Arama They Didn't

1:30 pm - 01/22/2013

AKB48: Unionize and take back your lost love lives


They started performing on stages in Tokyo's Akihabara electronics district, and today their ubiquity is unrivaled. The current flavors of the month pepper the TV schedules and covers of weekly magazines all year round. In Tokyo, you can't swing a carrot without hitting a giant poster of one or a bunch of the all-grinning, all-dancing "Vegetable Sisters." AKB48 are, hands down, the busiest and most successful girl group in Japan.

Their management prohibits the girls from having romantic relationships, with a contract clause stating that "Unrequited love is permissible, but you cannot return the affection." Several members have been pushed to resign or "graduate" after photos leaked out revealing the girl was dating.

Quite recently, the much-loved Yuka Masuda announced her sudden resignation from the group after stepping over the no-love-life line. Photos splashed all over a weekly magazine suggested she had spent the night at a male celebrity's home. Though not officially "dismissed," it is clear that decisions in her personal life cost her her job.

Although not all scholars agree, I believe even celebrities such as AKB48 members are protected by labor standards law. This month I'd like to examine two questions: 1) Does the law permit chastity clauses? and 2) Can an employer fire someone for violating such a rule?

Labor contracts, like all contracts, are predicated on the assumption of agreement between two parties. But that does not mean that anything goes when it comes to their provisions. Four conditions must all be met to legitimize each and every term of a contract: kakuteisei (determinacy), jitsugen kanōsei (achievability), tekihōsei (legality) and shakaiteki datōsei (social justification).

It is the fourth, shakaiteki datōsei , that concerns us in the AKB48 case. This concept entails general ideals of morality and justice, specifically kōjo ryōzoku (public order and morality), a crucial and broadly ranging legal principle enshrined in Article 90 of the Civil Code.

Contract terms that violate kōjo ryōzoku are invalid. Textbook examples include: paying for a crime; terms that violate fundamental human rights, such as gender bias; terms that restrict individual freedom; and those that violate social morals such as human trafficking, prostitution or geisha provisions. While traditional geisha exist within the scope of the law, asking an employee to "entertain" a client does not.

Most would consider it an unjustifiable invasion of privacy if an ordinary company prohibited their employees from taking a lover. Apologists for the AKB48 chastity clause argue that a girl's value as an idol is compromised if it becomes known she has a boyfriend because her job is to "sell fantasies" to male fans. In fact, quite a few fans have commented on chat sites that they felt "betrayed" and "lied to" by AKB members who began dating.

I have a different view. Teenage girls and women in their 20s are at an age when their love life is the most exciting — a time that's arguably the best chance to experience the ups and downs of the adventures of love and life. Their managers and producers surely don't have the right to deprive them of that opportunity.

Some might say that if the girls want love, they shouldn't join the group in the first place. This argument could be and is used by the worst corporate exploiters to justify just about any illegal contract provision.

So can you be fired for violating such a provision, for a reason grounded in your private life? Dismissals must have "objective and rational grounds" (Labor Contract Law, Article 16).

Asahikawa District Court on Dec. 27, 1989, ruled against a company (Hankiko Setsubi) that fired a female employee but not a male one after discovering the two were committing adultery.

Management reasoned that even if it does not interfere with work, "adultery adversely affects the company's moral order, hurts coworkers' motivation, and makes the president lose face." While acknowledging that the woman's actions were illegal and immoral, the court said that only specific damage to the running of the company constitutes hurting the workers' moral order or motivation, a condition not met in this case.

Thus judicial precedent prohibits disciplinary action for problematic personal behavior that has no connection with work duties. Meanwhile, only if such personal actions severely damage a company's overall reputation can they be considered to have seriously damaged the company's moral order.

It is clear that the AKB48 chastity clause fails to meet the court's criteria for legitimate grounds for dismissal.

To members of AKB48: If you want to fight for your right to live and love freely, you'll need solidarity with your fellow band members, so why not establish a union? The "Vegetable Sisters" should be sisters in deed as well as name — not rivals.


dramaticsurgeon 23rd-Jan-2013 12:48 pm (UTC)
A friend showed me a commercial fairly recently of AKB48, with their faces superimposed on the bodies of 6-7 year old girls.

What does that have to do with the no-dating rule? I think that commercial gives a pretty good indication of the image they're expected to project: young, naive/innocent, and forever untainted by the idea of realistic love. A kind of stunted sexuality that's never fully realized. The entire culture is focused on "cute", even when adult sex appeal is involved. That's the image these girls buy into when they join an idol agency; whether it's right or not, it just IS.

Is there a different expectation between female and male idol groups? Hell yes. There's a reason Japan ranked so poorly in the Gender Equality survey. While the girl idols are stuck in perpetual childhood, the guys have a more mature sex appeal as they grow into their 20s and 30s. The girls are expected to leave the idol group in their early to mid 20s. That alone adds pressure to maintain a pristine, untouched image throughout their idol career.

As far as male idols go, well, I get the impression things used to be a little more lax before the Kimutaku suicides. 4 deaths that were seemingly inspired by his marriage rattled the industry enough to tighten the reins, at least on the more popular groups. Again, right or wrong doesn't change the fact that exposed relationships usually end quickly. (Jin's marriage aside.)
monotuned 23rd-Jan-2013 06:14 pm (UTC)
Personally I thought the commercial was harmless, it's like apps where you can superimpose a person's face on something else. I wonder if I under-think or people overthink lol. Not denying that Japanese girl idols are more of the young/cute/ero-young-kawaii type of appeal though.
dramaticsurgeon 23rd-Jan-2013 07:40 pm (UTC)
It's always possible others are overthinking it. But even AKB's so-called scandalous CM where the members passed candy mouth-to-mouth (keeping in mind this is a country where even "indirect kissing" is a still a fairly big deal) seemed more under the guise of "Tee-hee, isn't this cute? We're doing things that might be viewed as sexual or intimate, but we're naive idols so it's really completely innocent!" It just seems, at least to me, the agency is selling the image of innocent young girls who are completely unaware of their own sexuality despite the fact some of their songs ooze with it. To maintain that image, they put the no-dating rule in place.

One day I'd love to see a study from a respectable university about the psychology of idol groups. Both from the fan's AND from the band member's perspective, and cover both girl and boy groups.
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