Jake Adelstein on the exploitation of the pop army of female teens that dominate the media
What’s the difference between a human trafficking group and the management of the mega girl’s band AKB48?
Both of them exploit young girls and sell them as sexual objects; they lock the girls into odious contracts, and they seek to control every aspect of the lives of the women and permit no resistance. They may both have distant yakuza connections.
Comparing the AKB48 management to human traffickers is, of course, extreme. Obviously there are differences the major one being that while human traffickers force their girls to have sex with any man, against their will, the AKB48 management forces their girls not to have sex with any man, ignoring their will.
Last month, member Minami Minegishi shaved her head and then posted a tearful video apology on YouTube for violating the AKB48 management’s no dating rule. Only in Japan could a talent agency get away with contractually obligating their workers to remain celibate. It’s not much different from compelling idols to have sex with their fans or the management, if you ask me. It’s the same gross interference in the lives of an individual, and while it may be contractually possible, it’s morally repugnant.
Management says it forbids its members from dating to maintain a clean and wholesome image and show their devotion to the group’s fans most of whom are Japanese males with some serious reality issues. For all the talk of “clean” and “pure,” the marketing of the girls falls somewhere between child pornography and flashing panties: the AKB48 management ships these “virginal” girls out to do sexy but not quite nude spreads for Weekly Playboy and other Japanese skin magazines, and there was an infamous commercial where the girls passed a piece of candy from mouth to mouth in faux lesbian play.
AKB48 was first launched in Akihabara, Japan’s electronics center and otaku mecca, designed to appeal to men who wanted a fantasy girlfriend made flesh. It now consists of more than 80 girls between 14 and 20, split into several teams, each team with its own status. It’s a lovely little caste system but there’s always a chance for a lower caste member to rise up if their fans pay money to vote for them in the AKB48 general elections. So the AKB48 management do deserve special praise for showing that plutocracy and democracy can be unified in the magic world of pop entertainment.
From the beginning, the girls’ “availability” was a major sales point for the band. The singers are supposed to belong entirely to their fans and satisfy their fantasy by remaining reachable and single. Of course, it’s all a con game.
The promise of fame and fortune is dangled out to girls as young as 14 which is way too young to know what they want out of life. They sign the contracts, not thinking of the future, and once they’re in the game, it’s human nature not to back out.
The girls get ripped off and cheated out of the chance to have mature relationships, in the hopes of a big payoff, and the guys pour their money into buying the band’s merchandise and “votes” without ever really having a chance of being with the object of their affection. It’s clear that the AKB48 girls would never really want to be with the creepy guys that worship them. No one really wins except the AKB48 management.
So it’s not surprising that, according to articles in Shukan Bunshun, one of the founders of AKB48, early in his career, worked for the odious Shoko Fund, a brutal consumer finance agency that became infamous for overcharging their victims ahem customers. He then went on to work for a yakuza backed loan sharking operation run by the Yamaguchi gumi Goryokai, which at its peak operated 1,000 affiliated loan sharking shops. If the Shukan Bunshun article is correct, and if you stop to think about it, he was the perfect guy for the job: someone who understood how to ruthlessly run a franchise and profit off the desperation of other people.
So when Minegishi broke the contract, she knew she was in big trouble. Perhaps her tearful performance was disingenuous, but it’s likely her tears weren’t from shame but from fear. Fear. Fear of retaliation by her managers, fear of losing her job, fear of attacks from her rabid fans who felt betrayed by the fact that she dared to have her own life.
As for her “boyfriend” his talent agency proudly announced, “We don’t comment on the personal lives of our clients.”
Minegishi belonged to the top team, but her manager said she would be demoted to “research student” status. In the AKB48 universe, the girls aren’t paid labor with worker’s rights; they’re “students” and can be demoted or promoted at the whims of their teachers the AKB48 management. Somehow, I feel what the management has to teach is not very beneficial unless exploitation, hypocrisy, and misogyny are things worth learning.
Some argue that if she doesn’t like the way she’s treated, she could just leave. Well, post AKB48 life is even bleaker, and many former members end up in soft core or hardcore pornography.
So that’s just how it is for Japanese idols in an AKB48 world you either get paid to have sex or not to have sex, but either way, your sexuality is what’s being exploited.
Jake Adelstein is an investigative journalist, author of Tokyo Vice, board member of the Polaris Project Japan and assistant editor of japansubculture.com.