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K-on and J-pop idols

Sunday 19th May 2013

Matt Kamen looks at the dark side of J-Pop

K-On!Yui Hirasawa and her band mates of Hokago Tea-Time return in K-On!! this week. The second season of the music-driven comedy sees the girls progressing to their final year at high school and facing tough decisions over life, their music careers and (possibly) which cake to eat next.

However, given the band peddles the kind of energetic, inoffensive pop material that otaku lap up, Japan’s home-grown music industry may not be the best direction for any credible musician to take. Although manufactured bands are a decades-old global phenomenon – from The Monkees to One Direction, the Supremes to Girls Aloud – few countries approach the format in so commercial and exploitative a manner as Japan.

The phenomenon of ‘Idol Singers’ should be nothing new to anime fans – 1982’s Super Dimension Fortress Macross had aspiring songstress Lynn Minmay fend off an alien invasion with her peppy warbling, after all – but in the real world, the obsession and fetishisation of many young women often has disturbing elements.

Take AKB48, for instance. A veritable legion of fame-hungry young women gathered by producer Yasushi Akimoto, the ‘group’ is based primarily in the neon-lit streets Akihabara where the girls perform daily in a dedicated theatre. AKB48 currently boasts over 80 members, who are ranked both internally and by fans, with the most popular getting pushed into the spotlight. Ages range from 12 up to mid-20s, and promotion through the ranks is seen as a path to national success.

The songs themselves are both blandly formulaic and coyly sexualised – lyrics often contain coquettish allusions to cumbersome clothes and nascent teen desires – and naming any particular member of AKB48 is tricky for all but the most dedicated fans. The girls are deliberately chosen based on their ‘average’ looks in an effort to make them seem attainable to the primarily male fanbase, and everything about their lives is carefully marketed to the public. Essentially, the girls’ childhoods are commercialised to make them an aspirational product to older men.

The problem was brought into sharp focus in February this year, when member Minami Minegishi became internationally recognisable for all the wrong reasons. A streaming video, later made available on YouTube, showed the 21-year old singer weeping in contrite apology, begging fans for their forgiveness and her head shaven in repentance. Minegishi’s crime? Having a boyfriend.

Having been snapped by paparazzi leaving the apartment of Alan Shirahama, a member of boyband GENERATIONS, Minegishi was trotted out to the public as a shame-faced harlot, a betrayer of “the fans” and a poor influence on the younger members of AKB48. A founding member, Minegishi had been singing and dancing with Akimoto’s troupe since she was 12-years old. Now aged 20, she has grown up in the public eye, pushed as a sex symbol but never allowed anything close to an actual relationship or a real life.

The video makes for awkward viewing. Minegishi claims the decision to shave her head was her own, as was the video, but the orchestration of the move reeks of a planned publicity stunt. It’s also cruelly dehumanising, punishing the singer for wanting some small amount of privacy and personal time, while reinforcing to her followers that she is nothing more than merchandise for them. Tragically, Minegishi isn’t alone in her treatment – other AKB48 members such as Miki Saotome, Rino Sashihara and Yuka Masuda have previously been ‘demoted’ to lower tiers, hidden away in regional spin-off groups or fired entirely for similar boyfriend-based infractions. Alan Shirahama, it bears mentioning, has suffered no fallout from the incident – at the very least a double-standard of Japan’s music industry, at worst a reminder of the nation’s lingering sexism and misogyny.

Minegishi has faded from public view since that February video, no doubt waiting for it all to blow over and her hair to grow back. Having suffered demotion to trainee status, she will have to work her way back up the AKB48 ranks, at least if she wants to maintain her popstar lifestyle and have any hope of a career beyond the group. In the meantime, fans of J-pop in general and AKB48 in particular could well do with evaluating the monstrous mechanism they’re supporting with their ‘fandom’, and how shows like K-On!! give a sadly unrealistic portrayal of musical aspirations in Japan.

K-On, season two, part one, is out now on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment. Nobody has had to shave their head.

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