Almost a week ago, a member of the Japanese girl group NGT48 apologized to fans for talking about her own assault, making headlines and generating controversy in the process. The conversation has since devolved into a larger discussion about unfair treatment of women in Japan, specifically in the idol industry.
The 23-year-old Yamaguchi Maho, nicknamed “Mahohon," reportedly returned home on December 8 to find two men waiting for her. A statement on NGT48's website confirmed the assault. On social media, Yamaguchi has shared a suspicion that a fellow member of the band had told fans about her schedule. The men allegedly grabbed her face. They were arrested, but later released after they claimed they had simply wanted to talk to Yamaguchi.
Following the incident, Yamaguchi kept quiet until she talked about the assault publicly during a live stream (which was cut short) as well as on Twitter. She said that she hoped she could be honest and relate to other fans with her story, and implied that her management company, AKS, wasn't responding appropriately to her situation.
"I am sorry to shock you guys. Some might get scared to hear what happened to me. I am really sorry. I wanted to help those who were going through the same experience," she wrote on Twitter. "I didn't do anything for a month because I didn't want to impose on everyone that supports me. I don't want you to dislike NGT (the pop band) ... That's because I believed they'd sort all this out."
Later at the pop group's three-year anniversary show on January 10, Yamaguchi took time to apologize to fans for "causing trouble." This apology caused an uproar among fans who felt that the idol had done nothing wrong, and led to the creation of a hashtag for them to voice their disapproval with her management: #JusticeForMahohon. Sashihara Rino, a member NGT48’s sister group HKT48, also tweeted her support for Yamaguchi. Fans then created a petition on Change.org in support of the singer that called for her manager's resignation. When it closed on January 13, it had amassed 53,000 signatures.
The Japanese Idol Industry is something that has needed a massive overhaul. It was clear after that member of AKB48 was publicly shamed, shaved her head/apologized for having a boyfriend that the industry is very sexist and not willing to protect these girls #JusticeForMahohon— Cole ϵ( 'Θ' )϶ (@halffishharuka) January 10, 2019
The girl was assaulted by 2 men when she returned home. She reported to the police.the men were arrested and released. She reported to management but nothing was done. She told the world yesterday and made to apologise today. #NGT48 #justiceformaho #JusticeForMahohon #山口真帆 pic.twitter.com/HNLltCWMFx— lorl (@lorl22111181) January 10, 2019
I'm not a NGT48 fan but still I'm saying this. NO GIRL SHOULD BE APOLOGIZING FOR EXPOSING THE TRUTH ABOUT HOW SHE'S BEEN ASSAULTED BY MEN AND DIDN'T GET JUSTICE FROM THE PEOPLE WHO SHOULD BE PROTECTING HER. STOP BLAMING, SILENCING THE VICTIMS!#JusticeForMahohon #justiceformaho— \(￣▽￣)/ (@namdewartelnai) January 10, 2019
Yamaguchi's insistence on sharing her story, and the subsequent outrage her forced public apology caused, feel like familiar aftershocks of the global #MeToo movement. More than a year after the Times published its exposé on Harvey Weinstein, the conversation about sexual harassment and assault continues to spread around the world, from Stockholm to Mumbai — and now, Niigata. But it hasn't been easy: In the World Economic Forum's index measuring the degree of gender equality, Japan is ranked 110th out of 149. Furthermore, in an interview with CNN, Kukhee Choo, a cultural studies expert at Sophia University in Tokyo, explained that "Japanese culture is still bound by notions that women have to behave in a so-called 'womanly way' to elicit sympathy. 'In Western culture, strong women are respected, but in Japan, even when you're strong you have to perform the victim.'"
On Monday, the managing director of AKS, Matsumura Takumi, announced that the company had replaced NGT48's manager, Imamura Etsuro, due to criticism of his handling of Yamaguchi's alleged assault: "We're determined to build trust with each of the members and to provide mental care for Maho Yamaguchi and all other members," read the company's statement. He assured fans that NGT48's new manager, Hayakawa Maiko, would be the right fit for the job as she has "an understanding of women's points of view."
*This story was originally published on January 17, additional reporting was added.