Fight the real enemy

Samson learnt all about the links between sexuality, loss and hair the hard way. Milton has him ponder his recovery like this:

Shall I abuse this Consecrated gift
Of strength, again returning with my hair
After my great transgression, so requite
Favour renew’d, and add a greater sin
By prostituting holy things to Idols

These lines have been in my head the last few days as everywhere I see the face of pop Idol Minami Minegishi of AKB48, begging forgiveness of her fans and managers, her long hair shaved, her face contorted by grief and shame. The YouTube video of her confession and recantation – viewed more than 3 million times on AKB48’s official channel, but currently private at the time of writing this – makes for horrible viewing. She begs, cries, bows before the camera, distraught and obviously emotionally damaged. Like watching a video clip from a hostage or kidnapping victim, the viewer is positioned in ways that make us complicit with her humiliation, figures of judgment, the people for whom the hair has been shaved.

Her crime? Minegishi was photographed visiting her boyfriend, a dancer with another group, by the tabloid weekly Shukan Bunshun. (Justin McCurry, the Guardian’s excellent Japan correspondent, outlines the case here). AKB48 – a corporate entity with over a hundred members on rotation, trainee teams, a vast advertising and promotional machine working its image constantly – bans its members from forming relationships. This isn’t the first controversy involving ordinary human relations and swift, public punishment, and there are bound to be more.

I was in a small and deserted pub in Nagasaki the other night, and, making small talk, expressed my sympathy for Minegishi with the owner. It seems inhuman, I said, to punish a young person for such a harmless failing; aren’t stars to be allowed love lives? Think of the fans, the bar’s owner told me; they deserve their fantasies. That’s what they’re investing in when they buy AKB48, she told me; this pedestrian image of an ordinary reality robs them of the screen onto which they’re able to project their own dreams.

Those dreams – of purity, I suppose, or of an alternate personal identity – are carefully cultivated by the Idol industry. This video confession, another form of personal autonomy erased, another act on the way towards immersing herself into the screen image of the Idol, works these dreams further. If we can’t have our fantasy tracks we’ll get the pleasures of another’s humiliation, another’s hurt.

A shaved head.  It’s not an uncommon sight in Japan, and any given Saturday has any number of school sports club members jogging together with their freshly-shaved heads, symbols of renewal, contrition occasionally, new beginnings. But Minegishi’s face draws this symbolism across a tighter mesh of associations: it’s sexuality evoked and denied, a way of rendering something (someone) invisible by drawing attention to her loss, a stark illustration of the Idol world in all its absent features.

What better image for the culture industry than the Idol? Mass-produced bands, wrought out of factories super-exploiting young talent and degrading individuals’ musical and social urges the better to fit them into the product – the Idol industry offers a soundtrack to Japanese capitalism.

Johnny Kitagawa, master of the Idol factory Johnny & Associates, makes this soundtrack explicitly. He told a recent interviewer of his inspiration visiting the United States in the 1960s:

In those days, Japanese boys were not expected to dance like the boys in that film … Japan had succeeded in developing its own technologies to manufacture cameras, television sets and automobiles, but when I saw ‘West Side Story,’ I thought Japan lagged behind America in terms of show business.

Japan has caught up, for sure, as show business becomes a major export industry, J-Pop working its way across East Asia and beyond.

This music is a social product as much as a social symptom. Unlike anarchic, dissident rock figures of an earlier, politically-engaged era – Masato Tomobe my favourite here, amongst many others – Idols offer the promise of music’s links to sexuality while at the same time denying and re-routing those libidinal energies into commercially useful patterns.

The Japanese social formation, as is well known, has long been characterised by the opposite of Marcuse’s thesis on ‘repressive desublimation’ – along with a low birth rate, various surveys and social studies suggest that Japan has one of the most sexually unhappy and underconfident populations internationally. Long, stressful work hours, a lack of privacy, overcrowded housing; barriers to intimacy form in the very organisation of corporate capitalism. Minegishi’s sin, in this social world, if not her punishment, is not all that different from the judgment a salaryman leaving work early to see his family might face. She has allowed emotional attachment to distract her from her intended primary drive and direction: the factory, the workplace, the mission, AKB48.

Birth rates and fertility are a quite different question, to be sure. As feminist economists have argued, women’s declining birth rate is no necessary ‘problem’ and it will in many cases represent a conscious, and political, choice. Harder to measure, or discuss, is intimacy and sexuality more generally.

