THROUGH THE FIRE: Why the AKB48 Head Shaving Video Didn’t Surprise Me

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By BRETT FUJIOKA

I wasn’t surprised when I saw the video of Minami Minegishi, a Japanese idol for the pop group AKB48, deliver a tearful apology on YouTube for disappointing her fans. The video aired after an article from the weekly tabloid Shukan Bunshun surfaced that she spent the night at boy band member Alan Shirahama’s flat in violation of AKB48’s no-dating policy.

Did I feel sorry for her? Yes. The decision to force her to shave her head and pressure her into kowtowing before her fans on the Internet was extreme. The fact that her managers would punish her for breaking the group’s golden rule of not dating didn’t surprise me. Disgusted? With her management, yes, but surprised, not at all. That was expected given the nature of her fans.

AKB48 was an idol group that humbly began in Akihabara, Japan. Once seen as an “Electric Town” for the best cutting-edge gadgets and electronics, Akihabara steadily evolved into an international Mecca for anime geeks and video game hobbyists, and therein lies AKB48’s success.

Anime hobbyists or otaku obsess over a wide range of objects, including idol groups like AKB48. While the group is celebrated and revered by Japanese of all ages, squint closely at their concerts and you’ll see the audience largely comprises barely kempt men. Unlike the average person, there isn’t a limit to how much the otaku are willing to spend on their favorite idol.

In fact, this fan demographic likely shaped the group’s marketing strategy. The otaku are renowned for the amount they’ll spend on their passions. To determine the most popular member of the group, fans must cast ballots. Ah, but there’s a catch. To do so, they must purchase an album. Some fans go to maniacal lengths to ensure that their favorite idol becomes the most popular member and purchase multiple albums to vote on the same girl.

Spending practices aside, the otaku also influenced the image of AKB48’s idols. Criticisms abound over how the girls, many of whom have barely made it to adulthood, are over-sexualized in advertisements and commercials. Yes, but it’s not at all that different from the way girls and women are portrayed in anime. Open a Japanese comic book or browse the anime section on NetFlix and you’ll see girls in their teens hypersexualized to an extent that would make even Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears blush.

As contradictory as this may seem, their ideal woman is as desirable as a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, but as chaste as Mother Teresa. It’s a standard fulfillable in fiction, but nigh impossible with flesh-and-blood girls.

In their defense, the otaku are highly misunderstood. Unjustified moral panics have abounded in Japan against the otaku during the past few decades due to crimes committed by “otaku” like Tsutomu Miyazaki. To add to that, most perceptions of the otaku consist of stereotypes. Because it’s a subculture, a statistical census on otaku doesn’t exist to quantify their habits and behavior.

That being said, I’ve known Otaku. The one consistent characteristic I’ve noted is that they have a strong discomfort with reality and often retreat into fiction as a result of this.

That’s precisely the problem. AKB48’s managers and marketers are pandering to their perception of the group’s core consumers. One of the reasons why AKB48’s managers created a no-dating policy is due to the number of otaku who annually stalk female voice actresses for their favorite animes — to ensure that they remain single.

The point being is that the only way the dynamic has any hope of changing is if their fans send a signal indicating such a demand. As shown with how their albums are sold, AKB48 functions in a commercially democratic fashion.

One final thing: the otaku would have to change as well. Neojaponisme wrote a blog post — “Are Japanese Moe Otaku Right-Wing?” — detailing some of the misogynistic views of net otaku on message boards. True, net otaku may speak affectionately of idols, anime girls, and AKB48, but oftentimes berate modern Japanese women as the post suggests. These views in particular are what shaped the perception’s AKB48’s managers had of their core audience’s desires.

For that to change, the otaku would have to acknowledge that they’re a part of the problem and shift their sentiments. It’s a giant task to ask of a subculture with a persecution complex, but the ball’s in their court.

Brett Fujioka writes from Japan and can be reached at [email protected] Opinons expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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