• Sun. Mar 3rd, 2024

Japan Subculture Research Center

A guide to the Japanese underworld, Japanese pop-culture, yakuza and everything dark under the sun.

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akb48 black companies

One of the first things you’ll notice about the Japanese – men AND women – is the apparent lack of awareness regarding issues like gender and racial discrimination, worker exploitation, social injustice and other stuff that have western observers of our culture taking one look and scratching their heads. That stuff about a member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly yelling out harassment remarks to a female politician while the Assembly was actually in session? I regret to have to tell you that such incidents are way too familiar to the average Japanese to sink in below sea level. It’s only when someone else (i.e., a westerner) is looking at us that we come to our senses and profess to be shocked. Otherwise, well, we’re too busy working and being exploited and having our Constitution rewritten to suit the hawkish inclinations of the current Prime Minister. But I digress.

Meet The New Zegen 女衒 (Sex merchants)  Same As The Old Zegen 

AKB48 aren't just a band of teenage girls creepily sexually exploited by a money-grubbing management team that includes an ex-yakuza associate, they're also symbols of how badly workers in Japan get screwed over--in every way.
AKB48 aren’t just a band of teenage girls creepily sexually exploited by a money-grubbing management team that includes an ex-yakuza associate, they’re also symbols of how badly workers in Japan get screwed over–in every way.

Shohei Sakakura, author of “AKB 48 and the Black Companies (AKB48と日本のブラック企業)” – is one of those rare Japanese with the mindset of a western intellectual. As editor-in-chief of Posse magazine, Sakakura first alerted the public to the presensce and prevalance, of black companies.  Until then, most of us thought it was kind of normal in a Japanese way, to put in “service overtime (サービス残業)” hours, meaning we accepted the fact of working in the office until dawn without getting paid it. We also accepted getting laid off without notice, no maternity or paternity leaves, discrimination against women, sexual and moral harassment in the workplace, poor wages and did I mention no overtime pay? 

To the Japanese, work proffers its own reward and justification and with news of the unraveling global economy we were grateful to be able to work at all. Of course the majority of the Japanese KNOW exploitation exists, and that this was one of things that was wrong with the country and the rest of the world. This is why we have so many “izakaya (pubs)” around – where else to drown our sorrows  but in beer stains? 

And now AKB 48, in case you didn’t know, is the brain child of Yasushi Akimoto, aka the King Midas of the Japanese entertainment industry. Everything he touches has turned to gold – unfortunately, the gold stays firmly tucked in his pocket without benefitting the girls he ruthlessly expolits. But there it is – the man certainly knows how to make a yen from peddling idoru fantasies to love-starved males with glasses and bad skin.  

Who IS Akimoto anyway? Sakakura’s book doesn’t do much digging about the man – he just assumes that the Japanese know who Akimoto is (we do) and leaves it at that. Suffice to say, Yasushi Akimoto is what 50 years ago many older Japanese would describe as a “Zegen 女衒”or merchant who dealt exclusively in young women. A Zegen was the middleman who bought and sold girls (often with the express consent of the parents) to the sex trade and entertainment industry and too bad for the Japanese that no one bothered to distinguish between the two until the GHQ came along to tell us Nooooo, they were different. (Okay, we got that now.) The GHQ also did much to stomp out the Zegen operating in and around Tokyo but the middlemen simply went on doing what they did, and took on another name: “entertainment producer.” From sex shows and strip houses to brothels and the euphemistically called “bars,” the Zegen had their fingers in all the right pies (yuck), and kept the best for entertainment industry, which had direct pipeline to the yakuza.

Girls from the country, whose parents couldn’t afford to send them to school or arrange good marriages, came to Tokyo in droves and were snapped up by a Zegen producer or another. The lucky ones made it to the TV screen and when that no longer worked, were taken down a few notches to serve as bar hostesses or cabaret dancers, and eventually wound up in a brothel. It was the oldest story in the book, repeated ad nauseum. 

Yasushi Akimoto was a Zegen with a vision – having never been popular in high school himself, he recognized the deep sexual frustration and vast need for sexual fantasies festering in the educated and dateless Japanese male. When he came out with “Onyanko Club” in the mid-1980s, people were blinded by the sheer genius of this man. Here he was, peddling quite ordinary high school girls on TV, who all got up on the studio stage to teasingly sing “oh please don’t take my school uniform off, no-no-no!” to an audience who could never hear such titillating pleas when they were 18 so was totally stoked to hear it now, from a gaggle of winking girls all beckoning SIMULTANEOUSLY. 

