Pop star's apology for dating stirs debate on 'idol culture'



Minami Minegishi, a pop star from the Japanese girl group AKB48, released a video in which she makes a tearful apology for having spent a night at a man’s apartment. In the video, her hair is shaved off, which she says she did as an act of contrition.


Why would a 20-year-old Japanese woman have to publicly apologize for having a relationship with a man, let alone go to such extreme lengths? Because AKB48 isn’t just any girl group. It’s a pool of 90 young women, separated into several teams, who, to appear available to their legion of fans, have to promise their management never to date. Minegishi is one of its better-known members, since she also appears in TV shows. Unluckily, she was recently photographed leaving a young man’s apartment, and the photo was published by a tabloid.


Her apology video has been viewed nearly five million times since it was - strangely enough - published on the group’s official YouTube channel on Thursday. In it, she pleads to keep her job and apologises to her fans. She wasn’t fired, but the band’s management has demoted her to a “trainee” team.


Her apology has created a shockwave in Japan – largely not because she was seeing someone, but because, as the Japan Times put it, this incident “shows flaws in idol culture.” One of its editorialists writes: “Idol fan culture, as well as the closely related anime and manga fan culture, is institutionally incapable of dealing with independence in young women. It seeks out and fetishizes weaknesses and vulnerabilities […] What will a 13-year-old girl think when she sees a humiliated [girl group] member apologizing for natural human behaviour?”


Japan currently ranks at 101 in the world gender-equality rankings – for comparison, that’s 44 below France.