On January 31st 2013 tabloid newspaper Shukan Bunshun reported that a woman had spent a night at a man’s apartment. The woman happened to be Minami Minegishi, a founding member of AKB48, the world’s largest pop group. AKB48 have made headlines before over their rule prohibiting members from having relationships, but not to the extent that they did in the last few days. After the story broke, Minegishi decided to shave her head in an act of ‘penance’. With her tearful apology video going viral, even Western news outlets covered the story. One day later, The Japan Times published an article by Ian Martin that examined who or what was to blame for events.1 At the heart of the article was the following assertion:
AKB48 and their sister groups [...] are not just selling music, they are selling a fantasy narrative. It’s one that everyone knows is fake, which is why it is imperative that fans’ suspension of disbelief be maintained at all costs — with severe punishments for those who step out of line.
Promotion of a lifestyle is nothing new – the rebellious counterculture of pirate radio and punk rock in the Sixties and Seventies respectively both spring immediately to mind – and AKB48 are hardly the first to be advertised as some squeaky-clean paragon of virtue. In spending a single night with a man, Minegishi has gone against the (possibly unlawful2) philosophy of AKB48 and she herself felt the need to shave her head, symbolising a fresh start and a clean break with her transgressions. Ian Martin blames a concept that anime fans will no doubt be familiar with: moé.
[Idol fan culture] seeks out and fetishizes weaknesses and vulnerabilities and calls it moé, it demands submissiveness, endless tearful displays of gratitude, a lack of confidence, and complete control over their sexual independence.
Martin specifically mentions anime and manga fandom, claiming that they – along with idol fandom – are “institutionally incapable of dealing with independence in young women”. This I do not agree with. There are notable examples of moé characters: Rei Ayanami rewrote the moé rulebook, while Mikuru Asahina is moé’s poster girl. But to say that anime is “institutional” in its disdain for independent women is a gross oversimplification.
But this is not my main point. It’s convenient to lay the blame for this fiasco at moé, but I feel this doesn’t address the underlying problem of why having a relationship is wrong in the eyes of the fans of AKB48. As I see it, the characterisation of Minegishi’s action as a “thoughtless deed” (her own words from the video on AKB48’s official YouTube channel, which is marked as private at time of writing) is the result of a deep-seated culture centred around the fetishisation of virginity.
AKB48’s No Boyfriends rule is about protecting the virginities of the girls. The idols, the management and the fans can dress it up however they like with euphemisms, but that’s what it all comes down to. A large part of the male-dominated fanbase for AKB48 needs to know that the idols are unsullied. This phenomenon is not limited to Japan by any means. I defer to noted feminist Jessica Valenti, writing on the subject of Miss California Teen USA 1997 writing that she wished to ‘save herself’ for marriage:
I’ve always found the idea of “saving” your virginity intriguing: It’s not as if we’re packing our Saran-wrapped hymens away in the freezer, after all, or pasting them in scrapbooks (admittedly, not the best visual — my apologies). But packed-away virginities aside, the interesting — and dangerous — idea at play here is that of “morality.” When young women are taught about morality, there’s not often talk of compassion, kindness, courage, or integrity. There is, however, a lot of talk about hymens (though the preferred words are undoubtedly more refined — think “virginity” and “chastity”): if we have them, when we’ll lose them, and under what circumstances we’ll be rid of them.3
The conservation of the AKB48 girls’ “innocence” is little more than a ploy to appeal to that which Hiroki Azuma spoke of in Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Those animalised feelings that fans have are so because of the creepy obsession with purity and chastity that runs through society – all society, not just Japan’s. Blame moé all you want, but, until more primitive ideas about virginity and its status as a commodity are smashed, to do so would be pointless.
As a final point, consider this from Valenti, said in an interview conducted by Salon:
Salon: How is it that a pop star like Britney Spears or Jessica Simpson can announce their virginity at the same time that they’re successfully marketed as a sex symbol?
Valenti: Because they’re being exactly what pop culture wants them to be, which is the sexy virgin available for our consumption. We’re able to watch them writhe around in music videos, but they’re still good girls, so you can also prop them up as role models. What was really interesting with Spears was that the media and public turned on her once she got pregnant, had a woman’s body, became a little heavier, and could no longer be seen as this untouched virgin. People had to look at her as a full-grown woman and not a little girl. That’s when they started to deride her and call her a whore, which goes to show that the women we fetishize most are not women but girls.4
1. ‘AKB48 member’s ‘penance’ shows flaws in idol culture’, The Japan Times: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2013/02/01/music/akb48-members-penance-shows-flaws-in-idol-culture/
2. ‘AKB48: Unionize and take back your lost love lives’, The Japan Times: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2013/01/22/how-tos/akb48-unionize-and-take-back-your-lost-love-lives/
3. ‘The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women’, Jessica Valenti
4. ‘The virginity fetish’, Salon: http://www.salon.com/2009/05/16/purity_myth/