Needless to say, the Onyanko went “viral” long before the Internet came along and deep down, we suspected that if Akimoto wasn’t around to appease the Otaku populace with these girls and their pleated skirts, the nation’s sex crime rate would soar drastically. 

Akimoto subsequently married an Onyanko (and he was too smart to pick the prettiest of the lot, but went for a quiet, mediocre type) and settled down in his idol manufacturing kingdom. Then he unleashed AKB 48 to the Japanese public – which basically means 48 Girls in Akihabara. These girls were grass roots level – they had no connections, no prestige, and was willing to work till they dropped. Most telling of all, they were excessively and agressively, ordinary. 

In his book Sakakura lays bare disturbing but familiar facts: Akimoto treats the girls like fast food workers – hiring and firing in bulk, with hourly wages to match. The ones in the coveted “center position” are the prettiest, and supposedly the best dancers with the best paychecks but the vast crowd of girls behind the stars — they’re mired in obscurity. And once the girls “graduate” (i.e., fired) from the group, they’re left with no skills or abilities and their detour into the sex trade is a lot swifter than the days of Onyanko. 

Yasushi Akimoto is a Zegen through and through – he’s found a way to cash in on the criticisms and problems within the AKB, by having the girls sing songs (written by him of course) about revolution, sacrifice and worker exploitation. For Akimoto, even capitalist irony works in his favor. Karl Marx is puking in his grave. 

Sakakura writes that though he’s not an AKB fan per se, he does sympathize with the plight of the girls and sees them as a micro reflection of the huge labor problems that continue to erode Japan’s supposedly peaceful and egalitarian society. And let’s not forget that the PM is a HUGE fan – but then Japan’s highest political leader seems to love it when young people are put in situations where they have to fight and bleed and claw their way to survival. To him, “that’s the true Japanese spirit.” Yeah, right. 

Note: Asahi.com did a good interview with the author about and article about his book.  His comments are elucidating.


*Jake Adelstein contributed to this article. He seriously dislikes Akimoto. Almost as much as he dislikes one former yakuza gang boss, who has a liver he really shouldn’t have. 

Kaori Shoji

Kaori Shoji is a film critic for the Japan Times and write about fashion and society as well. 欧米の出版物に記事を執筆するフリーランス・ジャーナリスト。The Japan Times、The International Herald Tribune、Zoo Magazineへ定期的に記事を寄稿している。

37 thoughts on “AKB48: A Microcosm Of Dark Corporate Japan. Sexual exploitation of child labor is sooo cute. (Book review)”
    1. “Is there any evidence that any of the girls in AKB48 ended up in brothels?”


      “heir detour into the sex trade is a lot swifter than the days of Onyanko” I would like to see where the proof regarding this claim is, though I doubt it exists…

        1. Let’s not be silly here, an hyperbole can’t and will never be a reality. The entirety of those members who don’t make it big just return to their private civilian life, this is unfortunately (for you) the plain facts. The “swift detour to porn” you’re mentioning like it’s common knowledge isn’t even reflected in absolute numbers, and you’ll have a hard time convincing anybody how the whole idea of “detouring” former members into porn would do the group any good in light of hiring new members.
          About the girl mentioned in the link, the last group she was part of before taking the way to porn wasn’t even AKB but this one
          Yet apparently someone found it much more appealing to keep calling her a 元AKB48 than a 元なないろファンタジー, to find out why you simply have got to look at yourself: it’s the same reason why nobody would’ve even bothered to look at this article if it mentioned any group lesser known than AKB48.

        2. That’s only three out of over 100 who graduated or left before graduation. While I’m hardly a fan of the way the music industry treats it’s talent, the suggestion that many of the women who leave AKB48 end up in the sex industry in one form or another seems to be bunkum.

