The Rule Against Love – Part 2: Saving Face & Keeping Secrets
The “love prohibition” or “love ban”, in Japanese “ren’ai kinshi” (恋愛禁止), is an unwritten rule in the world of Japanese entertainment, most often referring to the world of idols and the expectation that they are not to be publicly involved in romantic relationships. It has often been a point of controversy, especially by outsiders looking in whenever a scandal becomes known but why does it continue to remain in effect? The short answer is that in Japan, keeping up appearances are extremely important, especially if you are famous. If that’s enough for you, or if you already made up your mind to disagree then, you can stop reading here. However, the factors involved are not always so simple and black and white.
As mentioned in Part 1, idols are expected to be friendly and nonthreatening yet appear available; they sell fantasies and dreams to their fans. Even though they may not be as perfectly proportioned physically as supermodels, as interesting as a talk show host, or as dramatic as an actor, idols reach people with their ability to be relatively normal girls. This is one of the reasons that they are often chosen to represent products in advertising campaigns. Celebrities are chosen as “image characters” to represent products or companies in Japan so maintaining a good public image is important. Part of that public image is maintaining the contradictory image of being pure yet potentially available.
It’s easy to oversimplify the issue and to overlook the factors motivating the implementation of such a rule sometimes. Even as Japanese pop culture has become more popular overseas, the fact remains that the bulk of sales come from within the country so, making sure they keep their thousands (millions?) of domestic fans placated will always come first. In order to get a wide range of opinions on this issue, we sent out surveys to several of our contributors and media partners and we got back 20 sets of answers. Due to the mildly overwhelming response, it was decided that one article was not enough to cover everything we wanted to. Additionally, some of the answers given by the over 70 idols who appeared on the New Year’s Day broadcast of the TV show Idol Summit 2016 will be included. In this final installment, we look at the reasons why the rule exists and what might happen if it were lifted.
Here are the participants for our survey.
Academics researching Japanese pop culture: “Dr. Bishojo”, Dr. Jayson M. Chun
Many idols are restricted in their relationships with the opposite sex. In some instances, this is called the “love ban” (ren’ai kinshi). Why do you think that this arrangement exists?
This has to be one of, if not the most discussed issue in regards to Japanese idols. Idol fans no doubt hate to hear about it but, seeing AKB48 member Minami Minegishi on YouTube with her hair cut off after it was reported by the tabloid Shukan Bunshun that she spent the night at the home of EXILE subgroup GENERATIONS member Alan Shirahama, is an image that went around the world. Claims of inhumane treatment by management, rampant sexism in Japanese society, and human rights violations ran wild as the story gained traction, damaging an increasingly insular market in a globalizing world. Since that famous image was shown in the previous article, we will refrain from showing it again.
Out of the responses, the theme of the rule being there to preserve the image of the idol’s purity and/or commitment to their fans came up the most often (12 out of 20 responses). Compared to artists, idols have a much closer relationship with their fans, shaking hands and taking pictures with them before or after they perform on stage. With social media platforms like Twitter, Google+, blogs, and regular webstreaming programs, the level of familiarity is extremely high. Because they are constantly in the public eye and talking about their dreams, loyal fans can watch as they grow and encourage them along the way. While it may be naive to wholeheartedly believe everything that an idol says or writes, a large part of the appeal behind supporting idols is watching someone go after their dreams. Haruka Oba of drop felt that anyone not serious enough to stay out of a relationship for the sake of her career should quit being an idol. Oba was shocked when moments later, her fellow group members Hikari Takiguchi and Misaki Misato, who were sitting next to her during Idol Summit, admitted that they had been in relationships!
Idols are extremely busy and while some may cite the article mentioning tactics management employs to prevent idols from dating, is it so different than the kind of schedule that any celebrity has? Ayaya shared that many middle schools (and some high schools) in Japan have rules forbidding their students to date so that they can spend that time concentrating on their studies or club activities. Perhaps some of you out there with strict Asian parents can attest to this attitude of school coming first, even if they seem to change direction and start asking why you aren’t married yet as soon as you get your first job.
Many idols start their careers from a very young age and a lot of them are still middle school or high school students. Because of this, they are not likely to have much experience with relationships but yet are faced with a predominantly male fan base. While many longtime fans know not to cross that boundary, as the number of idols have increased and they have become more mainstream, the number of new fans who might be attracted to them while thinking there is a chance to date them has increased. Jeffrey T., TexasBurgerDLJ, and Ashiki see the “love ban” serving the purpose of keeping most fans in line. TexasBurgerDLJ imagined that there would be a lot of awkwardness to follow if fans were allowed to try and ask the idols out on dates. Were things ever the same after you were rejected by someone you had a crush on? Also, how are things with the people you dated in high school or middle school?
