While some would say the heyday of idol groups like AKB48 has passed, many idols still manage to stand out from the crowd, like the beloved Okada Nana. Yet in less than a week, she went from being the group’s center to announcing her graduation over dating rumors. But why should something so innocuous spell the end of Okada’s impressive decade-long career with AKB48?
Romance = Betraying the Fans?
On November 19, Bunshun Online — which already has a track record of “exposing” idols — published an article and pictures of Okada with actor Ino Hiroki . The two reportedly looked at apartments together and later met up with Okada’s father.
The ensuing backlash was brutal. On November 23, Okada tweeted an apology and announced she will be graduating from the group . She said the staff told her it wasn’t necessary for her to leave. However, she felt it was the best course of action and profusely apologized for “betraying” her fans.
The rather benign scoop led to polarized reactions. Some said idols should be free to have romantic relationships. Others maintain that idols should follow the “love ban” rule, or ren’ai kinshi (恋愛禁止) for the fans’ sake. Many called out Okada’s hypocrisy, citing comments she made in 2017 about changing the group to reward members who work hard and avoid scandals. In one extreme example, a longtime fan destroyed all their Okada merchandise and posted a picture of the shredded remains, proclaiming he’d “taken his life back.”
People are also accusing Okada of queerbaiting. On a TV program in 2016, Okada stated she doesn’t care much about gender when considering romantic partners. This led many to assume she’s bisexual, despite Okada not explicitly stating as such.
Yet judging by the vitriol she’s now receiving, it seems some people can’t compute Okada being both queer and in a relationship with a man. Okada hasn’t publicly stated what her queer identity is. But Bunshun Online has forced her into a situation where she may have to come out sooner than she wanted. If she even planned to.
The (Non)Existence of Ren’ai Kinshi
Prohibitions on smoking and underage drinking are common in the idol world. Restrictions on dating are less explicit. According to journalist Matsutani Souichiro, AKB48 management only strictly enforced the ban from 2008 to 2010. However, its existence clearly continues to make or break idols’ careers. Consequences for breaking it usually involve some form of demotion, dismissal, or graduation.
In 2012, one AKB48 member was shuffled to sister group HKT48 after pictures of her with a former lover surfaced. Perhaps the most shocking incident was with AKB48 member Minegishi Minami, who shaved her head after photos of her with her boyfriend leaked in 2013 .
After Bunshun’s Okada scoop, AKB general manager Mukaichi Mion tweeted about reconsidering the vague rule against having romantic relationships. She then later clarified that while no rule exists, she wants to address the strong public perception of AKB48 operating under such a ban .
However, that may be easier said than done. Matsutani surmises that should agencies clarify the love ban’s ambiguity, they’d lose the core fan demographic of middle-aged and older men who buy into the “pseudo-love” idols provide them.
No Relationship Status = Higher Sales
AKB48 producer Akimoto Yasushi conceptualized AKB48 as “idols you can meet” daily in their own theaters, not just in concerts or on TV. This unprecedented access is contingent upon a nearly perfect idol image. By including tickets to handshake events in CDs, and encouraging multiple purchases, it became imperative for AKB48 members to remain “available” to feed their fans’ devotion .
From a business standpoint, an idol’s romantic relationship could suppress sales. After all, why should fans emotionally and financially invest themselves in idols who aren’t as wholly invested in their fans?
Of course, this kind of parasocial relationship can be healthy. But it can also quickly morph into problematic obsessions.
Take the case of NGT48 member Yamaguchi Maho. Two fans, one of whom the group banned from meet-and-greets due to his behavior, forced their way into her apartment and attempted to rape her. Yamaguchi escaped and bravely went public, only for management to force her to apologize for causing a commotion. Clearly, saving face was more important than an idol’s safety. The onus of perfection remains on the idols, and holding fans accountable seems to be a low priority to agencies.
Okada’s incident may seem like just another idol scandal, but given her strait-laced serious image, this comes as a huge shock to die-hard fans. But as Sadhbh O’Sullivan succinctly writes, “when it comes to parasocial relationships with real people, no amount of projection is going to elevate them beyond the messiness of human existence” .
Okada is just another casualty of what happens when idols are marketed as being above all that messiness, only to be caught as human like the rest of us.
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