          1. It’s a polemic. Many of them end up as hostesses or in japan’s “water business.”

  1. It is honestly hard if not impossible for a first-time reader to discern exactly which part of this so-called article is a genuine review of the book and which other is just a confused rant of a bitter feminist with barely any background knowledge to pass judgement (especially negatively). I’m already spotting many tired cliches that are seemingly common among detractors of idol showbiz here in the West, but which Japanese commentators are too clued-in to even consider.
    Thankfully I’m not stopping at this simplistic review and reading the book description on Amazon and all the related reviews from the readers I get the clear impression that you were probably lying about having read the book at all.
    From the description given by the publisher itself, I see that isn’t even some sort of impressive tell-all book about AKB48 but actually “an analysis of the labour market as a whole, done by taking inspirations from the lyrics of 50 selected AKB songs”. Not that I haven’t already seen other derivative works riding on AKB’s namesake in order to present something completely different, but color me surprised. So that means you should rather be thankful to Mr. Yasushi for actively raising awareness on these issues by voluntarily incorporating a message into his lyrics, instead of making dismissive statements (and mind you, I know this puerile behavior is borne out of ignorance) that obviously deviate from the book’s real purpose.
    Even then it still seems from reader’s opinions that even those comparisons between the cozy world of showbusiness as simplified into AKB48 and the world of manual laborers (which Sakakura is apparently championing for with his work) are essentially incompatible and only end up cheapening the struggles of the latter, so so much for the emotional impact.
    Addendum: the note at the bottom of this article “thanking” the Jewish contributor really blow the true intentions open, making no secret that the whole piece is a propaganda written in bad faith. Considering how the group is nearing its 8 anniversary I’d say there’s a quite a ton of homework still left undone (for you), and I’m afraid that no amount of uncalled-for shock-factor vocabulary can actually replace a much-needed firsthand research. Get working.

    1. OMG. “Jewish contributor””Propaganda”. Maybe you should go home and complain to your blow-up doll. She might listen. She loves you. Just make sure she wasn’t made in Israel.

  2. So, three members out of approximately 50 or so girls that have left the band? I mean, sure, ideally it should be zero but calling Akimoto a zengen and putting him on par with Occupation era prostitution bosses?

    And really? Japanese intellectuals are blind to Western methods and never think about their cultural critically?

    And otaku being, somehow, responsible for the majority of sex crimes?

    Is this author being disingenuous for effect or do they honestly believe this?

    Where do we start with this drek? If you’re going to make serious accusations and broad claims, perhaps you should practice a little of that so called “western” intellectualism and back up your writing with researched data.

    I’ve read Mr. Adelstein’s work before. This is clearly a drop in quality compared to his previous stuff. Good thing he’s just a contributor.

    1. He makes his money off of selling the sexuality of the girls. He doesn’t force them to have sex; he forces them not to have sex, keeps the bulk of the money and sells the suckers dreams that the girls really like them and someday might be his. It’s a polemic. Look up polemic to get a better sense of what one is.

      1. Is polemic your word of the day or something? Secondly, how is “selling the sexuality of girls” and giving them a meagre allowance, no releationships clause in contracts etc any different to the wider idol industry in Japan or even how many girl pop groups are marketed and treated in Korea? Thirdly, you didn’t answer my question I posed before; where is the evidence that the majority of ex-AKB48 talent end up in any sort of “undesirable” work be it sex work or end up as hostesses? You made the claims, the onus is on you to provide the evidence. Continually saying “polemic” like a robot isn’t really a sufficient answer.

        1. Matthew, I’m sorry if I seemed flippant.
          First of all, it’s a book review/op-ed piece. The assumption is that the book is correct.
          Secondly, it’s meant to be provacative and is written partly in dark jest. I’m fine with the article as it is.
          I’m not an expert on Korean pop groups nor is Ms. Shoji.
          Yes, what you say about the idol industry is generally true. But the book is about AKB48–the idol industry in general is exploitive. But it’s not a book called 「アイドルとブラック企業」. The nature of a polemic is to exxagerate things to make a point. It’s primarily a book review and her opinions–
          (I didn’t write the book nor the review but did edit it)-not an investigative piece. The book argues that post AKB48 life is not good. Please read it and speak to the author. I’m not the fact-checker for the book either.
          And yes, “polemic” is the word of the day.

  3. “Needless to say, the Onyanko went “viral” long before the Internet came along and deep down, we suspected that if Akimoto wasn’t around to appease the Otaku populace with these girls and their pleated skirts, the nation’s sex crime rate would soar drastically. ”

    Thank you doctor, so what’s your diagnosis of a place like america where there certainly isn’t the same preponderance of “educated and dateless” people with “deep sexual frustration” and yet the rape rate is orders of magnitude higher? If all you can see is the reflection of a culture then I’m sure the explanation is going to find fault in the culture.


  4. […] Aside from their sexually provocative songs and presentation, the AKB48 way of doing business has been criticized for being damaging to the Japanese domestic music industry, plus the merchandising exploitative to consumers. There have also been accusations of sexual hypocrisy (members aren’t allowed boyfriends and get punished for infringements) and links between its management and the mafia. […]

  5. I, unlike some commenters it seems, found this review both interesting and enlightening. It seems Sakakura brings to light what everyone suspects is going on, but also hopes isn’t true. The abhorrent labor conditions are ignored (both in this industry and others) if not enthusiastically encouraged, thanks to people like Akimoto.

