Being an essay both too brief and too long on the Celebrity of Cute in Japan.
|Last week, I paused in my usual lunchtime stroll to watch several mall goers standing outside a pet shop window. Inside the brightly lit crèche, a half dozen puppies cavorted, bounding over the white felt flooring, bumping into each other, nipping and yipping in play, wrestling fellow inmates to floor or coming to the window to stare with adorable dark, wet eyes at the humans watching them. Young and old eyes stayed locked on the cream and pink colored interior, with its soft doggy beds, water bottles, chewy toys and puppy love, while around them the drab mall flashed, its decorative colors ignored. The spectacle disturbed me, yet I welcomed it: to be woken up and perceive the source of one’s discomfort, as by the sound of a mosquito circling your bed in the dark to find several itchy bites.
Not for the first time, the uncomfortable realization shivered into me: I do not see things the ways others do. When I look at puppies in pet shop windows, I see all those cute little puppies, sure, but when they move, they seem to be surrounded by the ghosts (the opportunity costs) of all those puppies that didn’t sell, which is a reality most choose to leave unseen: puppies killed because they are unprofitable. Such puppies did not go to some happy place to live out their days in a comfortable home. That would be bad business. We are talking pet shops here, emphasis on “shop,” and shops cannot operate long without profit, and for such business it makes no sense to keep an animal alive long past its expected sale date. That would mean losing money that can never be recouped. And I see the faces of the people looking in the window, because the window is a mirror, too, if you look careful enough: happy, their day brightened by the promise of what plays just the other side of the glass. People would see this reality if they wanted to, but people cherish their own comfort. Seeing would ruin the display. No one wants to think what happens once a puppy grows past the “cute” stage into a dog and its chances of being sold plummet. And we’re talking only purebreds here, because there are no mutts on display. In Japan, consumers peruse, and thus pursue, purebreds only.
Why do pet stores in Japan deal only in purebreds? Profit motive is high on any list of possible business reasons: by never carrying mutts, pet stores ensure customers purchase the high-priced purebreds, guaranteeing themselves the highest chance of profitability; however, I suspect Japanese consumers prefer purebreds, despite their being notoriously susceptible to disease and mental disorders. It might be a chicken-and-egg question, but: Do people keep buying these cute purebred puppies because that’s all the stores keep in stock, or is that all the stores keep in stock because that’s what people have been conditioned to want? Surrounded by—and surrounding themselves with—cute purebreds, consumers develop tunnel vision so the simple existence of non-purebred dogs fades from awareness.
Now, it is an unfortunate coincidence that as I rewrite this, my wife is rewatching the AKB48 election from a few nights back. As many of you witnessed, this was not only a major event for the thousands of fans who packed stadium to watch these girls giggle and exclaim a variety of equally vacuous slogans, it was also a major television broadcast, spanning several stations and employing the hosting skills of untold numbers of “talents” and commentators. The rant I posted on Facebook regarding this received an unexpected number of compliments and notes of appreciation, which really cheered me. So, I would like to say more about this issue, and, as I said that night, encourage people to consider this abhorrent spectacle.
AKB48 is a group of girls, most of them not yet adults, controlled by a single male, Yasushi Akimoto, for his own financial benefit. No matter what people might think, AKB48 is a business, plain and simple, and the girls are employees, though no one seems to think so. There is one and only one motive driving Mr. Akimoto’s decisions: monetary profit. The reason Mr. Akimoto writes the music and lyrics, and not the girls, is money. The reason he designs the costumes, thereby determining what parts of these girls’ bodies are shown or not shown, is money, and his is the final word on the girls’ appearance, their special look, and whether they can alter that look during their career. And money is the reason Mr. Akimoto makes the rules which the girls must abide by these rules both in public and private or suffer whatever punishment he considers justified.