The colonisation of nature and the unconscious continues apace. The lack of space, and the organisation of space in a country where it is normal still for young people to live with their parents until marriage, produces opportunities for further commodification of private life. Love hotels across the country offer rates for a ‘rest’ or a ‘stay’. For many, to find a place for privacy without access to rooms and space in their own home it is necessary to be able to pay, to enter into the consumer relationship, to commodify relations.

This is to do with sex and sexual pleasure, of course, but also with the whole range of private activities people enjoy with their partners: lying around, chatting, talking about Wittgenstein, giving massages, reading aloud. In a densely populated, highly urbanised country where it is very difficulty to be alone together the regulation of this kind of desire takes on a particular importance. This is to say nothing of the particular difficulties of same sex couples or others who do not fit heterosexist expectations.

In her apology Minegishi states that she doesn’t expect forgiveness and that she is entirely at fault in failing to be a role model for younger members. Her’s is a failure of sublimation, libidinal or emotional energy being ‘spent’ in unproductive relation when it should have been directed into Idol production. This is the secret, it seems to me, bigoted conservative Christians unwittingly blurt out when they insist marriage is ‘about’ procreation: sexual relation, intimacy, physical pleasure with another is fun precisely because it has no definable end, but functions as a kind of emotional surplus, sharing, and generosity. None of that – none of that idleness – can be allowed to distract from the work of the Idol.

Minegishi’s public humiliation exposes AKB48’s managers as thugs, bullies and petty tyrants, certainly, and shows the deeper rottenness of their entire industry. It came the same week as Ryuji Sonoda, head coach of the Japan’s women’s judo team, was forced to resign for physically abusing players. It comes after years of scandals surrounding abuse and bullying damaged the standing of sumo. This isn’t a national crisis, or not yet, but it is a series of pointers and signs, indications of profound and widespread social problems involving hierarchy, violence and control.

My comments, I should stress, are nothing to do with Japanese culture so-called: it is economics, politics, and class struggle I’m discussing. Japan’s post-war reconstruction was built around an export-led economy servicing the hegemonic power in a Permanent Arms Economy. This strategy required Japan’s rulers to keep domestic consumption low, controlling Japanese workers through requiring high levels of personal savings and low levels of expenditure. That, combined with a housing industry dominated by profiteering, cheap and poorly-planned living spaces built for corporate needs, and the involvement of organised crime, built the kinds of cities that now make human contact so difficult. It is not just writers, socialists should insist, who need a room of one’s own.

‘Standardisation’, for Adorno, was the ‘fundamental characteristic of popular music’. The Idol industry mirrors the overcrowded, repressed, crisis-ridden social order of the Japanese worker. Minami Minegishi stands, then, as something of a representative figure.

What then of resistance? There’s little to take from this video confession other than hurt, but, as it kept playing through the news updates last week, a memory resurfaced from childhood.

In 1992 Sinead O’Connor appeared on Saturday Night Live and, at the end of her performance of Bob Marley’s ‘War’, tore up a picture of the Pope, declaring ‘fight the real enemy’. The bizarre, measured intensity and audacity of the gesture struck me at the time. She paid a price; fans booed her a fortnight later, NBC apologised in the usual spineless fashion.

O’Connor had changed Marley’s lyrics to make the song about child abuse. Her symbolic assault on the Pope and the Catholic Church was, as we see all too clearly now, a piece of political analysis and commentary as much as a provocation. It was an act of bravery and clarity, her shaved head a declaration of independence.

Who could have imagined then, twenty years ago, that Ireland, conservative, devout, hierarchical and ordered, would be the place where child abuse victims confronted priests during Mass, where the whole social order seems, in just a few years, to have changed unrecognisably? O’Connor’s gesture takes on a quite different status viewed as part of that struggle and that history.

O’Connor was in her mid-twenties when she took that stand. Minegishi is twenty. What will her confession look like to our future? Who will fight the real enemy?


Dougal McNeill

Dougal McNeill teaches postcolonial literature and science fiction at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. He also blogs at Nae Hauf-Way Hoose and is an editor of Socialist Review. He’s currently writing a book on politics, modernist literature and the 1926 General Strike in Britain. He tweets as @Lismahago.

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  1. A somewhat depressing but necessary read – except for the Love Hotels “to talk about Wittgenstein” bit.

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