There are girl bands and then there is the Japanese phenomenon known as AKB48, a 90-member cadre of cute comprising girls in their teens and 20s.
While the Western equivalent dances around in skimpy outfits in highly charged videos on MTV, in Japan girl bands of the AKB48 variety are expected to live cloistered lives, taking vows of celibacy to cater to the fantasies of fans. The image of innocence is tantamount to their appeal in Japan, with its cult of cute.
After 20-year old AKB48 member Minami Minegishi transgressed these social lines and broke the troop’s strict “no dating” policy by spending the night with her pop star boyfriend recently, she shaved her head under intense social pressure to follow a medieval form of penance in Japan. With shaved head, Minegishi then made an unsettling four-minute video apology, which has been viewed five million times and caused a furor on Japan’s Twittersphere.
“If it is possible, I wish from the bottom of my heart to stay in the band,” she said through tears. “Everything is my fault. I am so sorry.”
The incident was triggered after photos were released by tabloid magazine Shukan Bunshun that show her leaving the home of her boyfriend Alan Shirahama, a member of boy band Exile, wearing a baseball cap and the type of white surgical style mask commonly worn to prevent the spread of germs in Japan.
“As a senior member of the group, it is my responsibility to be a role model for younger members,” she continues in the video, before pleading to have a chance to remain in the group. According to the group’s official blog, Minegishi has been downgraded to the level of “trainee” – the group’s lowest division.
In response to the public humiliation and draconian treatment of the starlet, AKB48 fans have unhesitatingly jumped to the defense of Minegishi.
Author and critic Hiroki Azuma called the incident a "disgusting" medieval means to make amends for a perfectly normal romance.
User @Shige_Onz echoed Azuma’s sentiment, tweeting: "What's the point of this public execution show? It's like something from the war or a totalitarian state."
It’s hard to disagree that the incident reveals an unsettling side of Japan.