With there being a definite contingent of fans out there who are “gachikoi” and harboring actual romantic feelings for idols, how would such a relationship actually work? Would they simply leave at the first sign of the idol not being the person that they imagined that they were? What potential implications would there be after the relationship ended? Jeffrey T. added that “with the fame that comes with being an idol there will be men very willing to take advantage of that”. As much as idols and celebrities share with the public, how much of that attraction is fueled by the allure of fame? Why did Rino Sashihara’s alleged ex-boyfriend come forward with the information of their relationship? Could it have been that he just couldn’t keep a secret about something so big? David Chang mentions that it’s “social norm in entertainment industries around the world where relationships should be kept discreet due to the infatuation that fans will show to their celebrity of choice”.
The idea of a young woman being more highly valued if she is seen as pure is not just limited to idols or even Japan. Whether it be due to religious beliefs or traditional views, many societies around the world are quick to criticize women who have more than the arbitrarily “appropriate” amount of experience when men are generally exempt. In the case of idols, who exist in a world of fantasy, any dose of reality can be a tough pill to swallow. Because the business model of idols relies heavily on loyal fans, many of whom enjoy the “pseudo-romance” as Shinshi Okajima and Toshiro Arai refer to it, creating the illusion of availability is essential in maintaining profitability. Melody felt that for many fans, the “goddess-like image” of the idols would be ruined for many fans because them dating anyone would make them seem too real or too out of reach.
The unrealistic expectations in Japan extend throughout the entertainment industry. Tarento Becky, who had long been popular for her energetic and good girl personality, even at the age of 32, was involved with a scandal after rumors of her being romantically involved with Enon Kawatani, vocalist of the band Gesu no Kiwami Otome surfaced in January of 2016. Kawatani had gotten married in secret the year prior which elevated the relationship to that of alleged adultery. Becky tearfully apologized for “causing trouble” and announced her indefinite withdrawal from the spotlight. Meanwhile, Kawatani was not prevented from appearing on Music Station with Gesu no Kiwami Otome on January 15th or again with his other band indigo la End on January 22nd.
However, itaru9Z noted that the problem is worse for male celebrities and idols. If you’re familiar with male idols in Japan, how many of them do you know that are married or in a relationship? The number is shockingly low, which is even more troubling when considering that males can keep their career going until middle age. When actor/singer/songwriter Masaharu Fukuyama announced his marriage to actress Kazue Fukiishi on September 28, 2015 (Fukiishi’s 33rd birthday), stock in his agency Amuse crashed the following day, losing 4 billion yen. SMAP member Takuya Kimura married former Onyanko Club member Shizuka Kudo in 2000 but for some reason the media has not taken advantage of promoting them as a “power couple”. Former member of KAT-TUN Jin Akanishi had his 2012 solo tour cancelled and he was saddled with the resulting booking cancellation fees out of pocket as a penalty for marrying actress Meisa Kuroki without notifying his agency about it.
Should idols and celebrities have their private lives managed, made public or publicly managed because they are public figures? Why or why not?
Idols and other celebrities have a responsibility to maintain their public image. Their agencies invest a lot of time and money into developing them and so anything that affects the idols, reflects on the agency and whatever companies or products they have been chosen to represent as an image character. The agency has to protect their investment because there are many people besides the idol themselves that are dependent on their success: managers, songwriters, lyricists, choreographers, costume designers, art directors, video directors, venue staff, goods manufacturers, and sponsors. itaru9Z mentioned several cases where those involved in the scandal were sued for losses incurred by the agency but felt that it was a big mistake for them to do so. Obviously if a member suddenly left a group because of a scandal, especially right before a big concert or release of a new single or album, there would be a lot of money lost. However, the bad publicity alone might damage the reputation of the group/agency even more.
The difficulty with keeping their private lives out of the public eye is that the media wants to keep digging and with the “always on” nature of social media, the time that a celebrity or idol has to themselves has been shrinking. In Japanese society fans are generally respectful of celebrities, not immediately rushing over to them when they see them in public and asking for a picture with them, autograph, or handshake. However, because fans want to know as much as they can about them, the paparazzi and netizens have made keeping the private lives of idols and celebrities private extremely difficult. Dae Lee commented that, “Celebrities are at the hands of people who love them, and those who love to rip them apart. The more open a celebrity is in public, the more society will accept them; so long as they continue to be what they market themselves to be. The best way to do that is for those whose personal lives actually closely resemble the “ideal” of a celebrity. Those whose personalities don’t fall in line, will always have to live in secrecy.”
munekata noted that it’S best to be careful because once you put something out, people can twist your words to mean whatever they want. Fuji TV came under fire after interview footage with South Koreans was incorrectly subtitled to have them saying negative things about Japan was aired during June of 2015. “Dr. Bishojo” added that as public figures, privacy was the price to be paid for being a figure of public interest and until they decided to return to being a private individual, they would have to continue sharing their lives with the world.
