Sunday, 3 February 2013

Minami Minegishi and Feudal Employment Systems

Because I've been home sick, I've actually been watching a bit of TV (breaking a three year stint of absolute broadcast abstinence). The bizarrely named "AKB48 Sex Scandal" has been so ubiquitous that there have actually been shows talking about how all the shows are talking about it (and now you understand the reason for my TV chastity). For a wonderful discussion of the "issue" I recommend the delightful Gaijin Wife.

In summery, a 20 year old woman spent the night at the home of a 19 year old man. That's it. That's the whole scandal. Yup. The thing is, the woman (Minami Minegishi) is a member of AKB48, and when she was 13 her parents signed her into a contract that prohibits her from having a love life. Seriously. Since in the past girls who broke the rule have been fired or exiled to lesser groups, in a frantic attempt to keep her job Minami shaved off her hair in "penance" and released a tearful apology on youtube begging for forgiveness. Yup.

"I'm so sorry I acted with sexual agency as though I were an adult woman with the ability to make my own decisions. It will never happen again. Please continue to include my school-uniform wearing avatar in your sexual fantasies."

 The Japan Times has a nice article up talking about the issues this all raises with the entire pop idol culture.  The gendered aspect of the story is undeniable~ young girls (or their parents) literally contracting out their sexuality to an agency for marketing to older men (although AKB have a lot of young fans, only adults who have purchased a record are allowed to vote). The agency representing the singer Minami spent the night with released a statement saying that it was none of their business what he does in his private time, a stark contrast to the fate that has befallen Minami. Moreover, the most frustrating reactions have come from AKB48 fans themselves, who overwhelmingly agree that she did something wrong, deserves punishment, and if the girls don't like the rules they shouldn't be in the group. Even the comments section on another Japan Times article that argues that virginity clauses are a breach of workplace law and calling on members of AKB48 to unionise has comments repeating the "if they don't like it they should quit" line. As though illegal workplace conditions are acceptable because employees can just quit.

So, although the gender issues around commodified sexuality, infantilisation and ephebophilia are all serious I think this case also sums up some of the massive issues about boundaries between personal lives and employers that plague Japan. A feudal mindset when it comes to employer-employee relations leads to a lack of clear boundaries between personal and work life. It is commonplace for Japanese employment contracts to contain sweeping provisions covering all aspects of an employee's life. My contract, for example, prevents me from doing anything at any time that may harm the reputation of the City which employs me. What exactly does that mean? Who knows. Despite having specific work hours, it is usual for contracts to be exclusive. So even if one works from Monday to Friday, one can't take a separate Saturday job. My employer will only pay my wages into an account with a specific bank. This is also apparently common. I have a friend who went through a series of short term jobs, all requiring different bank accounts, in the space of a single year. It is well known that after work drinks can be more or less compulsory, but less well known that employers take advantage of their powerful position to ask employees for things like free childcare, yard work or even pet-sitting. These are all "personal favours", so of course labour laws don't apply. Employers can dictate where staff live and with whom. They can transfer staff overseas with only a few weeks notice and no consultation. Despite laws prohibiting excessive over time, employers still require these hours to be worked... they just call it "volunteer work". Hint: It isn't voluntary. Then there are quibbles about what time spent at work actually counts as working. You can read a little about that here. Japanese death certificates include 過労死, overwork, as a cause of death. Read more about that here. Although issues like overtime hours and pay get the odd airing in court, there doesn't seem to be any concerted social movement to charge the feudal attitude that an employer "owns" an employee even outside of work. I can kind of understand it back when employment was for life and a company took care of the whole family. But I do not understand why people tolerate it now, when they are asked to give so much and get so little in return.
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  1. It's sick they have the same no boyfriends contract as our international students over here have to sign


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