A member of Japanese girl group AKB48, Minami Minegishi, last week shaved her head and then issued a tearful apology via the group’s official YouTube channel, after it emerged that she had broken the ‘no dating’ rule imposed by the band’s management. In Japan, hair cutting is often seen as a symbol of a ‘new start’, though not always in such an extreme manner.
Japan’s most popular pop franchise, AKB48 currently has 90 members, who are split into teams, graded by experience (starting with ‘trainees’), and rotated based on popularity. Eventually members ‘graduate’ when they reach their early 20s. So popular have AKB48 been that they have spawned a number of spin-off groups in Japan and other nearby countries.
Minegishi’s very public apology followed an exposé in a Japanese newspaper revealing her violation of the strict code of conduct enforced by the moguls behind the AKB48 phenomenon. It was subsequently revealed on the group’s official blog that 20 year old Minegishi had been demoted to ‘trainee’ level as punishment for “for causing a nuisance to the fans”, or so reported The Japan Times.
Appearing on the (since deleted) video with her head roughly shaved, Minegishi said: “As a senior member of the group, it is my responsibility to be a role model for younger members. If it is possible, I wish from the bottom of my heart to stay in the band. Everything I did is entirely my fault. I am so sorry. I don’t believe just doing this means I can be forgiven for what I did, but the first thing I thought was that I don’t want to quit AKB48″.
Following widespread coverage of the incident in Western media – with some expressing concern for Minegishi while criticising the constraints put on AKB48 members – the group’s manager Tomonobu Togasaki denied speculation that Minegishi had been instructed to shave her head.
Writing on his English language Google+ page, he said: “It wouldn’t be necessary even if you ask if it was necessary or not. It was just that Minegishi really wanted to convey how strong her feeling was. I heard that when she came out from the make up room, she had already shaved her hair. It seems that the staff beside her did [try to] stop her. However, I heard that she said that people might think of her as a fool, but she really wanted to put her reflection into action, so she cut her bangs using scissors without losing control over herself”.
Appearing in public for the first time since the video was posted, at a meet-and-greet event on Saturday, Tokyo Hive reports that Minegishi told fans: “I am extremely sorry for taking thoughtless action as an AKB48 member. I did not [shave my head] to be forgiven. I wanted to regain everyone’s trust, and to start again from the beginning”.
Whether a show of ‘starting anew’, or a penance in itself, there has been much derision that a situation so drastic could grow out of a young girl simply having a boyfriend. A similar incident last year saw a member of the group being sent to join a regional sub-group. The latest drama has caused many to ask what effect, on both the group’s members and their fans, such strict enforcement (and the existence at all) of contractual obligations to stay single could have. To that end, this Japan Times opinion piece is well worth reading.