    Also, someone tried to parallel Korean pop stars to AKB48 and other idol group spinoffs, but I think there’s a couple of important distinctions. Though both are overly sexualized (though what woman isn’t in the music industry), K-pop group members tend to be older when they start in the biz and, more importantly, are portrayed and marketed as *women*, not sexualized pre-pubescent little girls. The mannerisms and general behavior of the (J-idol) members is the main stickler for me, and creates a dangerous image of so-called “blurred lines”. (In quotation marks because there is no such thing. There’s “yes”, and there’s everything else, which equates to “no”ーsimple as that.)

  6. don’t put the lid on the kettle….we all know this is exploitation, but its OK, why?
    they signed a contract, they must know what they already signed up, after that, whatever the agree or not, they must obey and follow, moving all those body, mind and soul as instructed, they all have been trained to seduce the audience. To attract them so they can generate money. This is the life they choose. The life of idol. Some of those girl out there are even willingly to work their body to be idol, you know “pillow business”. That is why some of them a labeled 3 grade lower from any artist in existent. Still they need to do what need to be done because that is the way as it’s, unless, someone came and change it, of course, that person will get assassinated later, that person will be lucky if still lives. This is black industry we talking about (yakuza).

  7. As a gay guy, the exploitative sexualization of these girls does nothing for me; I like the music and only see them as singers ^_^

  8. While I hold roughly the same opinion on the degree to which AKB48 exploits it’s workers and fans, this review suffers from a serious lack of facts. There are lots of opinions, but there doesn’t appear to be any numbers to back them up. Where are the individual stories of girls who graduated? Do a large number of graduates actually go on to work in the sex industry? Is AKB48 girls actual worse off then other idols or similar child stars? I don’t know. This review doesn’t tell me.

    There is a great documentary/story out there, but someone is going to have to do the hard work of interviewing the actual women and telling their stories.

    1. Bradley, it’s a book review and not an investigative article. That’s the scope of it. There is certainly more to write.

      1. I read the book and it’s nothing like what it’s in the review. I doubt people replying in this comment section are even aware of it or even care to have purchased the book, but there it is.
        Basically the book author works under the premise that Akimoto loves tackling on social and youh problems in his lyrics so he must also be hiding hints on how to solve them.
        The book is essentially the author analyzing 50 songs from AKB. He looks back at some events of AKB’s history in chronological order (sousenkyo results, shuffles, janken tournaments, what have you), and tries to make a feeble comparison to the condition of the labor market. Since he reasons that the encouragements that Akimoto wrote for the members in his lyrics at that time can be also applied to workers as a whole, he tries to find out whether there’s a lesson to be learned from them considering the time period. At the end of the book, he even comes to praise Koisuru Fortune Cookie for being the ultimate social work song.
        If anything, the entire book comes across a bit too brown-nosing toward Akimoto, even painting him as a champion of social struggle.
        So, in short, can you please stop hiding behind the “it’s just a book reviewer” excuse, please? It’s intellectually dishonest to bring up words and concepts that Sakakura never once wrote in his essay in order to justify your preconceptions as correct. From the look of it, you didn’t even begin to read the dust jacket. Do your work for once. If you are too lazy, there’s even a nice summation of Sakakura argument starting from page 271, which is nothing like the nonsense that Adelstein and his companion wrote here.

        1. I don’t think we read the book the same way. This is from the Asahi’s review of the book. People can read the book and this and then decide for themselves. AKBとブラック企業問題には通底するものがあるという。一つはAKB自体の労働問題。恋愛が発覚したメンバーの丸刈り事件は記憶に新しい。大量採用で大量脱退、卒業後も芸能界でやっていけるスキルはなかなか身につかず、使い捨てにしているだけでは、という批判もある。

  9. Great book review.

    As an AKB48 fan, I have to admit that the nasty truth behind Japanese entertainment industry is sickening. For one, most of the entertainment agencies are run by the ex-bike gang members (Kanto Union) or the Yakuza, both of whom have special relationship with the political and the banking elites.

    There are rumors and sightings of AKB48 members going into bars (owned by ex-Kanto Union member, equipped with a shower and beds) with important entertainment industry figures, and come out the next morning.

    To get a media push, it’s a well-known fact for the agency to satisfy the demand from major broadcasting executives for sexual service from agency’s female entertainers, including minors.

    I heard that the AV (adult video) world is “cleaner” than the regular entertainment industry in Japan, in this respect (i.e. requiring minors to have group orgy with rich old men).

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