The recent arrest of the mother of a Japanese pop idol for sex with a minor raises questions on how the media here handles such high-profile cases.
Usually, if someone who is related to a tarento (TV personality), or other type of celebrity, is arrested in Japan, the shukanshi (weekly gossip magazines) almost always report the names of the celebrities — though major TV news programs and newspapers don't always reveal this information.
Last week, this was the case when Shukan Bunshun reported in its Feb. 16 issue (on sale Thursday) that the 44-year-old mother of Minami Takahashi (20), a leading member of the idol group AKB48, had been arrested on suspicion of having sex with a 15-year-old boy.
Despite the apparent newsworthiness of the story, however, some major TV news programs and newspapers, including the sports tabloids, opted not to report the incident at all. Meanwhile, Kyodo News, Jiji Press, Sankei Shimbun newspaper and the Nikkei newspaper reported the arrest but simply described the arrested woman as the "mother of an AKB48 member," without specifically mentioning Takahashi.
The Japan Times attempted to confirm the identity of the woman by contacting Minami Takahashi's agency Production Ogi and the Metropolitan Police Department, but at time of publication neither had agreed to reveal that information.
Japanese showbiz commentators have reacted to the issue by raising the question: Why there was such a difference in how the news was treated?
Shukan Bunshun, for its part, was not immediately forthcoming with its reason for revealing the name of the woman's daughter. Meanwhile, other mainstream media claim to have had a legitimate reason for their reticence.
The woman was arrested in mid-January, and by the time the story broke a court had already handed down a ruling of sex with a minor — fining her a mere ¥500,000. Having sex with a minor is considered statutory rape in Japan and can carry a prison term of several years. It has been suggested that the punishment was so light because the boy himself had "aggressively seduced" the woman, and allegedly she reluctantly agreed to have sex with him.
A Kyodo News editor told The Japan Times that the wire news company decided not to identify the daughter by name because it "needed" to protect the privacy of the arrested woman. As far as Kyodo was concerned the incident had already been solved. The woman is no longer a suspect nor a defendant, and the media should not do anything to keep her from moving on with her life, the editor said.
"This is a classic case in which the media should not report a real name," he said.
Other mainstream media outlets that, like Kyodo, identified the pop group but not the daughter are understood to have done so for similar reasons.
The issue here, though, is that media outlets are claiming that their intention was not to respect the privacy of the daughter, Minami Takahashi, but to protect her mother. This is odd, however, as in similar cases in the past, such as when a man or a woman has been arrested for rape or sex with a minor in exchange for money, the accused is almost always named in the media. However, the seriousness of a crime is also believed to be a determining factor in disclosing names of crime suspects.
According to the Shukan Bunshun article, the 15-year-old boy, an acquaintance of the woman's son (Minami Takahashi's brother), told the Metropolitan Police Department about his relationship with the woman during an interrogation for other criminal acts he had allegedly conducted. The boy was being questioned on suspicion of assault, as he had allegedly participated in the beating of another boy in October.
The magazine cited an unnamed source as saying the woman and the boy had had sex several times at a love hotel near her house in Hachioji, western Tokyo.
The police quoted the woman herself as saying, "We did it several times after he repeatedly asked for it," according to Shukan Bunshun, Kyodo News and other media.
Following the Shukan Bunshun article, the topic was picked up on the Internet by bloggers and Twitter users who were quick to point out the lack of media coverage the story was getting. Some even suggested that the advertising revenue generated by AKB48 may have been enough reason to keep sections of the media quiet — AKB48 appears in countless advertisements for many products.
One of those critical of the Japanese mass media's response to the incident is columnist and tarento critic Akio Nakamori — who is also credited with being the first to report on the world of otaku, back in 1983.
"AKB48 fans and young children know from information on the Internet that Minami Takahashi's mother was arrested. But TV news programs and other mass media behave as if the news did not exist. It sends the message that the Japanese mass media is not trustworthy," he said in a tweet on Wednesday night.
"I would understand if the media refrained from reporting all the scandals of celebrities' relatives, lovers and other noncelebrity people. But the current media refrain from reporting such cases involving [celebrities belonging to the talent agency] Johnny's and AKB, and bash all other celebrities."
Nakamori may have a point. Is it a coincidence that the woman's identity was kept hidden or was it the mass media's self-censorship in consideration of AKB48's popularity?