What do you think would happen if restrictions on relationships with the opposite sex, the so-called “love ban,” was removed?
Would the situation really change if the “love ban” was officially lifted? For a long time, it has been an unwritten rule which seems to have kept things in order aside from the occasional scandal appearing in the media.
The most common response was that there would be a decline in the idol industry. Longtime ℃-ute fan Serina felt that the “idol market would go downhill”. Anshiki flatly replied that the paparazzi that profit off of reporting on scandals would soon find themselves out of work. Toshiro Arai was more strict in his assessment by commenting that without rules, the value of the idol as a product would go down in the eyes of fans but, noted that if an idol was valued enough by her fans, it probably wouldn’t affect her too much. Looking at the comeback of Rino Sashihara after her transfer to HKT48 following her scandal in 2012 and even AKB48’s Minami Minegishi, if an idol is popular enough, it doesn’t mean that they have to leave the group.
Yasuhiro Okada compared it to a soccer game where offsides is not called, citing that the rule allows idols to shine more. munekata added to the idea of the idol business being like a game where part of the excitement for otaku was in watching scandals unfold and discussing events leading up to and following them.
The opinion that not much would change was the second most common response. Dr. Jayson M. Chun cited examples in the Korean pop music scene as an example of how providing fans with more gossip and potential glamour to enjoy, backing up his claim by mentioning how he sees K-pop as more popular globally. tinyredman was in between, thinking that while some would be affected by relationships, others would remain unattached and proceed as usual. He added that starting and maintaining a relationship is not easy for anyone and that it would be necessary to find a way to balance work and a personal life. Serrina felt that things would be fine until an idol would be found out to be in a relationship, which she felt would potentially ruin the fantasy for some fans.
During Idol Summit 2016, Fudanjuku’s Seimyoji Uramasa (aka Erika Ura) felt that even if a ban was lifted, there would probably be a lot of idols who still wouldn’t pursue relationships, explaining that not being able to do something made it even more difficult to resist doing it. Yuki Kanazawa of GEM theorized that having a publicly known relationship would get the fans more excited, thinking that they might have a chance. However, as soon as former Morning Musume. member Mari Yaguchi, who resigned from the group in April of 2015 after it was revealed that she had been dating actor Shun Oguri, voiced her opinion that sales would drop, Kanazawa quickly changed her mind.
There was also some cautious optimism that things would change over time voiced as the third most common answer. Jeffrey T. expressed hope that with proper management, relationships could be kept out of the public eye until a stable relationship could be revealed. He cited how many child stars in the United States suffered by growing up in the spotlight, proper guidance would be important in helping idols to avoid similar fates. Melody hoped for eventual change among the views of the Japanese fans since they make up the majority of the market for idols compared to overseas fans who are less likely to place such importance on purity, sympathizing with the idols having to miss out on a normal adolescence. David Chang felt that people would eventually get used to it after the initial uproar died down, adding that many Hollywood celebrities tend to maintain discretion out of concern for their partners as well as their public image. Dae Lee took things even further, saying that “For the love ban to be removed, society would have to change drastically first, and when the love ban is removed, it will be for the better.” According to Global Gender Gap Index 2014, Japan ranked 104th out of 142 countries in regards to gender equality.
In regards to potential backlash, some feared that lifting the ban would cause things to take a dark turn. TexasBurgerDLJ felt that even though the “rules are there purely for appearance’s sake…they keep people in line and (stop them) from causing trouble”. Melody cryptically replied that there would be “terrible consequences on the idol market”. 76do_ worried that obsessive fans could potentially start stalking their oshi to find out whether or not they had a boyfriend. He added that even though he didn’t personally agree with the rule, “having it in place (whether it’s enforced or not) will make the obsessive fans sleep better at night and prevent them from doing stupid things”.
If you have managed to read this far, thank you for doing so. While things are slowly changing in regards to whether or not idols are “allowed” to date under the “love ban”, it seems that it is not only limited to them when it comes to the Japanese entertainment industry. It definitely a contradiction to have these young women who sing songs of love, and entrance their fans with cute and sometimes seductive behavior but, because most fans generally know not to overstep their boundaries, the never-ending flirtation in the name of capitalism can keep going. Sadly, the same media which builds them up looks to tear them down at any chance they can get. While there is a lot of interesting music being produced for idols and their performance ability keeps going up, the marketing of idols depends heavily on their personality and character they portray. It should be exciting to see what the future holds for them as the way people consume celebrity continues to evolve and change.
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