts of hysterical arguments, one of which seems to be that it’s actually people like me and all the other “foreigners” who are the real problem because we made a fuss about it. While it’s a wildly incoherent piece of logic, it does cut to the bone of what otaku fandom of pretty much all kinds is like. It basically says, “Leave us alone in our fantasy!” which I have some sympathy for in anime and manga fandom where no real humans are involved, but less so with idols who are actual lumps of more or less sentient organic matter, and certainly less so in the case of AKB48, who are the biggest pop group in the whole country, watched by millions. They don’t belong only to the otaku, they are part of Japanese popular culture as a whole and what happens with them feeds into discourse about society, its values and how it sees itself (and how it sees women in particular).

The main argument this particular commenter makes basically amounts to, “She’s not being punished for having a boyfriend, she’s being punished for breaking a rule.” Now I had to read that a few times before I could be sure I wasn’t missing something important, but it’s the same damn thing! The rule is the not-having-a-boyfriend thing. They. Are. The. Exact. Same. Thing.

The same commenter goes on to make the spurious point that the rule is actually not a no-boyfriends-at-all thing, just a not-seen-dating-in-public thing: sort of don’t-ask-don’t-tell. Again, I don’t think there’s anyone out there who doesn’t understand that this is how the system works in practice. Of course the management aren’t going to care what the girls do if they don’t get caught. This is partly why I’m inclined to blame fans fractionally more than management in this case, because it’s the fans’ sociopathic need to have their ambivalently sexual fantasies protected from reality. Because if AKB48 fans had any sense of perspective, or indeed any basic sense of what a young woman is really like and not what their moé fantasies say young women should be like, there would be no rule, no “scandal”, no apology.

And so when fans cry that “No, Mr. Martin, it’s not misogynistic because boy bands sometimes have similar contracts,” then yeah, some of them (Johnny’s stuff mostly, although in the 90s, the visual-kei scene was similar), although the culture seems to be coming from a slightly different place. I’m rather reluctant to talk about Johnny’s because it’s such a dark area, but one key difference between AKB48 and Johnny’s idols is that the former has these connections with anime and manga fan culture, which is very much focused on fetishised images of adolescent (and younger) female vulnerability and innocence, whereas Johnny’s acts seem to be coming from a slightly different tradition. In any case, I don’t see why the existence of a parallel weird cultlike fandom over at chez Kitagawa means that what’s going on under “Aki-P”‘s aegis is any less sick. The management of the boy in the Minami Minegishi case have made a statement to the effect that they don’t care what he does with his private life, and pointing and fans shouting, “But no, because LOOK OVER THERE!” doesn’t seem to be engaging with the problem on their own doorstop.

What’s most vile about comments like those of this so-called fan on the JT comments is that they still manage to convince themselves that they’re really true supporters of their beloved Miichan. They, who form the bulk of the culture that put her in this absurd position. And maybe she really is sincere in her desire to get back into their good graces, and maybe they really do feel bad about being forced to punish her like this, the abuser feeling dreadful for the abuse they inflict and the abused blaming herself and eagerly trying to work her way back into her abuser’s favour, and in the cult world of AKB48 and their fans, maybe this is normal, but what’s happened here is that whether the fans like it or not, the door has creaked open a little and society at large and the world as a whole are now, slightly more than previously, seeing them as the cult that they are.


Filed under Features, Strange Boutique

10 responses to “Strange Boutique (AKB48 hair-shaving weirdness special!)

  1. Daniel

    “You can’t argue with AKB48 fans for the same reason you can’t argue with religious fundamentalists: because you’re not arguing with a person, you’re arguing with cognitive dissonance.”

    Of course, you also can’t argue with AKB48 fans because the very fact that they like AKB48 automatically disqualifies their right to an opinion.

  2. miffy

    I haven’t seen any comments from these foreign fans who actually wanted the rule to be dropped and also allowed her to be with the person she wanted. Not one

    Its part of the self imposed narratives these people put on Japan THAT MUST BE TRUE. When anybody ask me why Japan has a high suicide rate and a bullying problem or why there is so little women executive, I have a video to illustrate my point.

