It was difficult to fathom why a 20-year-old would go to the lengths of shaving her head in order to communicate the depth of her shame for having spent the night with a boyfriend. The offence was barely newsworthy. Although a traditional form of repentance in Japan, the self-inflicted punishment hardly seemed to fit the crime.
Yet Minami Minegishi's response is perhaps less shocking in the context of idol culture in Japan. Minegishi, who was photographed leaving boyband dancer Alan Shirahama’s apartment, is part of the phenomenally successful girl band AKB48. Tickets to the band’s nightly shows are so sought-after they are allocated through a lottery. The band is divided into three teams, allowing them to perform in different locations, or even different countries, at any one time, and they are a powerful export. In 2011, AKB48 opened a café in Singapore: a replica of their own venue in Akihabara, the electronics district of Tokyo after which they are named.
AKB48’s image rests on its members being young and attractive; the lineup changes frequently as older members ‘graduate’ in order to make room for younger talent. As well as the three main teams, a number of ‘trainees’ make up the total number of current members to 88. It is to this rank that Minegishi has been demoted in the wake of the scandal, despite being one of the band’s founding members.
The rules prohibiting members from dating are in place to uphold the band’s squeaky-clean image in order to appeal to fans. The majority of their following is made up of young girls and, on the more sinister end of the spectrum, salarymen. Girls in the band, whose ages range from 13 to mid-twenties, are expected to maintain an image which is simultaneously chaste and highly sexualised.
It’s a juxtaposition that we can see reflected in the West; but rarely is the message so overt. A song whose title roughly translates to 'My school uniform is getting in the way' tells the story of a schoolgirl who fantasises about having sex with her older boyfriend. “Take off my uniform… you can do whatever you like,” sing the girls, staring wide-eyed into the camera while flipping their skirt hems up at their audience of older men. In another, pillow-fight scenes in decidedly adult lingerie are followed by shots of the band cuddling teddy bears and making twee heart-shaped symbols with their hands. There is something discomforting about watching girls as young as 13 being simultaneously infantilised and objectified, and both to such extremes.
The up-skirt camera shots are designed to tantalise the older male audience, and quite blatantly so. This sexualisation seems completely incongruous with the no-sex, no-dating rules that Minegishi has pleaded guilty to breaking. Yet for some, AKB48 are the embodiment of the ultimate schoolgirl fantasy: naïve and submissive, yet unattainably out of reach. Boyfriends would complicate the picture. They would ruin the fantasy by getting in the way of the audience imagining themselves to be the objects of the singers’ lust. For the illusion to remain intact, their audience must be able to believe that they are virgins, unspoiled by other men.
Although this juxtaposition is exaggerated in Japanese pop culture, it is by no means unique to Japan. The fetishisation of schoolgirls and an obsession with virginity are themes that can be seen running through Western media. There was huge speculation over Britney’s virginity following her debut as the scantily-clad schoolgirl in ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’. More recently, Miley Cyrus (prior to the marriage) and Taylor Swift’s decisions to remain celibate – and whether they have stuck to those decisions – have been discussed at length.
Nor is the media hypocrisy of slut-shaming the very women they have treated as sex symbols alien to Britain. Women are expected to appear sexually available, while keeping their sexual exploits within predefined limits. They are at once praised and criticised for dressing and acting provocatively, depending on the whim of the accuser. The demand to uphold a very narrow sexual standard can be seen everywhere, from Sidebar of Shame finger-wagging to the everyday denigration of women who overstep the line. It echoes the classic Madonna/whore dichotomy, whereby women are labelled either easy or frigid. In a society where women’s sexual behaviour is treated as a matter of public interest, there are few ways to escape judgement. Anyone deemed to be overly promiscuous is leapt upon in an almost puritanical frenzy, and certain media outlets are quick to decry the falling standards and loose morals of the youth of today.
Though this is a particularly shocking example of the strange paradox that is idol culture in Japan, where girls are expected to project sex but not have or enjoy it themselves, you don’t have to look far to find stories with similar themes here. Let’s not forget how quick people were to treat a tape of Tulisa Contostavlos performing a sex act as salacious gossip. The tape had been released against her will, and yet many commentators were quick to criticise her. What exactly had she done wrong? She was and is praised for her sex appeal – later being named world’s sexiest woman – but was she not allowed to have sex? Let’s also not forget that she was just a teen when the tape was made. What was notable about that case, however, was Tulisa’s refusal to accept the criticism, making the point that it was her ex-boyfriend, who had released the tape, who was in the wrong.
Minegishi's apology demonstrates a situation in which young women are expected to appear sexually available, but are judged harshly for their sexual behaviour. In light of this, perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised at her apology. Although the extremity of her actions is shocking, they betray an attitude towards women which can be seen as much here as it can in Japan.