I cannot think of another business where the employer’s self-determined rules must also be obeyed in the employee’s private lives yet NOT be the subject of intense public scrutiny as possible violations of labor laws. And notice how invisible this Mr. Akimoto is: you rarely see him appear with the girls (actually, I have never witnessed this). That might prod people to examine the nature of AKB48.
You see, unlike other businesses in Japan, AKB48 enjoys a special status of being almost unquestionable, and thus Mr. Akimoto’s use of these girls, though raising the occasional eyebrow, seems to pass under the radar of most people and the media. To express suspicion or displeasure at Mr. Akimoto’s methods invites resentment and reprimands that the questioner simply doesn’t understand AKB48’s system or Japanese culture. Japanese consumers not only know and accept that the girls of AKB48 are being controlled by one man for financial gain, they tacitly approval of the arrangement by remaining silent.
Well, not silent. Now they seem to cheer it on and celebrate it as a valuable Japanese cultural artifact. This really should give people pause.
What is being celebrated? What exactly is being touted as valuable by the media’s fawning over such events as AKB48’s election? These girls function as a dance troupe. They sing as a group. All the music and lyrics are written by someone else. Whatever individual talents they might have are masked behind their carefully crafted facades and within the collective appearance of the group. By what criteria did people choose who to vote for? Popularity, I have heard, but I simply don’t understand why this warrants such media coverage and such celebration.
One message is clear, spoken directly to young Japanese girls: if you are cute (whatever that means), look Japanese (whatever that means), are thin yet capable of exuding sex appeal, you can be as beloved as these girls. The message is clear, and it is not Mr. Akimoto’s only, but that of the whole pop entertainment industry: it does not matter how talented or driven you might be: if you don’t look like this, you will never be as valuable as the idols of AKB.
The common term for such media darlings is “idols.” I propose another term as more apt and telling: lidols, “living dolls.” The image of these girls blurs the line between human and idol. Though individual AKB girls might age, they are retired before this process become too apparent, to be replaced by younger “trainees.” This keeps the collective image of AKB48 youthful and fresh, masking the central fact of humanity: age and degeneration. AKB48 provides a fantasy of changeless perfection. But these are lidols, not idols, because they are displayed as near, not distance, touchable, not untouchable. Through a combination of public appearances and marketing techniques, most notably the handshake tickets hidden in certain CD’s, AKB48 is rendering as within reach, as touchable, living humans. That Yasushi Akimoto uses this to his financial advantage regardless of its potential consequences for the girls is an admirable bit of marketing genius, but it is just business, and it courts danger. We saw not only a week or two before the election spectacle two of the girls attacked by a saw wielding man. No one was hurt, and I have even heard someone proposing these girls are eligible for workman’s comp, but if that man had been just a bit faster, or had held a gun, the results would have been far worse. Maybe then, Japanese consumers would’ve started to question these marketing ploys.
Worse yet, consider the situation of Minami Minegishi, a member of AKB48 who got punished for, as the media put it, “spending time” with a boy in private. Look at this, really look at this: this girl had sex, in her own time (if that can be said to exist for an employee whose contract covers both what they do in private and in public), and not just with any man, but with a sexy, handsome and successful man close to her own age. If you saw this guy, you would conclude her action was understandably human. But Mr. Akimoto demoted her to trainee status for violation of her contract. In Ms. Minegishi resultant breakdown, she shaved her head and made a spectacle of herself on YouTube, apologizing for her “mistake.”
“Mistake.” The term should make any right-thinking person’s skin crawl: It is acceptable, even encouraged, for these girls to prance about in bikinis or underwear for our national viewing pleasure, but is not okay for them to share their sexuality in private with someone they care about? Are these virgins enshrined, puppies forever?
