J-Pop and the Pre-Teen Ideal

Most people by now have heard about Japanese popstar Minami Minegishi, who shaved her head and made a tearful video of apology after being photographed leaving her boyfriend's apartment. Since the incident, she's been demoted from senior member of her band, AKB48, to a trainee member, and is at risk of losing her position in the group altogether.

Anyone familiar with Japanese pop music will know that this isn't a one-off event. It's just that the shocking sight of her publicly apologizing with a shaved head has captured the world's attention. In 2005, girlband Morning Musume's leader, 22 year old Mari Yaguchi, "retired" from the group after photos were taken of her with Japanese actor, Shun Oguri. Meanwhile, in 2007, fellow Morning Musume member Ai Kago was kicked out of the group after being caught smoking, and later the same year, Kago's partner Nozomi Tsuji lost her active role in various pop and drama projects after she announced her engagement and pregnancy.

All Japanese idols face this sort of scrutiny to some extent. Male or female, they are not officially permitted to date: in the case of the guys, to protect their available heartthrob status, and in the case of the girls, to protect their pure image. However, while male stars are frequently photographed with girls and little more than a denial (or at most an apology) occurs, female stars who break the rules risk losing their whole career.

It's all part of the fetishization of young girls in the Japanese idol industry. Most female Japanese idol groups (including Morning Musume) are controlled by super management company Hello Project. Girls often young the project at a very young age, with the youngest ever member of Morning Musume, Kudou Haruka, joining when she was 11, while when band Berryz Kobo was formed, it had an average members age of 10.75 years old. AKB48 accepts members at 14. The girls then live a highly pressure lifestyle, where they not only record songs and do concerts and performances, but have their own television shows, advertising contracts, and other obligations that make it a more-than full time job. They are always on display, and expected to appear to fulfil the fantasies of innocent pureness of their fans.

Idols who have become too old typically "graduate" from their groups and try to find further employment elsewhere, but in between the pre-teen beginnings and the mid-twenty graduation, there's a swarth of time when these idols are forbidden from growing up. The young teen "ideal" is fetishized to the point that even older members, twenty years old and allowed to vote and drink by Japanese law, are expected to continue to appear as and act like their younger counterparts, with the same rules governing their behavior. Their lives are completely dictated by the persona their fans expect -- one of a cute, naive, innocent pre-teen girl, no matter how far from that reality they grow. A person that's seen as attractive, but has no awareness of that attractiveness themselves.

It is disturbing at best. And Minami won't be the last one to suffer under its impossible expectations.