Pop singer Rino Sashihara was crowned most popular member in the annual "general election" of the AKB48 family of all-female groups on June 17 for the third consecutive year, but it was a shock announcement from a lesser known member that stole the show and set online observers abuzz.
The announcement came from Ririka Suto, who was ranked 20th in the election.
"I've fallen in love with someone for the first time. I'm going to get married," she told people gathered at the event venue in Tomigusuku, Okinawa Prefecture.
Her news created an even bigger buzz online than the announcement of the ranking, partly because AKB bans its members from dating. Forming the background to this stance is the "general election" system in which the ranking of members is decided by fans' votes. To vote in the election, fans need voting slips which are found inside CDs of the group's music, and many fans buy 100 or more copies of the same CD to help vote in their favorite members. In 2013, the romance of another AKB48 member, Minami Minegishi, was reported, leading her to shave hear head and apologize, saying she didn't want to leave the group. The apology was compared by some to a "public execution," and was even reported overseas.
After the announcement of her impending marriage, Suto's official Twitter account was flooded with critical comments.
"Just how much do you think I've poured in?" one person wrote. Some fellow group members appeared taken aback, with Sayaka Yamamoto posting a blog entry saying, "I just don't know what to say."
Manga artist Yoshinori Kobayashi, an AKB48 fan, appeared angry. "I'm not saying that romances and marriage are impermissible for idols, but she should have announced it earlier. It can't be helped if fans who have spent a large amount of money promoting her call it 'fraud,'" he said.
Journalist Toko Shirakawa, who is familiar with Japanese idols, commented, "The idol world is a magnificent 'fantasy' built on the efforts of the idol and their fans. The latest incident has a bearing on the enthusiasm of members and their fans who are together creating a 'world view.' Risk management will be required from managers," she said.
In the past, however, AKB has used the amateurish nature of members to create hit songs and has played up scandals, giving itself a reputation as a group where "anything goes."
Idol commentator Akio Nakamori sympathized with fans who had voted for Suto, but was supportive of the marriage announcement.
"Her shock announcement drew attention to the question, 'Who are idols and what is marriage?' I think she let some fresh air into modern society with its stifling atmosphere. It is AKB that has broken down stereotypes," he said.
More than 10 years have passed since AKB was founded. Famous members who helped the group reach its peak have "graduated" one after another, and it has been a long time since the group has seen a turning point. It was also the first time in a while for the group to see such online controversy.