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Ex-AKB48 idol-turned-ramen shop owner takes legal action against business defamers

This photo shows Mayuka Umezawa, who has taken civil and criminal legal action against defamation. (Photo courtesy of Mayuka Umezawa)

YOKOHAMA -- A 24-year-old woman who was once a part-time member of popular Japanese idol group AKB48 and now runs ramen restaurants has taken legal action against repeated instances of libel on social media, as such unfounded defamation was doing severe damage to her business.

    Mayuka Umezawa was a third-year high school student when she was selected in 2014 to be a "part-time AKB," serving as an AKB48 member for 1,000 yen (about $9) an hour and working with popular members for six months.

    After graduating high school, Umezawa studied to pursue her interest in ramen making, and in 2017, aged 20, she opened Yagumo (now called Mensho Yagumo Yamato branch) in Yamato, Kanagawa Prefecture.

    The former idol made miso ramen the store's signature dish, and her unique background, coupled with the fact that she cooked the ramen herself, drew attention. The following year, she opened the business's main branch in Tokyo's Katsushika Ward, and now runs three stores.

    The defamation began suddenly. At the end of 2018, Umezawa had some trouble with a customer who had held a party at the main branch over a mistaken food order. The problem was resolved with an apology on the restaurant's official Twitter account. But she received a direct message from an unrelated person saying, "That was terrible."

    When staff replied, they received a message back saying, "Are you Ms. Umezawa?" After responding that they couldn't answer personal questions, the individual and several others started posting tweets including, "Umezawa doesn't make the ramen herself," "She's a decorative manager promoting her former idol career," and "She's hired by a man behind crime groups." The posts spread from Twitter to anonymous message boards.

    At first, Umezawa thought she didn't need to worry about words from people who don't know her well. But as the defamation continued, she said she "began to feel frustrated each day."

    When she opened Aji no Toraya in Yokohama's Minami Ward in 2019, Umezawa didn't disclose publicly that she was running the business, and served soup and noodles she prepared without actually going to the shop. She thought that if she couldn't overcome this, it would ruin her. The restaurant's flavors gained a reputation and it became popular.

    At the same time, Umezawa consulted a lawyer and proceeded with a request to disclose information on the poster based on the provider liability limitation law. In August 2019, she identified the person who had written it.

    Mensho Yagumo Honten is seen in Katsushika Ward, Tokyo. (Photo courtesy of Mensho Yagumo Honten)

    Then came smears from a different person that caused serious damage to her business. In August 2021, an unsubstantiated message was sent via Facebook to a supplier of ingredients for a store scheduled to open in the Kanagawa Prefecture city of Kamakura in October. It said Umezawa is "a person with human quality problems," and implied a connection with antisocial groups.

    As a result, the supplier told Umezawa they could not do business with her unless they were sure she had no relationship with such groups. The store's opening was canceled.

    The procedure for disclosing sender's information revealed that the person who made the libelous claims was a Tokyo man in his 50s. On Sept. 6, Umezawa submitted a damages report alleging obstruction of business by the man to Kanagawa Prefectural Police's Yamato Police Station. On Sept. 8, she filed a lawsuit at the Yokohama District Court seeking 2.2 million yen (about $20,000) in damages for mental distress.

    The man accused is believed to be a ramen enthusiast. He told the Mainichi Shimbun, "I am sorry I wrote the message without verifying unconfirmed information," and revealed he had sent a letter of apology to Umezawa. Regarding his messages to Umezawa's supplier, he explained he had wanted to share in goodwill information he heard among fellow enthusiasts.

    Determined to stand up to the defamation repeated for nearly three years, Umezawa said emphatically, "I believe the trend where defamers can say whatever they want must change."

    Umezawa said she wants to tell victims of defamation to "hold their heads up and always remember that there are definitely more people who love them than who defame them."

    (Japanese original by Nao Ikeda, Yokohama Bureau)

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