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Controversy after idol quits NGT48 over management's handling of assault case

Maho Yamaguchi performs as a member of NGT48 at a concert in the city of Niigata, Niigata Prefecture, on Jan. 9, 2017. (Mainichi/Yuma Hori)

TOKYO -- Maho Yamaguchi, 23, announced her "graduation" from the idol group NGT48 on April 21, reigniting criticism of management's handling of her assault by two male fans in a December 2018 incident.

Yamaguchi revealed in a Jan. 9 tweet that two men grabbed her by the face on her way home from a concert. At a performance the next day she apologized to the audience for the disturbance her revelations had caused. Her talent agency, AKS Co. Ltd., which manages several idol groups including AKB48, was strongly criticized for forcing an abuse victim to apologize.

The row intensified on March 22 when Yamaguchi tweeted her objection to the conclusions of a probe by AKS into her assault during a press conference to reveal its findings. She posted, "Why are they always telling lies?" and said that management had demanded she make the Jan. 10 apology.

Yamaguchi announced her "graduation," an idol-industry euphemism for leaving, at an April 21 NGT48 concert. In her address to fans about her decision she said, "The group's response to problems I can't ignore was that if I can't put them aside then I should quit. Otherwise, NGT48 can't start anew, they said."

Her resignation prompted an outpouring of support on the internet.

"You didn't do anything wrong. It was hard, but you really did your best."

"Yamaguchi is a great idol. She changed the conversation in society."

"I can't help praying for your happiness."

Fans watch NGT48 perform in the city of Niigata, Niigata Prefecture, on Jan. 9, 2017. (Mainichi/Yuma Hori)

Conversely, the public has not been kind to her management, with tweets like "It's a terrible act for a company to corner and then effectively drive out a woman who's been a victim of abuse" and "AKS is an immoral company; it treats people like they have no rights." Rino Sashihara, a singer for the firm's HKT48 group, tweeted about the move. "If true, it's bad for a company that is entrusted with the care of non-adult performers," she wrote.

Satoshi Hamano, a cultural critic with detailed knowledge of the idol business, commented on AKS's response to the chain of events. "I don't think they tried to take care of Yamaguchi, they seem to have just wanted to get rid of her. It's a terrible end for her." On her choice to speak out, he said, "Yamaguchi challenged the situation idol performers are forced into. It was a brave and valuable thing to do for society."

Yumi Ishikawa, a glamor model who has spoken out about her own abuse, expressed anger at AKS's handling of the case. "Why was the victim made into a target? Are Yasushi Akimoto (general producer for AKS' idol groups) and Natsuko Yoshinari (president of AKS) going to come out and explain themselves or not?" She criticized the company further, "If they can't get rid of their tendency to blame victims, then they can't maintain a safe working environment for performers. We have to keep questioning their fitness to hold that responsibility."

Yamato Sato, a lawyer specializing in the working conditions of idols, added, "From what Yamaguchi has said I suspect that management is presiding over a culture of harassment and rights abuse. It's possible her graduation was a forced resignation, which is illegal." He pointed to the unclear legal position of many artists in the industry as a source for infringements. "Business practices like not even paying performers minimum wage and making it hard to leave companies are rampant," he said.

Kazuko Ito, a lawyer who deals with cases of young women who are talent scouted and forced into performing in adult videos, spoke to the Mainichi Shimbun. "AKS can't respond appropriately to abuse toward its employees, so clearly there can be no expectations that it would prevent abuse from reoccurring. They aren't capable of cleaning up their practices. Sponsors and media companies that book their acts should consider their roles." Ito called for more to be done: "Unjust treatment of idols has been exposed by this incident. New legislation is essential."

When reached by the Mainichi, a spokesperson for AKS said, "Ultimately the graduation was her (Yamaguchi's) decision. We will not be commenting on the content of her announcement."

(Japanese original by Satoko Nakagawa and Yoshiaki Ebata, Integrated Digital News Center)

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