Japan's teeming idol business has received a lot of scrutiny in the past few years. Many Japanese women continue to critique the image of Japan femininity that idols promote, both within Japan and around the world. The idols themselves are often exploited and overworked, a situation that sometimes leads to tragedy - as seen with the suicide of 16-year-old idol Omoto Honoka.
But another core issue is the idols' own physical safety. While by no means a daily occurrence, it's not uncommon for idol stars to be attacked by crazed fans at meet-and-greets (握手会; akushukai; lit. handshake meetings), events where fans stand in line for hours for a 30-second opportunity to exchange a handshake and a few words with their stage favorites.
Idol management agencies have come under fire in the past for not doing enough to protect idols from such maniacs. But management agency AKS, which runs the Niigata-based group NGT48, has drawn harsh fire from Japanese citizens for what's seen as an attempted cover-up of an assault of one of its members.
(JP) Link: NGT48 Management Makes Announcement about Assault on Yamaguchi Maho; A Member "Divulged When She'd Most Likely Be Home"
An Idol Makes Her Case Directly
The incident started a few days ago when NGT48 member Yamaguchi Maho (山口真帆), referred to affectionately by her fans as "Maho-hon", took to Twitter and to the streaming site Showroom to report that she had narrowly escaped being raped. The pronouncements came after she regretfully canceled a planned appearance earlier this month, sparking concern from fans online.
The longest Twitter threads containing most of the details that Yamaguchi originally provided have been deleted from her account, but are archived online. The assailants were an unemployed man in his 20s and a younger college student, who waited for her to come home and forced their way into her apartment. It turned out later that the older man was one of the aforementioned rabid fans, and his behavior had already earned him a ban from attending NGT48's meet-and-greets. The two men covered Yamaguchi's mouth as she cried to scream for help. "I thought I was going to be killed," she wrote. She was saved at the last minute when she heard the ding of an elevator, and somehow managed to break out of her room and rush toward it while calling the police. The two suspects were arrested, but were later released without charges.
At this point, this story already stinks. It raises bad memories of the plight of Ito Shiori, the Japanese journalist whose rape charge against TBS Broadcasting's Washington Bureau chief, Yamaguchi Noriyuki, was discarded by prosecutors and ignored by much of Japanese media. Ito felt she had no choice but to make her story as public as possible, in order to shine a spotlight on how sexual assault against women is ignored in Japan.
She Broke Japan’s Silence on Rape
Yamaguchi apparently felt she had to do the same in order to explain why she was (understandably) still too badly shaken to appear in public. In her now-deleted tweets, Yamaguchi says that both she and the management company knew another member of the group was involved in telling the man who'd assaulted her when she'd be home. (Her address appears to have been sold by sleaze-merchants on Twitter who specialize in helping stalkers track down their intended victims.) In discussions with her management company, she was assured the matter would be dealt with. When her assailants were released and it became clear that the company wasn't going to fire the member who'd leaked Yamaguchi's whereabouts, she took to social media to make her story known.
For someone who'd just been nearly raped, Yamaguchi went out of her way to be as even-handed and as apologetic to her fans as possible:
こんなこと言いたくない。お世話になってる人に迷惑かけたくない。皆さんにngtを嫌いになってほしくないからこの1ヶ月つらくても黙ってた。報道でもngtということは伝えないように私がお願いした。それもこのグループが大切だったから。そして全部対処、処分してくれると信じてたから。— 山口真帆 (@maho_yamaguchi) 2019年1月8日
I don't wanna say these things. I don't wanna make trouble for people who've been so good to me. I've stayed silent for the past month because I didn't want people to hate on NGT48. I asked that NGT not be mentioned in the reporting, because this group is so important. I thought it'd all be handled and dealt with.
In another (seemingly deleted) tweet, Yamaguchi's anguish is palpable:
I'm sorry. Even I wish it were possible to go back a month and just be a normal idol.
AKS Makes the Victim Apologize
Obviously, NGT48's management company, AKS, had to do something. What it chose to do ignited a social media firestorm.
On January 10th, Maho appeared during a performance by NGT48 in their home base of Niigata, and on stage, apologized for "creating a commotion" and bowed deeply to her fans.
The outrage was swift and palpable. "Why," asked Twitter user Wizy1701 in a typical response, "must the victim apologize? Isn't this a miss by NGT's management? It's so pathetic it makes me cry."
At this point, AKS had made no public statement of its own. In lieu of releasing anything that might implicate the staff in a cover-up, it pressured the victim to get on stage and take one for the team.
