Remember when Britney Spears cut off all her hair? That was disconcerting. This week, Minami Minegishi, a member of Japan's biggest girl group AKB48, appeared in a YouTube video, apologizing and crying. Her head was shaved. Likewise, disconcerting.
Online in Japan, however, people wondered if this was some kind of sick punishment for a tabloid story about her spending the night with a boy band member. No, it was a public shaming.
On January 31, a Japanese tabloid published photos of Minegishi apparently leaving the house of a boy band member named Alan Shirahama. An article like this could destroy a young idol's career, with her losing fans or even kicked out of the group.
Minegishi is a member of AKB48, which is Japan's biggest musical act.
On the group's official YouTube channel, a distressed Minegishi appeared with a shaved head and repeatedly said she was sorry, but didn't go into detail. The video has nearly six million views. Minegishi's shaved head is even splashing in mainstream Western news outlets.
The singer also said she didn't want to quit the group and that she had shaved her head on her own accord (she apparently shaved her head with scissors). Her video apology is deeply disturbing. To add insult to injury, the group's management demoted Minegishi to a "trainee" role, pushing her to he lowest position one can hold in the group.
Minegishi is 20 years old. Shirahama is 19 years old. Whether or not they are both consenting adults doesn't matter much in the world of Japanese idols.
One of the rules of her group AKB48 is that members are not allowed to have boyfriends. Posing in bikinis or underwear for mags is okay. Boyfriends are not. For idol groups like AKB48, such rules are the norm. The reason why idols are not allowed to have boyfriends is that real world dating destroys the pure fantasy of male fans. The idol becomes just like any other girl. She's normal.
Thus, proof of how normal she is destroys the desire to place her on a pedestal.
Worse than being knocked off her pedestal, Minegishi is now forum fodder. Online in Japan, the country's biggest web forum, 2ch, has already created endless memes, using images from Minegishi's apology to paste her face on bald kung-fu monks, inmates, and soldiers.
Meanwhile, AKB48 fans are upset about Minegishi behaving in what they'd call an unfitting manner, and then shaving off all her hair to say how sorry she is. Then, to complicate things further, fans got upset after another AKB48 member tweeted a photo of a shaved-head Minegishi giving out dual peace signs and smiling. It was as though she wasn't really sorry and this was just a farce or a PR stunt. This cruel shaming became incongruous with happy-go-lucky photos. Something was up.
Idols fans everywhere buy into fantasy and lies. They like these young singers, whether they are male or female, because they seem perfect. In the West, Britney Spears' image was monitored much more closely when she was younger. Since then, it's been a constant unraveling of what people thought she was like. In Japan, a similar thing happens with pop stars, but in a far more concentrated form. Retribution for mistakes is swift and decisive.
Minegishi's reaction—the video and the haircut—isn't a Britney Spears style meltdown, which was a troubling cry for help. Here, it's Minegishi humiliating herself to show how sorry she was, or, depending on how jaded you are, an unsettling PR stunt.
Idol or not, why should grown women apologize for being grown women?