AKB48 Member Demoted, Shaved

The Japanese press is still buzzing over the self-inflicted punishment of a young female pop star two weeks after the fact.

On Jan. 31, 20-year-old Minami Minegishi posted a 4-minute YouTube video in which she faced the camera and apologized for having spent the night at the apartment of a male pop star.

Minegishi is a member of the all-female idol collectiveAKB48, which has a strict no-dating policy for all its members.

Minegishi’s sin was caught on film by a local weekly magazine, which that same morning published photos of her leaving the apartment of 19-year-old Alan Shirahama, a member of the boy band Generations.

Minegishi reportedly made the apology video on her own, but that in itself wasn’t what caught people’s attention. It was Minegishi’s appearance. For the video she had shaved her head, a traditional act of contrition in Japan.

“As a senior member of the group, it is my responsibility to be a role model for younger members,” she said in the video with tears in her eyes before bowing deeply.

Rumors circulated immediately that Minegishi had been “forced” by her management to undergo the humiliating makeover, with many commentators bemoaning the “idol culture” that robbed young stars of their “human rights.”

Many fans of the group, however, debated the punishment itself without questioning its merit. Some felt that Minegishi did, in fact, do the responsible thing, while others felt she did not go far enough. She had broken her contract and should have been fired. The purpose of the ban is to reinforce the appeal of AKB idols, whose fans are mostly adult males. It is the belief that these fans will lose interest if they think members have steady boyfriends or even casual love affairs. Their “purity” is all important.

Eventually, representatives of AKB said publicly that the video and the head-shaving was entirely Minegishi’s idea, but in any case she was demoted to “trainee level” within the organization for her infraction.

At present, there are more than 230 members of the AKB stable, which comprises four main acts and several side acts. Inevitably, some media conjectured that the whole scandal was yet another publicity stunt from a entity that seems to put more stock in PR than in music or other creative endeavors, but in any case there have not been any calls within the Japanese show biz world for more enlightened rules regarding the rights and privileges of contracted stars.