Sadly, such pressure tactics are common in Japan's idol world. Rather than feel obliged to defend their stars, agencies treat most of them as expendable commodities, and push them past their breaking point. After Omoto Honoka killed herself, her family released screenshots of an exchange she had had with someone from her agency expressing her desire to resign. The response: "If you keep spewing bullshit like that, I'll knock you out." A similar dynamic seemed to be at work at AKS, where they decided they could still sweep this attempted rape under the rug even after Yamaguchi had set the rug on fire.
"Anti-Theft Alarms": How AKS's "Apology" Only Made Matters Worse
Fortunately, this time, the pressure tactics didn't work. Unfortunately, while AKS realized it had started a fire, it then tried to extinguish it by spewing vodka on it.
In a lengthy press release on NGT48's official site, AKS management gave its best "we done fucked up yo" apology. While not confirming how the assailant got Yamaguchi's address, it did say that "another member" was chased down by the assailant, and that she told him the likeliest time that Yamaguchi might arrive home.
The troublesome part is highlighted below:
Naturally, Yamaguchi Maho is suffering emotional stress from this incident. Our explanation and response to fans was insufficient, prompting a public declaration from Yamaguchi Maho. To ensure something like this doesn't happen again, we will be looking at various strategies such as providing anti-theft alarms and regular patrols to members' residences. In order to build a relationship of trust with our members, we vow that all of our staff will do their utmost, starting with Yamaguchi Maho, to ensure all of our members get proper emotional care.
It was the phrase "anti-theft alarm" (防犯ベル; bouhan beru) that caught everyone's attention. Within hours, #防犯ベル was a trending hashtag on Twitter, with users mocking the agency for its seemingly callous response. As user @tomriddle_snake noted, an alarm bell wouldn't have done Yamaguchi any good:
防犯ベル支給とか舐めてんの？ドア閉めようとした瞬間に手が伸びてきて口抑えられてる状況で防犯ベルなんて鳴らせるわけないだろ？いい加減にしろ pic.twitter.com/jswJMIsOBc— ❄️ (@tomriddle_snake) 2019年1月10日
Are you shitting me? An "alarm bell"? The moment she tried to close the door, he stuck a hand in and covered her mouth. How can you ring an alarm bell in that situation? Gimme a fucking break.
Even other idol stars felt compelled to call AKS on their BS. Sashihara Rino, who made her debut with AKB48 in 2008 and now a member of HKT48, said:
防犯ベル、わたしは怖くて震えて、取り出すことさえできないと思う。。— 指原 莉乃 (@345__chan) 2019年1月10日
If I were afraid and shaking, I don't think I could even reach for an alarm...I'd hate to think that a management company would make her apologize for such a huge incident, but even if it came from her herself, I worry that she's blaming herself, and thinking, "I have to apologize for what I've done!" You don't need to apologize for that!
As of publication time, it's hard to tell what will happen to NGT48 or its management company. As of a few hours ago, AKS has announced that NGT48's next three public appearances have been canceled.
While it was Yamaguchi's wish that this incident not negatively impact NGT48 or its fans, it's a real question whether AKS will survive the controversy. If it doesn't, of course, that's not Yamaguchi's fault - it's AKS's fault for the piss-poor way it handled this traumatizing incident. Yamaguchi has done nothing so far but show class, and grit, and far more patience than her managers at AKS ever deserved. One can only hope this incident puts Japan's idol management companies on notice - or, at least, that more idols feel empowered by Yamaguchi's example to speak out when their companies attempt to silence them.
What is clear is that Japanese society is becoming more aware that violence against women can no longer be swept under the rug. That awareness is due to the courage of women like Ito Shiori and Yamaguchi Maho, who refuse to remain silent even in the face of enormous pressure. As Yamaguchi herself says in a now-deleted tweet:
But if I don't say something, nothing will change. I don't want another girl feeling the same way.
1.14.2019: AKS continues to struggle to handle the fallout from this incident. Head producer Matsumura Takumi met the press for the first time since the incident, and shared that producer Imamura Etsurou have been removed from his position as group producer. Replacing him will be producer Hayakawa Maiko, a veteran idol group manager, with Okada Gou serving as assistant manager. The assignment of Hayakawa, who is female, seems a clear signal that AKS wants to counter the image that it's insensitive to the needs of its performers.
Matsumura confided that Akimoto Yasushi, the progenitor of the modern idol format and a producer of NGT48, personally scolded the agency for their handling of the entire incident. He denied that any of the other NGT48 members did "anything illegal", but vowed to support a full and independent investigation into what happened.
(JP) Link: ASK's First Press Conference in the Yamaguchi Incident; "None of the members did anything illegal"
Speculation is abounding on Twitter and JP news shows that one or more of the NGT48 members may have connections to organized crime, which led one of them to divulge Yamaguchi's whereabouts to the media. As of now, this speculation appears largely unfounded.
I'm the publisher of Unseen Japan. I hold an N1 Certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and am married to a wonderful woman from Tokyo.
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