What happens when idols can no longer be protected?
To Maho Yamaguchi, and the industry that failed her.
On 25 May 2014, a man named Satoru Umeta lunged into a crowd of excited idol fans in Takizawa, Iwate Prefecture. Armed with a saw, he aggressively hacked his way through the huddle of fans, managing to slash two AKB48 members. Anna Iriyama and Rina Kawaei suffered slashes to their hands and heads, resulting in emergency surgery. In the wake of the incident, concerts and fan events were cancelled. Security measures were revamped to almost airport-style levels. One year later, Rina Kawaei announced her graduation, tearfully explaining the incident was a catalyst in her decision.
I included this story because it was the first time for me, as a long-long-time idol fan, both Japanese and foreign fans experienced shared outrage. Where Western news outlets and opinion pieces tend to wade into ‘weird Japan’ water, eager for any excuse to paint the idol industry as a veritable creepshow, they expressed sympathy for the injured girls. Everybody was sad about this, and why not? It was horrible.
The incident sparked feelings of helplessness and sadness throughout the larger fan community. Idol fans routinely experience sad news: unexpected graduations, their favourite members disappearing into the back row, a scandal unearthed by a prying tabloid, the sinking feeling when a girl is ‘caught’ with a guy. These are the rules, and every idol fan knows them. Knowledge =/= acceptance or endorsement. Discussions of the Love Ban are frequent, as are deeper questions into the girls’ autonomy and freedom to live ‘normal lives.’ The double standards exist in the idol fan community but are continually contested.
However, Love Bans, the wearing of school uniforms (see the Japanese concept of ‘youth’/青春), reservation and apology, working zany hours to the point of exhaustion, while perhaps not accepted in principle universally amongst the Western idol community, are acknowledged as facets of Japanese culture that simply don’t exist for us. Such nuances are often missed out, deliberately or accidentally, in Western reporting. Believe me, all fans, Japanese and otherwise, were baffled when Minami Minegishi shaved her head (why did she do it?!). It is easy to feel defensive over the things we love, and no other group is quite so aware of the problematic nature of the token of our affections than the idol community. Yet, when a member is suspended by management for having a boyfriend, once the cries of “This system is unfair! This is ridiculous!” have died down, there is a muted acceptance that management knew what call they were making: for the good of the group, the member, and the fans.
Any illusion of ‘benign management’ has been shattered with the revelations from NGT48 member Maho Yamaguchi.
On 10 January 2019, Maho streamed a live broadcast via Showroom, used primarily by Japanese idols to communicate and take questions from fans. Since December, Maho had taken a break from SNS and made a few potentially worrying tweets, but taken in isolation these garnered no attention. Her Showroom broadcast is a different story.
When I watched it, my heart sank (just a heads up, it is a very emotional video). As she attempted to recount (in very vague terms, likely to both save face and her group) a recent traumatic incident, her voice cracks, tears fall. She is a scared and hurt girl.
Fans quickly realised this was something that went beyond the typical scandal. It surfaced that Maho was the victim of a physical assault at the hands of two men, who barged into her apartment building. “I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I had been killed instead,” she said during her video. It is heartbreaking.
To make matters worse, signs pointed to the whole incident being orchestrated by a fellow NGT48 member. Staff quickly shut down Maho’s Showroom broadcast when they realised what she was saying, but in her wisdom Maho immediately took to Twitter, eager to be heard. Her (now deleted) tweets detail that the two attackers told her that it was one of her group mates told them what time Maho returned home, and the exact location of her apartment. She also said she was reluctant to discuss what happened to her for fear of upsetting other NGT members and the fans, and causing trouble. It is no wonder that after such a horrific attack that will likely stay with her for the rest of her life, she could keep it in the dark no longer.
Social networks exploded with outrage, from both Japanese and overseas fans. The severity and anger contained in the responses has been unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed in my 12 years of idol fandom. It is a necessary anger. This is truly unacceptable. There have been calls for the disbandment of NGT48, the collapse of AKS and the resignation of their theatre manager Imamura Etsuro. This is an incident that goes way beyond boyfriends, touching upon criminality. It is cruel and should have never happened.
The icing on the cake came at an NGT live show today. Joined by Yuki Kashiwagi, Maho appeared and performed the duet Temodemo no Namida, dressed in the song’s pink rain jacket outfit. Many fans, Japanese and international, were waiting with bated breath for an announcement regarding Maho’s assault. It was relayed in the worst possible way: Maho apologised.
Apologies are standard fare in Japanese showbiz life. But this is a whole new level of victim blaming. Apologising for causing trouble: the trouble of being assaulted, the trouble of having a member insidiously reveal your private details to your attackers, the trouble of management sweeping everything under the rug.
It is hard to comprehend the feeling of betrayal that Maho is experiencing right now. From her management, the suspected member, her fans. The sad and almost misplaced resentment that comes with being the victim of something awful and being unable to share it, the pain of not receiving the right support from the people you love. As the victim of some horrible things myself, and having been in a place where you feel trapped in your own head, Maho’s situation has affected me in ways that surpass any sort of fan engagement. This is a girl who has been failed by and who is a victim of her environment, a misogynistic, capitalistic environment that treats the girls as little more than disposable money-making bodies.
The realisation hit me like a freight train: we saw this coming.
It is the culmination of the obsessive fan, money-hungry and scandal-averse management, the competitiveness and overwork in Japanese society, the utter disregard of women’s safety, and the hypocritical shaming of women.
I don’t want to think about what else goes on behind the scenes, but I must. This situation has forced me to reevaluate an industry I supported; one that brought me so much joy, a second language to speak, friends from all around the world. But I cannot and will not be complicit in an industry that fails women so badly like this. The signs have always been bubbling at the surface, and I will be the first to put my hand up and say that it is likely I wilfully ignored them and hoped for the best, reluctant to believe that these girls that made me smile from ear-to-ear were suffering. But there is no running away from the abuses of power here, no screen of culture to hide behind.
It is heartening to see ex-member Rie Kitahara rally support for her (“Maho, don’t apologise! Don’t! You did nothing wrong, seriously” — a brave and almost unheard of string of words in the idol business), as well as Yuki Kashiwagi, fellow 48-family members Rino Sashihara, Raira Ito, Yuria Otaki, and Nana Okada. But the damage has been done, the secrets are out, and for many, this has revealed a truly ugly and cruel side to the mass-idol industry that we prayed never existed.
I am so, so, sorry Maho. I hope you receive the support you so deserve.
FWIW, there is a petition circulating calling for the resignation of Etsuro Imamura, which can be signed here.