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Dating AKB48: the J-pop cult banned from falling in love

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A Japanese pop idol, hair freshly shaved to the skin, takes to YouTube and bursts into tears as she begs for mercy over her transgression. "My name is Minami Minegishi of AKB48 Team B," she says, referring to the hugely successful group she became a founding member of seven years ago. "Regarding the article that will be released today, I am so sorry for worrying my band members, fans, staff, family, and everyone else." She bows in contrition for a full eight seconds — slightly longer than, say, Sony’s Kaz Hirai did when apologizing for the massive PlayStation Network security breach in 2011.

Minami Minegishi had just been accused of having a boyfriend.

"I don't expect to be forgiven by doing this, but my first thought was that I don't want to quit AKB48."
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"As an original member of AKB48, I am supposed to set an example for the junior members," she continues. "But I was thoughtless and showed a lack of self-awareness. I didn't know what to do, so I decided to shave my head without telling other band members or my agency. I don't expect to be forgiven by doing this, but the first thing I thought was that I didn't want to quit AKB48."

The article in question came out in the Shukan Bunshun magazine last week, and showed alleged photos of Minegishi leaving the house of boy band member Alan Shirahama. Clad in baseball cap and cotton surgical mask, Minegishi was aiming to dodge paparazzi, but evidently her disguise didn't work. The result was the profoundly disturbing apology video posted last week and later pulled from the official AKB48 YouTube channel.

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Such "scandals" are common in Japan; despite the flagrant marketing of J-pop idols as sex symbols, any hint of them engaging in an actual relationship is harshly frowned upon. When AKB48's agency released the Minegishi video along with a blog post demoting her to the "training" ranks of the 88-member-strong group, it was only the most extreme example in a long line of similar incidents.

Marketing and misogyny have exploited pop cultural loopholes

Minami Minegishi just turned 20 years old. That's the age of majority in Japan; two weeks previously, she had celebrated her coming-of-age day along with every other Japanese person who reached the age of 20 in the past year. As an adult, how is it even possible to be stopped from forming a relationship by your employer? And how can fans accept the ritual humiliation of someone they look up to? To answer that, we have to look at the story of AKB48, and how brilliant marketing and institutional misogyny have exploited pop cultural loopholes for the group to take over Japan.

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Make no mistake — taking over Japan is exactly what AKB48 has achieved in recent years. The girl group dominates the charts to a level never seen in countries like the US today; in 2011 and 2012, all top five positions in the Oricon rankings (Japan's equivalent of the Billboard chart) were occupied by AKB48, and the band has sold over 20 million CDs in total. The group was formed in 2005, taking its name from the Akihabara district of Tokyo ("Akiba" for short) where various members give performances each day at the dedicated AKB48 Theater.

Songs like "My School Uniform Is Getting in the Way" play off sexuality and innuendo

The concept behind the group was to create stars that fans could not only relate to, but actually meet. While the AKB girls are pretty, they aren't portrayed as the aloof, chiseled ice queens often seen in J-pop; they give off a vibe that isn't girl-next-door so much as popstar-next-stage. Even their lack of conventional singing ability is held up as an advantage, as fans get to watch them improve through the years. Minami Minegishi, for example, joined the group when she was just 13 years old. This doesn't stop the agencies behind AKB48 playing off sexuality and innuendo, however, with song titles like "My School Uniform Is Getting in the Way."

For all the group's success and ubiquity, they're somehow not quite mainstream — at least, not in the way we'd normally think of the word. I'm not sure I know any Japanese people who would admit to liking AKB48, let alone owning any of their CDs. In fact, I don't know too many people in Japan who buy music at all — and who can blame them, at around $40 a pop? And if they were to buy CDs, it's unlikely they'd go for AKB48, who make music that would be considered impossibly juvenile by just about any standard. Instead, the group has found success by targeting a niche market: the otaku, Japan's unique subculture of nerds and misfits.

The AKB48 election puts a whole new spin on the phrase "voting with your wallet"

With its streets of manga stores and maid cafes, Akihabara is the otaku capital of the world, and it's no coincidence that AKB48 was born there. In a declining music industry, producer Yasushi Akimoto worked out how to strike gold: create a group laser-focused on the one demographic guaranteed to hand over money, no matter what. The otaku proved the perfect fit. Not only did Akimoto make AKB48 appealing enough for people to buy the CDs, he figured out methods of convincing devoted fans to buy the same CD multiple times.

Singles often come with lottery tickets to meet members of the group, or — most lucratively — a vote in the annual AKB48 "election," a giant popularity contest that crowns the leader of the group. There's no limit on the number of ballots, meaning fans sometimes buy tens or hundreds of copies of one single in order to help their favorite member to the top; it puts a whole new spin on the phrase "voting with your wallet." Ballots for last year's election came with copies of the single "Manatsu no Sounds Good!," which went on to sell close to 2 million copies at 1,600 yen (around $20 at the time). The election ceremony takes place at the legendary Nippon Budokan, home to historic performances by the Beatles and Bob Dylan.

