But Maho Yamaguchi didn’t turn up to her pop group’s event on January 6. In the following days, she apologized for her absence and went public as to the reason why: An alleged assault at the hands of two male fans.
Yamaguchi is a member of Niigata-based “idol group” NGT48, a sister group to the famous 48-member girl band AKB48. She claimed a member of her group had leaked her address to two male fans who assaulted her at home on December 8 last year.
“I didn’t do anything for a month because I didn’t want to impose on everyone that supports me. I don’t want you to dislike NGT (the pop band) … That’s because I believed they’d sort all this out,” Yamaguchi added on Twitter.
Apology stirs controversy
Her apology comes amid growing attention in Japan to the issue of violence against women. In the days following her Twitter post, criticism was directed at Yamaguchi’s management company, AKS, for its apparent mishandling of the incident — and for her seemingly unnecessary omission of regret.
In Japan, people often issue public apologies when they think they have disturbed “wa” or societal harmony. Speaking to CNN, Kukhee Choo, a cultural studies expert at Sophia University in Tokyo, said that while some have criticized Yamaguchi’s apology, it has also helped her to garner more sympathy from the Japanese public.
“There’s a lot of affinity in Japan towards idol figures as the management companies choose very average, cute, young cheerful women. They want everyone to feel like this could be your daughter or next-door neighbor,” said Choo.
“If someone that powerful has a hard time coming out, the average women in Japan thinks, what chance do I have? But idols are very relatable. This incident could help other young women to think, if she came out, then I can come out too.”
Japan is ranked 110th out of 149 countries in the World Economic Forum’s index measuring the degree of gender equality.
According to Choo, Japanese culture is still bound by notions that women have to behave in a so-called “womanly way” to elicit sympathy. “In western culture strong women are respected, but in Japan, even when you’re strong you have to perform the victim.”
In a statement, the company said they were “determined to build trust with each of the members and to provide mental care for Maho Yamaguchi and all other members.”
When the ‘girl-next-door’ speaks up
The Japanese pop idol industry, or J-pop as it’s more commonly known, is worth billions of dollars. Major record companies maintain a tight grip on the lives of their stars, dictating their image and behavior both on and off stage.
Many of the groups are manufactured to appeal to male demographics.
“The point is they have to be cute and sexy and push all the buttons of the deferential and pure girl that appeals to guys,” said Jeff Kingston, professor at Temple University in Tokyo and an author of several books on Japan and Japanese social change.
Post-concert meet and greets and photo opportunities are routinely used to foster a sense of closeness between J-pop performers and audiences. It’s here that the performers continue to sell their fabricated identities.
The failure of the record industry to better protect its stars from violence has been amplified in the age of social media.
“The (record company) staff should first protect the girls,” Kemta Otsubo, an idol industry insider and writer, told CNN.
“It was inevitable that criticism would occur worldwide (in Yamaguchi’s case), everybody is very angry with the management angry for apologizing for failing to protect her after Yamaguchi herself apologized.”
CNN’s Euan Mckirdy contributed to this report.