It was a meant to be a happy occasion to launch the New Year -- a meet and greet between a Japanese pop idol and her fans. But Maho Yamaguchi didn't turn up to her pop group's event on January 6. In the following days, she apologized for her absence and went public as to the reason why: An alleged assault at the hands of two male fans.
"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 posted on her Twitter account on January 8.
Yamaguchi is a member of Niigata-based "idol group" NGT48, a sister group to the famous 48-member girl band AKB48. She claimed a member of her group had leaked her address to two male fans who assaulted her at home on December 8 last year.
"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," Yamaguchi added on Twitter.
Following her online confession, Yamaguchi made a fleeting appearance at her pop group's three-year anniversary show on January 10 and apologized in person for "causing trouble" to her fans.
A statement on NGT48's website last week confirmed that another member had told male fans when Yamaguchi might return home. The two men were arrested on suspicion of grabbing her face but later released. Yamaguchi insinuated her management company did nothing to deal with those involved in her ordeal.
Apology stirs controversy
Her apology comes amid growing attention in Japan to the issue of violence against women. In the days following her Twitter post, criticism was directed at Yamaguchi's management company, AKS, for its apparent mishandling of the incident -- and for her seemingly unnecessary omission of regret.
In Japan, people often issue public apologies when they think they have disturbed "wa" or societal harmony. Speaking to CNN, Kukhee Choo, a cultural studies expert at Sophia University in Tokyo, said that Yamaguchi's apology has also helped her to garner more sympathy from the Japanese public.
"There's a lot of affinity in Japan towards idol figures as the management companies choose very average, cute, young cheerful women. They want everyone to feel like this could be your daughter or next-door neighbor," said Choo.
"If someone powerful has a hard time coming out, the average women in Japan thinks, what chance do I have? But idols are very relatable. This incident could help other young women to think, if she came out, then I can come out too."
Japan is ranked 110th out of 149 countries in the World Economic Forum's index measuring the degree of gender equality. The country also ranks bottom among G7 countries for gender equality, despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's pledge to empower working women through a policy called "womenomics."
According to Choo, 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."
The management company for both NGT48 and AKB48 announced Monday that it had removed one of its officials amid criticism of its handling of the alleged assault on Yamaguchi. It said it would take preventive measures such as providing emergency alarms to all members and patrol around their homes. In a statement, the company said they were "determined to build trust with each of the members and to provide mental care for Maho Yamaguchi and all other members."
When the 'girl-next-door' speaks up
The Japanese pop idol industry, or J-pop as it's more commonly known, is worth billions of dollars. Major record companies maintain a tight grip on the lives of their stars, dictating their image and behavior both on and off stage.
Many of the groups are manufactured to appeal to male demographics.
"The point is they have to be cute and sexy and push all the buttons of the deferential and pure girl that appeals to guys," said Jeff Kingston, professor at Temple University in Tokyo and an author of several books on Japan and Japanese social change.
Post-concert meet and greets and photo opportunities are routinely used to foster a sense of closeness between J-pop performers and audiences. It's here that the performers continue to sell their fabricated identities. But it's this faux sense of intimacy that blurs the line between fantasy and reality for some fans. In 2014, a saw-wielding man attacked two members of AKB48, and in 2017, an obsessed fan turned stalker stabbed pop idol Mayu Tomita dozens of times.
The failure of the record industry to better protect its stars from violence has been amplified in the age of social media. A petition on change.org that supported Yamaguchi and called for the manager's resignation had garnered more than 53,000 signatures when it closed on January 13.
"The (record company) staff should first protect the girls," Kemta Otsubo, an idol industry insider and writer, told CNN. "It was inevitable that criticism would occur worldwide (in Yamaguchi's case), everybody is very angry with the management angry for apologizing for failing to protect her after Yamaguchi herself apologized."
CNN's Euan Mckirdy contributed to this report.