TOKYO - A member of a hugely popular Japanese girl band has shaved her head and issued a tearful videotaped apology for violating the megagroup's no-dating rule, sparking a national debate over whether the band's management exerts too much control over its performers.
Pictures of Minami Minegishi in closely-cropped hair have been splashed across Japanese newspapers and triggered heated discussion on Twitter and television talk shows. The 20-year-old made the video, posted on the group AKB48's website, after she was caught by a gossip magazine leaving a boy's apartment.
AKB48, made up of more than 90 girls and young women divided into several teams, forbids its members from dating to project a clean image and signal their devotion to the group and their mostly male fans. Minegishi belonged to one of the top teams, but her manager announced her demotion to the bottom-ranked "research student" status.
In her nearly four-minute video released on the group's Internet site, a tearful Minegishi, shorn of her silky black hair, sobbed hard and pleaded with her fans to let her stay with the band. She said she shaved her head as an act of contrition to her "thoughtless and irresponsible behavior."
"I don't think this is enough to get your forgiveness for what I did, but the first thing that came to my mind was I don't want to quit AKB48," Minegishi said. "This is maybe wishful thinking, but if it's all possible, I wish to stay as part of AKB. It's entirely my fault. I am truly sorry."
She lowered her head for a long eight seconds in the video, which has since been removed from the AKB site.
The group denied forcing her to cut her hair.
"If you ask me whether it was necessary for her to shave her head, I would say it wasn't," said AKB manager Tomonobu Togasaki in a statement. "But Minegishi said she felt strongly about it."
Others questioned whether any member of the group would have been allowed to take such a drastic step of her own accord.
"Was it a witch hunt or a marketing strategy?" asked Hideomi Tanaka, an economist and AKB fan. "If the latter, I've had enough of such calculated actions. What we want to see is idols, not bullying."
Minegishi's apparent misery prompted comments likening her head shaving to corporal punishment, which has rocked Japan since a high school basketball player committed suicide recently after being beaten up by his coach.
AKB is arguably Japan's most popular pop group. It performs almost every day at its own theater in Tokyo and has spawned affiliates across the country and in Indonesia, China and Taiwan. The singing and dancing aren't always perfect, and the group's ever-changing members are hard to keep track of. But fans view them as friends or sisters, not out-of-reach superstars who date other celebrities.
Minegishi damaged that myth when Weekly Bunshun magazine reported on Jan. 31 that she had spent the night with a 19-year-old member of a boy band last month, and published photos showing her leaving his apartment wearing a baseball cap and surgical mask.
Traditionally, head shaving is a serious way of showing contrition, though rare among women. Minegishi is reportedly the first girl idol to do so in Japanese entertainment, where dating and love scandals are taboo.
Experts say the penalty was distasteful and raises human rights questions.
"This is too much ... Even a criminal defendant wouldn't have to shave her head," said Hisamichi Okamura, a lawyer and expert in information and networking. Kazuko Ito, another lawyer and a rights group leader, said the case underscored the exploitation of girl idols in the male-dominated society.
Minegishi is the latest AKB member caught in a scandal. Last year, Rino Sashihara, 20, was forcibly transferred to a less-prestigious AKB affiliate in southern Japan over a love scandal. Recently, another girl had to cancel a planned photo album that contained a photo showing a little boy covering her bare breasts from behind, raising questions of child pornography.
A sociologist and media critic Hiroki Azuma said it's all part of AKB business.
"Whether positive or negative, the more news is better for AKB. That's the cult of AKB system and how they make money," he tweeted.