There are other negative consequences. The image of these girls is touchable and living but not human: these girls are cast with certain looks that do not change over their career, with each look combining elements of innocence and sexiness. Little wonder AKB’s fan base is overwhelmingly male, or that a significant portion of these tend to be middle-aged men. Nor is it surprising that most of the products AKB hawks are aimed at young or middle-aged men. Lidols exploiting male weakness for financial gain and opportunity is in itself not a negative thing, but these girls provide fantasy, a fantasy of teasing innocence, of puppy love, welcoming, unchallenging and above all ageless—so unlike real, changeable women, women who do not always welcome the male gaze, who do have opinions, and who do age, an aging that has long functioned as a unwelcome reminder of mortality for men. So, instead of dealing with the other half of society, AKB48 fans flee to this fantasy land to watch these lidols dance, thus ossifying their still undeveloped social skills and, not incidentally, spreading suspicion among the general population of women that they are somehow not good enough, a suspicion that breeds, it is to be hoped, resentment at this dehumanization: “If AKB48 girls can look like this all the time, why can’t you?”
“Curt, you need to lighten up,” someone might say. “It’s just for fun. Don’t blame the girls.” I don’t. Actually, as a former business major, I get a perverse satisfaction watching them manipulate a patriarchal media and entertainment system to their own advantage. I would cheer these girls on for this, just so long as I knew they were making their own choice to manipulate said system. So, I don’t blame these girls, anymore than I would the purebred puppies cavorting in the display window. I am happy the puppies get a chance at a good life, just as these girls are getting a chance at pursuing whatever dreams they hold. Also, I don’t think it is bad to buy their CD’s, DVD’s, or tickets to their concerts (bad taste, perhaps, but not bad morals). And, believe me, from the standpoint of a middle-aged guy, I get part of the attraction. I have watched more than my fair share of videos of these girls, especially Sayaka Yamamoto, and it does brighten my day—BUT I do so questioning my own position as a male viewer and consumer, cheering the way these girls manipulate me, while at the same time wondering to what extent Mr. Akimoto manipulates them. And this is what bothers me about the celebration of AKB48: that no one seems to be seriously questioning the manipulation and presentation of these girls. It would ruin the fun, wouldn’t it?
When I stand outside the pet shop window watching the puppies and the people watching the puppies (and, obviously, myself watching them), I understand the reality that no one really cares the puppies are killed once it becomes clear they cannot be sold, and there exists in Japan a population of mutts that are doomed to lonely, neglected lives. So what? They are just animals. Animals will never be as important as humans (to humans). We’re seeing a similar process with the girls of Japan. People will insist, “No one’s killing them! It’s just for fun. It makes people happy. What harm is being done?”
The answers are obvious to me after I took time to sit down and write about it, but I am a dark, depressing bastard. Look: I understand. My way of seeing takes all the fun out of things, and is so negative. I’ve had two wives complain about that already, so, believe me, I’ve heard it, I’ve taken it on board, I get it. When I look in the window at the puppies, or stare at the screen of the AKBs, I’m not able to enjoy it like other people, and most people would prefer I shut up to ruining their pleasures. I get that, too. The problem for me is that while I am not opposed to capitalism, I am deeply disturbed by marketing (perhaps because I studied it for so long). I do believe capitalism is one of the best methods for providing the most good to the most people, but an essential part of that system are the choices made by informed consumers, and marketing, whether we’re aware of it or not, operates not to inform but to provide the illusion of information, to dull consumers’ critical thinking with promises of age and degeneration forestalled, of choice and power over one’s self and ones environment, while at the same time breeding dissatisfaction with one’s current situation.
So, what harm is being done? Why don’t you ask all those girls who don’t fit the image of AKB48 how valuable they are being made to feel? Why don’t you ask the two AKB48 girls who were attacked if they feel safe when approached by unknown men? While you’re at it, take a good look in the shop window, at both what is beyond the glass and what is in it, and consider for yourself the cost of your choices. Meanwhile, let the puppies cavort, bump into each other, nip and yip in play, wrestle their fellow inmates to floor, or come to the window to stare with those big, adorable dark, wet eyes of theirs.