    Man, now you are the resident foreign expert on AKB48 in Japan. AKB fans must be trembling in fear

    • Some of the crowd on Aramatheydidnt were saying it seemed a bit excessive and seemed to be saying they didn’t see what was wrong with her seeing a boy, but yeah, no one actually questioned the right to have the rule in the first place and the only debate over her guilt was whether they believed she and the dude were really just friends (aww, bless!)

    • I’m also kind of curious as to whether her hair-cutting was a sort of emotionally-charged fuck you to everyone, like: “OK, if you want penance, I’ll give you penance, you psychos!” I doubt it, but it’s a nice idea.

      As for me being the go-to guy for all things AKB, that’s nice but I wish there were rather more people interested in the indie stuff I do. My page views went through the roof last month when I was doing my 2012 rundown so there was some nice indie momentum going on, but all this idol stuff has distracted my attention. Even the idol piece last week was really just an indie scene piece that confused a bunch of idol pop fans. Got to do something on the ace new DYGL CD soon.

      • miffy

        That’s true actually. Do not want this blog getting comments from extreme fans.

      • Fortunately, now the new JT redesign allows user comments, the original piece is sucking up all the attention from idiot AKBphiles. 64 comments and counting and nearly all the more recent ones are the incoherent stuck-pig squeals of fanboys, so I hope none of them find their way over here.

        Or maybe I hope some of them do find their way over here. It would lower the tone of the place, but it could be fun. Who knows!

    • Also, maybe related to your point about “self imposed narratives these people put on Japan THAT MUST BE TRUE”, I came across this phrase recently when reading about economics and thought it was equally applicable to some introverted fan culture groups:

  3. JRSmith

    I can’t say I agree with your assessment that the hardcore fans deserve slightly more blame than the management in this situation. It’s easy to criticize the stereotypical delusional wota, and they deserve the criticism, but you don’t become the best-selling group in the world’s most lucrative music market on their backs alone. I’m sure the vast majority of AKB48 record sales come from casual shoppers curious to see what the fuss is about, teens with extra pocket change and an undeveloped musical compass, grandparents looking for a gift for their grandkids, or others who couldn’t care less that one of the members spent a night with her boyfriend, yet it’s the company itself that chooses to frame its response to this incident in a way that appeases the possessive mentality of a small minority. Of course, these are the same people who might end up buying hundreds of copies of the same single, so there’s certainly some incentive to encourage and exploit their obsession, but if the company were to end the dating ban now and suffer the wrath of a few diehard misogynists, I doubt it would make much of a dent in their sales. It’s the company that promotes the dehumanizing symbiosis between the idols and hardcore fans because that’s what got their whole ball rolling in the first place, and because they haven’t received much backlash for it until now. Or maybe they’ve already factored in the inevitability of this controversy under the assumption that there’s really no such thing as bad publicity in show business.

    • My opinion changes from moment to moment as to who I blame most for this despicable state of affairs, and I suppose we might say that Akimoto & co. and the core fanbase are locked into a self-fellating cycle to the point where it doesn’t really matter.

      I think you might be underestimating just how much the AKB business model depends on the hardcore fans though. They’re the ones queuing up for hours to get into the theatres on a daily basis, and they’re the most reliable consumers, as you point out, buying way more CDs than they need, not to mention other goods. Ordinary “mainstream” fans just don’t seem to be buying music much anymore in Japan, and the market is really being propped up by subculture groups like otaku and gyaru types.

      I agree that lots of the money must now be coming in from mainstream demographics, and of course advertising and marketing must account for a big (maybe the biggest) chunk of the group’s income. I wonder what pressures marketing concerns bring actually, because ad agencies (especially the Big Bad Dentsu) are often a long way behind ordinary Japanese people in terms of changing social values. That said, I don’t think anything as mild as dating has really been a problem for singers since at least the mid-80s. Even in the 70s, there was nothing this extreme (unless you tried to have a career after having a baby — then there’d be hell to pay!)

      Anyway, I sort of agree with you, the management are being way more obsessive than they need to about this rule, so maybe it’s better to say that it’s the relationship between management and fans that’s the problem rather than to single one out for special blame.

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