If you’ve already figured what the punch line is here, good for you. Otherwise, read on. And if you don’t know what AKB 48 is, there’s always Wikipedia.)
I learned a while back that the foreign press got all excited because a member of AKB 48 shaved her head as a show of contrition because she had been caught by a weekly tabloid spending the night with a boyfriend. Now, I’m no fan of AKB 48—in fact, I had to ask one of my daughters how “48” was pronounced—and I did not read any of the English-language articles about the incident. However, I thought that I could make a pretty good guess about the things that were being said about it and I also thought that there would be some important non-Japan-is-weird angles that would be left out. So I decided that this might be as good as any other subject to rouse my blog out of its stupor (fingers crossed). So here goes…
The first key point is that the schoolgirl uniforms whose style the AKB 48 uniforms broadly emulate are near-uniquely identified with 12-18 year-old females and vice versa. Specifically, those uniforms are won by most middle-school and high-school girls in Japan. Private elementary schools also have uniforms, but those schools are much fewer in number and generally (if my casual observation serves me correctly) co-ed, and the girls’ uniforms there are usually differently styled from those of their elders.
The second key point is that it is quite natural for postpubescent males to be sexually attracted to 12-18 year-old females. After all, most of these females are or become postpubescent at an early point in this six-year age bracket. In pre-WW II Japan, the age of consent (threshold for statutory rape) for females was 12. And the recognition of the sexuality of females in their low- and mid-teens was not unique to Japan. In Quebec for instance, a ten-year old female could marry with parental consent well into the 20th Century. To give another example that is readily confirmed by publicly available sources, there are many cases of musicians and entertainers from older generations that indicate that it was not uncommon for females in their mid- and even low-teens to get married, and the term “shotgun marriage” suggests that sex often preceded this (a point that Dolly Parton once alluded to in an interview).
The third key point is that contemporary society in the industrialized democracies nevertheless has come to uniformly dissuade its members from having sexual relationships with minors. Post-WW II Japan, for instance, merely raised the threshold for statutory rape to 13, but has subsequently criminalized consensual sexual activity with all minors, i.e. persons 17 and younger. Now, it is not clear to me how we got here, but it certainly has something to do with the extension of compulsory education to middle school and the increasing availability of high school education to all (including the unwilling). In other words, once-adults had now become children, with the 18 year-old straddling the last year of high school and the first of the adult word that lies beyond. Of course, this ban may be as often honored in the breech than not, but it is very real nonetheless and reports abound of (mostly) men from all walks being prosecuted for consensual infractions of this relatively new taboo.
To borrow the words of Temple Grandin from a very different setting, then, “You may look at them, but you may not touch them.” There is a huge existential conflict going on here between nature and the rules of the game. Is it not, then, only natural for postpubescent males to be strongly attracted to these same females that hold up their end with regard to the sanctions?
I can foresee several questions, which I’ll address briefly. First, why is the AKB format not copied more broadly by other girls’ groups? AKB 48 has cornered the market on an archetype; anything else would be an imitation. And it has spawned a slew of spinoffs just to be sure. Besides, AKB 48 draws on independent production companies for its members. Would these production companies risk AKB 48 retaliation to shop their wares at another similar arena?
Second, why don’t individual entertainers copy the AKB 48 format? The attraction of schoolgirls (not the biological category of 12-18 year-old females) is intimately intertwined with their uniformity. The individual entertainer is, literally, an individual. Besides, now that AKB 48 is so popular, it is difficult to see any individual entertainer invoking that archetype as anything other than parody.
Third, how can we accept 20-somethings as AKB 48 members, i.e. celibate teenagers? The same way that we can accept all those 20- and even 30-somethings as teenagers on TV, cinema and the live stage (and, presumably, porn). AKB 48 is the real-world equivalent of a massively multi-player online game (explanation omitted); at the end of the day, the girls are merely playing roles. So don’t get all Japan-is-weird about this, okay?
Fourth, what to make of that girl’s decision to shave her head in contrition? She’s the only one who can know, and she may not be too sure herself. But all evidence points to a voluntary, individual decision, which at a minimum limited damage to her own career. And hair grows back. End of story.
Oh, the punch line? Sorry, it doesn’t quite fit the narrative as it unfolded. But it has the phrase “be something for everybody” and includes “Eva Braun.” I think.