All of this means a demographic otherwise marginalized in Japanese society has been granted with extraordinary buying power in pop culture, catapulting AKB48 to success far beyond their limited appeal. As W. David Marx of Neojaponisme proposed in a series of essays, Japan has undergone a cultural shift to a point where "normal" people just don't buy music, leaving the hardcore otaku to exert their dominance. Now, as journalist and ethnographer Patrick Galbraith told The Verge last year, it's all too easy to stereotype otaku culture. And it's true that AKB48, not surprisingly, holds a lot of popularity among young children as well. But the non-obsessive fans aren't the ones responsible for the group's success — the avaricious otaku is where the money's at. Those with the spending power have influenced a poisonous moral norm that's worked its way through Japan, and it's come to a head with the furore over Minami Minegishi.

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Japan has undergone a cultural shift where "normal" people just don't buy music
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The members of AKB48 are aggressively marketed as sex symbols; barely an issue of Weekly Playboy goes by without at least one girl from the group appearing in a swimsuit or less, and the "Heavy Rotation" video opens with a lingerie-clad pillow fight. The positioning of the group has caused controversy in Japan: a suggestive 2012 candy commercial was accused of promoting lesbianism, for example, and last month singer Tomomi Kasai was pictured topless in a photobook with nothing but a small child's hands protecting her modesty, prompting a child porn investigation.

The AKB48 girls are aggressively marketed as sex symbols

The sexualization of pop music isn't a new thing, nor is it limited to Japan. Unfortunately, the target group for AKB48 largely holds an infantilized attitude towards sex and women in general. The girls are marketed as real people that the fans can meet and relate to, but that's a strategy designed to play off the desires of men who may not have the ability or volition to maintain a relationship. As such, the agencies see it as crucial that the girls themselves stay chaste so as not to shatter the fantasies of fans. That's why Yuka Masuda was forced to quit AKB48 in November for spending the night at a boy band member's house, and why Rino Sashihara was banished to regional Fukuoka spin-off HKT48 after Shukan Bunshun published an article by someone claiming to be an ex-boyfriend.

This is problematic on multiple levels, and has been since long before Minami Minegishi was hung out to dry. For one thing, boy band members aren't usually held to the same standard. While they're often discouraged to speak about their private lives, it's frequently known that they are in relationships, and they often survive "scandals" that would sink any female star. One member of Kat-tun was outed as dating a porn star a few years back, and, in a memorable incident, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi of SMAP was arrested one night after drunkenly undressing in a public park and shouting "What's wrong with being naked?!" at police officers. Advertisers initially cancelled sponsorship deals, but after a few months and a Lance Armstrong-style public confession Kusanagi's career got back on track.

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"If there weren't such a rule, the world wouldn't turn."
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The no-relationship rule may not even be legal. Japan Times columnist and law professor Hifumi Okunuki argued the case against it last year, concluding that "the AKB48 chastity clause fails to meet the court's criteria for legitimate grounds for dismissal." The issue gets even thornier when you consider that the group has members as young as 13. But it's not a secret — the Japanese term is renai kinshi, literally meaning "love forbidden" — and the girls will even defend it in public. "If there weren't a 'love forbidden' regulation, we wouldn't be idols," said 21-year-old founding member Minami Takahashi in an interview with Weekly Playboy this week. "If there weren't such a rule, the world wouldn't turn."

The powers behind the group have decided to pander to fans with little comprehension or tolerance for independent women, instead of granting its employees the right to a basic human relationship. Japanese pop idol culture highly values the meek and weak, right down to its fetishization of schoolgirls. And much of the online reaction to Minegishi's video bears this out — while many people were shocked, disturbed, or disgusted, others called for her to be thrown out of the group altogether for breaking the rules. Another common viewpoint was that the punishment was too harsh, but it was Minegishi's fault for doing something wrong. This is about more than which tier of a girl group a pop singer is allowed to perform in — it's a manifestation of the underlying reason Japan ranks 101st in gender equality across the world.

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There was a time when the rest of the world used to look to Japan for pop culture inspiration, but J-pop has never been the easiest sell to a foreign audience — the language barrier and esoteric production saw to that. With South Korea's K-pop overcoming those hurdles across Asia and beyond, however, it's worth thinking about just how impossible it would be for AKB48 to cross over to the rest of the world. Despite huge success at home, the group is tailored to a specific subculture on the fringes of society, the music is little more than an afterthought, and the appeal is predicated on a narrow, outdated view of women — and frankly, girls — that would simply be unpalatable in the West. K-pop has similar cultural pitfalls, but looks outward for its influences and reaps the rewards. AKB48, however, represents the worst of Japanese insularity: caught up in its own success with a uniquely receptive domestic audience, then wondering what the fuss is all about as the world leaves it behind.

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