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When a teen pop star breaks J-pop 'bushido' code

By Peter Shadbolt for CNN
February 5, 2013 -- Updated 0025 GMT (0825 HKT)
  • Shaven-headed star of J-pop sensation AKB48 makes tearful admission on YouTube
  • Apology does not prevent her demotion within the ranks of wildly popular Japanese girl bands
  • Producer Yasushi Akimoto denies accusations he is sexualizing young girls
  • Bands have been a goldmine, grossing 16.28 billion yen ($212 million) in 2011

(CNN) -- If Japanese starlet Minami Minegishi's shaven head and tearful mea culpa looked more like a disgraced samurai trying to retrieve his honor, then it owes much to Japanese pop phenomenon "AKB48's" military structure.

Complete with four main divisions of girl performers, the J-pop sensation have their own theater training camps, a sub-corps of as many as 14 sister groups, a rigid order of succession and a strict code of conduct.

READ: Attending a North Korean school ... in Japan

The bubblegum empire even has foreign territorial ambitions, with a base set to be established in Singapore and sister groups now located in Indonesia, Taiwan and China.

But on Friday, Minegishi's tearful admission that she had broken the group's "no romance" bushido revealed serious cracks in the façade of J-pop's standing army.

Shaving her head -- considered a ritual act of contrition in Japan -- Minegishi described her actions as "thoughtless and immature" in a four-minute video posted on YouTube that was viewed more than 3 million times. The Japanese weekly tabloid Shukan Bunshun had earlier reported that she spent a night at the flat of Alan Shirahama, a member of the boy band, "Generations."

"If it is possible, I wish from the bottom of my heart to stay in the band," she said. "Everything I did is entirely my fault. I am so sorry.

"I don't believe just doing this means I can be forgiven for what I did, but the first thing I thought was that I don't want to quit AKB48," she said before concluding the admission with a deep bow.

The apology did little to assuage management, who withdrew Minegishi's commission, demoting her to "trainee status," according to the band's blog. Meanwhile, the scandal has been avidly taken up by Japan's voracious tabloid media.

"It's perfect. It's an endless source of fodder to fill magazines and now they have one that went all Britney," said an industry source who asked not to be identified.

Now they have one that went all Britney
Music industry source

AKB48 comprises four teams of around 20 members who rotate to play at the AKB48 theater in Tokyo's Akhibara, where the group takes its name. The concept allows one team to perform while the others tour, promote or record. With 88 members in the band, it is registered in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest band in the world.

The brainchild of the group's Yasushi Akimoto, the bands have been a goldmine, grossing 16.28 billion yen ($212 million) in 2011 in CD and DVD sales alone, according to compiler Oricon.

With American Idol style auditions that continually renew the ranks of the teams, the girls aged from14 to 20 either "graduate" to become solo artists within Akimoto's swelling stable of performers, or they simply take early retirement. "Misbehavior," as it's deemed in the group, merits expulsion or in the case of Minegishi, demotion.

The groups are now so popular that tickets for the daily performances are allocated on a lottery system. Akimoto says he wanted to create a concept where the audience could meet their idols, and the groups regularly hold "handshake events" where the audience gets to "high-five" the performers on the way into the show.

While AKB48 may seemed to be pitched at Japanese teens, the audience is usually made up of Japanese salarymen -- a phenomenon not lost on Akimoto who has been criticized for sexualizing young women. Video clips show performers in skimpy miniskirts, passing food from mouth to mouth or taking baths together.

"It's the same as art versus obscenity," Akimoto told CNN. "It's up to personal judgment on how we perceive it."

But with song lyrics that run: "I want to take off my school uniform, I want to misbehave, You can do whatever you like, I want to experience adult pleasure," Akimoto has been accused of feeding the teen schoolgirl fetish.

"They're not reading their diaries," said Akimoto, defending the performers. "It's about acting.

"For example, there's a song called Despised Love. This song is asking why junior high school kids kill themselves ... unless I take up the issues these girls are facing as a songwriter the issues won't get addressed.

"There are kids out there who want to take off their school uniforms and misbehave, and I'm depicting realities in their lives in which they wonder whether it's okay to think that way.

"I'm not forcing them. I'm picturing their private lives partly based on my imagination or newspaper articles or TV news reports. I watch what their generation is doing -- the issues of bullying, suicide, or traps with sugar daddies."

CNN's Alex Zolbert contributed to this report.

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